Life Cycle and the Revolutionary Generation
Revolution and Regeneration is a book about the tie between ideas and human experience. Human intellectual activity is inseparable from human experience. Ideas are our groping for mastery over our world, our means of sharing feelings and knowledge with each other and transmitting them to new generations. Ideas may survive the ravages of time that carry off their creators, but the thought must always be interpreted within the context of the thinker. No matter how correct the ideas may seem to us or how universal they aspire to be, their historical explanation lies within the orbit of those who set them down.
What do we know about our own lives that throws light upon the connection between ideas and human experience? Although our minds are genetically predisposed to receive information even before our birth, our store of knowledge comes from our experience. As we grow older, our ability to make sense of the “blooming, buzzing” confusion of the outside world increases. Yet even as our exposure to the world expands, our ideas about the world, the frameworks into which we fit new bits of experience, stiffen. With advancing age, we resist wholesale alteration or correction of our ideas. Intellectual history may be characterized as a sorting out of these two processes of change and persistence.
Although historians have proffered many explanations of change and persistence in our intellectual past, a central fact in our experience is often overlooked. Our ideas are influenced by our stage in life. Historians have begun to explore aging in Western civilization; it is only a matter of time until the relationship between aging and intellectual life is systematically added to this body of literature. But where to begin? This book is an exploratory essay—a first look into that linkage. In it, I explore a basic association between the ideas of a generation of Americans and their maturation, from youth to old age. The model for aging is taken from the work of Erik Erikson and David Levinson, the subjects are the younger revolutionaries of 1776, and the set of ideas examined are the revolutionaries’ notions of history—including their place in it.
Any method of insight a historian borrows from another discipline should be theoretically congenial to the way historians work. The new hypothesis or result must purport to explain observable human behavior. Many psychological instruments and methodologies touch upon aging and cognition, but none is more consonant with the historian’s own methods than the notion of life cycle. Erik Erikson’s recreation of the inner life of his subjects complements the style of professional historians, and his formal program of life-cycle events has been used to measure the progress of individuals in past time. His four categories of adult ego development focus upon distinct “challenges.” A youth faces the challenge of finding an identity for himself, distinct from his role as a child yet integrated with his past experience. The young adult must choose between intimacy and the sacrifice of self to others it entails, or isolation, with its potential for self-destruction. The mature individual can maintain his creativity, passing a lifetime of experience on to a new generation, or stagnate. The old man faces the task of achieving a sense of pride in self, an “ego integrity”—or falling into the snare of “feeling that this one chance has been wasted and has, in essence, been worthless.”1
The connection between life-cycle studies and historical research should be underlined: it is the stuff of which history is made. Life cycle is the passage of individuals through recognizable periods of adjustment and growth, both internally and (here is where it differs from Freudian depth psychology) externally. Early adulthood, the last portion of the struggle of the child to determine who he is, brings with it the end of formal education, living with parents, uncertainty about career, and opens the opportunity to join in adult group activities. Full adulthood finds the individual establishing his career and family, “making it” in the outside world. This is the notion of “intimacy” Erikson introduced in Childhood and Society (1953). He stressed the emotional affinities that blossom in this stage of age, certainly an important part of maturation. Later adulthood places the older individual at the head of a family and at the same time enjoins upon him the responsibilities of passing on customs, values, and property to a new generation. Erikson called this “generativity”; David Levinson prefers the term “mentoring”; in modern child guidance manuals one finds the word “parenting.” The meaning is the same. Old age brings with it the imminence of death. In early America, as in all traditional societies, great age conferred status. Those who had learned the secret of survival were highly esteemed. Modern Western nations do not do homage to their elderly, perhaps because there are so many more of them. Whatever worth a culture assigns to its oldest members, the old find themselves faced with the ultimate question: were their lives well spent? The old act out these self-judgments. They tell stories of how it once was; they give advice to others; they write preambles to wills and pronounce valedictories before comrades and co-workers. All of this, from young adulthood to very old age, is the proper subject of historical study. Life cycle is not a model we fabricate and then impose upon the past. It is a reality we now discern.2
Where then to begin to explore the connection between life’s cycles and human ideas? For the American historian in this era of bicentennials one choice stands out, and, indeed, scholars have always regarded the founding of the republic as a pivotal event in our nation’s history. To the revolutionaries themselves, it seemed little short of miraculous that a great nation could emerge from scattered outposts of the British Empire on the shores of a vast wilderness. And what a nation it seemed to be: the asylum of Europe’s liberty, enterprise, and virtue; the home of a new species of man and woman. Out of these events—of revolution, constitution-making, and the establishment of a democratic republican system—emerged ideas that have stood for “America” for more than two hundred years.
