The Renunciation of History: Ego Integrity, 1800–1840
Retirement from politics saw the Founding Fathers relieved of power and reduced in influence but no less concerned for the fate of their great common endeavor. Once caretakers of the republic and able to submerge personal anxiety in public feats, they now had the time to take stock of themselves. They approached death, and with it the prospect of fame or ignominy. Death may be the great leveler of commoners and kings, but the old revolutionaries still had something to fear from their passing beyond the loss of life. Their ideas and reputations, so long in their own hands, would pass to others. How would the future treat them? The prospects seemed favorable, for the previous generation of revolutionary heroes—led by Washington and Franklin—was laid to rest with extravagant praise and almost no mention of partisanship or personal foibles. Even Hamilton, one of the centers of controversy among young men of the Revolution, was eulogized with bipartisan good feeling. Like Hamilton, all of the young men of 1776 held prominent offices and published their views. They had played their parts in the founding of the nation and could expect fame as their reward. But fame came only with death, and death meant the loss of control of their private treasures of ideas and feelings. For the aging revolutionary generation, retirement was thus a time of sincere and sometimes desperate musing on the meaning of their lives.1
Integrity was a word that the now old Founding Fathers caressed. For the sake of his integrity, John Adams opened his heart and memory to Hezekiah Niles’s newspaper. Wasting from his wounds at Aaron Burr’s hands, Hamilton insisted he had acted properly in the quarrel. Six years before his death, Jefferson’s integrity drove him to reexamine the dark corners of his career. Old age is a time of stock-taking, during which one’s integrity may be prized or cuffed. The revolutionary generation did not have modern therapies to aid them in self-evaluation, but they did have a treasured friend. In old age, they completed the merger of their own history with the history of the republic they had made and rummaged through the second for keys to the value of the first. The effort was painful and uncertain, but the strongest of them emerged from it with serenity of judgment. To appreciate this effort we must unravel the last of the puzzles in their idea of history.
In their youth, the young men of the Revolution had fused public concerns and personal needs into a new identity for themselves and their country. In maturity, they were the builders and managers of republicanism. The history that they wrote, the history that they created, was a constant reminder of these feats. Yet—and here is a last paradox in their historical thought—in old age the revolutionaries apparently dismissed the historical discipline and denigrated its utility. Did they? This paradox is most puzzling, for it marked the apparent renunciation of one medium by which this generation had defined itself. In the crisis of the 1760s, their invention of a separate American history had comforted and guided them through a bewildering world of conflicting loyalties. Their novel historical ideas told them who they were and what they must do to be men. In the years of war and constitution-making that followed, the exclusivistic national history they fashioned pointed the way toward true intimacy with their fellow revolutionaries. Even when, under the pressures of diplomatic and domestic partisanship, differing views of the “true” history of the Revolution led them down vituperative paths, these paths eventually ended in a resolution of the challenge of generativity. In truth, history had been their magister vitae.
There was nothing novel in complaints about particular historical versions of the past. History was a tool of politics, invariably bound up in partisanship. The young men of 1776 lived in an age of revealed and reviled ambition in whose chronicling almost all of the revolutionary generation had joined at one time or another. Failing powers did not blur the memory or balm the sting of previous historical confrontations. If the revolutionaries’ animadversions on party history stopped where the debates of the 1790s stopped—with criticism of an opponent’s historical views—there would be no paradox to examine. After 1800, in a note here and there, building steadily to a crescendo, one can hear a new refrain—renunciation of the discipline itself. It was not this history or that history which merited abuse, but all histories, for intrinsic failings. This was a vast sea change in their thinking, at odds with their previous view of history. Their renunication of history could not be laid at the door of partisanship, for not only was the criticism nonpartisan, it struck at the very heart of partisan history by denying that history had any relevance at all for politics.
The progress of their disillusionment was not linear. Their dismay with history waxed and waned and varied from individual to individual. But all arrived at the same disgust with history, and all considered renunciation of it. Their anger was clear in the 1800s, though it was obscured by and sometimes merged into the furious polemical wars of that decade. When political passions cooled after the War of 1812, the old revolutionaries persisted in their attack upon history. Though younger politicians found comfort in patriotic history, their mentors made war upon the past—their past—with bitter words.
In the furious political wars of the 1800s, we encounter fragments of this new, ominously disgruntled view of history—that history is, after all is said and done, quite useless to men of affairs. After he left office, John Adams declared that prejudice and partisanship were usurping the place of reason in the writing of history and lamented “I doubt whether impartial history ever was or can be written.” Forced into retirement by the Republicans and abused by his own party, Adams told Federalist William Cunningham, “I wish to remain in obscurity, and by no means to become the subject of conversation or speculation.” In 1802, John Marshall, Adams’s appointee as chief justice, assumed that the “political tempests which will long, very long, exist” would spawn partisan historians, and later burned many of his personal papers in disgust. Philadelphia democrat Benjamin Rush disconsolately wrote Adams in 1805, “Perceiving how widely [his memoir of the Revolution] should differ from the historians of that event, and how much I should offend by telling the truth, I threw my documents into the fire.”2
Perhaps in the 1800s, mingled with still-glowing embers of party grievances there was now a jealousy of the younger generation of scholars and politicians who were inheriting the works for which the older revolutionaries had bled. As guardians of the true histories of the Revolution, the repositories of which were their own memories, it was natural for the surviving Founding Fathers to lament the injustices of younger historians. Adams particularly feared that the Revolution itself might not be satisfactorily studied by the next generation. “Can you account,” he wrote to Thomas McKean, “for the apathy, the antipathy, of this nation to their own history?” Jefferson shared Adams’s unease that declining interest in American history would undermine the experiment begun by the revolutionary leaders. “What is to become of our past revolutionary history?” he repeatedly quizzed his old comrades. In these pleas there is impatience and even desperation that the next generation would betray the hopes and sacrifices of the revolutionaries by believing the fabrications of partisan scribblers.3
The old revolutionaries’ disillusionment with history went farther than exasperation with partisanship and feelings of misuse by their juniors, though the latter may have occasioned some public expressions of their new sentiments. One reads a deeper regret in the words of the first of the aging revolutionaries to approach renunciation: Hamilton, Ames, and Rush. Early in the 1800s, they decried both personal and public dangers in the misuse of history. They feared that the meaning of their actions and the motives for their words would never, indeed, could never, be recovered when they were gone from the scene. Their motive was not that they saw their own demise approaching (though in fact all were to die soon after they penned these thoughts on history), but a raging despair with the present.
