From the European perspective, the United States was a young country during its formation period. While that was true, I was struck during our visits to the Virginian presidential homes by the deep American roots of our early presidents. None was a recent arrival; each could be classified as having come from old stock. Washington’s great-grandfather came to Virginia from England in the 1650s. Jefferson’s ancestors also came from England during the seventeenth century. I am not sure about Madison’s grandfather, but Madison’s father was born in Virginia. Monroe’s great-grandfather emigrated from Scotland to Virginia at about the same time as Washington’s great-grandfather had. In addition, the second President also had long roots in America. John Adams’s great-grandfather moved to Massachusetts from England around 1640.
Of course, there were others of the Founding Fathers who had come to America more recently—Alexander Hamilton from the West Indies and Thomas Paine from England, for example. But our first presidents all had long and deep roots in America. Was this somehow important for the founding of our country? Did a person naturally feel themselves more of an American when their ancestors had been in the New World for three or four generations? Did it take decades and decades to question whether the British government was the best for a different land and an increasingly different society? It was striking to me that in that young America all of our first Presidents had old American families. Have historians discussed this?
The Virginia dynasty had roots deep in the New World, but they were still influenced by European ideas. Much is made of Jefferson’s library, and it was not just for show. He read those volumes. And the books were not the eighteenth-century equivalent of Jack Reacher novels, but covered philosophy, botany, biology, agriculture, history, astronomy. I wondered how many modern American leaders have done the equivalent reading.
Jefferson was not alone. Washington and Monroe both had large libraries as did Madison. The guide at Montpelier indicated that Madison, recognizing that the United States needed a better form of government to replace the Articles of Confederation, studied all sorts of materials, from histories of Greece and Rome to modern philosophers, to be prepared to help fashion a new constitution.
John Locke is often cited, surely correctly, as an influence on Jefferson. Separation of powers is a central tenet of our Constitution, and Montesquieu is often credited with formulating that concept. But the European influence was more pervasive than that. The Virginia dynasty came of age in an enlightenment era that believed in human reason, rejected authority, and valued empirical knowledge. The Montpelier guide stressed how much Madison was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment that was then flourishing.
(Continued on June 8)