October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Overrated How can you overrate the Founding Fathers? They had their shortcomings, but when you consider their achievements, the desire to erect marble statues of them and haul busloads of sullen and inattentive schoolchildren to their birthplaces becomes understandable.
Is the badness of the few bad eggs among them overrated by contrast? Not in the case of the traitor Benedict Arnold. He had great abilities, slight cause, and the chance of doing huge damage (his plan was to hand over West Point, with George Washington and his staff in it). What about the accused and acquitted traitor Aaron Burr? When he began plotting in the West in Thomas Jefferson’s second term, he too had great abilities (courage, charm, smarts) and slight cause (pique, land hunger, desire for glory). But how great a danger was he? The historian Henry Adams, relying on the dispatches of Anthony Merry, the British ambassador at the time, with whom Burr was in contact, depicted a hair-raising scheme of secession. But Merry, not the brightest gem in Britannia’s crown, was making himself look important in London by taking Burr’s talk at face value. A few grand juries and a police action rolled up Burr’s plot, whatever it was. Burr may have had no principles, but he also didn’t have much of a plan. He was a narcissist, vamping through daydreams. No Great Satan, only a louse.
Underrated The most underrated is easy: the author of the Constitution, Gouverneur Morris. Since the peg-legged New Yorker died in 1816, there have been only nine books on him (two in French). When I bought my copy of the earliest (published in 1832), I found that it had been owned by a public library and that the pages were uncut. Yet Morris was smart, funny, hardworking, loyal (to all but his many girlfriends), and an eyewitness to two revolutions (the American and the French). His life was full of pain and controversy: He lost a leg and scorched an arm; half his family were Tories, many of his French friends were exiled or guillotined, and he became a Northern secessionist during the War of 1812. Yet he never lost his good humor. He is the first Founding Father you would call if you were in jail, were broke, or needed to fill a dinner table. I have recently finished writing the tenth book on him, and there are more in the offing, so maybe his ship is comine in at last.