John Adams was exasperated. In 1790, just a year after the United States began its government under the Constitution, Adams already assumed that Americans would forget nearly all the efforts of the Revolution (in particular, his contributions). “The Essence of the whole,” he wrote to Philadelphia doctor Benjamin Rush, “will be that Dr Franklins electrical Rod, Smote the Earth and out Spring General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his Rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy Negotiations Legislation and War.” Adams, it turns out, was half right. Today Americans remember and commemorate a far broader cast of characters from the American Revolution, yet when it comes to George Washington, we still view him, as Adams noted, as a semi-mythical figure sprung from the earth like a Greek god.
Recent sensations such as Hamilton and Sons of Liberty have lionized the Founders and made household names of some whose fame outside of historical circles was somewhat dimmer. At the same time, they have provided some sorely needed human elements to their stories, making the Founders more three-dimensional and, frankly, interesting. In the hands of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton is surely successful and ambitious, but to a fault. His hubris eventually proves his downfall, not only because of his pride in his policy prescriptions, but also because of his affair with Maria Reynolds. Thomas Jefferson may still be celebrated as the author of the Declaration of Independence, but rarely is he depicted without mention of his duplicitous thinking on slavery and freedom—or his long-term sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved (and who was his wife’s biological half-sister). Benjamin Franklin offers sage advice, but also aphorisms on flatulence and a seemingly unquenchable appetite for flirtation. Even the highly sympathetic HBO miniseries did little to conceal the bitterness and petulance that marked Adams’s career.