Untitled Document

America's Founding Drama

Table of Contents

John Adams
George Washington
Alexander Hamilton
Thomas Jefferson
Benjamin Franklin

"Let the American youth never forget, that they possess a noble inheritance, bought by the toils, and sufferings, and blood on their ancestors; and capable, if wisely improved, and faithfully guarded, of transmitting to their latest posterity all the substantial blessings of life, the peaceful enjoyment of liberty, property, religion, and independence," wrote U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story in 1833. "The structure has been erected by architects of consummate skill and fidelity; its foundations are solid; its compartments are beautiful, as well as useful; its arrangements are full of wisdom and order; and its defences are impregnable from without. It has been reared for immortality, if the work of man may justly aspire to such a title. It may, nevertheless, perish in an hour by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, THE PEOPLE."1

The Founders were well aware of their dependence on "THE PEOPLE." Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote:"The Revolutionary leaders, of course, had varying degrees of confidence in people's natural sympathy and benevolence. While someone like Alexander Hamilton soon came to doubt people's moral capacities, others like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson remained very optimistic; indeed, they thought that the natural harmony of society might even replace much of governmental authority itself. If only the natural tendencies of people to love and care for another were allowed to flow freely, unclogged by the artificial interference of government, particularly monarchical government, the most optimistic republicans believed that society would prosper and hold itself together."2

The day in July 1776 after the Continental Congress voted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams permitted himself an uncharacteristic burst of optimism. Writing to his wife Abigail, John admitted: "You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil, and Blood, and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States.- Yet, through all the Gloom, I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Prosperity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not."3

John Adams

The man who became the nation's second president was not naturally effervescent. "Within a few years after Independence," noted historian Gordon S. Wood, "whatever optimism Adams had had for the refinement of the American character was gone. The American people could no more change than he himself could."4 Adams may have been the most pessimistic of the Founding Fathers. According to biographer John Ferling, Adams "so distrusted humankind that he could countenance little within the panoply of reformism advanced by the most daring men of his time. He dreamt of liberating Americans from a distant and corrupt parent state, substituting for the governance of a faraway, arbitrary parent a system in which the 'People will have unbounded Power.'"5 After leaving the Presidency in 1801, Adams confided in Benjamin Rush: "My friend! Our country is a masquerade! No party, no man dares to avow his real sentiments. All is disguise, vizard, cloak."6 And yet it was the occasionally morose Adams who was the driving force behind passage of the independence legislation, surely a monument to human optimism.

By nature, Adams was a skeptic about humanity. Gordon S. Wood wrote that Adams "had no illusions in 1776 about the difficulties that lay ahead. There would be 'Calamities' and 'Distresses,' he predicted on the eve of Independence, 'more wasting' and 'more dreadfull' than any yet experienced by Americans. Such affliction, however, would have 'this good Effect, at least: it will inspire Us with many Virtues, which We have not, and correct many Errors, Follies, and Vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonour, and destroy Us.' Adams knew full well the dependence of republicanism on the character of the people."7 Adams had serious doubts about the character of his countrymen. Historian John Ferling wrote: "An optimist at the beginning of the struggle with Great Britain, Adams has presumed his countrymen possessed the virtue to safeguard their liberties. The venality displayed by opportunists almost from the first days of the Revolution disabused him of that notion....What he saw as a congressman, together with his firsthand scrutiny of European societies, had led him to a different conclusion. He now was cognizant of the danger arising from the competing interests of various, antagonistic social orders."8

Furthermore, Adams was a chronic worrier. Like many of the Founders, he worried about the capacity of Americans to preserve a republic. In "An Essay on Man's Lust for Power in 1763, he warned that "Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy, such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man's life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable cruelty of one or a very few."9 In 1776, Adams wrote Joseph Warren: "Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics. There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest, honour, power and glory, established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superiour to all private passions."10 Adams wrote into the Massachusetts Constitution that government required "wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue." He proposed the promotion of education and learned societies.

But even Adams kept some optimism; he wrote Jefferson in 1816: "All nations known in history or in travels, have hoped, believed and expected a future and a better state. The Maker of the Universe, the cause of all things, whether we call it fate, or chance, or GOD, has inspired this hope. If it is a fraud, we shall never know it. We shall never resent the imposition, be grateful for the illusion, nor grieve for the disappointment."11 There was indeed a partly-sunny side to Adams's cloudy disposition. Adams biographer James Grant wrote: "Adams, who often lamented his perennial bad luck with money, had a speculator's capacity to form a picture of the future and to trust his judgment even when events deviated from his personal script. He knew full well that America would triumph. He knew equally that the struggle would be long and bloody."12 The Founders complained about the country and their countrymen, but most were basically optimists.

