Book Essay - Spring 2005

Leading Men

Authorities on the Revolutionary era say how the Founding Fathers became culture heroes.

By Anne Matthews | March 1, 2005
<em>Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States</em> by Howard Chandler Christy (Wikimedia Commons)
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Big men demand big books, or so the doorstop proportions of recent Founding Father biographies suggest. Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, at 600 pages, weighs nearly three pounds. The evergreen David McCullough offers both a 736-page John Adams (which hit the million-printing mark three months after its 2001 pub date) and, this May, an epic 400-page 1776. Printrun reports dazzle. Walter Isaacson’s 2003 Benjamin Franklin: An American Life has gone back to press seven times; Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency, George Washington (2004) scored an initial printing of 360,000. With every publishing season, Founding-Father reputations sink and soar—Jefferson down, Patrick Henry up, Elbridge Gerry unchanged.

Founding Fathers is a 20th-century invention, a term that surfaced in the years before World War I, like hep and buzz off . Founding Mothers waited for attention until the 1970s; ever since, women, Native Americans, slaves, and Loyalists have mobbed the stage of Revolutionary history, demanding speaking parts. How do we explain this recent cresting of Founder fashion? Newsweek christened the big-book trend “Founders chic.” Franklin biographer H. W. Brands argued in The Atlantic that the greatness-studies industry is a clear mistake; the Founders were far bolder than we, he notes, but not all that much smarter, since they handed us a slave democracy whose reformation required 80 years and 600,000 lives. “In making giants of the founders, we make pygmies of ourselves. . . . The last thing they intended their revolution to produce was a new orthodoxy.” Maybe we should just think of first-rank Founders as the Beatles, suggests author and journalist Joel Achenbach, who examines Washington’s dreams of a western empire in The Grand Idea (2004). Jefferson as Paul. Hamilton as John. Madison as George. Franklin? Ringo. (“Washington is Elvis.”)

Whose Revolution is it anyway? Both journalists and academics often bypass some of the liveliest popular renditions, like the socalled RevWar re-enactor subculture. We know who wins, after all. Yet every weekend, the Founding era calls forth Hessian units, British mounted dragoons, Abenaki villagers, and Continental marines. These living historians, fanatics for authenticity, plan to outdo themselves with elaborate re-creations in 2005, which is the 230th anniversary of the battle at Lexington, and 225th of the battle of Charleston. Founder merchandise abounds. You can buy Founding Father coasters and magnets at Philadelphia’s new National Constitution Center, dogwood potpourri and toile wine bags from the Monticello mail-order catalogue, and soon you’ll be able to visit an $85 million Mount Vernon visitor center, where the plan is to market Washington as dreamboat and swashbuckler via a 15-minute feature film produced by Steven Spielberg.

If market penetration equals public education, then the two most influential strains of Founder fashion may be (a) the heavily promoted trade bestsellers, from Ellis to McCullough to Jon Stewart’s scathing America: (The Book); and (b) the movies. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) was the last memorable film set in 18th-century America, but Paramount has optioned Washington’s Crossing , the 2004 bestseller by David Hackett Fischer on the battles of Trenton and Princeton. The ambitious 2176, a sci-fi retelling of the Revolution set in a distant star colony, will appear in 2006. (More than 30 million Williamsburg visitors have already seen The Story of a Patriot , a 1957 VistaVision effort so stirring that it makes you want to rush out and scalp Tony Blair.)

Pundits and politicians have their own uses for RevWar. The Founders’ views on who gets to participate still haunt our electoral politics, vide Hillary, Arnold, and Obama, all poised for election year 2008 and beyond, all conspicuously disqualified in the eyes of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. If the Civil War’s battle cry of freedom (for absolutely everybody) is a liberal favorite, then the Revolution’s inalienable rights (to lots and lots of property and profit) clearly thrill conservatives, whether moderate, neo-, or paleo-. One might expect a Republican president’s rhetoric to lean liberty-ward. Not so; on Inauguration Day 2005, Comedy Central’s Daily Show counted references and reported that in the Bush address freedom (27) beat liberty (15) by almost two touchdowns.

But the historians’ Revolution leads all the rest. Thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities and to tax funding by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the great archival marathons have advanced, from the Franklin Papers at Yale and the Jefferson Papers at Princeton to the documents of constitutional ratification at the University of Wisconsin. In material culture studies, science and sympathy can now tease apart two centuries of paint jobs, almost molecule by molecule, and tell us not only that the Washingtons picked a truly bilious green for Mount Vernon’s dining room, but why. (The color was thought to aid digestion.) Without professional time-travelers—in museums and conservation labs, in departments of history and political science, and in schools of law—there would be no ferment and fizz, nothing new to popularize, no supersized tomes to capture a supercharged age. Which is why the SCHOLAR asked some distinguished American authorities on the period to comment on reasons for the persistence of Founders chic.


