May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Thomas Jefferson. Not because his life was unworthy of honor but because the myth surrounding him puts his person and contributions out of human scale.
Jefferson’s terms as governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, and President all ended badly (or worse). We remember Jefferson mainly as a writer who gracefully expressed the ideals Americans continue to share. Even there, however, he is often given credit for more than he did. Take, for example, his most famous sentence, the line from the Declaration of Independence that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” then affirms that “all men are created equal” and have “unalienable rights.” For Jefferson, those phrases led to an assertion of the right of revolution, which was the point of the passage. Our Declaration is that of nineteenth-century Americans who separated the Declaration’s statements on equality and rights from the rest of the document and transformed a revolutionary manifesto into a standard of freedom to be realized over time, steadily improving the lot of “all people of all colors everywhere,” as Abraham Lincoln put it. Yet many Americans, like Lincoln, give Jefferson credit for the Declaration as we understand it, as if, God-like, he fore- saw the use future generations would make of his words. Alas, it was not so. Jefferson went to his grave doubting that American whites and free blacks could ever live together in peace, much less on a basis of equality. He wasn’t all that great on women either.
Who’s the Most Underrated Founding Father ? John Adams. As a young man Adams dreamed of earning glory; as an old man he fretted that he had not received the public respect he deserved. The reason, he decided, was that he talked too much. In a way he was right. Adams confessed his insecurities to his diary; he had temper tantrums; he dressed down his enemies with withering language and fairly screamed out his claims for the esteem of posterity. Such a man cannot be mythologized; he’s just too doggedly human. But his readiness to express feelings also makes Adams more modern than other men of his time.
Adams’s record of public service is extraordinary. He was Congress’s most insistent champion of independence, a man who returned to the field day after day, like a baseball player. He remained in Philadelphia through the winter of 1775-76 and in mid-May (when Jefferson finally returned after five months in Virginia) shepherded through Congress a resolution for the suppression of all authority under the Crown and the establishment of new state governments founded on popular consent. Adams was on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, but he left the writing to Jefferson. He had more important things to do, such as preparing a draft treaty with France and rounding up votes for independence. He composed the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, the oldest written constitution still in effect and a model for the federal Constitution of 1787. Adams’s Presidency was as tumultuous as Jefferson’s second term, but it ended with an act of courage: His nomination of William Vans Murray as minister to France ended the war scare and undermined the repression it had brought—but by splitting the Federalists, it virtually assured that Adams would lose the election of 1800.
John Adams also had a strong enough sense of self to live happily with the intelligent and equally outspoken Abigail, not some submissive puppy. In old age he dismissed the philiopatristic revolutionary “histories” of the 182Os as nothing but “romance” and expressed disgust with the “canonizations” of Washington and other dead revolutionaries. Young Americans, he insisted, included more men of talent than the generation of 1776. Adams also understood what Jefferson denied: that the expansion of slavery was a moral issue.
One more consideration: Adams, with Benjamin Franklin and Gouverneur Morris, was one of a very few founders with a sense of humor. He could even laugh at himself.