John Adams, however, lapsed into pessimism in the 1780s as America struggled under the Articles of Confederation and state governments struggled to govern effectively. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote that Adams "saw and expressed more vividly than anyone that if the new American republics were to rely simply on the virtue of the people, they were destined, like every previous republic, for eventual destruction. By the time he came to his Defence in 1787 he had become thoroughly convinced that his countrymen were as corrupt as any nation in the world."13 Over the next three decades, his pessimism would only increase. Shortly before he died, Adams reflected his growing pessimism in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: "Public affairs go on pretty much as usual: perpetual chicanery and rather more personal abuse than there used to be...Our American Chivalry is the worst in the world. It has no Laws, no bounds, no definitions; it seems to be all a Caprice."14

George Washington

In contrast to the nation's second president, the nation's first president was by nature a cautious optimist - as a good general need to be. By occupation, George Washington was a scientific farmer who believed he could improve on the natural state of agriculture He also believed America could and must improve. Philosophy professor Jacob Needleman wrote: "The ideal of self-improvement - an ideal that resonates to the great wisdom traditions of human history - lies at the heart of early American individualism, and it is one of the things we most admire in the life of a man like Washington."15 Like Jefferson and Franklin, Washington at an early age devoted himself to his own self-improvement and dedication to personal maxims to discipline that process.

Historian David McCullough wrote that "Washington was a man of exceptional, almost excessive self command, rarely permitting himself any show of discouragement or despair, but in the privacy of his correspondence with Joseph Reed [in 1776], he began...to reveal how very low and bitter he felt, if the truth were known. Never had he seen 'such a dearth of public spirit and want of virtue' as among the Yankee soldiers, he confided in a letter to Reed of November 28."16 Washington suffered moments of intense pessimism at the beginning of the war. He regretted his decision to let the British leave Boston without provoking a confrontation. He wrote aide Reed in early 1776: "Could I have forseen the difficulties, which have come upon us, could I have known that such a backwardness would have been discovered in the old soldiers to the service, all the generals upon earth should not have convinced me of the propriety of delaying an attack upon Boston till this time."17 Shortly before he turned around America's prospects by the capture of Trenton, George Washington wrote his brother Jack that "under a full persuasion of the justice of our Cause I cannot entertain an Idea that it will finally sink tho' it may remain for some time under a Cloud."18 A week later on Christmas morning, Washington caught the British sleeping.

It was Washington's optimism which was one of the great resources of American during the eight years of the Revolutionary War. "It is universally acknowledged that the enlarged prospect of happiness, opened by the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, almost exceeds the power of description," General Washington told his demobilized soldiers in November 1783. "And shall not the brave Men who have contributed so essentially to these inestimable acquisitions, retiring victorious from the Field of War, to the Field of Agriculture, participate in all the blessings which have been obtained? In such a Republic, who will exclude them from the rights of Citizens and the fruits of their labours? In such a Country so happily circumstanced the persuits of Commerce and the cultivation of the Soil, will unfold to industry the certain road to competence. To those hardy Soldiers, who are actuated by the spirit of adventure, the Fisheries will afford ample and profitable employment, and the extensive and fertile Regions of the West will yield a most happy Asylum to those, who, fond of domestic enjoyment are seeking for personal independence."19

Optimism reflected not only America's circumstances but its moral resources in the late eighteenth century. Americans' mixture of optimism and pessimism had been reflected in Washington's 1783 Circular to the States: "It is yet to be decided whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved."20 The combination is also seen in a letter which James Madison wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1783: "This picture of our affairs is not a flattering one; but we have been witnesses of so many cases in which evils and errors have been the parents of their own remedy, that we cannot but view it with the consolations of hope."21

Long before most of his fellow Founders, Washington developed a national rather than a state-based notion of government. Historian John E. Ferling noted that Washington's "vision...extended outward to an incredible degree. Where others were content with their lot, or assumed that their ascent was impossible, Washington always seemed to believe that nothing was impossible. And once he fixed his sight on a goal he pursued it with a vigor and tenacity, almost a ruthlessness, that set him apart from most men. It was this steely resolve that most distinguished Washington from others."22 Nevertheless, Washington privately was not sanguine about his nation's prospects after the Revolution. Political scientist Glenn A. Phelps noted: "Washington's letters throughout the early and middle 1780s resonate with a dark pessimism about the future of the republican experiment. Whenever he acted as a representative of the American cause, as in his addresses to his troops and his letters to foreigners, he felt obliged to present a uniformly optimistic picture. In his farewell address to the Continental Army he enthused that 'the enlarged prospects of happiness, opened by the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, almost exceeds the power of description.' But his private correspondence reveals an assessment of America's prospects decidedly less sanguine. Events were bringing 'our politics to the brink of a precipice; a step or two farther must plunge us into a Sea of Troubles.' Similar expressions of foreboding appear persistently in Washington's personal letters. To the trusted Henry Knox he wrote: 'Our affairs, generally, seem really to be approaching some awful crisis.'"23

