A Sum of Contradictions

In American Creation Joseph Ellis, a prominent scholar of the American Revolution known for his embrace of the Sally Hemings myth (see “Tom and Sally and Joe and Fawn,” by Egon Richard Tausch, Views, March 1999), shows how serendipitously the American founding actually unfolded, hardly in accordance with the godlike clarity of vision suggested by our national hagiography.  Instead, we learn that Washington’s insight of “land and time” being on his side affected his conduct of the war; Adams was ambivalent regarding democracy; Jefferson’s words and actions regarding the power of the presidency were often contradictory; the delayed application of the most provocative statements of the Declaration of Independence actually set the stage for enlarging the American franchise; Madison’s purposeful ambiguity in parts of the Constitution enabled its passage; and the founders’ conflicted treatment of the Indians reflected the realpolitik they all exercised.

Yet Ellis fails to identify the full context of the founders’ responses to the events he portrays.  They were men of the 18th century, who had a high regard for ancient Rome, its leaders, and the virtues they valued.  Certainly, Washington’s admiration and emulation of the upright Cato and the noble Cincinnatus are well attested.  However, the Roman model also shaped the seemingly disparate personalities of Adams, Jefferson,...

Join now to access the full article and gain access to other exclusive features.

Get Started

Already a member? Sign in here