The Magnificent Seven: An Interview with Pulitzer Prize Winning Historian Joseph J. Ellis

Joseph EllisJoseph J. Ellis's newest book, Founding Brothers, The Revolutionary Generation, is a lively and illuminating study of the intertwined political lives of seven of the founders of the American republic — John Adams, Aaron Burr, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington. Two of them are subjects of previous books by Ellis, Passionate Sage (John Adams) and the National Book Award-winning American Sphinx (Thomas Jefferson), but here they are looked at in relationship to their peers.

Each chapter of Founding Brothers tells a distinct story which Ellis interprets in light of fundamental disagreements over the meaning of the American Revolution on the part of those who fought it and went on to create a new nation: Burr and Hamilton's deadly duel; Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison's secret dinner, during which the seat of the capital was exchanged for adoption of Hamilton's fiscal policy; Franklin's petition to end slavery — his last public act — and Madison's effort to quash it; Washington's precedent-setting Farewell Address; Adams's difficulties as Washington's successor and his alleged scheme to pass the presidency on to his son; and finally, Adams and Jefferson's renewed correspondence at the end of their lives, in which they came to terms with their very different views of the Revolution and its legacy.

Joe Ellis is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College, where he has taught since 1972 and served as Dean of Faculty for 10 years. From 1979 to 1985 he served on the board of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, including three years on the Executive Committee. He was interviewed at the Foundation office in South Hadley by MFH Executive Director David Tebaldi.

David Tebaldi: At the beginning of your previous book, American Sphinx, you explain that your motivation for doing a study of Jefferson came from the public response you witnessed to Clay Jenkinson's portrayal of Thomas Jefferson at a public program at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. Was there some similar particular experience that moved you to write Founding Brothers?

Joe Ellis: Well, the recollection of that moment in the Jefferson book, while true, was also a bit of an exaggeration. I was already pretty well committed to doing the Jefferson book, but seeing the reaction to Jenkinson's performance, and seeing the sort of electromagnetic power that Jefferson seemed to have among contemporary Americans, clinched it for me.

Founding Brothers book coverNothing quite so dramatic occurred with regard to Founding Brothers. While speaking to public audiences, I found myself saying that Jefferson might be the most overrated member of the revolutionary generation and John Adams the most underrated and underappreciated. But the operative question everyone seemed to ask was, "who was the greatest?" And I began to formulate an answer to that question, which was, "Well, in some sense that's the wrong question." The greatness of the founding generation was in large part a function of the fact that it was a collective. Moreover, to use a term in an old-fashioned sense that has acquired a different meaning in the late twentieth century, it is the diversity of the leadership class in the revolutionary generation that is largely responsible for the political success and the stability that it was able to achieve. If we try to appreciate the achievement of that generation, again realistically and unsentimentally, warts and all, we must see that these are not demigods, but real human beings with great faults. But it is the interaction of their talents and their faults that made things work as effectively as they did. So I found myself effectively working out the major argument of the Founding Brothers book in response to questions about the Jefferson book.

DT: And why did you choose the title Founding Brothers?

JE: It's "brothers" rather than "fathers" for two reasons. First, that's what they called themselves. Jefferson keeps talking about the "band of brothers," which sounds like Shakespeare's line out of Henry V. Second, the term "fathers" distances us from them. Fathers are omniscient; they can do no wrong, or, later on, can do no right. Brothers are closer to us; brothers can be fraternal but also great rivals within the family. I wanted to recover a sense of that fraternity and rivalry. I wanted to prevent them from being distant icons. Also, "Founding Brothers" as a title calls attention to the fact that they share a common experience. That common experience was the American Revolution, and as inevitable as that looks to us in retrospect—the inevitability of the Revolution's success—it was an extraordinarily improbable undertaking at the time. What bonded them was the fact that they had made a commitment, that they had put at risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. No matter how many times they would disagree later on, they had that common experience to fall back on.

DT: Can you explain your rationale for including just these seven men (and one woman)? Was there some set of criteria they all met?

JE: I had two criteria. First, you had to have been a major player in the 1760s or 70s in the winning of the war for independence at the national level. Again, I want to reiterate that the chances of this group of thirteen embryonic colonies successfully defeating the major military and political power in the world were about one in 10,000, so by signing your name to that document called the Declaration of Independence most of them thought they were signing their death warrant. To make my little repertory company, you had to have been in the group that made that bold and quite radical decision. And second, you had to have been part of either the Constitutional Convention or the creation of the federal government in the 1790s. So you had to meet two tests. You had to have been a contributor to both founding moments: '76, when we declare our independence, and '87, when we declare our nationhood.

