The tumult and turmoil of the past year have sent me back to the 18th century, to the roots of our battered Republic. It’s been a comforting sojourn — but not in the ways one might expect.
There’s not much to be gained from revisiting hoary myths of the Founding; the real flesh-and-blood history is much more challenging, engaging — and ultimately reassuring. For the Republic was born in tumult and turmoil, and its lasting foundations were laid down amid a welter of nasty partisanship, self-interested wrangling, and venal behavior.
The civic saints of the founding generation were not unreachable paragons. Nor were they merely a patriarchal cabal of hypocrites, as hostile revisionists would have it. They were complex and flawed individuals much like we are. And there is comfort to be taken in that.
We can be forgiven for seeing the founding generation as something more — or less — than merely human; they were enshrined in myth almost from the end of the American Revolution. Charles Thomson, who served as the secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789, wrote a massive insider’s account titled “Notes of the Intrigues and Severe Altercations or Quarrels in the Congress.” This potential bombshell tell-all, Thomson said, “would contradict all the histories of the great events of the Revolution.”
The congressional secretary thought better of it, deciding that he should not “tear away the veil that hides our weaknesses” and that it was best to “let the world admire the supposed wisdom and valor of our great men.”
He threw his manuscript on the fire.
That vignette comes from Nathaniel Philbrick’s wonderful book Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution.
Philbrick notes that:
“The real Revolution was so troubling and strange that once the struggle was over, a generation did its best to remove all traces of the truth. No one wanted to remember how after boldly declaring their independence they had so quickly lost their way; how patriotic zeal had lapsed into cynicism and self-interest; and how, just when all seemed lost, a traitor had saved them from themselves.”
That traitor was, of course, Benedict Arnold — one of the greatest paradoxes of American history. Arnold was, without a doubt, the boldest, most valiant, and most successful of Washington’s field commanders. He was the man most responsible for the American victory at Saratoga, New York, in 1777, a victory that led to a critical, ultimately war-winning, alliance with France. His leg was gruesomely shattered by a musketball in the fighting.
Arnold, for all his manifest virtues, was fatally thin-skinned — hypersensitive to any perceived slight. Feeling underappreciated — and woefully under-compensated — by the Americans, he turned his coat and nearly got away with handing the British the key installation at West Point on the Hudson River. He betrayed his country partly out of wounded pride — but mostly for the prospect of a massive financial reward.
He was a brave man and a fine soldier — but also a narcissistic self-dealer and, no matter how he tried to justify himself, a scoundrel. Even his new comrades in arms disdained him. Nobody likes a turncoat — especially a failed one.
The American Revolution was, in large part, a destructive and predatory civil war, where neighbors turned on neighbors, in the southern backcountry, the frontier territory of the Mohawk Valley, and the lawless “Neutral Ground” around New York City.
Congress swiftly devolved into a welter of personal animosities and petty venality. In the spring of 1780, Congress and the individual states failed so utterly in their duty to supply Washington’s Continental Army that the army nearly mutinied and dissolved, which would have been game over for the American Revolution.
Somehow, out of all this sorry mess, was constructed something real and valuable and lasting. And therein lies the comfort of historical perspective. Our nation is in a terrible mess right now — but certainly nowhere near the utter failure we faced in 1780. We’re no worse than our forefathers, no more or less prone than they to knavish acts or foolish, self-destructive contretemps. We’ll muddle through these current “times that try men’s souls,” just as our forefathers did before us. And, like them, we’ll probably try to make subsequent generations think we’re better than we are.