Hamilton’s disgust exploded in an October 1800 Letter . . . Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams. This pamphlet, written against the advice of Hamilton’s friends within the Federalist party, was a catastrophe for its author as well as for Federalist election hopes in 1800. From the moment of its publication, he lost command of his party and all hopes for higher office. Hamilton persisted in writing it, and when parts of it leaked out in the Republican party press he willingly published the whole. The Letter was not primarily about Adams but about the historical reputation of Hamilton. Adams had done much to undermine Hamilton’s foreign policy and military standing during the latter part of 1799. Hamilton replied with the Letter, to “repel these slanders; by stating the real views of the persons who are calumniated and the reasons of their conduct.” To repair his reputation, Hamilton turned to history, from “an earlier period” of the American Revolution to the crisis of 1799. The Letter is written almost entirely in the first person. It records Hamilton’s first impressions of Adams and justifies Hamilton’s later conduct as secretary of the treasury, adviser to Washington, and confidant of Adams’s cabinet. Hamilton’s decision to “resist” the influence of foreign powers supposedly led to “the persecution I have endured in the subsequent stages of my political life,” but he did not wish to be remembered as a monarchist or a tool of Britain. Adams was a real political opponent—no doubt of that exists—but Hamilton did not write to smear or destroy Adams. Hamilton even concluded the Letter with praise for Adams as a person and gave half-hearted support for Adams’s candidacy (though Hamilton stated that Charles C. Pinckney was to be preferred). There was a quiet desperation in the Letter, a supplicating tone that swept Hamilton beyond the bounds of political decorum and practicality. His closest political allies realized this, though they incorrectly credited it to Hamilton’s dislike of Adams. He had laid himself bare, begging to be understood by those who might think him a man greedy for power and rank. Hamilton would later regain his composure and re-enter the pamphleteering lists, but the anxiety he felt for the judgment of history against his views during his forced retreat from power was an omen of the renunciation of history soon embraced by other surviving revolutionaries. He would lament, shortly before he died: “In vain was the collected wisdom of America convened at Philadelphia. In vain were the anxious labors of a Washington bestowed.”4
In the last days of Federalist rule and the first years of Republican tenure, Fisher Ames’s despair exceeded Hamilton’s. The Massachusetts Federalist prophesied the imminent fall of the new nation. The decline of Federalism and his own political fortunes profoundly discouraged him. He warned that the election of Jefferson was no mere alternation of parties. He was a “fool,” he admitted, for placing his faith in historical essays and instruction, for they had no effect on the course of history. “Why should I consume my marrow with the fires of that zeal that seems ridiculous to my friends.” The source of his distrust lay not in the triumph of a few “Jacobins” or in their party’s popularity but in the “political theories of our country and in ourselves.” He had finally discovered that American history itself was the enemy, for its lessons were insufficient for its citizens’ instruction: “There is a kind of fatality in the affairs of republics, that eludes the foresight of the wise as much as it frustrates the toils and sacrifices of the patriot and the hero.” Instead of mastering history, and through its lessons controlling change, “we have all the time floated, with a fearless and unregarded course, down the stream of events.” Helpless to fend off the Jeffersonian assault within the public arena, powerless to console himself with the effort of writing essays, he turned on the once boastful, supposedly powerful tutor of those words—American history—and dismissed it.5
Hamilton’s self-criticism and Ames’s self-pity may easily be attributed to the sad fate of Federalism. They despaired of history—perhaps—because it had taken a wrong turn. Both men were angry and bewildered at their party’s fall. But the source of Hamilton’s and Ames’s lament lies deeper than electoral politics. Old Republicans, who should have gloried in their party’s rise, also turned on history. Benjamin Rush’s anguish with history rivaled that of Ames. Mistreated by his enemies in the 1790s, he pronounced himself “a stranger in my native state,” a man without a history. Unwilling to admit to his own partisan instincts, he defended himself against others’ partisanship not only by retiring from politics but by denying both his own role in the revolutionary history of Pennsylvania and the more general utility of history in political life. “Permit me to congratulate you upon your recovering your freedom and independence by retiring to private life,” he wrote former Secretary of War James McHenry, recalling his own divorce from public service. “Public measures and public men appear very differently to persons who see them at a distance from what they appear to persons who are actors in or under them.” Never hesitating to speak his mind, even to a man from the other party, Rush warned McHenry that history written by its own protagonists could never be fair to individuals and that politicians could never expect justice from the essays of their opponents. He knew that the history he rejected was the experience of his own