For almost the entire span of time between the crisis of the 1760s and the period following the War of 1812, the same cast of characters directed public affairs and intellectual activities. They left parents and home to find a life in the Revolution, matured into lawmakers, party leaders, and men of letters, and departed as old and honored Founding Fathers. The Adamses and Jeffersons, Rushes and Kings, Jays and Pickerings, Freneaus and Websters were a generation that was born and matured with the republic. To be sure, only a few of them held office or published before the collapse of British rule; they were the movement’s young recruits and its beneficiaries.3 Even within their number, the youngest revolutionaries of 1776 do not constitute a birth cohort. Alexander Hamilton, barely eighteen, joined with such older leaders as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to ensure the success of the venture. When one calls this collection of men a generation, one means that they shared essentially the same formative historical experiences, that their lives were decisively shaped by the same historical events.4 They are, in this study, a selected composite. In comparable fashion, Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick portrayed the federalists of 1787 as the “young men of the revolution,” and David Hackett Fischer distinguished between “young Federalists” and “old Federalists”—not meaning to describe the precise mean age of their subjects so much as to delineate a set of shared expectations and needs.5 The historical generation of 1776 possessed a certain outlook, a view of the world, “a collective identity,” which earlier or later generations, whose lives and opinions had been shaped by other historical events, did not share. As Pauline Maier has written, they served an “apprenticeship” in the crisis.6
This “historical generation” of 1776 is defined by subjective personal experience. In it one may include those men young enough in 1776 to have been deeply influenced by the crisis and old enough to have taken some part in it, but not those patriots already established in their ways and identities before the crisis swept over them. Such voluble leaders as Richard Henry Lee and Roger Sherman were too old and too settled in 1776 for the uprising to be a formative period in their coming of age. On the other end of the age scale, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, though they lived through the horrors of the war, were too young to take mature parts in the upheaval and thus too young to include in this group. Their formative years coincided with the party quarrels of the 1790s. John Adams, born in 1735, presents, as usual, a problem. Forty-one in the year of independence, he was married and had established his legal practice in his native colony. Yet he admitted in his diaries and his autobiography that he became an adult in the midst of the imperial controversies of the early 1760s, in fact, as a direct result of those events. His youthful search for identity thus overlapped with and became inseparable from the political crisis. Adams proves to be a singular case. Pennsylvania revolutionary leader Thomas McKean, born a year earlier than Adams, came to maturity in the 1750s, too early to fit the generation of 1776. Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, born in 1740, five years after Adams, was “a person of consequence” in the colony by 1772, when he took young Alexander Hamilton under his wing. Unlike Hamilton, he had reached maturity before the onset of the final crisis. The case of Jeremy Belknap is slightly different but typical of another group of men excluded “for cause.” Belknap was born in 1744, of a middle-class Boston family, and educated at Harvard. From his first written work to his death in 1798, he loved revolutionary history and promoted scholarly projects. He was also a patriot, occasionally serving as chaplain for revolutionary troops and preaching proindependence sermons. Yet his formative years were spent far from the scenes of crisis, in service to a Dover, New Hampshire, congregation. He matured by overcoming other challenges than those posed by English repression and found his identity in his religious calling and scholarly avocation. Though a member of the birth cohort of the generation of 1776, he was not one of them.7
Our young revolutionaries matured in the years of crisis, in the midst of crisis. The Revolution was their coming of age. So defined, the older members of the generation of 1776 traced in this book include Hugh Henry Brackenridge (b. 1748), Elbridge Gerry (b. 1744), John Jay (b. 1745), Thomas Jefferson (b. 1743), Timothy Pickering (b. 1745), Benjamin Rush (b. 1745), and James Wilson (b. 1742). Among the younger of the “young men of the Revolution” followed most closely are Fisher Ames (b. 1758), Joel Barlow (b. 1754), Timothy Dwight (b. 1752), Philip Freneau (b. 1752), Alexander Hamilton (b. 1757), David Humphreys (b. 1752), Rufus King (b. 1755), James Madison (b. 1751), John Marshall (b. 1755), Gouverneur Morris (b. 1752), David Ramsay (b. 1749), Edmund Randolph (b. 1753), and Noah Webster (b. 1758). All, with the exception of Adams, were born between 1742 and 1758.
