Life Cycle and Historical Achievement
This book was introduced as a preliminary report on the relationship between life cycle and historical ideas among the revolutionary generation. It would therefore be unfair to offer any but the most tentative conclusions. Nevertheless, if the large topic merits further study, this brief inquiry should prove that the life-cycle approach can explain questions of intellectual history in novel and significant ways. Although grand estimates of each man should be left to closer students of their lives than I, it is proper here to judge the effectiveness with which they used history. From the perspective of modern scholarship, they were certainly not “objective,” and for the most part they cannot be compared to the professional historian of today. From the standpoint of the psychology of human maturation and adjustment, however, they were brilliantly effective historians, for they built their vision of history into virtuous lives and careers.
As youths, they bound a new history together with the virtues of hope, will, purpose, and enthusiasm. Love and care succeeded loyalty and energy, as their chronicles of the 1780s were replaced by narratives and rationales they wrote in the 1790s. History was a mirror of ideals consciously held and unconsciously sought. When the survivors of the revolutionary generation doubted the veracity of history, they did so in the name of history’s higher alter ego, virtue. At last, when they looked down upon history from the high place of old age, they wondered if their history—their achievements—could measure up to the integrity and responsibility they demanded of themselves. Strengthened by their self-evaluation, they found ways to face and accept past experience and ultimately to regain the wholeness of their lives before they died. These were the strengths their example bequeathed to later generations; strengths we, at this distance, can still clearly perceive.
A second conclusion is also in order. The history the revolutionary generation wrote and made focused upon the capacity of men to change the face of the world. Throughout their historical essays and asides ran the themes of individual power and genius, as well as virtue. To the mind of the eighteenth-century man, these were the ingredients, but not the sum total, of greatness. Then, as now, it is creativity that makes the difference between genuine greatness and great power, great intellect, and great virtue. Working outward from their historical vision to the reality of their life cycle, we may indulge ourselves in a moment of inquiry: did the revolutionary generation rise successfully to the challenge?
Each of life’s stages poses its own difficulties, the resolution of which brings an individual to a higher plane of self-awareness and inner strength. Not every individual willingly faces these challenges, even among the Founding Fathers. That so many of the revolutionaries did resolve the successive crises of motivation and responsibility and were able, by combining personal and public concerns, to create a new republic is to their lasting credit and their successors’ good fortune. This is what has made them great. From their personal point of view, the last of these crises, dealt with in the final chapter of this book, required the most severe effort. Out of its toils came a deeper understanding of human frailty and capacity. It was a final reckoning of selfhood that reduced pride to its rightful proportions but assured the revolutionaries that these proportions were estimable. Despair may induce an individual to devaluate a productive and eventful life. No one can blame the survivors of the Revolution for flirting with despondency, when the sacrifices and achievements of long careers appeared to be brought to naught by an uncaring public. In the main, the revolutionary generation did not surrender to its fears. Valuing their achievements fairly, learning to live with their opponents’ criticisms and their own doubts, the young men of 1776 passed on their virtues to an entire people.
All human beings face the same sort of life-cycle challenges as the revolutionaries did, and all are parents to new generations of men and women. In the cycle of generations, the continual rebirth of human feelings and values, humanity finds the strength to explore itself and the world in greater and greater depth. But the revolutionary generation remains a special case, for the historian and for the inheritors of that Revolution. The founders of the republic, unlike most of us, left the impress of their passage through life’s stages upon the institutions we still cherish. Their virtue and understanding, to paraphrase Erikson’s more general pronouncement, left its “counterparts in the spirit of those human institutions which attempt to formalize and to safeguard such dealings.” Their strengths became the strengths of the republic. “From the stages and virtues such individual dispositions as faith, judiciousness, moral purpose, technical efficiency, ideological devotion, ethical responsibility and detached sagacity flow into the life of institutions. Without them, institutions wilt.”1
The lesson here is plain. It is a lesson that the Founding Fathers would have bid us commit to heart. Their institutions still live. History has not ended, and our fate is in our own hands. As Erikson has written: “I would posit a mutual activation and replenishment between the virtues emerging in each individual life cycle and the strengths of human institutions.” Jefferson and Adams would have said “amen” to this, for they lived as though it were true. And their history—the history they wrote and the history they made, their fusion of personal life cycle with the birth and growth of public institutions—offers a concrete example of Erikson’s proposition. The changes in revolutionary historical thought traced in these chapters are the benchmarks by which one generation moved from youth to old age and the monuments they left for those who would follow.2