generation. In attacking history he therefore questioned the accomplishments of the revolutionaries. In Jefferson, also bruised by scurrilous partisanship, he hoped to find a kindred spirit. On March 15, 1813, he asked the retired Republican president: “From the present complexion of affairs in our country, are you not disposed at times to repent of your solicitude and labors and sacrifices during our Revolutionary struggle for liberty and independence?” As damaging as it may have been for individual revolutionaries to rest their reputations and hopes for the future in historical labors, it was even more dangerous for them to believe that they, or others, could learn from histories. In his “Travels” (1800) he recalled his youthful discovery about the Continental Congress: “I now [in 1774] saw that men do not become wise by the experience of other people . . . with the best dispositions to act properly, the people of America imitated the blunders of nations in situations similar to their own, and scarcely succeeded in a single undertaking till they had exhausted all the errors that had been practiced in the same pursuits in other countries.” Later reflection informed him that his people did not even learn from their own experience: “But what avail reading, reflection, experience and American birth in the present state of our country?” Rush told a sympathetic John Adams in 1812, “It would seem as if we had read history not to avoid but to imitate the blunders of those who had gone before us.” This was the use Americans had actually made of history; only pride in their own accomplishments, which is to say in themselves, had led them to expect more from the discipline.6
Although the animosities and partisanships that beseiged Hamilton, Ames, and Rush in the 1800s and climaxed in the War of 1812 were cooled by the peace of Ghent, older revolutionaries did not cease complaining about history. Instead, the survivors of the revolutionary generation expanded upon their doubts and fears for history even as their younger political successors embraced the patriotic, nonpartisan style of historical declamation popular after the war. The years after the War of 1812 brought forth an abundance of annals of historical societies and patriotic historical displays (occasionally soliciting the attendance of the aged survivors of 1776). The old revolutionaries’ growing dismay with history was not matched among younger politicians after 1815. John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster, to name a few of the next generation’s leaders, were all adept and confident in their interpretations of historical lessons. The old revolutionaries swam against the tide in their condemnation of historical lessons. If the dramatic realignment of parties after 1815 had any effect upon the historical notions of the last of the revolutionaries, it was to deepen their sense of foreboding and alienation from their own past.7
Gouverneur Morris of New York had lost patience with “presumptuous writers, affecting knowledge they do not possess, [who] undertake to instruct mankind by specious stories, founded on idle rumour and vague conjecture . . . such writings, tho’ sheltered by contempt, from contemporaneous contradictions, are raked out, in a succeeding age, from the ashes of oblivion, and relied on as authority. History, compiled from such materials, can hardly teach us the science of human nature.” At his place of retirement on the Hudson, Jay read Morris’s talk, and communicated his agreement to his old comrade: “Your strictures on the defects of history, and the causes of them, are well founded. Whether future historians, with all their advantages, will excel their predecessors in accuracy, and caution, and candor, is a point on which my expectations are not sanguine.” This was the same Jay who once assured McDougall that posterity always did justice and who later encouraged Jedidiah Morse, a fierce party man, to prepare a new history of the Revolution. By 1816, Jay’s opinion of history had indeed altered. His comment to Morris was sincere, and he told Judge Richard Peters, “An accurate and well written history of the United States down to the conclusion of the late war [of 1812] is desirable, but my expectations on that head are not sanguine.”8
So disgusted, after 1815, was Marshall with the historical wars of the 1790s and 1800s that he sought refuge in semianonymity. His biography of Washington had presented the case for the party of order at great length, but the work was poorly reviewed in some quarters, and Marshall spent his last years revising, correcting, and apologizing for it. For a genial, often sloppy man continually to beg forgiveness for spelling errors suggests that something far deeper in the reception of the volumes disturbed him. He had unsuccessfully tried to keep his name off the title page and, in a larger way, to keep himself out of politics. A chief justice of his political stature could hardly accomplish this feat. He did not always follow his own directive, particularly in his private correspondence, but with each renewal of party struggle, each contest of local against national government, he became more anxious that he might be considered a partisan and so contribute, however inadvertently, to the weakening of national institutions. After 1815, he refused to appear at events commemorating any partisan victory and eventually came to deny the reality of his own part in history as surely as did Rush. Old differences of opinion gave him increasing pain, and though his capacity for dispute was not dulled, his willingness to enter disputes faded.
