Preface

These studies, though written over a period of years, have a unity of purpose and a consistency of theme. They are an attempt to probe aspects of the founding of the American nation through analysis of certain uniquely important people and documents and through study of the location, the context, of the Revolutionary generation in the greater world of which they were a part. That they were provincials— marginal, borderland people—in the broad context of eighteenth- century Euro-American civilization profoundly conditioned their lives and, I believe, stimulated their imaginations, freed them from instinctive respect for traditional establishments, and encouraged them to create a new political world. The results of their efforts— however groping, unfinished, and tentative—proved to be a turning point in the political history of Western civilization, radiating out through Europe and Latin America with effects that were as impor¬tant as they are difficult to interpret.
Through all the chapters two themes, two convictions, remain constant: that these were truly creative people, and that their creative efforts, the generation-long enterprise that elevated these obscure people from their marginal world to the center of Western civiliza¬tion, were full of inconsistencies, logical dilemmas, and unresolved problems. I have attempted to explain the ambiguities that so beset Jefferson’s career; the strange interplay between lofty idealism and cunning realism in Franklin’s spectacular success in Paris (and along the way the interplay between that high-spirited, suave, humorous, insouciant philosophe and his dutiful, upright, earnest, worried, neo- Puritan colleague Adams). I have similarly sought to explore the des¬perate struggle of the writers of the Federalist papers to reconcile the need for a powerful, coercive public authority with the preservation of the private liberties for which the Revolution had been fought, and, in a wider perspective, to sketch the reception, itself ambiguous, of the Founders’ tensely balanced thought by political reformers through¬out the Atlantic world.
The Founders were remarkably articulate people. They wrote eas¬ily, profusely, and clearly, and they left to posterity a monumental record of their thoughts, their struggles, and their accomplishments. But sometimes words, however profuse and precise, fail: they are so embedded in unconscious assumptions and unquestioned, unper¬ceived conditions that they leave unremarked essentials of people’s lives. Images—visual representations—can sometimes illuminate these elusive elements. And so I have used images—to gauge the dimensions of the Founders’ provincialism, the subtlety of Franklin’s artful self-imaging, and the peculiar idealization of America’s revo¬lution abroad in what has been called the age of the democratic revolution.
What follows, therefore, are sketches, assessments of essential ele¬ments in a complex history. If these probes convey a sense of the accomplishments of this extraordinary generation together with an awareness of the ambiguities, uncertainties, and perplexities in what they did—difficulties that persist into our own time—they will serve a useful purpose.

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