Still, Washington's public comments maintained an inspirational tone. His decision to take his place as a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 assured that body would have a fighting chance of success. For his fellow citizens, Washington exemplified the nation's hopes and dreams. Privately, he was less sanguine. At one point in the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention, Washington wrote an absent Alexander Hamilton: "I almost despair of seeing a favourable issue to the proceedings of the Convention, and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business."24 Washington thought it "little short of a miracle" that the Convention delegate had succeeded "in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well founded objections."25

Shortly before taking office as President in 1789, he wrote: "My endeavours shall be unremittingly exerted (even at the hazard of former fame or present popularity) to extricate my country from the embarrassments in which it is entangled, through want of credit; and to establish, a general system of policy, which, if pursued will insure permanent felicity to the Commonwealth. I think I see a path, as clear and as direct as a ray of light, which leads to the attainment of that object. Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people."26

Washington's inauguration in April 1789 signalled a fresh start for the country and fresh opportunities for Washington to inspire it. He well understood that everything he did was a precedent for the nation's future. "With the inaugural ceremonies finished, Washington could settle down to the work of beginning a new government," biographer Robert E. Jones wrote. "What the president and Congress had ahead of them was something that no one before them had tried and few after them would accomplish so successfully: the self-conscious formation of a new government based on a popular consent. It speaks volumes for their ability that they did not permit their doubts that it could be done at all to paralyze them into inaction. Washington reflected these fears when he later wrote: 'Few who are not philosophical Spectators, can realise the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act....I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct w[h]ich may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.'"27

Washington was hopeful but realistic about the future of the new nation. But in private he permitted himself to express his doubts about his countrymen. Historian Noemie Emery wrote: "A sunny confidence in men and destiny was not among his traits. Many of his comments on human nature have a harsh, metallic temper, disturbing to notions of the benign (and brainless) pater patria or to modern concepts of the leader of a democratic state. Hence the grim notes on greed, self-interest, and shortsightedness, capped perhaps by this letter to John Jay: 'Men will not adopt and carry into execution measures the best calculated for their own good, without the intervention of a coercive power.'" Nevertheless, Washington wrote Benjamin Tallmadge: "I have accustomed myself to judge of human Actions very differently, and to appreciate them by the manner in which they are conducted, more than by the event."28

Washington was no political theorist, but he was a close observer of human nature, even as president. His administration got off to an auspicious start, but Washington continued to be a "guarded optimi[st]," according to historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick. So, President Washington "decided to make a personal sounding, in the form of a visit to New England" so he could personally access the country's mood.29 He later did a similar tour of the South.

Over the next seven years, Washington's prestige would continue to be one of bedrocks of the nation's optimism. In September 1796, President Washington published his "Farewell Address" which announced his decision to retire. Washington wrote: "In looking forward to the moment which is intended to terminate the career of my public life, my feelings do not permit me to suspend the deep acknowledgment of that debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country for the many honors it has conferred upon me; still more for the steadfast confidence with which it has supported me; and for the opportunities I have thence enjoyed of manifesting my inviolable attachment, by services faithful and persevering, though in usefulness unequal to my zeal. If benefits have resulted to our country from these services, let it always be remembered to your praise, and as an instructive example in our annals, that under circumstances in which the passions, agitated in every direction, were liable to mislead, amidst appearances sometimes dubious, vicissitudes of fortune often discouraging, in situations in which not unfrequently want of success has countenanced the spirit of criticism, the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts, and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected. Profoundly penetrated with this idea, I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it."30

Late in his life, George Washington expressed confidence in his country, writing that "the vessel is afloat or very nearly so, and considering myself as a passenger only, I shall trust to the mariners whose duty it is to watch, to steer it into a safe port." He was still a forward-looking man. "As always, tomorrow interested him vastly more than did yesterday," wrote biographer Douglas Southall Freeman.31 The year before he died, Washington wrote Sally Fairfax, a woman he had known and admired decades earlier but had for the last quarter century lived in England. Washington described the namesake city along the Potomac that he anticipated: "A Century hence, if this Country keeps united (and it is surely is policy and Interest to do so) will produce a City, though not as large as London, yet of a magnitude inferior to few others in Europe, on the Banks of the Potomack; where one is now establishing for the permanent Seat of the Government of the United States (between Alexandria and Georgetown, on the Maryland side of the River). A situation not excelled for commanding prospect, good water, salubrious air, and safe harbour, by any in the word; and where elegant buildings are erecting and in forwardness, for the reception of Congress in the year 1800."32