When Adams’s letters to William Cunningham were published by Cunningham’s Republican son, revealing Adams’s intemperate anger at other Federalists, Marshall lamented: “I feel great respect for Mr. Adams, and shall always feel it whatever he may do. The extreme bitterness with which he speaks of honorable men who were once his friends is calculated to mortify and pain those who remain attached to him.” Marshall himself had labored to avoid mention of similar episodes. About Jefferson, his arch political enemy, he insisted, “I have never allowed myself to be excited (or intimidated) by Mr. Jefferson’s unprovable and unjustifiable aspersions on my conduct and principles.” Marshall’s anger could not be concealed, but his self-censorship—his denial of what really transpired between the two men, with all its importance for the course of history—indicated his effort to insulate himself from the past. To Timothy Pickering, whose extreme Federalism Marshall had eschewed, and whose attacks on Adams Marshall must have found objectionable, the chief justice returned bland praise: “Your recollection of events which took place for the last twenty years is very accurate and you replace in my memory many things which I had almost forgotten.” Marshall did not add that he was trying to forget those events. What he did say had the same implication: “There are not many who retain these events as fresh as you do, and I am persuaded that they will soon be entirely lost. Those who follow us will know very little of the real transactions of our day, and will have very untrue impressions respecting men and things.”9
If, as Marshall found, history could not be totally escaped, it might perhaps be drained of the venom of regret and loss. With disillusionment and pain in his recollection of former ideals, Rufus King complained to Christopher Gore in 1816, “We have been the visionary men, who have believed, as many have, that mere paper constitutions, without those moral and political habits and opinions, which alone give solidity and support to any government, would be sufficient to protect and preserve the equal rights of the weak against the strong.” As the threat of mental anguish lay in the memory of past ideals, so the cure might lie in the destruction of history. If the past was irrelevant to the present, then history could be safely ignored, if not made to disappear. A short time after his lament to Gore, King wrote, “I have considered our party struggle as at an end, and am not inclined anywhere, on any occasion, in the discussion of measures concerning the general welfare, to introduce our party divisions . . . I am perfectly willing to leave to future times the decision of which party was faithful and intelligent, and which best consulted the true interests of the country. No present discussion can affect this decision.” King felt the cruel blows of postwar antifederalist feeling; any device to avert recollection of earlier pain must have been inviting.10
In the 1810s and 1820s, aged Republican survivors of the revolutionary generation expressed themselves as distraught as retired Federalists at the future utility of history. Jefferson felt control over the past slipping away as surely as his personal and political influence. “We have been too careless of our future reputation,” he told a fellow Republican, “while our Tories will omit nothing to place us in the wrong.” Marshall’s Life of Washington galled him, and he confessed in his introduction to his “Anas” that “were a reader of this period to form his ideas of it from this history alone, he would suppose the Republican party . . . were a mere set of grumblers, and disorganizers, satisfied with no government.” Chroniclers like Marshall and John Quincy Adams seemed partial, passionate, and venomous. Jefferson, always more fervent in private conversation than in public, could not forbear appending a critical review of Hamilton’s career to his journal. This, written in 1818, was redolent of the partisan broadsides of twenty years before. Hamilton and his friends were “monarchists in principle” who labored to undermine the republic. But the aged Jefferson did not rush to publish his “Anas” as he had, in 1798, sought to promulgate his objections to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Nothing was to be gained by publication; there was no weapon against the misuse of history, no insurance that the truth would prevail over partisan lies. “History,” he lamented, “may be made to wear any hue, with which the passions of the compiler, royalist or republican, may choose to tinge it.” In 1818, Jefferson aimed not at building a new world order upon historical knowledge of the past but sought simple justice to the memory of Thomas Jefferson. He told Francis Gilmer of Virginia, “I have no pretensions. If the rancorous vituperations of enemies . . . can only be reduced by time to their just estimate, it will more than fill the measure of my humble prospects.”11
The pervasive and passionate disgust of the revolutionary remnant with history after the war of 1812 should be credited at its face value. Their indictment—like Hamilton’s, Ames’s and Rush’s—was as sweeping as their faith had once been. They did not see a time or a nation that had or would produce just histories, and they warned others against relying upon the disinterested discretion of historical accounts, as they had once done. We should not, however, accept their own explanation for their disillusionment without further examination. They insisted that they rejected history because it, and not they themselves, had changed; history had become corrupted by partisanship. This argument cannot be conceded, for there was no more partisan and self-interested period of American historical thinking than the revolutionary years and no better historical special pleaders than the young revolutionaries. It is possible that, in the heat of their bitterness at the partisanship of the nineteenth century, they forgot their own role in the party wars, their sponsorship of historical polemic? Their ascription of their renunciation of history to its new partisanship is riddled with even more palpable inconsistencies. Their dislike of partisanship was genuine, but they had recognized, earlier in their lives, that historical writing was an expressive weapon, responsive to the needs and desires of its wielders. Their own commitment to historical reasoning, their need to explain and defend political positions with historical arguments, had dragged the discipline into partisan confrontations. External considerations also refute their reason for rejecting history: the younger politicians around the aged revolutionaries did not follow their elders’ course, but continued to embrace history. The relevant question is not, then, what was the effect of partisanship upon the old revolutionaries’ views of history, but when and why did partisanship become so fearful and threatening to them that it disrupted their sense of their own past and destroyed their mastery over the revolutionary experience.
In reality, history acted as a substitute for something far more threatening. The latter, the root cause of their anxiety, was aroused by the persistence of partisan history. One must first scrutinize the timing of their rejection of history. It came in the period in their lives, not the same biological age for all of them, but an equivalent stage in the life cycle, when they left office, or removed themselves from active public life, or began to feel irreversible physical and mental decline. At the same time, they noticed the passing of their comrades and felt the approach of their own demise. As young men, they had been confident of their use of history and its identification of their place in human events, because, as young men, they could look forward to long careers in public life. They could employ history to build a nation. In their maturity, this is what actually happened. As retired veterans of the political wars, they saw the history of the republic, the living tool forged by their lives and deeds, fall into other hands. The fact that they were not so well treated at these hands may have added to their anger and frustration at the betrayal of revolutionary history, but it was the loss of power and of control which they lamented.12
At the bottom of this phenomenon, one discovers that old age, or at least advanced age, retirement, and depleted capacities, was the leading cause of the revolutionaries’ renunciation of historical study. In 1812, Jefferson was sixty-nine and Adams seventy-seven years old. The other revolutionaries were also advanced in years. To some extent, these were tired men, and historical debates only reminded them that the work of their generation was neither finished nor secure. As we have come to expect from this generation, personal dismay was inextricably bound up with fear for the public weal. Partisanship had brought private feelings and public positions into complex juxtaposition for men who labored with and against each other for so many years. In retirement or old age, the revolutionaries reversed this ordering of experience. They worried that repudiation of their own particular ideas or services in partisan histories was tantamount to the destruction of the republic. The appearance of partisan history aroused fear for the nation and thereby became intolerable to men who had done so much to build that nation and now could do no more for it. This explanation is convincing—but not complete. The revolutionaries, even in retirement, did not shun controversy. They proffered opinions on slavery, constitutional revision in the states, federal economic policy, and many other contemporary issues. They neither feared controversy nor rejected it—only histories of controversy and controversial histories.
