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Editor’s Note, January/February 2006

America's Beginnings

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, January/February 2006 | Volume 27, Number 1

"The man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independency is Mr. John Adams of Boston," a delegate to the Continental Congress wrote. "I call him the Atlas of American independence."

Other delegates were less admiring. Some found Adams to be a bully in his determination to sever relations with Britain; he himself used the word "obnoxious." His sometimes stormy career is the subject of an NEH-supported film airing in January. The story is told in large part through the letters exchanged between Adams and his wife Abigail, who was his closest political adviser. "She is a better judge of people than he was," comments historian David McCullough.

Cokie Roberts, author of the book Founding Mothers, regards the role of women as an important part of the story. "If we don't know what the women were up to at the time of the fight for independence and the founding of our country, we're missing half our history," she tells NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. Like McCullough, she finds Abigail an impressive political figure. "I went back and started reading those letters, which are blessedly available, and I couldn't get over it. I couldn't get over her involvement in politics. I couldn't get over her influence on him and on other founders and I couldn't get over how alone she was for long periods of time and how brave she had to be and how, as she put it, how unselfinterested a patriot she was."

We also take a look two contemporaries of the Adamses. One is Benjamin Franklin, whose three hundredth birthday is this January; the other is Alexander Hamilton, who is characterized as the man who shaped modern America. While Adams felt out of place among the cosmopolitan French, Franklin flourished. Adams privately chided his colleague for refusing to give "any opinion till obliged to do it," but Franklin's tactics allowed him to negotiate the court's intrigues and charm his hosts.

Like Adams, Hamilton was a Federalist. Hamilton's experiences as a soldier and then as an aide to George Washington during the American Revolution convinced him that the country's future depended on a strong central government serving both industry and agriculture. At Valley Forge, Hamilton and the rest of the troops had gone hungry as the Continental Congress tried to persuade the colonies to provide money for supplies. With Washington's ascendancy to the presidency, Hamilton became the first secretary of the treasury and created the Bank of the United States.

And last, we move from the founding figures of the country to some noteworthy people of the present day: eleven people and an institution who have enriched the country's intellectual and cultural life. They are the winners of the 2005 National Humanities Medal, awarded for distinction in bringing the humanities to a larger public. The medalists include the Keno brothers of Antiques Roadshow fame, who have traced pieces of America's past through a grain of wood, and a colonel named Matthew Bogdanos, who is tracking lost artifacts from war torn Iraq. From academia come a historian of the Cold War, a scholar of the Constitution, a legal scholar, and a doyenne of the great books. There are the philanthropists Gilder and Lehrman, who have turned their collection of historical documents into an educational tool. And there is Miss Manners, who sees etiquette as the underpinning of a democratic society. The final medal represents a collective endeavor: the work done by the editors of the Papers of George Washington, who are preserving the historical record of the nation's first president.