Alexander Hamilton

Washington's longtime colleague Alexander Hamilton distrusted people but trusted progress. Born into poverty, Hamilton had married into wealth and understand contemporary economics better than any other Founder. He was, however, often politically incorrect. Biographer Ron Chernow maintained: "Hamilton never believed in the perfectibility of human nature and regularly violated what became the first commandment of American politics thou shalt always be optimistic when addressing the electorate."33 In one version of his speech to the Constitutional Convention in June 1787, Hamilton reportedly said: "The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing - they seldom judge or determine right."34 Historian James Roger Sharp noted that "although disappointed with the completed Constitution, Hamilton worked mightily to secure its ratification. At the end of his public career in 1802, he expressed his ironic ambivalence when he wrote a friend that 'perhaps no man in the United States has sacrificed or done more for the present Constitution than myself; and contrary to all my anticipations of its fate, as you know from the very beginning, I am still laboring to prop the frail and worthless fabric."35

Hamilton's optimism for the American Revolution contrasted with his pessimism for the French Revolution a decade later. Hamilton wrote the Marquis de Lafayette in October 1789: "I have seen, with a mixture of pleasure and apprehension, the progress of events which have lately taken place in your country. As a friend to mankind and to liberty, I rejoice in all the efforts which you are making to establish it, while I fear much for the final success of the attempts...and for the danger, in case of success, of innovations greater than will consist with the real felicity of your nation.'"36 Hamilton's subsequent observations were much less sanguine and as Treasury secretary, he pushed for American neutrality toward France in 1790s.

Hamilton's pessimism about the public was tempered by his optimism about his ability to influence public opinion through his writings. His pen was seldom still. Hamilton biographer Forrest McDonald wrote: "Hamilton...attempted, during the interim between his resignation [in 1781] as Washington's aide and his obtaining a field command, to influence policy through public opinion. In a series of four articles published in July and August 1781 and collectively titled 'The Continentalist,' he repeated many of the suggestions he had made privately and tried to persuade his countrymen that his 'remedies' must 'go down.' The effort had an ambiguity about it that would mark Hamilton's public behavior the rest of his life. He had come to profess the 'pessimistic' view of man, maintaining that people are governed by 'passion and prejudice' rather than by 'an enlightened sense of their interests'; and yet throughout his career he expended more energy and talent in appeals to the intelligence and virtue of common citizens than did any other American in public life. So much stronger was his natural optimism than his acquired pessimism."37

Though Hamilton had a negative view of human nature, he held a more positive view of the possibilities of economic progress. Historian Forrest McDonald wrote:

"Hamilton and his followers believed that men were inherently evil, governed by greed and lust and love of power and a host of even less endearing passions. In a society in which roles were fixed by law and custom, these passions were suppressed; but in a free society, they believed, the community could best protect itself and promote the happiness of its members by recognizing and accepting man's baseness, rather than by denying or attempting to reform human nature. Indeed, private wickedness could be harnessed to the public good: if individuals found it in their own pecuniary interest to act in accordance with the public interest, they would do so."38

More than any other Founder, Hamilton had a grand vision for America. Hamilton, who was sometimes pessimistic about democracy, was optimistic about his country. Seven years before the Constitutional Convention in which he participated, Hamilton proposed such a meeting. Although he disagreed with many of the convention's results, he nevertheless enthusiastically went to work ensuring the constitution's ratification. Before the American Revolution, a teenage Alexander Hamilton wrote: "If we look forward to a period not far distant, we shall perceive that the productions of our country will infinitely exceed the demands, which Great Britain and her connections can possibly have for them. And as we shall then be greatly advanced in population, our wants will be proportionably increased."39 But still, Hamilton battled with doubts about the political prospects of new nation, writing a friend in 1795: "I disclose to you without reserve the state of my mind. It is discontented and gloomy in the extreme. I consider the cause of good government as having been put to an issue and the verdict against it."40 The next seven years of his life did not contribute to his optimism. He battled the French (from afar) as the deputy to Washington in a reorganized American army in 1797-99. He battled Thomas Jefferson to deny him the presidency in 1800, battled John Adams to get him out of the presidency and then battled Aaron Burr in 1801 to prevent him from defeating Jefferson for the presidency in the House of Representatives. But, he did not give up.

Thomas Jefferson

Hamilton's pessimism clashed with Thomas Jefferson's optimism. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKittrick argued "because of his essential optimism Jefferson seldom felt it necessary to break lances. He believed, and often in effect said, that all would come right with time."41 Thomas Jefferson was more optimistic about American virtue if Americans would follow him. Historian Forrest McDonald wrote: "Americans, Jefferson believed, had the virtue and the social forms necessary for restoring the idealized world of their Anglo-Saxon ancestors, but they had relaxed their vigil and had allowed the Hamiltonian conspiracy to yoke them with corrupt modern English institutions. Jefferson's mission as president - the revolution as he conceived it - was to cast off that yoke, restore what once had been, govern with paternal wisdom, and, through public education, instill the people with the historical knowledge and true principles that would prevent them from losing their liberties ever again."42 Elected president in 1800, Jefferson was never quite able to achieve that goal.

