Sunday, August 17, 2008

Charles Francis Adams and the "patriots of former days."

Every now and then I need a little break from the study of Civil War history.
Recently, I have shelved works dealing with America's fratricidal conflict and have picked up some that focus on the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Federalist Eras. Several weeks ago I ordered a number of books from the History Book Club, including 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, by Charles Mann, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution, by Simon Schama, and American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, by Joseph Ellis.
These books arrived yesterday morning and I got that "kid-in-the-candy-store" feeling as I tore right in. I began with American Creation, a book I've been meaning to read for months now. In the Prologue of this book, I came across a quote by Charles Francis Adams, grandson of one president and the son of another, that struck me as particularly interesting. As Ellis explained, Adams had edited his grandfather's papers in the 1850s and in commenting upon how his ancestor and fellow "Founding Fathers" were remembered in popular memory recorded:
"We are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves. . .and we are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them in our imaginations certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities, without reflecting that this at once robs their character of consistency and their virtues of all merits."
Although Adams wrote this in reference to the leaders of the Revolutionary Era, this observation is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago and particularly when describing how it is we best remember some of America's Civil War heroes. In the past, I have commented on some of the negative feedback I have received for criticizing certain generals of the Civil War and for providing a so-called "warts and all" interpretation of their lives and their decisions both on and off the battlefield. There is a tendency among a large percentage of the population not to criticize but to accept a certain narrative that portrays these men as almost flawless figures. And because of this we have today a number of transcendant, well-constructed caricatures, or glossy portraits, and not a "flesh and bones" image that view these historical figures for what they, in fact, were, real life human beings. They made mistakes, experienced failure along with their success, and were, in the end, entirely human. As Adams so eloquently explained, to view them otherwise is to rob "their character of consistency and their virtues of all merits."

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