There are a few people who could have made the list but didn't. One is John Marshall. I like Marshall a lot; he's an extraordinarily attractive character. His major contribution, however, occurs after 1800 as the first great American Supreme Court Justice. John Jay is another one. Jay was the equivalent of the American Secretary of State during the Confederation Government in the 1780s and had a lot to say about American foreign policy in the 1780s and the 90s. The Jay Treaty of 1795 is a major statement. But Jay's papers are less revealing than those of the other founders. If you were selecting characters for a novel, you would omit Jay because he doesn't give you the color you would like to have. I'm glad that I have Abigail Adams in there, even though she somewhat falsifies the idea of founding brothers. She is a sister among the brothers, but I want to make it clear that she's a significant player and that the Adams presidency is really a political partnership in which Abigail is his one-woman cabinet.

DT: Aaron Burr is an interesting choice. Any qualms about including the villain in there?

JE: Having Burr in there is probably driven by dramatic more than purely historic considerations. I knew I wanted to begin with the duel because it's a great story designed to catch the reader's attention. More importantly, Burr is the anti-hero. He is the person whom they worry about, for in order for this Republic to succeed the leadership class needs to be capable of what they call "virtue." And they understood that to mean the ability to sacrifice your own personal interest for the larger interest of the public. Burr was the creature who could not be trusted to do that. And by telling the story of the duel, it allows me to talk about character and honor as central ingredients in the way in which this generation saw itself.

You can make a case for Burr; there are even Burr Societies throughout America that think he has been vilified. But in the end Burr is an example of a political leader who consistently acts on his own self-interest and makes no decision that qualifies as virtuous in the classic sense of the term.

DT: I had no idea until I read your book how close he came to becoming our third president.

JE: That's right. When the duel actually happens in 1804, Burr is the vice president. Prior to the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, the voters didn't vote for two people on a ticket, president and vice president, they just voted for two people, and the person who got the most votes was the president and the person who got the next most votes was the vice-president. That's how Jefferson ended up being vice-president under Adams. But in the election of 1800, Burr and Jefferson got exactly the same number of votes. So it was a tie, went to the House of Representatives, and took thirty-six ballots before Jefferson was eventually chosen, even though everybody knew that Jefferson was the real choice for president and Burr was not. This is typical Burr. He made no statement suggesting that he was prepared to step aside. He didn't campaign for himself, but he was willing to allow himself to be named by those Federalists who thought this would be a great way to block Jefferson. Once Burr took that position during the debate in the House of Representatives, however, Jefferson from that moment forward never consulted him, even though he served out the rest of his vice-presidency.

DT: Can you speculate a little bit on how the history of the early Republic might have gone if Burr had become president instead of Jefferson?

JE: This is all hypothetical, of course. On the positive side, Burr is one of the more outspoken enemies of slavery, partly because he's from New York and not from the South.

DT: But there were a lot of slaves in New York.

JE: There were a lot of slaves in New York, that's true. New York had more slaves than in any other northern state and it's one of the reasons that it took longer for slavery to end in New York than in any other state north of the Potomac. But there were also in New York City strong anti-slavery societies and Burr was prominently involved with them. So was Hamilton. On gender-related issues Burr was one of the more liberated characters. He has a kind of partnership marriage with his wife, who died in the 1780s, and a daughter named Theodosia, whom he raised in a very progressive fashion. She's probably the best-educated young woman in the early Republic. But on the negative side, I think that if Burr had achieved the presidency, it's very likely that the Republic would have dissolved into regional blocks. We would have ended up being more like Europe than a united country.

DT: And there might not have been a Civil War.

JE: Well there might have been another kind of Civil War, between the West and the East. I think that slavery lurks as the major threat to the Union and to the survival of the Republic from the get-go, and no matter who was in charge of the nation, the failure to resolve that question in the late eighteenth century meant that it was eventually going to be resolved in blood somewhere in the nineteenth century.

DT: Let's talk a little bit about the writing of the book. This is now the third book you have written, the sixth book really, but the third focusing specifically on these characters. Did you learn anything new or come to any new understanding or interpretation of these men or the relationships among them during the course of writing this book?