Jefferson had a brighter view of human nature. Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow wrote: "Where Hamilton looked at the world through a dark filter and had a better sense of human limitations, Jefferson viewed the world through a rose-colored prism and had a better sense of human potentialities. Both Hamilton and Jefferson believed in democracy, but Hamilton tended to be more suspicious of the governed and Jefferson of the governors. A strange blend of dreamy idealist and manipulative politician, Jefferson was virtuoso of the sunny phrases and hopeful themes that became staples of American politics. He continually paid homage to the wisdom of the masses."43 Philosophy professor Jacob Needleman wrote: "Both Jefferson and Hamilton, like many of the Founding Fathers, clearly saw the dark side of human nature, and both sought a form of government that would keep this aspect under control - both for those ruled and for those in power - through a mechanism of force and counterforce resembling the way nature itself worked. But, unlike Hamilton, Jefferson also passionately believed in the perfectibility of human nature, the capacity of individual human beings to grow inwardly under specific conditions of communal life and individual effort.44"

Thomas Jefferson was a curious combination of pessimism and optimism. He wrote: "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past."45 In 1799, Jefferson wrote William Green Munford: "I am among those who think well of the human character generally. I consider man as formed for society, and endowed by nature with those dispositions which fit him for society. I believe also, with [the Marquis de] Condorcet, as mentioned in your letter, that his mind is perfectible to a degree of which we cannot as yet form any conception. It is impossible for a man who takes a survey of what is already known, not to see what an immensity in every branch of science yet remains to be discovered, & that too of articles to which our faculties seem adequate."46 Part of Jefferson's optimism was founded in social and scientific progress. Jefferson wrote Adams in 1816: "My temperament is sanguine. I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern. My hopes indeed sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy. There are, I ackno[w]ledge, even in the happiest life, some terrible convulsions, heavy set-offs against the opposite page of the account. I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of Grief could be intended. All our other passions, within proper bounds, have a useful object."47

Thomas Jefferson found optimism in the voice of the people. He wrote: "Unless the mass retains sufficient control over those entrusted with the powers of their government, these will be perverted to their own oppression, and to the perpetuation of wealth and power in the individuals and their families selected for the trust. Whether our Constitution has hit on the exact degree of control necessary, is yet under experiment."48 It was in the masses, not in individual leaders, that Jefferson had faith. America's third president wrote: "I sincerely wish... we could see our government so secured as to depend less on the character of the person in whose hands it is trusted. Bad men will sometimes get in and with such an immense patronage may make great progress in corrupting the public mind and principles. This is a subject with which wisdom and patriotism should be occupied."49

Hamilton's realism and Jefferson's optimism collided in President Washington's Cabinet. In arguing against the constitutionality of a national bank, Jefferson wrote in 1791: "I consider the foundation of the [Federal] Constitution as laid on this ground: That 'all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people.' [10th Amendment] To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition."50 Jefferson himself had played no role in the Constitution and its ratification. A decade later in 1802, President Jefferson wrote: "I was in Europe when the Constitution was planned, and never saw it till after it was established. On receiving it, I wrote strongly to Mr. Madison, urging the want of provision for... an express reservation to the States of all rights not specifically granted to the Union."51

Education was a source of optimism for Jefferson and other Founders. Knowledge and education was one foundation for the Founders' optimism. Norman Cousins wrote: "The letters the Founding Fathers wrote to each other reflected the rounded view of life and a sensitivity to the needs and potentialities of human beings. There is a concern here for the growing universe of knowledge and the possibilities of progress."52 Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall wrote: "All his life, Jefferson believed unshakably that mankind was advancing steadily, that education and scientific progress would eliminate social evils such as slavery. But he believed the process was gradual."53 He dedicated the end of his life to the creation of the University of Virginia.