JAN LEWIS, Rutgers-Newark

American identity is very much connected to the era of the Revolution. Being French antedates the French Revolution and is independent of it. Ditto for Russians. The English Revolution plays almost no role in English consciousness. But the United States was created, literally, by the Revolution, and that era is the touchstone for American identity. I think that Americans look to the Founders and their era for stability in times of change (and all periods are times of change). It began early on. Take Lincoln’s Lyceum Speech. Are we as great as the men who created our nation? Etc. Today, the intense interest in the Founding Fathers seems to be a kind of hero worship, or perhaps a longing for romantic heroes—men who had the power to shape their world. I once wrote (approximately) that people bring to the Founding Fathers all the conflicted feelings that they bring to their own fathers, projecting onto them a longing for greatness, a grandiosity; imagining ourselves (especially if we are white guys) as powerful giants, creating a whole country out of our own intelligence and will.


GORDON WOOD, Brown

I do have some hunches, based on questions I get when I give a lecture on the Founders to general audiences. Our jurisprudence keeps the Constitution front and center in our lives. But this hardly explains why so many ordinary folk want to know about the Founders. I think that, especially in times of concern and anxiety like the present, we tend to look back to the Founding for solace and guidance. I have had lots of people ask me: What would Jefferson or Washington think of some current event, such as our invasion of Iraq? Then, also, many people want to contrast our present-day politicians with the Founders. Why can’t we have leaders like them today? they ask. So the Founders become a gold standard against which we measure our current leaders—unfairly, of course, since we live in a very different and much more democratic age.


ROBERT GEORGE, Princeton

The country is moving (in fits and starts and with some inconsistencies) in a conservative direction and has been since the late 1970s. One facet of this phenomenon (which has many dimensions) is the revival and intensification of interest in our past, particularly in the principles of our nation’s founding and the character of the Founders. If the spirit of the 1960s and early 1970s was one of “liberation” from traditional norms of conduct, and social “transformation” (“revolution”) with a view to constructing a new society, free of the injustices of the past, the contemporary spirit is one that seeks recovery of what was wise and valuable. The premise, of course, is that wise and valuable things have been lost, perhaps because we mindlessly abandoned them while intoxicated by the wine of personal liberation and social transformation.

All of this was true even on September 10, 2001. What happened the following day created a new and exceptionally powerful incentive for people to ask “Who are we?” “What do we stand for?” “Where did we come from?” After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the James Madison Program here at Princeton sponsored a panel discussion titled “What does it mean to be an American?” Students packed the house. We had asked the right question—a question more fundamental than “Why do they hate us?” (Indeed, the latter question can only be intelligently explored on the basis of some understanding of the answer to the former.) I think that this is the question in people’s minds when they purchase, for example, McCullough’s excellent biography of Adams, or Wood’s splendid biography of Franklin. These are not debunking books; nor are readers in a debunking mood. It is equally important to observe that they are not nostalgic books; for readers today are not in the mood for nostalgia, either. These are serious books about serious men who have important things to teach us. Authors such as McCullough and Wood approach their subjects in that spirit, and the payoff for readers—who, after September 11, but even before, are in a mood for serious reflection— is huge.


LOUIS MASUR, Trinity College

The current cycle of fascination with the Founders seems to date to the 1990s. The books that have emerged in the past months are products of a renewed interest that can be traced to Ellis’s American Sphinx. And his continued success (Founding Brothers and His Excellency) is due in part to his elegance as a writer. Indeed, many of the recent books about the Founders are noteworthy as works that revive a sense of history as literature: Edmund Morgan’s Ben Franklin, McCullough’s John Adams, Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton are all beautifully written. The interest in biography and history as a literary art marks a turn away from the social history of the 1970s and 1980s. History from the bottom up, history of the so-called inarticulate, revolutionized our understanding of the past. The new histories that focus on leaders and elites would look very different without the work that came before, as An Imperfect God, Henry Wiencek’s recent biography of Washington, demonstrates. But much of that social history abjured storytelling, whereas narrative is the essence of biography.

Of course, the renewed interest in the Founders cannot be explained simply by the cycles of historical writing and interest. Americans are engaged by politics and political leaders in ways that they haven’t been in some time. The charisma of Bill Clinton no doubt helped refocus attention on the dynamic personalities of the Founders, and the events of the past four years have placed leadership at the forefront of all political discussions. Finally, it is important to note that the vitality of Founders studies is not limited to lyrical biographies, and neither is the audience. Jon Stewart’s mega-best-selling America takes the form of a history textbook, and it includes a “foreword by Thomas Jefferson” that is scandalous and hilarious.


PAULINE MAIER, MIT

Why do people want to read these books? Gore Vidal offered a theory in Inventing a Nation, although I don’t think it’s his alone. Essentially he says that at the present time, when the country and its traditions are going to hell in a handcart, people like to look back at a time when, for once, the country’s leaders seemed to be doing things right. That could be part of the reason, but this isn’t the only time the country seemed to be in trouble, and the other times were not, I think, accompanied by a surge of interest in the Founders. Moreover, the last election suggests that a good many Americans are not unhappy with the course the nation has taken. Could it be that all the readers of these books are in “blue” states, or “blue” people in “red” states? I don’t think so.

