- Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding by Darren Staloff
- Hill and Wang, 432 pp.
Elusive Dreams and Untried Schemes
The study of the American founding fathers has become a hothouse industry. The capacity of the American reading public to absorb volume after volume on Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, Madison, and others, has no limits in sight. We seem to think that if we could truly understand the founders, even across the yawning divide of more than two centuries, we would better understand our nation and ourselves. That view has become an unchallengeable item of faith, and the bestseller lists reflect it.
Darren Staloff’s Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding continues in this vein. This is the work of a fine scholar, thoughtful, infectious in its enthusiasm, and briskly argued. Along the way, Staloff exhibits real skill, even outright intellectual legerdemain, in drawing the reader inside the primary documents to show the common sources of the thought of his three protagonists, while simultaneously delineating how they departed from each other, and how those departures created separate lines of political thought that continue to this day.
The more uncharitable among us might consider all of this as merely one more story of dead white men and, as far as that argument can take us, they would be correct. Staloff, however, takes us beyond such concerns and gives us a sustained and coherent account of what our forebears thought about political possibility and how what they thought continues to inform and channel our ideas about who we are and what we can achieve within the sphere of political activity.
Staloff maintains that Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson were awash in the ideas of the European Enlightenment and that their ideas and actions would be unrecognizable without reference to it. In doing so, he is taking sides in an old argument within American historiography concerning the intellectual genesis of the American experiment and what constitutes our core as a people. During the Cold War, American scholars often looked upon the Enlightenment heritage as a source of abstract and baneful theories and ideologies that could only lead to Utopian attempts to reconstruct human nature and society. Too much thinking and too much abstraction, in this view, resulted in communist revolutions and the hypertrophy of the state. America, on the other hand, was anti-Utopian, conceived on no grand plan, but instead in the light of everyday experience.
Daniel Boorstin, an eminent historian and an intellectual curmudgeon of the first order, led this assault on ideology. What differentiated Americans from other peoples, he claimed, was that they found themselves on the edge of a frontier, both physically and intellectually, and that they forged a common national experience not through applying vast ideas to their problems, but through finding pragmatic, piecemeal solutions to the challenges of daily life. The idea was that Americans really had no ideas. They were not European theorizers, they were clear-eyed, practical men who had neither taste nor time for applying enormous programmatic schemes. The entire European background simply dropped out. Of course, the absurdity and anti-historical nature of this line of argument did nothing to prevent it from becoming quite widespread and quite respectable among American academics.
Staloff, on the other hand, more sensibly views early America as an extension of Europe. America may have been a far-flung outpost, but it was peopled by Europeans who brought their ideas with them, studied European texts, and understood political life through the lens of European experience, from Greece and Rome, through Cromwell, Hume, Montesquieu, Smith, and Rousseau. The American Revolution and the founding of the United States coincided with the high tide of European Enlightenment and our founders looked to it with hope and excitement. They eagerly sought to apply European ideas to the American context.
The author is careful to note that the study of what constituted the Enlightenment is a contested field. Our attitude toward it is inevitably intertwined with how we define it. For the purposes of understanding Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson, he seeks a broad definition that most scholars could agree upon, regardless of particular points of controversy. Staloff sees the Enlightenment as a body of thought and a temperament that provided Americans with a modern, secular world view characterized by religious toleration, free speech, representative government, and a desire for headlong, unfettered commercial activity. It provided the promise of social transformation, a successful challenge of authority, and the dissolution of anachronistic or unproductive traditions. It provided the avenue for an escape from the dead weight of the past. That was the primary attraction for those charged with the founding of a new nation.
Staloff is clearly stunned by the figure of Hamilton, the man who bestrode early America like a colossus, and the one among the three giants understudy who was most active in laying the theoretical foundations of the early republic and then channeling the directions of its development. He goes so far as to call Hamilton’s vision the “fulfillment of the politics of Enlightenment.” Hamilton drew on Hume and Adam Smith and promoted the idea of a nation with a strong, stable, well-funded, centralized government, capable of absorbing and balancing all manner of public corruption, one that would draw its strength from revenues garnered from the growth of commercial and industrial interests. That is, what he envisioned and sought was a modern industrial nation capable of maintaining domestic tranquility and vigorously pursuing its interests on the world stage. Hamilton saw America as the pre-eminent modern society, wealthy and efficient. It was a vision that could be applauded by any good Republican from Lincoln through Hoover to Reagan and both Bushes.