In 1824, Jefferson wrote William Ludlow: "The idea which you present in your letter of July 30th, of the progress of society from its rudest state to that it has now attained, seems conformable to what may probably conjectured. Indeed, we have under our eyes tolerable proofs of it. Let a philosophic observer commence a journey from the savages of the Rocky Mountains, eastwardly towards our sea-coast. These he would observe in the earliest stage of association living under no law but that of nature, subscribing and covering themselves with the flesh and skins of wild beasts. He would next find those on our frontiers in the pastoral state, raising domestic animals to supply the defects of hunting. Then succeed our own semi-barbarous citizens, the pioneers of the advance of civilization, and so in his progress he would met the gradual shades of improving man until he would reach his, as yet, most improved state in our seaport towns. This, in fact, is equivalent to a survey, in time, of the progress of man from the infancy of creation to the present day. I am eighty-one years of age, born where I now live, in the first range of mountains in the interior of our country. And I have observed this march of civilization advancing from the sea coast, passing over us like a cloud of light, increasing our knowledge and improving our condition, insomuch as that we are at this time more advanced in civilization here than the seaports were when I was a boy. And where this progress will stop no one can say..."54

Thomas Jefferson's rationalism provided the source of much of his optimism: "When I contemplate the immense advances in science...and discoveries in the arts which have been made within the period of my life, I look forward with confidence to equal advances by the present generation, and have no doubt that they will consequently be as much wiser than we have been as we than our fathers were."55 But noted biographer Andrew Burstine, Jefferson also "believed in the benevolence and expansiveness by which he defined the American character. He never lost hope."56 Indeed, noted Gordon S. Wood, "For Jefferson, faith in the future was always easier than for Adams, and he of all the Revolutionary leaders never seemed to lose heart."57

Jefferson and Adams did lose hope in each other in the 1790s. They recovered it in the 1810s. In a letter to Adams in 1816, Jefferson described his temperament as "sanguine. I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern. My hopes indeed sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy. There are, I acknolege [sic] even in the happiest life, some terrible convulsions, heavy set-offs against the opposite page of the account. I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of Grief could be intended."58 Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall wrote that Jefferson "began as a philosophical pacifist. He abhorred violence, confrontation, and debt. He believed that standing armies and navies in peacetime caused dangerous financial burdens for society. He dreaded power, especially his own. During the long, drawn-out American Revolution, he saw idealism turn into personal greed, friendship into hostility as war subjugated everything in the struggle for survival of a new nation. His habitual optimism had faded before the lamp of experience as he metamorphosed from abstract political thinker into battered pragmatist."59

All the Founders worried about the success of their efforts. Historian Bernard Bailyn wrote that Jefferson "never ceased to fear that the great experiment might fail, that the United States might be torn apart by its internal divisions or overwhelmed by the pressures of the outside world and, like so many other nations, in the end forfeit its freedom for a specious security. But he did not despair. He hoped, with increasing confidence, that the common sense of the people and their innate idealism would overcome the obstacles and somehow resolve the ambiguities, and that America would fulfill its destiny - which was, he believed, to preserve, and to extend to other regions of the earth, 'the sacred fire of freedom and self-government,' and to liberate the human mind from every form of tyranny.'"60

Intellectually, Jefferson was an optimist. In human relations, however, his cousin John Marshall, who became chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1801, had the far sunnier disposition. "Marshall developed an easy, unaffected style in which command seemed to come naturally," wrote biographer Jean Edward Smith. "In later years, soldiers who had served with him at Valley Forge described the future chief justice as the most cheerful and optimistic man they knew. He never complained, and when his fellow officers showed their discouragement, Marshall did his utmost to cheer them up."61 Neither Marshall nor Jefferson saved their optimism for each other - detesting each other's personality and politics.

Benjamin Franklin

The Founders were not always hopeful about each other, but they were generally children of the Enlightenment. Their optimism took different forms. Benjamin Franklin took confidence from the fertility of Americans - especially in contrast to Europe - and the land these fertile Americans could cultivate: "People increase faster by Generation in these Colonies, where all can have full Employ, and there is Room and Business for Millions yet unborn."62 At the ceremony at which the Constitution was signed, Benjamin Franklin decided that the image painted on the back of the chair occupied by Washington was a rising sun, not a setting one.63 Also before the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin wrote: "It sometimes is cloudy, it rains, it hails; - again 'tis clear and pleasant, and the sun shines on us." Before the war, noted biographer Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin "was persistently overoptimistic in his predictions that a united front would arouse British merchants and the public from their indifference to the fate of America."64 But Franklin's optimism was useful in bringing France to the American side in the Revolution.

Benjamin Franklin had faith in people and progress. He was an observer of nature and human nature. In 1784, Franklin wrote: "Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to labour and Industry?"65 He believed that humans' desire for economic and political advancement would push society forward. Historian Verner W. Crane wrote: "With his strong faith in representative assemblies, chosen on the basis of population and not of wealth, he never shared the doubts of popular rule which inspired John Adams's political science, or felt the need for elaborate devices of balanced government." But he rejected the localism and particularism which was so large a part of the spirit of '76."66

