As revolutions go, it’s probably better to be subjected to the bloodless kind. Our current ideological revolution (bloodless so far, at least) seeks to throw America’s Founders down from the heights of past admiration. This must be done, we are told, because they violated every standard that thankless and petulant Americans can anachronistically muster for their indictment.
Unlike this current revolution which demands ordinary vices from ordinary persons, the American Revolution and Founding demanded extraordinary virtues from ordinary persons. This is the theme of Andrew Farmer’s Ordinary Greatness: A Life of Elias Boudinot, published by the American Bible Society as part of its ongoing efforts to situate the role of Biblical faith in American history.
Restoring a Neglected Founder
Boudinot may be the greatest Founder that most Americans have never heard of. Farmer writes, “Boudinot wasn’t just a witness to history. He helped make it.” Indeed he did, and surely in ways Boudinot himself could not have predicted. He was initially a practicing attorney in New Jersey and a supporter of the Patriot cause, but he soon became a colonel in the Continental Army under George Washington’s direction, where he handled the demoralizing and difficult plight of American prisoners of war. He helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris. Boudinot became a member of the Continental and Confederation Congresses (including serving as president). After ratification of the Constitution, Boudinot served in the new nation’s First (and Second and Third) Congress. He was the first Director of the US Mint. Like Washington, he repeatedly denied himself retirement or private ambition so that he could answer his nation’s call.
Boudinot was a model citizen in other ways as well. He was instrumental in founding the American Bible Society, served as a trustee of Princeton, consistently opposed slavery, and defended the rights of American Indians. Boudinot and his wife Hannah were also philanthropic to a fault, contributing to causes patriotic, charitable, and evangelistic at great cost to their personal fortune. The homes he built with his wife housed needy youths (including Alexander Hamilton) and men and women waiting on judges to free them from slavery. (Unlike many Founders, even many who opposed slavery, Boudinot never owned slaves.)
The point of Farmer’s book is not to supply a curriculum vitae, however, but to situate Boudinot in a milieu that includes, most notably, Benjamin Franklin (his next-door neighbor as a child), George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and influential ministers like George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent.
Central to Farmer’s narrative is Boudinot’s convictions and character. His deep personal faith descended from French Huguenots and was nurtured by his coming of age during the Great Awakening. Boudinot devoted himself to Presbyterian churches and Princeton Seminary (which he founded). He is buried in the cemetery of the Episcopal church where he finally retired, considering it the best of his local alternatives. As a faithful Protestant, however, Boudinot wasn’t interested merely in “private, inward spirituality” but also in the consequence of piety for public affairs and politics in the new nation. Boudinot believed that America’s fortunes would be tied to its faithfulness, including not just the fate of the Federalist Party (against supposedly godless Jeffersonians) but the desire of Americans for brotherhood more generally. In a 1793 oration, presciently seeing America’s future, he wrote, “All men, however different with regard to nation or color, have an essential interest in each other’s welfare.”
Farmer characterizes Boudinot’s faith as evangelical, and James Hutson has rightly noted that Boudinot stands out among the Founders because his evangelical faith resembled that of typical Americans more than it did the religious opinions of many Founders themselves. Farmer characterizes evangelicalism by four significant ideas: the authority of the Bible, the power of the gospel, the transformation of the new birth, and a conscience awakened to the needs of one’s social world. But Boudinot’s faith wasn’t sectarian or partisan. He took a generous view of all believers (almost all of them Protestant at the time, of course) and balanced public acknowledgment of God’s Providence with religious liberty. He even established The Society for the Jews, though it was ill-timed for Jewish immigration and eventually failed. Like generations of Americans, Boudinot hoped that accommodating Jews in America might usher in a revival among them and then the Second Coming.
Farmer provides insightful context for Boudinot’s personal and political sacrifices. For example, he situates Boudinot’s wartime efforts within the larger American strategy. He contextualizes his relationship with Whitefield by addressing both the Great Awakening and Whitefield’s complicated history with slavery. Farmer has an excellent discussion of slavery and antislavery efforts generally (including Boudinot’s making common cause with Quakers). These treatments are remarkably fair and efficient, and they enable the reader to judge Boudinot against his contemporaries. He has a lengthy introduction to Franklin, for example, especially his religious opinions. He reads Washington’s own faith objectively and carefully. Scholars will be disappointed, however, that Farmer does not engage in academic controversies, like the Great Awakening’s authenticity or what “the Enlightenment” really was. There should probably be some discussion of the French and Indian War. All of that said, Farmer makes excellent use of both primary and secondary sources, including several libraries and archives with Boudinot’s own papers.
Boudinot’s Relationships with Washington and Hamilton
Boudinot enjoyed a warm relationship with George Washington. He was close to Washington, Farmer reasons because he did not need Washington’s patronage or prestige. Washington’s confidence in him is evident from his appointments as commissary of prisoners and director of the Mint. Boudinot not only had a sterling character in many respects, he adapted quickly to complex challenges. A lesser man might have been turned by British machinations during negotiations over prisoners, and a poorer or greedier man couldn’t or wouldn’t have paid nearly 40,000 pounds for their care. This was most of Boudinot’s personal fortune at the time, and one wonders what would have become of American prisoners without his sacrificial philanthropy when two out of every three already died in captivity. And though Boudinot was accused by his enemies of malfeasance in running the Mint, no one believed the charges. Washington’s relationship with Boudinot wasn’t just professional, however. They shared other interests (including farming) and their wives had a strong mutual friendship as well.