My enumeration of the young men of 1776 is hardly exhaustive. According to Robert Wells, there were about 2.2 million persons in the thirteen colonies on the eve of the rebellion. The mean sex ratio was in the vicinity of 1.20—that is, twelve men for every ten women. Of the total population, about 45.5 percent were children. Therefore, about 665,000 adult males were available as recruits to the revolutionary cause. Let us conservatively estimate that one-fifth of these men did elect to become active revolutionaries: a mass of 133,000. If the overall colonial age distribution held in the revolutionary camp, about 25 percent of these men would have been over thirty-four years in age. This is a most speculative estimate, but it does not matter very much if it is wrong by as many as five percentage points either way. Once the older revolutionaries have been subtracted, we are still left with 100,000 young men. All of these men had hopes and fears, views of their world which they shared with their comrades, but only a few became noted for their ideas, even among their friends, and fewer still left any record of their thoughts. Intellectual history is often a sampling of the ideas of very few. The young men of the Revolution named above and followed below are drawn from an elite—selected by their own talents, by the recognition of their peers, and by the contingencies of long life. Lest I be accused of embracing a “trickledown” philosophy of history, I hurry to remind the reader that the men in this study came from both poles of the late eighteenth-century ideological spectrum. Though their life course was similar, they were not uniform in their politics or their loyalties (save to the republic). Some knew each other well—Madison, Brackenridge, and Freneau at Princeton; Barlow, Webster, Humphreys, and Dwight at Yale; Hamilton, Randolph, and Madison at the Constitutional Convention—and almost all of them crossed the paths of the others at various times in their careers. They were not a band or bloc, for all their common experience and ambition, but a cross-section of the intellectual elite of a generation whose leaders worked in close touch with each other.8
Most important for our purposes, these were all men who took the time and made the effort to try to sort out their place in the revolutionary society they made. They were self-conscious intellectuals, as well as legislators, judges, poets, editors, doctors, lawyers, and men of affairs. With justice one may call these men the revolutionary generation; they were among its leaders and interpreters to the world. More important, it was a formative event for them. Such a responsibility invariably becomes reciprocal, and the revolutionaries wove pieces of their private lives into the larger fabric of the Revolution. They measured themselves—their own purposes and the worth of their lives—by the demanding standard of the success or failure of the nation. For this reason, the young men of 1776 keenly feared that the Revolution would be lost or misconstrued by their successors. Jefferson, Adams, and their comrades chorused: What will become of revolutionary history? They merged their sense of self into their view of the nation and then judged the nation by their own ideals, works, and sacrifices.