Nevertheless, even Franklin had moments of pessimism. Franklin wrote a young British friend in 1767 that he almost wished "that mankind had never been endowed with a reasoning faculty, since they know so little how to make use of it and so often mislead themselves by it; and that they had been furnished with a good sensible instinct instead of it."67 Historian Drew R. McCoy noted: "Unlike many of his contemporaries during the 1780s, Franklin remained buoyantly optimistic about the future. He recognized problems, particularly the familiar tendency of Americans to import more manufactures than they should, but he never shared the intense pessimism of others....He admitted the potential danger of the popular infatuation with imported 'luxury' that so alarmed the pessimists, but his response did not fit the prevalent ideological mold of classical analogies and primitivist anxieties."68

Franklin was both a scientific observer and a political actor. Franklin Biographer Philip Dray noted: "Franklin's inquisitiveness about nature was matched by his disdain for the continual upheaval he found in human society. Much of his life, as a printer, publisher, and inventor, as a civic leader, and as a statesman, was spent trying to replace chaos with order - creating a program to keep the streets clean, a volunteer fire department, a young men's improvement society, a lending library, a plan to ally the American colonies."69 Dray noted that "Franklin saw his own life story - that of a man who had emerged from the obscurity of a Boston candle-maker's shop to become a leading publisher, diplomat, and science celebrity - as one that could serve as an example to others; and he believed it to be far from unique, for it was paralleled by the trajectories of many men he admired."70

In September 1787, Franklin composed a speech to be read at the signing ceremony for the new Constitution. It conveyed his unique combination of optimism and realism: "I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present; but, Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it; for having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change my opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment of others."71 Before leaving Independence Hall, Franklin looked at the chair which Washington had occupied as presiding officer. "I have...often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that is a rising, and not a setting sun."72 On the street, Franklinwas asked by a Philadelphia woman, "Well, Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy?" The aged printer responded: "A republic...if you can keep it."73


Franklin understood that any political edifice would depend on the people. Norman Cousins wrote: "The Constitution makers were students of history; they were also students of human behavior. Nothing to them was more certain that the same conditions and circumstances which produced tyranny or persecution in one place would, if repeated, produce them in another place. It was not that the American Constitution-makers were cynical. They believed in the natural goodness of man and in the capacity of the human being to build tall edifices of nobility and decency. But they also knew that this natural goodness had to be protected if it was to be developed. They knew, too, that a poorly constructed society - that is, a society in which laws can be altered or improvised by those on or close to the seat of power - is a society which scorns natural rights and tends to have contempt for the individual human being."74

Despite economic, political and military adversity, the Founders acted as optimists even as they harbored pessimism. They had to be to launch a revolution against the world's most powerful nation. The Founders had political doubts of the sustainability of the Founding butthey never ceased working for its perpetuation. John Adams once wrote: "Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding."75 Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote of the Founders: "As hardheaded and practical as they were, they knew that by becoming republican they were expressing nothing less than a utopian hope for a moral and social order led by enlightened and virtuous men."76 The American Revolution itself was a triumph of hope over political realism. John Adams predicted that the American Revolution "is and will be an Astonishment to vulgar Minds all over the Worlds, in this and in future Generations."77

The Founders believed in America's future. They believed it would be different from Europe's. They believed in America's exceptionalism. Historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote: "The exhilarating features of our history and culture have in the past been captured in the idea of American Exceptionalism.... that the modern world, while profiting from the European inheritance, need not be imprisoned in Old World molds, nor limited by the ancient raw materials of community. And therefore that the future of the United States and of the people who came here need not be governed by the same expectations or plagued by the same problems that had afflicted people elsewhere."78

Still, they had regrets. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote: "All the major revolutionary leaders died less than happy with the results of the Revolution." According to Wood, "Even Jefferson, sanguine and optimistic as he had always been, was reduced to despair in his last years and to what seems to us today to be an embarrassing fire-eating defense of the South and states' rights. He hated the new democratic world he saw emerging in America - a world of speculation, banks, paper money, and evangelical Christianity that he thought he had laid to rest."79 As his bitter rival Alexander Hamilton wrote two years before his own death from a duel in July 1804: "Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion."80 That passion killed Hamilton but not the American dream.


