Thursday, July 23, 2009

Setting The Trajectory

I've been reading Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers, a book about the first decade of our Republic. Ellis, who wrote a National Book Award-winning bio on Jefferson did this piece as a follow up, no doubt because of his love for that period, but probably also to utilize all the research he'd dug up to produce the first book.

Ellis argues that of all the decades in our history, the first one was preeminent in importance because it set the trajectory our country would take. From the manner in which conflicts were resolved to the manner in which power was wielded, there is probably some truth to Ellis' assessment.

Take, for example, the matter of Washington stepping down as president after two terms. This was unheard of in the era of monarchies. King George III said Washington was the greatest man ever if he could do that. Well, he did it. The torch was passed to another, John Adams. It was unprecedented, but served as just one example of how things were different over here. Instead of being about power, Washington's presidency was about service.

The book begins with the story of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It is inconceivable today that a sitting Vice President would kill a man in a duel -- though our previous VP did shoot a lawyer. The significance of the Burr-Hamilton event is this: even though Burr won he lost. When he shot Hamilton, his reputation was shot. The real significance is that the old order, the code of the duel, and all those "gentlemanly" things that were vestiges of the old British ways, fell to the wayside and from this instance on were no longer to be a part of the New America.

Another major chapter in the book is about the manner in which the founding fathers avoided resolving the slave issue. In thinking about to tell it I was reminded of a dream I once had.

In the dream there was a giant tortoise in my small house. It was making a mess as turtles do, but it was also so enormous that I could not get it out of the house because it was wider now than the doors. I was in despair, and I prayed to God for help. A ray of light came down from above and shone on the tortoise, and almost immediately the critter began to become translucent, then transparent and a misty nothing... but just before disappearing altogether, she gave birth to four more baby turtles which were just so cute. Then I woke up.

The meaning of the dream for me was this: deal with a bad habit or situation when it is small and you can maybe get rid of it, but allow it to stick around and you have a major problem on your hands. The only way to get rid of that tortoise would have been to tear a wall out.

Well, the slave issue was not cute like those little baby turtles, but it was a much smaller problem in 1790 than in 1850. The founding fathers would have been better off facing it, and dealing with it while there were fewer slaves and a lesser economic impact. Instead, though they knew sooner or later it was going to tear the fabric of the Republic, they shuttled it off for another time the way many groups and individuals deal with their problems. Try to put a good face on it, try not to make waves.

Aside: How about in your life? Is that an elephant in your living room?

For sure reading Founding Brothers has me eager to find the Jefferson book by Ellis. I very much enjoyed David McCullough's John Adams a couple years ago and recommend it to you are well for an intro to this period of our history. They were remarkable times and remarkable men. They were not passive about the world they lived in. The issues they wrestled with and how they resolved them set the tone for what made America the influential nation it later became.

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