Myth Making as National Building: The Case of the United States of America

This is from Joseph J. Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation:

As [John] Adams remembered it … “all the great critical questions about men and measures from 1774 to 1778” were desperately contested and highly problematic occasions, usually “decided by the vote of a single state, and that vote was often decided by a single individual.” Nothing was clear, inevitable, or even comprehensible to the soldiers in the field at Saratoga or the statesmen in the corridors at Philadelphia: “It was patched and piebald policy then, as it is now, ever was, and ever will be, world without end.” The real drama of the American Revolution, which was perfectly in accord with Adams’ memory as well as with the turbulent conditions of his own soul, was its inherent messiness. This meant recovering the exciting but terrifying sense that all the major players had at the time — namely, that they were making it up as they went along, improvising on the edge of catastrophe.

Of course a real catastrophe would befall the United States more than eight decades after independence in the form of a bloody civil war that killed more than 600,000 (2 percent of the U.S. population at the time).

The book is a fantastic page turner. My impression after reading it is that America was lucky that two of its first three presidents were Virginians who represented a social class that was terribly indebted to British financiers.

On a related note, I am always surprised by how little Americans know about what happened between July 1776 and George Washington’s inauguration as president in April of 1789. A lot about America that seems preordained in hindsight was terribly contingent in the first decade of independence. As a student of legislative development, I have learned a lot about these turbulent and uncertain years from works on the early state legislatures and the Continental Congress. Peverill Squire’s Evolution of American Legislatures (1619-2009) is my favorite book on this subject. Highly recommended.

reading the federalist papers

I am ashamed that it has taken me this long to finally begin reading the Federalist Papers (having watched the latest episode of mad men I have no better study break from preparing for my qualifying exams). My favorite so far is Federalist No. 10 (who’s punchline is that we should not try to stop factions from forming but rather try to mitigate their effects). In it James Madison gives a compelling defense of liberty, regardless of its consequences:

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment (sic) without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

It is no wonder that most Americans (at least those that I have interacted with in New Haven and out here in Palo Alto) have such a deep-seated respect for the founding fathers.