JE: The other books that I've done on the late eighteenth century, on Adams and Jefferson, forced me to read a great deal of the correspondence of the Revolutionary generation and exposed me to the incredibly valuable editions of the papers of these figures. These collections of papers have been going on for fifty years. By the way, the National Endowment for the Humanities has been central in seeing to their survival. I had already taken forays into the papers of other figures, like Madison, like Franklin, like Washington. The idea for this book became real in my mind when I recognized that all I had to do was finish off, if you will, the reading that I had already begun. I've been reading around in these collections for almost thirty years, teaching courses about them, studying parts of the careers of each of these people. Once I started writing, I realized that I had accumulated an awful lot of information. The act of writing then forced me to extend my thoughts and see things that I wouldn't have otherwise. The act of research and the act of writing are not separate processes for me. One of the pieces of advice I offer gratuitously to some people who ask, "How do you write books?" is to start writing before you think you are ready, because you won't know where you want to go as a researcher until you've begun the process of pushing your thinking to the edge of where it can be. And that can only happen as you are trying to be creative at the writing desk.

DT: I think it's a common understanding that fiction writers operate in that fashion, but it's surprising to think that a historian might not know where he is going with a story.

JE: The notion that a historian sort of takes the notes on index cards, shuffles them, outlines, and then lets the story tell itself is a horrible simplification. If, in fact, that ends up being the way you actually work, you are going to end up with an erector-set style. I think that the ultimate insights of history require a measure of fluency to reach a recognition of irony and paradox. What most of us who read about personalities in the past are really asking ourselves is: In this thing called "living life," how did others do it? Those people that preceded me in this limited time that we have on earth, how did they manage that? In what sense can it help me to manage my time on the planet better? So you're inherently engaged in a dialogue with yourself as well as with the material, and your writing ought to reflect that. I'm not a novelist. I'm also not a person who believes that there is no fundamental distinction between fiction and nonfiction. But any historian worthy of the title must trust his or her imagination. The difference between the historian and the novelist is that the historian's imagination must be tethered to the evidence.

DT: You must know Simon Schama's book, Dead Certainties? The argument that he makes there is not exactly that there is no distinction between history and fiction, but that the writing of history involves an act of imagination like that of a novelist and that you are always trying to fill in the details. There's a certain amount of making it up as you go along, a likely story, to try to give coherence to the events.

JE: I completely concur that the act of writing history involves the use of the imagination. If it doesn't, it's not very good history. But I also think that what Edmund Morris did in the book Dutch, making up characters that didn't exist, or what Oliver Stone did in the movie JFK, splicing together kinescopes of real scenes with acted scenes, is not legitimate. In the end there's an ironclad rule in history and biography that's been true for at least three hundred years: you cannot make it up. And that doesn't mean that you shouldn't use your imagination. But your imagination has to be working with the material that we call the historical evidence.

DT: Let's get back to the Founding Brothers again for a moment. It's clear that you have a very high opinion of John Adams and that if you were to rank the seven of them, Adams would be somewhere very near the top, and yet in the public perception he hardly shows up at all. Why is Adams not adequately appreciated?

JE: The succinct answer is because Adams is short, stout, and not physically attractive. Jefferson is tall, lean and the leading man. But that's a glib answer. A somewhat less glib answer that gets at a truth, though, is that Jefferson tells us what we want to hear and Adams, in my judgment, tells us what we need to know. Adams is the person who is an instinctive contrarian. Burr, as I said earlier, is the kind of person who always pursues his own personal interest. Adams suspects that whenever something is in his personal interest, it can't be the right thing to do. The archetypal thing for Adams to do is to defend the British troops in the Boston Massacre, or to insist on a negotiated peace with France in 1798-99 even though it means he is going to lose the election of 1800 by so doing. Adams has a greater sense of civic responsibility and of virtue. I would not rank Adams at the very top in terms of the contributions that he made to the early Republic. I would rank Washington at the very top, and I would put Franklin just below Washington. But then I would place Adams just below them.