The old age of the revolutionaries worked in a more profound way upon their views of history. The revolutionaries’ assault on history was a questioning of their entire careers. Old age brings with it a final challenge, a last stage of maturation, according to Erikson:
Only in him who in some way has taken care of things and people and has adapted himself to the triumphs and disappointments adherent to being, the originator of others or the generator of products and ideas—only in him may gradually ripen the fruit of these . . . I know no better word for it than ego integrity. . . . It is a post-narcissistic love of the human ego—now of the self—as an experience which conveys some world order and spiritual sense, no matter how dearly paid for. It is the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions. . . . It is a comradeship with the ordering ways of distant times and different pursuits, as expressed in the simple products and sayings of such times and pursuits. . . . For he knows that an individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history; and that for him all human integrity stands or falls with the one style of integrity of which he partakes.
The revolutionary generation had grown older in the rhythms of a great historical epoch, yet for all their real achievements, they struggled with the nemesis of old age—despair: “The feeling that the time is now too short, too short for the attempt to start another life and to try out the alternative roads to integrity. Disgust hides despair, if often only in the form of ‘a thousand little disgusts’ which do not add up to one big remorse.” By doubting the value of the discipline of history itself, they could indirectly question the value of their own past. They were the children of an age that kept private agonies separate and secret from popular view. These men were not given to the kind of public soul-searching that would have revealed their inner doubts to later generations. Jefferson had great “antipathy to the telling of anything about his public life,” and Madison had no patience “with those who were curious about the details of personal or private life.” Their questioning of history was the expression of the stock-taking of old age they permitted themselves.13
This is why, as they got older, they became more insistent upon a “correct” (meaning an emotionally fulfilling as well as intellectually satisfying) account of the Revolution. They demanded an external referent for their own understanding of what they achieved with their lives. Their rejection of history grew from a need to judge their lives and careers. They knew their days were coming to an end, and they wished history, their good and trustworthy mentor, to tell them if these days had been well spent. Was not history the record of public deeds, and were they not public men? History had always comforted and directed them. In old age, they asked history to prove the integrity, moral worth, and staying power of what they had done. They found instead scurrilous innuendo and mindless, partisan annals.
For such men as Marshall and King to deny the fact of partisanship was a denial not only of the reality of American history but of their own careers as well. Ames and Rush had traveled this road; Hamilton had set one foot upon it before his death. If this was the defense they chose against the anguish of reading history, their pain must have been great indeed. Their denials could be self-lacerating, as was John Adams’s when he forecast to Jefferson, “Your character in history may easily be foreseen. Your administrations will be quoted by philosophers as a model of profound wisdom; by politicians as weak, superficial, and shortsighted. Mine, like a Pope’s woman, will have no character at all.” Or Jefferson’s reply to a friendly correspondent: “You say I must go to writing history. While in public life, I had not the time, and now that I am retired, I am past the time. To write history requires a whole life of observation, of inquiry, of labor, and correction. Its materials are not to be found among the ruins of a decayed memory.” A tired, ironic Jefferson implied that the employed public servant had no time for history, because history had little to do with the conduct of public life. How different this was from his views in the 1790s! In retirement, open to the blows of time and enemies, history availed one little. These are the laments of men who tremble that history has passed them by, and, in despair, strike out at it. They annihilated history, as it seemed poised to annihilate them.14
For some able and productive revolutionary leaders, this final challenge of the life cycle was too overwhelming to be faced squarely. To aging revolutionaries who refused to engage in a dialogue with their own past, history could become an embalming fluid, permanently preserving a lost world in a semblance of life. The dogged filiopietism of a few of this generation hid and soothed a gnawing despair with their own approaching demise, a more extreme defense against the passage of time than the denial of historical partisanship embraced by Rush, Marshall, and King. Filiopietism offered a more seductive, and ultimately unreal, refuge of fantasy: the belief or faith that the history of their portion of the world had not changed with time. Clinging to this fantasy of stasis, they struggled to escape the fate of mortals. David Humphreys and Noah Webster clung to the rock of New England history, not to save the region from foreign influences or democratic mobs (as Federalism had in the 1790s and 1800s) but to save themselves. By identifying himself with the timeless virtues of Connecticut, Humphreys gained a respite from mortality. Merged and identified with the strength of the state, his powers seemed unimpaired by the passage of years. He spoke thus for himself as well as for his home, when he wrote, “Connecticut, among the foremost in the struggle for independence, among the first to adopt the constitution, will not be the last to tamely suffer that independence to be lost, that constitution to be impaired.” She, like Humphreys, would survive, “unchangeable.” Through this mask of immutability, one can sense his isolation. David Hackett Fischer reminds us, “Because old age was very rare, the aged also suffered from a sense of isolation, loneliness and emptiness.” Humphreys was not the first of his generation to feel keenly the loss of time and friends and to seek solace in the past.15
