Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation Questions and Answers
by Joseph J. Ellis

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How similar or different are more recent presidents' efforts to shape the historical portrayal of their own terms in office, as with libraries and such Ellis says that the founders were always self-conscious about how posterity would view their decisions and their behavior. For instance, Adams' efforts of a "more realistic, nonmythologized version of the American revolution" were partly motivated by his wounded vanity, his effort to get rid of versions of the story that "failed to provide him with a starring role in the drama" (page 217).

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Professor Ellis emphasizes in his book that the men who created the republic were far from perfect: Adams was vain (he wished to be addressed as "his excellency), Jefferson something of a schemer, and Washington cold and brooding, He states that the great accomplishment of these men was that, imperfect as they were, they were instrumental in creating a "more perfect union." They were, indeed quite conscious of how posterity would view their actions as the nation was new. They were not sure that it would even survive, in fact Washington commented he did not expect the government to survive more than twenty five years. They were keenly aware that everything they did, no matter how insignificant, was a precedent for future administrations; and might also enhance or detract from the government's survival. A prime example was Washington's inaugural, when he wore a brown suit but a sword, to indicate his role as the civilian rather than military commander in chief of the armed forces of the U.S. The precedent set has been that no sitting President has every worn a military uniform. There was no provision in the constitution for a presidential cabinet; yet Washington instituted a cabinet with a Secretary of State, Treasury, War (later Defense) and Attorney General. That precedent has been followed to this day.  He also set the precedent of delivering the State of the Union address personally, although Jefferson broke that precedent which was not re-instated until Woodrow Wilson.

In the two hundred years since that time, the country has survived a civil war, a great depression, and numerous lesser challenges. The duties of latter day Presidents has not been so much to establish precedent as to be faithful stewards of that which has been entrusted to them. They make every effort to fulfill the words of their oath of office, to

...preserve protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.

By fulfilling their oath of office, they assure the continuation of the nation which was begun by the "founding brothers." They do not constantly set precedent as did the earlier presidents, as their is no need to constantly reinvent the wheel.


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