Tactical and strategic vices of the American Enlightenment


Enlightened obfuscation: A rhetorical tactic involving some combination of convoluted syntax, multiple negatives, indefinite antecedents, and masterful circumlocutions whose application is expedient to the delicate handling of highly volatile and controversial political topics

Enlightened procrastination: A strategy of avoiding engagement with a superior force until the passage of time renders victory possible

Enlightened perversity : The conspicuous derivation of deep personal satisfaction from singular acts of principle that defy the agendas and expectations of one’s rivals, political or otherwise; typically, a characteristic of iconoclastic and contrarian temperaments that relish alienation


A delightful and astonishing work of American historical scholarship, Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (Knopf, 2000) was recommended by former Random House editor Jason Epstein during his appearance on C-SPAN’s Booknotes (I notice that Ellis was on the show as well, speaking about his book on John Adams). I have been listening with interest and pleasure to the audiobook and following along in a print copy to review striking passages, several of which are the subject of this post.

From the chapter ‘The Silence,’ about the status of slavery in the new nation’s Congressional debates:

Any effort to locate the core of [James] Madison’s position on slavery […] misses the point, which is that there was no core, except perhaps the conviction that the whole subject was taboo. Like Jefferson and the other members of the Virginia dynasty, he regarded any explicit defense of slavery in the mode of South Carolina and Georgia as a moral embarrassment. On the other hand, he regarded any effort to end slavery as premature, politically impractical, and counter-productive. As a result, he developed a way of talking and writing about the problem that might be described as ‘enlightened obfuscation.’ For example, consider the following Madisonian statement, written during the height of the debate in the House: ‘If this folly did not reproach the public councils, it ought to excite no regret in the patrons of Humanity & freedom. Nothing could hasten more the progress of these reflections & sentiments which are secretly undermining the intitution which this mistaken zeal is laboring to secure against the most distant approach of danger.’ The convoluted syntax, multiple negatives, indefinite antecedents, and masterful circumlocutions of this statement defy comprehension. What begins as a denunciation of those defending slavery somehow doubles back on itself and ends up in worrisome confusion that the matter is being talked about at all. What is meant to sound like an antislavery argument transforms itself in midpassage into a verbal fog bank that descends over the entire subject like a cloud. (114-15).

And, from ‘The Farewell,’ Ellis’s chapter about George Washington’s retirement from political life. The passage quoted here leads off with a quotation from Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality (1793), which declared America an impartial witness to the Napoleonic Wars:

‘Every true friend to this Country must see and feel that the policy of it is not to embroil ourselves with any nation whatsoever; but to avoid their disputes and politics; and if they will harass one another, to avail ourselves of the neutral conduct we have adopted. Twenty years peace with such an increase of population and resources as we have a right to expect; added to our remote situation from the jarring powers, will in all probability enable us in a just cause to bid defiance to any power on earth.’ In a sense, it was a fresh application of the same strategic lesson he had learned as head of the Continental Army–namely, to avoid engagement with a superior force until the passage of time made victory possible, what we might call ‘the strategy of enlightened procrastination.’ In retrospect, and with all the advantages of hindsight, Washington’s strategic insights as president were every bit as foresighted as his strategic insights as commander in chief during the American Revolution, right down to his timing estimate of ‘twenty years,’ which pretty much predicted the outbreak of the War of 1812. (135)

Lastly, from the penultimate chapter ‘The Collaborators.’ In the passages that follow, Ellis is interpreting ‘Adams’s apparently impulsive decision, announced on February 18, 1799, to send another peace delegation to France’ — this not long after his ‘blatantly partisan’ signing into law of the anti-French Alien and Sedition Acts — as in line with Adams’s inflammatory and tendentious character (191):

Timothy Pickering, the disloyal secretary of state, whom Adams had come to despise, […] described himself as ‘thunderstruck’ and offered a perceptive reading of Adams’s motives: ‘it was done without any consultation with any member of the government and for a reason truly remarkable — because he knew we should all be opposed to the measure.’ (192)

Adams derived deep personal satisfaction from singular acts of principle that defied the agendas of both political parties. The fact that the decision to send the delegation rendered him unpopular, that it struck most observers as an act of political suicide, only confirmed for him that it must be right. […] The trademark Adams style might be described as ‘enlightened perversity,’ which actually sought out occasions to display, often in conspicuous fashion, his capacity for self-sacrifice. He had defended the Britiosh troops accused of the Boston Massacre, insisted upon American independence in the Continental Congreass a full year before it was fashionable, argued for a more exalted conception of the presidency despite charges of monarchical tendencies. It was all part of the Adams pattern, an iconoclastic and contrarian temperament that relished alienation. (John Quincy and then great-grandson Henry Adams exhibited the same pattern over the next century, suggesting that the predilections resided in the bloodstream.) The political conditions confronting the presidency in 1798 were tailor-made to call forth his excessive version of virtue. Though Abigail was with him all the way, for Adams himself it was the supreme collaboration with his own private demons and doubts, his personal declaration of independence. (194-95)


If you like what you’ve read here, you’ll probably want to get your hands on Founding Brothers — this book is stellar. Seek it out if you’ve any interest in American history whatsoever, or an inkling of sentimentality about the Founders, the Revolution, or the Constitution.

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