In Honor of July 4: WSJ Features Malcolm Op-ed on the Founders
By Joyce Lee Malcolm
3 July 2007
The Wall Street Journal
"You and I have been wonderfully spared," Thomas Jefferson wrote John Adams in 1812. "Of the signers of the Declaration of Independence I see now living not more than half a dozen on your side of the Potomak, and, on this side, myself alone." Jefferson and Adams were not merely signers of the Declaration. Both sat on the committee that drafted the document, and Jefferson wrote it. And while they later became bitter political opponents, they reconciled in their last years.
Adams, the Yankee lawyer, revolutionary, Founding Father and ex-president, was 77 in 1812. Jefferson, the Southern aristocrat, revolutionary, Founder and ex-president, was 69. Both were mentally acute but frail. Jefferson spent three to four hours a day on horseback and could scarcely walk, Adams walked three to four miles a day and could scarcely ride.
They would never see each other again. But from a modest farm in Quincy, Mass., and a plantation in Virginia they corresponded and reminisced about the days when they were "fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government."
It's easy now, in a nation awash with complaints about what our Founders did not do, what imperfect humans they seem to 21st century eyes, to overlook how startlingly bold their views and actions were in their own day and are, in fact, even today. Who else in 1776 declared, let alone thought it a self-evident truth, that all men were were created equal, entitled to inalienable rights, or to any rights at all? How few declare these views today or, glibly declaring them, really intend to treat their countrymen or others as equal, entitled to liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Certainly not America's 20th century enemies, the Nazis and communists; certainly not today's Islamic radicals, who consider infidels unworthy to live and the faithful bound by an ancient and brutal code of law. We are fortunate that the Founders of our nation were enlightened, generous, jealous of their rights and those of their countrymen, and prepared to risk everything to create a free republic.
Breaking with Britain was a risky and distressing venture; could the American colonies go it alone and survive in a world of great European powers? If not, what better empire than the British? It took a year of fighting before the Continental Congress and the states were prepared to declare independence. "We might have been a free and a great people together," Jefferson sighed.
But if we were angry at British treatment, we were also lucky that Britain was our mother country. The British taught us respect for the rights of individuals, for limited government, for the rule of law and how such values could be realized. "An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery," Edmund Burke insisted, pleading our cause before Parliament in March, 1775.
Scores of distinguished British officers refused commissions to fight against us. Some, who were willing, were reluctant to press their advantage over our literally rag-tag army. The British parliament wrangled day after day over the fitful progress of the war. And when it was over and, thanks to French assistance, we had won, Britain was careful in negotiating the peace treaty for fear we would fall under the influence and control of the French or the Spanish. We would fight against Britain again, but over the centuries the common heritage that connects our two peoples has brought us together as close allies.
We were lucky in our generals. Unlike the commanders of nearly all revolutionary armies before and since, George Washington resisted the temptation to seize power. After England's civil war between King Charles I and parliament, Oliver Cromwell, Parliament's leading general, evicted what remained of parliament and made himself "Lord Protector." The great expectations of the French Revolution ended when Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup against the republican government and later crowned himself emperor.
Not only do victorious generals have a nasty habit of taking over, but once an army becomes entangled in politics it is extraordinarily difficult to remove it from public affairs. Numerous modern countries have tried to control their armies and failed.
Washington prevented a coup by his officers; and when the war was over, he bid a moving farewell to his men and staff before appearing before Congress to resign his commission: "Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of Action...and take my leave of all the employments of public life." Then he hurried off to spend Christmas with Martha and their family. Although it sounds sentimental, trite even, it happened that way.
In their correspondence, Adams wrote Jefferson that the future would "depend on the Union" and asked how that Union was to be preserved. "The Union is still to me an Object of as much Anxiety as ever Independence was," he confided.
He was right to worry. The union has always been difficult, from the first fears that the 13 separate states would behave as competing countries or bickering groups, through a brutal and painful civil war whose wounds have yet to entirely heal, to a vast, modern land whose residents, taking for granted the blessings bestowed upon them, are deeply divided and quick to vilify each other.
More tragically, some seem to enjoy vilifying America, everything it has been and stands for, seeking and finding fatal shortcomings. Adams and Jefferson were not blind to those shortcomings. "We think ourselves possessed or at least we boast that we are so of Liberty of conscience on all subjects and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment, in all cases, and yet," Adams admitted, "how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact." Recent moments of real unity after 9/11, when members of Congress stood together on the steps of the Capitol and sang "God Bless America," have been fleeting.
In 1825 Jefferson wrote to congratulate Adams on the election of his son, John Quincy to the presidency -- an election so close it was decided in the House of Representatives. "So deeply are the principles of order, and of obedience to law impressed on the minds of our citizens generally that I am persuaded there will be as immediate an acquiescence in the will of the majority," Jefferson assured him, "as if Mr. Adams had been the choice of every man." He closed, "Nights of rest to you and days of tranquility are the wishes I tender you with my affect[iona]te respects."
On July 4 the following year, as the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, its two frail signers died within hours of each other. Their cause, "struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government," continues in the nation they launched, still fraught with aspirations and anxieties, flaws and divisions but, one hopes, with the ability to reconcile as they did, to work together for the joint venture.
Ms. Malcolm teaches legal history at George Mason University School of Law and is the author of several books, including "Stepchild of the Revolution: A Slave Child in Revolutionary America," forthcoming from Yale University Press.