Given the submersion of personality into public works among this revolutionary generation, it is not surprising that the maturation of these men had a visible effect on the development of American ideas. Applying modern concepts of life cycle to their thoughts should reveal patterns of motivation and response among them which went deeper than immediate commitment to policy and party. Through the prism of personal growth and adjustment, partisan pronouncements appear more cohesive and urgent; they merge with the search for self-worth, self-respect, and meaning in life and work.
The generation of 1776 matured at a time in history when one outlet for individual growth was nation-building. They seized the opportunity. As Erik Erikson has written, there are moments in history when the struggle to be an adult creatively merges into larger events: “A historical period may (as for example the American revolution did), present a singular chance for a collective renewal which opens up unlimited identities for those who, by a combination of unruliness, giftedness, and competence, represent a new leadership, a new elite, and new types, rising to dominance in a new people.”9 Let me metaphorically expand Erikson’s insight in terms of the four stages of adult life cycle. At a distance of two hundred years one can envision four overlapping stages of activity in nation-building from the crisis of the 1760s through the rise of a generation of politicians and intellectual leaders in the 1810s and 1820s who did not participate in the struggle for independence. The protests of the 1760s led to a Declaration of Independence in which revolutionary partisans celebrated the rescue of liberty and property from English corruption and tyranny. The second stage of this effort—the creation of independent republican governments—commenced even before the Declaration was signed. The search for political order and stability was soon extended from state to national government by the federal Constitution of 1787. New political combinations, led by former revolutionaries, arose to compete for power. The 1790s and 1800s were marked by fierce electoral and rhetorical combat among these party leaders. Finally, during the “second war for independence” against Britain and in the years following, the old revolutionary leadership gave way to younger men. As many observers over the past two centuries have noted, these periods in the emergence of the republic resemble the maturation of an individual. At the close of a youthful rebellion against tyrannical parents, the colonies grew into mature, independent states. The ensuing struggle to establish stable politics at the local, state, and national levels closely paralleled the steps a young adult takes to create a family and establish a new home. The effort to reproduce oneself—to have and rear children and pass on to them the values and ideals by which one has lived—was projected upon the larger screen of national policy during debates over the French Revolution and the two-party system. Mature men and women strive to assure that their way of life will continue; the party leaders of the 1790s and 1800s were also doing this. Finally, one finds that the effort, common to all those entering old age, to reassess and restate the usefulness of their own lives animated the last years of the founders of the republic. The parallel between state-making and individual life is only metaphorical, but for the American revolutionaries who matured in the crisis, it was a metaphor rooted in deeper truth.
Readers (particularly other working historians), will demand more proof of the utility of life-cycle explanations of changing ideas then a clever metaphor. The strongest justification for psychohistory is that it can unravel riddles of motivation and expression which have resisted (or escaped notice in) conventional treatments. One example, Peter Shaw’s recent work on ritual in the Revolution, tackles a riddle—the apparent chasm between the fearful warnings of the revolutionaries and the actual indignities entailed in the parliamentary regulatory acts of 1764–74. By examining the psychological uses of ritual, he unravels the puzzle.10 I have found another compelling set of puzzles in the young revolutionaries’ ideas of history. In the course of their long careers as spokesmen for the revolution and the republic, the young men of 1776 as a group issued a series of contradictory and baffling pronouncements about American history. To them history was a very important subject—perhaps the most important measure of their own and their nation’s value. History was a bridge between self-valuation and participation in the world around them. History was a beloved discipline—no generation of American leaders has taken it as seriously as they did—and historical ideas can be found throughout their public and private papers. Insofar as they identified themselves as historical figures, which was their not-so-secret passion, their views of American history became a metaphor to express a deeper sense of self-esteem.11
Four puzzles in their attachment to history beckon to the psychohistorian and reveal their secrets to the student of life cycle. First, as very young men immersed in the teachings and tradition of “Whig” history, they nevertheless shucked the Whig connection between America and England. They alone of all the protesters declared America’s historical independence—years before the Declaration of 1776. They alone among the revolutionaries violated the Whig canons of history. Why? They did not abandon the Whig tenet that all histories were comparable, however. This they affirmed, until, quite without warning, in the 1780s, they discovered that American history was without parallel. This next twist of fact they maintained in the face of older revolutionaries’ objections. Young revolutionaries of every partisan stance had joined in finding American history separate and then in asserting it incomparable, for this new proud history was their story—they created the new nation. Inexplicable, then, was their abrupt decision, in the 1790s, to divide themselves into two antagonistic schools of historical interpretation. Among them, a “party of order” and a “party of liberty” arose to contest control of America’s past. Their commitment to history and faith in it had not wavered; it had merely split into two streams. How can one explain, then, the sudden and harsh rejection of history that issued in later years from the aging revolutionaries? Had they abandoned their old teacher out of despair? or disillusionment? or anger?
