Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Whose Independence?

All the Founding Fathers of America celebrated independence, but what the word meant depended on who was speaking.

"The very existence of a continental congress was exciting [to John Adams]," writes Edmund S. Morgan, emeritus professor at Yale, "and participation in it constantly expanded his ambitions for America—and for himself." The seeming afterthought about Adams' self-preoccupation is in fact central to this small book's project, namely, the influence on the early United States of the personalities and private motives of Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Thus, the three chapters that make up this useful and enduring work (it's a timely reprint of the original, which appeared in 1976), are partly character sketches and partly reflections on how those characters shaped the early United States. The meaning of American independence to John Adams was the country's freedom to pursue its own interests; and "the achievement and preservation of American independence became inseparable from [Adams'] own ambition."

For George Washington, independence meant the freedom to promote a national aloofness from international affairs akin to his own personal aloofness, even from friends. And for Thomas Jefferson—that disturbingly and marvelously diverse and undulating man—independence meant the opportunity to enhance and expand personal freedom. Enough of priests fed by the taxpayers and of tradition for its own sake, Jefferson thought. Let every generation serve its own interests. The dead are dead. Or, as Morgan puts it, Jefferson "liked to think of generations as nations, and he sought the independence not merely of Americans from England but of every generation of Americans from the proceeding one."

This wonderfully Yankee idea is both attractive and delusional. Liberation from the past is as impossible as liberation ...

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