One could hardly say that Webster abandoned history in his prolonged old age, for, from 1800 to his death in 1840, he published a history of his country, a historical dictionary, and scores of letters of advice to young men stuffed with history. He continued to write and think about history—but, after the war, in a new framework. He became a rejuvenated Calvinist, a man redeemed by his surrender to faith and orthodoxy. Henceforth, he produced history in the service of religion and rejoiced that the divine hand of providence explained all things. This was a far cry from his mild antireligious sentiments during the Revolution and farther still from his advocacy of an enlightened and idealistic human history. History to the young revolutionary had been a purgative of superstition; to the old lexicographer, it was a proof of scripture. His History of the United States, published in 1835, began with Adam and Eve, traced the guiding power of religion in the Revolution, and pledged that America would always remain God’s special land. Religious metahistory, without the pain of failure and criticism that had plagued him, brought sweetness, peace, and relief. To write it, the Lord “ha[d] sustained a feeble constitution, amidst obstacles and toils, disappointments, infirmities, and depression.” Religion comforted him but did not curb his pessimism. Reconciliation with the recent past, that is, with his own part in history, also might have sustained him in old age as it had in the darkest hours of his youth, but history taught that high Federalism had failed, and this was an intolerable lesson. He had not abandoned history—but he had despaired so irrevocably of its quarrels, disorders, and disobedience—all symptomatic of democracy—that he emptied the history of his country of all its human content and refilled the shell with pious homily.16
The depth and yearning of Webster’s conversion experience, as desperate as Humphreys’s refusal to yield to old age, hints at the dread which, in earlier years, command of history held at bay. If, as Ernest Becker has written, the fear of death “haunts the human animal like nothing else,” driving sane men, brilliant men, to denial, fabrication, and self-deluding heroism, the crumbling of the past must have brought terror to these aging Federalists. Timothy Pickering, rejected by a new generation of Salem voters, spent his last days in long walks and vigorous exercise. He literally refused to admit his approaching fate; “it was his last great struggle.” The Constitution and the first Federalist administrations were their monument, their hedge against mortality. With Jeffersonianism’s steady gain in the popular mind, that monument was no more. Character, integrity, and a willingness to face the limitations of life—the irony of fame and death that were described at the start of this chapter—would attune other Federalists to their fate, but the “reality of life, the full problem of things,” was brutal, when the refuges of a heroic past were stripped away.17
Neither Humphreys, Webster, nor Timothy Dwight, the last a patriarch of the Connecticut clergy by the time of his death in 1817, could conceal their great sadness at the passing of a world they had known in their prime of life. Humphreys mourned: “The few surviving actors from the stage of the revolutionary war will daily become more and more scarce.” His grief was mottled with anger at a younger generation that did not respect their elders’ achievements, and he raged publicly, “We will leave this scene not for a tittering generation who wish to push us from it.” With old age Webster, too, had grown increasingly insistent upon the frailty of human nature. Idealistic reforms were dangerous; safety lay in the tried and tested. Dwight’s posthumously published travel journals insisted: “The observation of a single man will easily convince him that the characteristical features of any body of men living by themselves and particularly united in their concerns regularly descend through a long period to their posterity. The character of many towns and parishes in New England, where everything is progressive and changing, can now be traced with irresistible evidence to its first settlers. History in a more extensive and satisfactory manner evinces the same truth.” On his deathbed Dwight despaired, for “since the American Revolution, our situation has become less favorable to the existence, as well as to the efficacy, of these great means of internal peace.” A mature Dwight, in the midst of the party wars of the 1790s, had confidence in the generative power of New England history. Twenty years later, despite the “good feelings” of the postwar years, he succumbed to the self-abnegation of old age.18
The fantasy of an unchangeable past was not the only form of despair that preyed upon old age. Rage, displayed in vengeful historical mutterings, also bespoke rankling despondency. In Ames’s and Rush’s cases, this anger was self-directed. Pickering projected his despair at his own foreshortened career in angry historical attacks on others. Stung by publication of the Adams-Cunningham correspondence, Pickering assaulted the Braintree patriarch furiously. His Review of the letters was not history for truth’s sake or for some discernible political end. It was born of frustration, over a career Adams sidetracked by sacking then Secretary of State Pickering many years before. Pickering admitted as much when he wrote, “What is history? A mere detail of events may engage curiosity; but it is the character of the actors which especially interest the reader.” What followed was not a moral commentary of the Plutarchian sort but a collection of rumors and slurs. Jefferson suffered Pickering’s rancor in the latter’s preface to an 1823 reading of the Declaration of Independence in Salem. The occasion was hardly appropriate for Pickering’s thrust. A partisan attack, especially one renewing contentions among the all-but-sanctified signers, must have surprised even stalwart Federalists in the audience. Pickering had been nipping at Jefferson’s reputation for many years, and in 1823 he accused Jefferson outright of copying the language of the Declaration from common English sources and then claiming too much credit for himself. Ironically, Pickering used Adams’s recollections as a source. Even the deaths of Jefferson and Adams three years later, occasions for the solemn celebration of their deeds among their countrymen, did not still Pickering’s pen, for Pickering’s canker gnawed within: history had abandoned him. Though he resolved on his death bed to record “truths, important in an historical point of view,” he decided “it is of no matter,” for “‘truths would you teach, or save a sinking land, All fear, none aid you, and few understand.’”19