Boudinot’s relationship with Hamilton proved to be much less reciprocal and satisfying, and Farmer carefully traces Hamilton’s rise and fall. Boudinot welcomed Hamilton into their family when he was brought to the colonies in 1722, mentoring Hamilton’s relatively young mind, spirit, and vocation. While part of Boudinot’s family, Hamilton held their two-year-old daughter Anna Marie as she succumbed to one of the diseases so commonly fatal in childhood during that time. As Hamilton rose in political stature, Boudinot was a valuable ally in the House who argued for Hamilton’s economic vision, though sometimes with arguments different than Hamilton’s own. Boudinot supported debt assumption by the new national government and defeated Madison’s opposition to the national bank. He invested in Hamilton’s Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures.
But the two men diverged, and the end of any paper trail after 1792 leaves us to only guess at their relationship thereafter. Farmer characterizes the ambitious Hamilton as “erratic and heavy-handed” in his attempts to influence matters foreign and domestic. Boudinot, by contrast, was pressed into public service by his sense of duty.
What surely ended their relationship, even more than Hamilton sabotaging Adams’s candidacy, was Boudinot learning years later that the man on whom he had spent reputational, political, and financial capital used his wife Eliza’s stay in the Boudinot Elizabethtown home in 1791 to hide his affair with Maria Reynolds. Boudinot surely felt like a dupe for—in ignorance of the affair—defending Hamilton’s character, especially against charges brought by William Branch Giles in 1792 (the nation’s first impeachment); one can further imagine the depths of Boudinot’s paternal disappointment with the man to whom he had extended great kindness and a moral example. Farmer offers some tentative speculation about their relationship in the aftermath of the scandal and even a potential reawakening of Hamilton’s faith in his later years.
The Limits of Politics
As Boudinot got older, Federalists’ fortunes waned and he increasingly turned away from politics. When Jefferson and Aaron Burr, whom Boudinot described in correspondence as “two great evils” took their offices in 1800, he turned to Providence and the rights of his countrymen under law for consolation. He wrote in 1800,
Whatever prospect there was of Mr. J being chosen, I had not the most distant idea of the success of Mr. B. The fact is so, and it is our part to respond as to the will of God. The people have a right to elect their own superior magistrate, and if they choose to risk their political well-being to try experiments, so it must be, and the minority, as good republicans [citizens in a republic], ought to put their shoulders to the yoke, and endeavor to bring good out of evil.
Boudinot then turned back to business and to a variety of personal investigations in commonplace books. In 1801, he published The Age of Revelation, a retort to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. He published The Second Advent (1815) which included fulfillment of antislavery efforts both public and private. Boudinot prefigured both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass by indicting his country for not living up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. In its conclusion, he asked his countrymen, “How will you answer, in the great day of inquisition for blood, for the share you have had in that horrid traffic in the souls of men?”
Boudinot’s retirement from politics included a less noble pursuit, however: repeated lawsuits to challenge the distribution of the estate of his son-in-law William Bradford. Bradford contracted yellow fever and was attended by Boudinot’s friend Benjamin Rush. When William’s will, which Boudinot claimed left his estate to his wife (and Boudinot’s daughter) Susan, could not be found, William’s brother Thomas claimed that the will had not only not been solemnized but burned. Rush was the only witness, and testified repeatedly that William was of sound mind and desired to die without a will. This left William’s estate to both his wife and his brother Thomas. Boudinot went to court three times to insist that this was not William’s intent.
Especially since his daughter did not need the funds, Boudinot’s obsession with this challenge should be understood as a pursuit of honor. Farmer provides excellent insight into this problem in a discussion of honor and “critique,” or challenges to reputation. Along with prominence (or what we now reduce to “privilege” or “power”) came attacks on one’s person. Farmer notes that “the founders were only one generation removed from a culture of inherited peerage. America did not lack an upper class, but its members viewed their positions as the result of merit or effort.” Critique was an attack not just on one’s character but on one’s merit to hold influence.
Farmer situates critiques of Boudinot alongside attacks on Whitefield or Washington, for example. When Boudinot took the matter of the will to court three times over several years, as an implicit critique of his own recall, he was implicitly critiquing Rush’s honor as well. That prompted attacks by Rush on Boudinot for unprofessional conduct at the Mint and personal avarice. This was not an isolated incident. Earlier in his career, Boudinot had tried to litigate his honor against attacks by British General Howe. Farmer rightly points out how this reveals some petulance. It is an enemy’s job to undercut their adversaries, after all.
A Man for Our Times?
In a surprising way, Boudinot may be “a man for our times,” especially for conservative readers. He pinned the future of his country to a failing political party, lamented the general decline of piety, struggled to find meaning in election results, and saw his personal ambitions sacrificed to intense crises and calls to serve. He wrestled with whether public or private efforts were better to help one’s family and neighbors. He resembles both those who step into the arena because of their faith and those who step back from it for the same reason. He also demonstrates how concerns with honor and reputation, however inconsequential those attacks may be, can motivate ignoble conduct. But Farmer’s point is how we can rise to the occasion, even despite ourselves and our own shortcomings, and leave a lasting legacy.
This therefore is a book about a Founder who should be better known. Sadly, interested readers will likely not encounter it at their local bookstore, because it is published by the American Bible Society rather than a trade press. Academic outlets will likely ignore it because it lacks the imprimatur of an academic press. Trade press reviewers will not know about it. Nevertheless, those interested in the period, historical biography, or questions of leadership and character should secure a copy.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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