  1. Matthew Spalding, editor, The Founders' Almanac, p. 231.
  2. Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, pp. 104-105.
  3. L. H. Butterfield, editor, Adams Family Correspondence, Volume II, p. 31 (Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776).
  4. Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, p. 571.
  5. John Ferling, John Adams: A Life, p. 452.
  6. David McCullough, John Adams, p. 589.
  7. Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, p. 569.
  8. John Ferling, John Adams: A Life, p. 289.
  9. Matthew Spalding, editor, The Founders' Almanac: A Practical Guide to the Notable Events, Greatest Leaders & Most Eloquent Words of the American Founding, p. 148 (John Adams, An Essay on Man's Lust for Power, August 29, 1763).
  10. Matthew Spalding, editor, The Founders' Almanac: A Practical Guide to the Notable Events, Greatest Leaders & Most Eloquent Words of the American Founding, p. 207-208 (Letter from John Adams to Mercy Warren, April 16, 1776).
  11. Norman Cousins, editor, In God We Trust, p. 275 (Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, May 3, 1816).
  12. James Grant, John Adams: Party of One, p. 175.
  13. Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, p. 181.
  14. (Letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, April 17, 1826).
  15. Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, p. 102.
  16. David McCullough, 1776, p. 64.
  17. David McCullough, 1776, p. 79 (Letter from George Washington to Joseph Reed, January 14, 1776).
  18. Thomas J. Fleming, editor, Affectionately Yours, George Washington, p. 102 (Letter from George Washington to John Augustine Washington, December 18, 1776).
  19. (George Washington, Farewell Orders issued to the Armies of the United States of America, November 2, 1783).
  20. (George Washington, Circular to the States, 1783).
  21. Garrett Ward Sheldon, The Political Philosophy of James Madison, p. 47 (Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, August 11, 1783).
  22. John E. Ferling, The First of Men: A Life of George Washington, p. 115.
  23. Glenn A. Phelps, George Washington & American Constitutionalism, p. 64 (Letter from George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, January 29, 1789).
  24. Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency George Washington, p. 178 (Letter from George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, July 10, 1787).
  25. Stuart Leiberger, Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic, p. 85.
  26. Paul Zall, editor, Washington on Washington, p. 96.
  27. Robert E. Jones, George Washington: Ordinary Man, Extraordinary Leader, p. 109.
  28. Noemie Emery, Washington: A Biography, p. 381 (Letter from George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge, December 10, 1782).
  29. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism, p. 74.
  30. (George Washington, Farewell Address, September 17, 1796).
  31. James Morton Smith, Washington: A Profile, p. 131 (Douglas Southall Freeman, "To Avert 'Some Awful Crisis'").
  32. Thomas J. Fleming, editor, Affectionately Yours, George Washington, p. 268 (Letter from George Washington to Sally Fairfax, June 13, 1798).
  33. Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p.
  34. Harold C. Syrett, editor, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Volume IV, p. 200. (version reported by Robert Yates, June 18, 1787).
  35. James Roger Sharp, American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis, p. 33.
  36. Louis M. Hacker, Alexander Hamilton in the American Tradition, p. 196.
  37. Forrest McDonald Alexander Hamilton: A Biography, p. 42.
  38. Forrest McDonald, The Presidency of George Washington, p. 95.
  39. Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p. 61.
  40. Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p. 481.
  41. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKittrick, Age of Federalism, p. 205.
  42. Forrest McDonald, The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, p. 34.
  43. Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, p. 627.
  44. Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, p. 164.
  45. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Monticello, August 1, 1816).
  46. Merrill D. Peterson, editor, The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson, p. 134 (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Green Munford, June 18, 1799).
  47. Andrew Burstein, Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello, p. 6 (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, April 18, 1816).
  48. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to M. van der Kemp, 1812).
  49. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Moses Robinson, March 1801).
  50. (Thomas Jefferson, Opinion on National Bank, 1791).
  51. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1802).
  52. Norman Cousins, editor, In God We Trust, pp. 1-2.
  53. Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life, p. 592.
  54. Merrill D. Peterson, The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson, p. 211 (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Ludlow, September 6, 1824).
  55. Andrew Burstein, The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist, p. 290.
  56. Andrew Burstein, The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist, p. 288.
  57. Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, p. 121.
  58. Michael Knox Beran, Jefferson's Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind, p. xiv (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, April 8, 1816).
  59. Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life, pp. 560-561.
  60. Bernard Bailyn, To Begin The World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders, p. 59.
  61. Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, p. 44.
  62. Alfred Owen Aldridge, Benjamin Franklin: Philosopher and Man, p. 107.
  63. James Morton Smith, Washington: A Profile, p. 141 (Douglas Southall Freeman, "To Avert 'Some Awful Crisis'").
  64. Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People, p. 150.
  65. Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, p. 324.
  66. Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People, p.169.
  67. Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, p. 367.
  68. Drew R. McCoy, Benjamin Franklin's Vision of a Republican Political Economy for America, The William And Mary Quarterly, October 1978, p. 625.
  69. Philip Dray, Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, p. xiii.
  70. Philip Dray, Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, p. 190.
  71. Jacob Needleman, The American Soul, p. 67.
  72. E. H. Scott, editor, James Madison, Journal of the Federal Convention, p. 763.
  73. James Madison Farrand Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. (James Madison, Spetember 17, 1787).
  74. Norman Cousins, editor, In God We Trust, p. 12.
  75. David McCullough, John Adams, p. 651.
  76. Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, pp. 189-190.
  77. Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, p. 121.

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