None of the Founding Fathers was immune to such dejection. Jefferson showed flashes of passionate agony in his historical reminiscences. When he learned of the intrusion of slavery and sectionalism into the debate over Missouri’s application for statehood, Jefferson lamented, “I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons.” James Madison, the recipient of many of Jefferson’s historical complaints, promised to guard his older friend’s historical reputation, but the shy, bookish master of Montpelier was also prey to moments of depression. Without Jefferson’s passion, but with Jefferson’s fears of disunion and slavery, Madison’s words to his countrymen were often more resigned than hopeful: “The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the states be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a pandora with her box opened; and the disguised one, as the serpent, creeping with his deadly wiles into paradise.” The making of the Constitution was to Madison’s personal history (and as always with this generation, to the history of the republic) what the Declaration of Independence and the concept of personal liberty was to Jefferson’s. When Madison despaired of the Union, as Jefferson did for liberty, it was fear of the negation of a life’s work that spoke.20
Even as they abused history, that discipline served the revolutionary generation’s innermost personal needs. Anger and disgust at oneself could be safely directed at history, and the self-destructiveness of despair could be thereby blunted. The renunciation of the discipline of history acted as a mechanism of defense against all the pain and doubt in their recollections. By lopping off a part of themselves—their role in the nation’s history—they preserved the rest from the mortal admission of failure. The assault on history was an effective therapy for the strongest-minded of the revolutionaries, for it enabled them to criticize their own excesses while not calling into question their moral or intellectual values. History helped them, in the end, to accept their mortality and the safety of passing their great burden on to a new generation.21
Thus, although pessimism nagged at these men, and they occasionally bowed to it, as a whole they did not surrender. Angry with history, they did not resign themselves to its inutility, nor, therefore, to their own inconsequentiality in the saga of human events. Wearily shuttling between his home in Pittsburgh and his duties on the Supreme Court in Philadelphia, Brackenridge was the first of them to face and master the challenge of ego integrity. His wry but firm commitment to history guided his steps. Though he presided at court sessions sloppily dressed, often with his boots off and his feet resting on the bench, and his tall hunched figure seemed cloaked in gloom, he continued to write, and his essays and poems burned with the old fires. He was proud of his accomplishments and wished them preserved. He collected earlier Pittsburgh Gazette essays for publication in 1806, “not with a view to a long period of posthumous existence but that of a few years among my immediate descendants, who may take some little pride in preserving the memory of a literary man, and this for their own sakes.” He had tried to bring law and learning, and a bit of the muse, to the frontier, and “though my fame must fall short of giving lustre to a country, yet it may throw a little light on a small circle of immediate descendants and endure, perhaps, for a generation after I am gone.” He wished his contribution to survive in its literary form (he depreciated his political and judicial achievements), but he knew that form was not fictional. His most enduring literary works were barely disguised historical ones, and his magnum opus, Modern Chivalry, concluded with a plea for the value of the lessons he had learned in the past: “For this painting I claim credit; but I have more the useful in view than the amusing of the work. . . . ‘All of which I saw and part of which I was.’ I have myself been of the bar; have had to do, in a canvass for elections; and have been of a legislative body; like all young orators, I have babbled as others have done.” Brackenridge dropped his persona, Captain Farrago, to address the reader directly in the closing passages of Modern Chivalry. Written in 1815, they pronounced a valedictory on his own small but worthy place in history.22
As his final days approached, Jefferson also brought himself to begin an autobiography: “At the age of 77,” he wrote, “I begin to make some memoranda, and state some recollections of dates and facts concerning myself, for my own more ready reference, and for the information of my family.” He set down soft words, not revising his judgment of history but signaling his own determination to face his past. To his friends, he signaled his dying affirmation of his role in history. He wrote Madison: “It has also been a great solace to me to believe that you are engaged in vindicating to posterity the course we have pursued . . . take care of me when [I am] dead.” Shortly before he died, Jefferson replied to an invitation to celebrate the 1826 jubilee of independence. He was too infirm to go, but he seized the opportunity to stand in final judgment of the chief work of his life. Of the Declaration he wrote, “It will be (to some parts sooner, to others, later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. . . . All eyes were opened, or opening, to the rights of man.” On the eve of his death Jefferson had come to terms with his past. In a fashion typical of his generation, he announced the resolution of his personal crisis of ego integrity to a political gathering.23
To the north, in Braintree, Adams triumphed over despair. He had worried and fussed in turn, lashing out against aristocracy, slavery, and pretension. Early in his retirement, his worst suspicions were expressed in asides on history. If the history of the Revolution was “now lost forever,” then only the few who remained must tell the tale. He could not finish his autobiography—the pain of others’ envy and insults was too great to bear. In letters to Jedidiah Morse, Hezekiah Niles, and the Boston Post, all attempts to fill the blank pages of his autobiography, he struggled against his own fear of history. He sought not personal glory in revolutionary chronicle, though he did feel slighted, but integrity and self-worth. His contretemps with Mercy Otis Warren over a few disparaging remarks about him in her history of the Revolution was turgid and shrill but owed less to advancing incapacity and overweaning pride than to his need for reassurance about the righteousness of his original purposes and the consistency of his ideas. If she were right, he had indeed been duped or foolish in his views of the French Revolution. Had this been true? It may seem so to the historian today, but to conclude on this note is to misunderstand Adams’s passionate concern for the past. He wanted to set the record straight, not for adoring audiences or critical enemies but for himself. His life’s work was to be a monument to personal and public independence; to his freedom from all considerations but those of virtue; to his country’s freedom from tyranny; and, indissolubly bound to it, to his own mature identity. “I must think myself independent as long as I live,” he wrote to Jefferson, “the feeling is essential to my existence.” History, his history, his life’s work, was too important to surrender.24
