though past, is present, and essential
to understanding the American future ...
  • If slavery was a neutral thing for most colonials and early Americans, the Founding Fathers are on record with a position. On the one end Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were against it; in the middle Thomas Jefferson, while believing that enslaved blacks should be free, also believed they were inferior — and never found a way to divorce himself and his way of life from his Monticello plantation and his little mountain of slavery.


    There is a more nuanced middle inhabited by James Madison — slave-owner, political philosopher and practical repositioner, three-fifths-er, and Father of the Constitution — who truly believed that Africans were equal to whites yet never found a way to let go of the peculiar institution enjoyed by the South. See Noah Feldman on James Madison’s Lessons in Racism (29-Oct-2017) for a look at Madison and his evolving political positions vs. his unchanging personal one.

  • A team performing restoration of the wine-cellar at Liberty Hall Museum recently uncovered wine dating back to 1796. During a six-month renovation, three crates and 42 large casks — demijohns — were discovered, including bottles labeled Robert Lenox of Philadelphia 1796. See ABC News (11-Jul-2017).

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Reading the Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin for the first time I was struck by the huge generational difference between Franklin and that other polymath of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson.

Benjamin Franklin, 1778/79 — by Anne-Rosalie Bocquet Filleul

Franklin’s formative years are the twenties — the 1720s. This is the decade he arrives in Philadelphia, makes a misguided excursion to London, sets up his own printing shop, creates with his friends a weekly discussion group (the Junto), founds the first lending library in the colonies, and marries. During the time of the French and Indian War (the 1750s) he is already retired, and becoming world famous for his experiments in electricity.

In an environment where practicality is rewarded, Franklin’s strivings are all practical. He wants to improve himself, improve his town, and contribute to England by helping to grow a colony. He also wants to become known for doing so.

Jefferson, on the other hand, is shaped by the sixties — the 1760s. The war with France is over. Britain has ejected the French from North America. Yet with one uncertainty resolved, what should have been a decade of stability is instead anything but. The colonial economy is in a shambles. The mother country is mired in debt and needs to find ways to raise money. Indeed, by fits and starts it is trying to figure out how to manage an empire. A series of revenue-raising laws begin, as does reaction by the colonists.

Where Franklin had but two years of formal schooling and started doing, Jefferson continued as a student until he was 24, receiving his law degree in 1767.

Jefferson in 1786, painted in England by Mather Brown

Jefferson, like Franklin, is eminently curious — and will make his mark in political philosophy, natural history, colonial history, architecture, politics, and more — but less practical. In 1768 he starts his lifelong building enterprise atop Monticello, where there is no natural water, but what comes from rain or is hauled up by his slaves. (He will live with his family for much of his life in what is essentially a housing construction zone.) Jefferson also wanted to contribute, and to be known for it, but his decade of striving was largely educational, an apprenticeship for greatness, to quote the biographer Fawn Brodie.

Then in 1774, out of the gate, he becomes famous and treasonous at once for A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Jefferson is 31, an idealist, and a radical. Franklin, now one of the most famous men in the world, and, at 68, old enough to be Jefferson’s grandfather, doffed practicality — and his own security — took up idealism, and soon embarked on the political career for which he is readily remembered and revered today.


What ultimately convinced Americans that they must revolt in 1776 was not that they were naturally and inevitably republican, for if that were truly the case evolution, not revolution, would have been the eventual solution. Rather it was the pervasive fear that they were not predestined to be a virtuous and egalitarian people that in the last analysis drove them into revolution in 1776. It was this fear and not their confidence in the peculiarity of their character that made them so readily and so remarkably responsive to Thomas Paine’s warning that the time for independence was at hand and that delay would be disastrous. By 1776 it had become increasingly evident that if they were to remain the kind of people they wanted to be they must become free of Britain.

Gordon S. Wood
The Creation of the American Republic, 1776—1787 (1969)