This book argues that the turnings and contradictions in the young revolutionaries’ historical ideas were not the products of momentary partisanship, caprice, or literary convention, but were part and parcel of their attempts to face the challenges of the life cycle. History was their way of expressing their struggle with each successive stage of life. The generation of 1776 grew old with the nation, and the stages of their lives conformed to the first cycle of national self-expression. As the American people groped toward independence, the young revolutionaries pronounced that American history had always been independent. In the succeeding era of state-making and constitution-writing, the maturing revolutionaries announced that American history was not comparable to other histories and thus not governed by the inexorable laws of historical decay. As national parties advanced to do battle with each other in the 1790s and 1800s, each striving to pass on its own version of the legacy of the Revolution, the fully mature revolutionaries sundered American history into two rival chronicles, teaching very disparate lessons. When, in the years of relative partisan peace after the War of 1812, Americans sought to heal party wounds with patriotic nationalism, the aged revolutionaries once more examined American history. In moving valedictories, they pronounced judgment on it and, by so doing, upon their own labors as well. Their careers were now history, and they weighed history’s verdict—in reality their own achievements—with solemnity.
Colleagues who have read this manuscript have invariably asked: Why historical ideas? Why not study ideas of republicanism, justice, law, the family, religion, or even youth and old age? The young men of 1776 are not noted for their own historical scholarship. My answers are three. First, their conception of history went far beyond the content of chronicles. In their public and private historical discourses, they touched on philosophy, government, law, family, religion, and, yes, even youth and old age. History was a way of thinking for them, not just a body of information. My account adopts their broad usage. Second, they loved history as they did not love other sets of ideas. Their passion for reading, discussing, collecting, and writing history (some of it abysmally poor) amply documents their feelings and makes possible a study of the present sort. Finally, and most important, they were a generation who preened themselves in history’s mirror, conscious always of the figures they would cut in the eyes of future generations. History was a metaphor for their lives, a reflector of their aspirations and identity. History was not the only such measure, but of all of them it was the most sensitively attuned to the deeper rhythms of their lives. Political ideas (or at least political expressions) were too easily shifted by everyday currents; religious ideas were too ingrained and too conventionally expressed from childhood; but through their ideas of history we see the changing vision they held of the republic. These dreams were projections of their own sense of purpose—a fusion of personal experience in revolutionary statecraft and larger, more distant ideals of common good.
It is this last quality in the revolutionary generation—their sense of history, their yearning for fame, their will to form themselves into models of republican virtue—which makes the study of their psychological growth so important for later generations of Americans. To be sure, their day-to-day opinions and attitudes were governed no less by bias and chance than are our opinions today. The imperatives of public affairs and private ambition often motivated their conduct. But they had the unique opportunity to leave the impress of their dreams and aspirations upon the face of all subsequent American history. In their capacity to raise themselves to a temporal and spatial realm beyond their own, to lift themselves above the mundane demands of public life to visions of the broader goals of human society, they transformed their passage through life’s stages into lasting structures. Put in other terms, the revolutionaries’ intertwining of personal experience and public service—of their history and our history—enhanced both their lives and our own.