Proud, politic, old-fashioned Rufus King also made his peace with history. Bested in the senatorial debates of 1819–20 on Missouri, his advocacy of free soil used against him in his home state of New York, he sought some ground upon which to stand. On the edge of retirement, plagued by serious physical disabilities, he reconciled with history. “All that is the work of man,” he told the Senate shortly before he left its halls, “is like him, imperfect. We probably enjoy a greater proportion of freedom and happiness than falls to the lot of other nations; and, because we desire yet more, we must be careful not to lose what we have, by hasty and partial alterations in our plan of government.” It was a farewell thought as conservative as Jefferson’s was progressive, yet, like Jefferson’s, it reunited King with his real past and pronounced him content.25
Madison chose hope. Upon reception of a historical discourse from Dr. Daniel Drake, the promoter-historian of Cincinnati, Madison expressed delight: “Should the youth addressed [at Drake’s lecture] and their successors, follow your advice, and their example be elsewhere imitated in noting from period to period the progress and changes of our country under the aspects adverted to . . . [it] will form a treasure of incalculable value to the Philosopher, the Lawgiver, and the Political Economist.” Let the past, Madison pleaded, with all its errors, again teach the present: “Our history, short as it is, has already disclosed great errors sanctioned by great names . . . and it may be expected to throw new lights on problems still to be decided.” There is a mixture of disgust and faith in these words, with faith finally victorious. The next year, 1836, he wrote another correspondent: “I am far however from desponding of the great political experiment in the hands of the American people. Much has already been gained in its favor, by the continued prosperity accompanying it through a period of so many years. Much may be expected from the progress and diffusion of political science.” In his own careful preservation of historical documents and his encouragement to others to write histories of the revolutionary and constitutional dramas, he evidenced a personal commitment to the rebirth of history. By rediscovering the health of the republic from the study of its history, he reaffirmed his own worth.26
Before he died, Marshall, too, ceased to hide from history. To his confidant, fellow Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, he jested, “I hope I shall live to read your lectures [on the history of the law]. They will form an exception to the plan of life I had formed for myself to be adopted after my retirement from office, that is to read nothing but novels and poetry.” Close upon this reprieve for history came a full pardon, in a short note to a favorite grandson: “History is among the most essential departments of knowledge; and, to an American, the histories of England and of the United States are most instructive. Every man ought to be intimately acquainted with the history of his own country.”27
Books about the Founding Fathers always end with the dying words of Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Marshall. I will end this one with the last thoughts of a forgotten member of that generation. Despite the Republicans’ victory in 1800, Philip Freneau remained mired in poverty and obscurity. He scribbled while his wife and daughters scratched a living from his dwindling patrimonial lands. Reaching old age, still largely unappreciated, he despaired. Epic poems planned in moments of euphoria went unfinished. The politics that had meant something to a younger Freneau ceased to energize his pen. Republican party triumphs only proved to him that his political opponents had not blocked his literary aspirations. His mind, like Rush’s, strayed to the consolations of religion. “How feeble,” he wrote in 1822, “are the strongest hands. How weak all human efforts prove.” In spurts, his interest in publication revived—he produced a good number of patriotic poems during the War of 1812—but they never sold well. His recognition of the dismal conclusion of his personal history did not devastate him, however, for in his final years he gained strength from his perception that the larger history of his life—the historical events he shared with his generation—was a success. As he wrote to a new son-in-law, “The game [of political reaction] is over. You must pay respect and honor to America.” As his own prospects faded, he was heartened by national improvements. Contemplating his younger friend DeWitt Clinton’s canal in New York, Freneau wrote: “Nature herself will change her face / . . . And here behold a work progress, / Advancing through the wilderness, / A work, so recently began, / Where liberty enlightens man.” And this message, read in the history of the new republic, comforted the stooped, aged poet-journalist. His last rhymes, never published, anticipated the winter of life with renewed faith: “These [memories] to the mind a thousand pleasures bring / And give to winter’s frosts the smiles of spring.”28
In their last years, the Founding Fathers doubted the value of their achievements. In moments of despair, rage, and resignation, they flirted with repudiation of their own history. A handful succumbed, but most did not. One might ask if they were being fair to themselves—if their self-censure was merited? As able as the revolutionary generation may have been in the eyes of its successors, it did not always fulfill its own stated goals. The revolutionaries did not find a way to place authority beyond the reach of corruption, unity beyond the danger of faction, or virtue beyond the reach of avarice and ambition. Nor did they discover a refuge for private life beyond the catcalls and importunities of the political forum. Their goals were universal, but they accepted, bit by bit, a nationalistic reality. Their most eloquent spokesmen had yearned for a time when peace and reason would end the horrors of history; but history told them, in their dotage, that such a world was not to be. As old men, the revolutionaries remembered and regretted the lost illusions of their youth, manifest in their first, joyous plunge into American history.
With the cold breath of death upon their necks and the shield of history—their denial of death, their blazon of immortality—in pieces, the crisis of heart and soul that Ernest Becker describes was upon them. Their reply was not “unrepression,” unthinking and unrestrained idealism. Nor was it a submission to the supernatural, a panicky search for cosmic release. Their reconciliation with their own history illustrated another option. They accepted death as the natural end to fulfilled lives. They bowed, gracefully, to their own humanity.29