From a historian's point of view, Adams is irresistible because his papers actually tell you what he is thinking and feeling at every moment . . . Jefferson, on the other hand, kept no diary. Jefferson didn't want you to know what he was really thinking at any one moment, much less what he was feeling. Jefferson is a series of shifting personae that talk to us but don't talk to each other. He is like the Mona Lisa. Adams is more like that Copley portrait of Paul Revere holding the pewter teapot, looking straight at you, close up. He's the most colorful, he's the most candid, he has the best sense of humor. He's tough on everybody, but he's toughest on himself. And so part of my attraction to Adams has to do with the way in which his correspondence, once you immerse yourself in it, just wins you over. And I venture the guess that David McCullough's book on Adams, due come out this spring, will make the same point to a larger audience than I've ever been able to reach. You're going to see a movement for a major commercial film on Adams and monuments to Adams. Then the JE position on Adams won't look so odd.

DT: I was struck by a full-page ad, I think it was in the New York Times, with a picture of George W. Bush and there was a quote that he uttered in his speech to the nation just after Gore finally conceded the election in which he said, "I've not been elected president of one party, I've been elected president of one nation." It's almost verbatim John Adams, I think I found it in your book, and I wondered if Bush had any idea.

JE: I don't think so. I think that Bush, or perhaps Bush's speechwriters, are more drawn to Jefferson. Bush alluded to that famous line in Jefferson's first inaugural: "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We are all Federalists. We are all Republicans." And that bipartisan message is something that Mr. Bush's speechwriters find resonant for his presidency. In truth, Jefferson was elected in 1800 because of his highly partisan political behavior, and Adams was speaking more truthfully about his own deepest convictions, namely that the president of the United States should not be the head of a political party. Adams wanted the presidency of the United States to stand above all partisan factions and all political parties. One of the reasons that Jefferson is the first modern president is he recognized that any president of the United States is going to have to be the head of a political party. Adams was a traditionalist, as was Washington, who could never shake his conviction that political parties are inherently evil.

DT: Is this an extension of the notion of personal virtue that you mentioned earlier?

JE: That's right. The term "party" as understood by most members of the Revolutionary generation, even including Jefferson, was used as an insult. Jefferson at one point says, "If I must go to heaven in a political party, I prefer not to go at all." They believed that belonging to a political party drains you of the capacity to be intellectually independent, and prevents you from making decisions based on the larger collective national interest. A political party has a partisan interest and a constituency-based approach, which is not the way in which men at the top ought to be making policy. But in truth, once you get political parties actually functioning, the only way to get elected is to be a leader of a party. The founders, in a sense, were inventing a form of politics before they had a vocabulary to be able to talk about it.

DT: I am curious what you think about the possibilities of a really significant third party ever emerging in this country. Are we forever and ever a two-party state?

JE: If history is a guide, the only future that any third party has is to eventually make itself one of the two parties. That's the history of the nineteenth-century Republican Party. It was a minority party and eventually replaced the Whigs. I think that the founders established a system in which there is a fundamental conflict between two competing views. It's difficult to talk succinctly about what those views are. They are views about the relative power of the federal government, about a realistic versus an idealistic foreign policy, about an individualistic versus civic notion of citizenship. The two political parties represent the routinized continuation of the argument over those issues. One of my points in Founding Brothers is that we've been having the same argument for two hundred years: Is government "us" or is it "them?" About our role in the world, should we project our own ideals throughout the rest of the globe, or should we recognize that many parts of the world are not suited for the kind of democratic values that we believe in? Is your highest responsibility to pursue your own happiness in a very solitary and individualistic way, or does each citizen owe a responsibility to the collective? That's an ongoing argument.

DT: That's an ongoing argument, and one of the other clear points of Founding Brothers is that part of the genius of the founders was to develop a system in which that argument could be carried on indefinitely because it couldn't be resolved.

JE: That's right. One of the brilliant insights of the revolutionary generation is to say we don't have to resolve that argument; in fact any resolution of it is going to be temporary. What they did was to set up a framework in which the argument can persist in a full-blooded, robust way. Notice how different that is from what the political leadership did after the French Revolution, and then what they did after the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, where the victorious party imposed its own version of the answer, and in the end established a closed, totalitarian system. Another way to think of it is to say that they designed a political culture, not just a constitution but a political culture, that initiated and sustains an ongoing conversation. Once you get the conversation going, once it's framed, once that's the rule, once the rule of law is established around that argument, then it doesn't make too much difference who the president is. I suppose that's the reason why one pundit observed that the American political system was "designed by geniuses so that it could be run by idiots."

DT: That might be a good way to end. Thank you, Joe.

©2001 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2001