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The Spirit of '75?

- Abstract

On July 30, 1815, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “Who shall write the history of the American revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?” With Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, Adams and Jefferson are the most renowned of the Founding Fathers. Although both Adams and Jefferson were consummate political men and men of parts, neither was a man of action in the manner of Washington, who was the young nation’s supreme war hero before becoming a statesman. Not martial prowess but eloquence and intellectual combativeness were their life’s blood. These two men, learned in many ways and endowed with extraordinary energy, wanted to know and to do everything—except engage in combat, which they left to those who were better suited. And yet they agreed, some 40 years after the events that made them immortal, that the true and full account of these events would be impossible to write. Replying to Adams on August 10, 1815, Jefferson answered his friend’s question: “Nobody.” He added that all the Revolution’s “councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having even made notes of them, these, which are the life and soul of history, must for ever be unknown.”

About the Author

Algis Valiunas is a frequent contributor to Commentary and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.