Then there’s a theory someone offered after hearing my lecture on this subject. The wonderful thing about these books, he said, is that they tell stories. When he was in college, professors assigned conflicting scholarly articles and asked students to discuss the issues under debate. That, he said, was boring, but stories pull readers in. Some academics disdain that kind of reaction, but we’ve thought so much about narrative that the position commands, I think, some respect. Human beings understand themselves and their world by constructing narratives; narrative is a natural human literary form. And the popular writers of the past few years—particularly the most successful—have been telling stories and, in the case of Founding Brothers, analyzing them in ways that reveal how much reading history has in common with reading detective novels. Of course, history has one advantage over mystery or detective novels: it actually happened. That adds to its interest.

So, with the proviso that there probably is no definitive answer to the question, I suspect the reason for the current interest in the Founders lies in the ready availability of sources—particularly the modern editions of the papers of the Founders, which provide a massive amount of information on their subjects. Those editions attracted good writers, who wrote good narratives, which attracted lots of readers, whose patronage increased sales and royalties, which attracted more writers able to make history as interesting as it is and ought to be.


ALAN TAYLOR, University of California at Davis

The Founders are compelling personalities, and in that we are fortunate. They remain our touchstone, our way of understanding what we take to be the core values of the Republic. People of different political persuasions look, naturally, at different aspects. Hamilton is a favorite of fans of a muscular state; Jefferson appeals to fans of civil liberties and states’ rights. Where might this phenomenon go? Probably it’s self-limiting, or so I thought before the fifth Franklin biography made an appearance. I can’t imagine such a surge will keep going at this pace. David McCullough has become a brand name, a franchise.


JILL LEPORE, Harvard

I haven’t seen a huge rise in adoration and celebration. Interest, yes, but Founder mania is not a novel phenomenon. Then I looked at The New York Times list of Best Books of 2004, and there are McCullough and Chernow, so who knows? In the era of The History Channel— consider ads for the Ben Franklin series, “Playboy, statesman, spy”—there has been a proliferation of outlets for popular history. But a certain edginess has crept in because of the prominence of the discussion of slavery. Academics have been discussing the paradox of freedom and slavery in the Founding era for a good three decades and, by now, popular writers by necessity deal more with it, too. It’s also worth noting that the news cycle concerning Jefferson’s DNA came at around the same moment as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. In a weird way, maybe the personal failings of Bill Clinton have made it possible to write more complex histories of Jefferson and of all of his founding brothers.


JACK RAKOVE, Stanford

How to account for the astonishing ongoing popularity of Founders chic? One answer is obvious. There is a flourishing market that publishers and authors (academics included) will continue to supply until the public is sated and the bubble bursts. But anyone can reach that conclusion. Two deeper explanations are worth exploring.

First, the Revolution remains a source of national unity in a way, one fears, that the Civil War, with its mass slaughter and the ultimate failure of Reconstruction, does not. Arguably it should be the other way around, because the Civil War resolved the issues the Revolution left open. But alas, some of those issues vex us still.

A second answer requires accepting another obvious fact and then posing one further question. When all is said and done, this was a truly remarkable group of leaders, both for their collective abilities, and for the differences of character, temperament, and intellect that distinguish them from each other. What remains puzzling—and what none of the recent practitioners of Founders chic adequately confronts—is a simple question: How did these placid backwater provinces in North America manage to produce this array of talent? The question is more interesting because it was circumstance rather than ambition that summoned these men onto a public stage, with lasting consequences for us all.


Each Founder contains multitudes: Adams the sexist conservative and Adams the admiring consort of Abigail, Franklin the buoyant genius and Franklin the slave trader. Every generation finds the faces it needs. In tracking the secret springs of Founder fashion, we might try looking further back, at Bartholomew Gosnold, the country’s very first English settler, or at figures that the Revolutionary generation would have considered Founders, like John Winthrop. A glance sideways (as Alan Taylor suggests in his forthcoming book, The Divided Ground) reveals our anti-Founding Fathers, like the British-educated Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, who wanted native peoples to be landlords and managers of their own lands. Luckily, Revolutionary research, like the era itself, remains complex, nuanced, and unresolved. The great tonic chords of politics, constitutional interpretation, and war remain, but to throw new light on the conflict, historians are trying everything from salt to smallpox; both armies raced to control the supply of the former, and the variola epidemics of 1775–82 helped form military strategy.

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz notes that we live in a golden age of historical popularization. But do we buy the doorstop volumes to read or to display? During the last presidential campaign, Barnes & Noble booksellers, at least, discovered that many customers expressly craved political titles as cultural shorthand on the coffee table, intellectual bumper stickers. As we the people continue to wrestle with the Founding legacy, it’s worth remembering that one American in three still lives in the original 13 colonies. Same old, same old. Mr. Jefferson would be shocked, and Mr. Washington too.

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