By Staloff’s account, Jefferson was a more complicated, intellectually conflicted, and philosophically subtle figure. Evaluation of the author of the Declaration of Independence as a libertarian is fraught with difficulty for he was explicitly a racist, an inveterate defender of America’s slaveocracy, and, quite possibly, a sexual predator. The counterweight to that was his capacious intellect and his real connections to the Enlightenment’s general emancipatory thrust. Jefferson possessed a remarkable Enlightenment resume. He can be viewed as having been among our nation’s first anthropologists. He was an able legislator and legislative reformer. He was the nation’s greatest architect. He was at home in both ancient and modern languages. He was an accomplished botanist. Above all, he was, at least in print, a superb rhetorician who articulated the nation’s highest ideals, giving flight to phrases that continue to inspire and define us.
According to Staloff, Jefferson absorbed the great body of Enlightenment thought at a time when a series of intellectual compromises had brought its contradictory elements into a state of satisfying equipoise. Jefferson, of course, was a little too intellectually restless for such sterility. He reworked several of the main lines of thought for himself, decided on what was for him true, attractive, or useful, then distilled it through the filter of his powerful imagination into a principled vision. Jefferson’s unique sensibility and his powers of expression made this democratic ethos powerful and dramatic. According to Staloff, he became more than a statesman, he became a Romantic poet, creating a politics of the heart, a politics of the common man, untrammeled by the idiocies of the past and the depredations of aristocracies and kings.
Adams, a much more difficult to characterize figure, is clearly the fly in the ointment. He was an eminently learned man, a first-rate constitutional theorist, yet he left no single, coherent political philosophy for his nation. At times he was a demagogue, at others quite capable of courting unpopularity and glorying in it. He was a power-monger who distrusted power and a democratic politician who distrusted the people. He was vain, irritable to the point of cantankerousness, and tortured by his Puritan conscience to the point of idiosyncrasy. He was also our most astute critic of the brilliant, but erratic Hamilton and the idealistic, but hypocritical Jefferson.
Adams absorbed the Enlightenment, but he also transcended it. As Staloff points out, he was, early in his career, a champion of the Enlightenment idea of social and political progress based on the spread of education and the exercise of government by politically sophisticated philosophes. Experience in the wide world of affairs later taught him, however, that education brought power to the few without preventing them from using it in corrupt and self-serving ways. According to Staloff, Adams came to the view that education was a crucial source of social inequality, creating a corrupt new aristocracy of intellectuals. The well-placed and informed few would rule the uninformed many, to the detriment of democratic ideals. Although Adams continued to value enlightenment and the scientific study of politics and history, he also came to see that simple faith in the Enlightenment was based on a shallow conception of human nature and, like other faiths, was impervious to contradictory evidence. He never abandoned his hopes for an enlightened, democratic America, but his knowledge of history, the effects of power, and his Puritan skepticism of the goodness of human nature led him to a sober and more sophisticated assessment of the limits and efficacy of political activity. Staloff’s recounting of this re-education of John Adams is stark, dramatic, and eye-opening.
With this book, Staloff has offered us an account of the intellectual careers of Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson that is both entertaining and enlightening. One might caution that the author has attempted to trace the lines of development from a single body of thought, albeit a crucial and formidable one. Too narrow a concentration on that single body of thought can lead to an explanation of the roots of the American nation that is too simple, because too monocausal. Furthermore, concentration on Enlightenment texts can also lead to a picture of the founding that is a bit too coherent and too tidy. One must keep in mind that American revolutionary theorists and founders were intellectual omnivores. They pillaged the entire corpus of Western social and political thought and experience for examples, ideas, and justifications that could be utilized in realizing their desires. The authors of classical antiquity, Reformation theologians, British empiricism, and commonwealthmen, as well as Enlightenment philosophers, were pillaged, often without scholarly care or ideological or logical consistency. There was a mad push for gaining and sustaining independence. America was founded in a fit of impatient grasping and theorizing. With these caveats, Mr. Staloff’s learned elucidation of these matters is highly recommended.
Leslie Kitchen is a journalist and historian who lives in southern California. He is a graduate of the University of Washington where he studied under the distinguished David H. Pinkney. Mr. Kitchen believes that the study of history is our least fallible guide to human nature, as well as to the corollary question of what man can achieve and become. how rich is drake