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Why the Founding Fathers Count

Historians/History




Mr. Ellis is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke. The following essay was first published in Something That Will Surprise the World: The Essential Writings of the Founding Fathers (Basic) edited by Susan Dunn.

During the past decade there has been a discernible surge of interest in the Founding Fathers. An electromagnetic field has always surrounded the founding generation, which is one reason we have felt obliged to capitalize and mythologize those “present at the creation.” But until recently the tendency has been to keep our distance from them, admire them from afar, treat them like icons carved in granite on Mount Rushmore or encased in marble on the Mall or the Tidal Basin. Like the patriarchs of the Old Testament, they have been revered but distant presences, figures who remain in the middle distance of our memory, like statues in the mist.

The recent surge of interest in the founders has tended to defy the iconic stereotype, blow away the mist, transform the marble into flesh and blood. It has given us flawed founders. The founders have become more interesting as they have become more human. As their foibles and imperfections have become more evident, or should we say self-evident, instead of becoming disappointed we have found them more interesting. In that sense they are more like us, and therefore have more to teach us.

It is not clear why the founders have rather suddenly become fashionable. On the one hand, the magisterial editions of their papers, begun in most cases in the middle of the twentieth century, have been marching forward at a stately pace and have now produced a massive body of evidence previously unavailable to scholars. On the other hand, most of the recent work, especially books that have enjoyed a wide readership, has not been written by professional historians. Whether it is David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, Ron Chernow’s portrait of Alexander Hamilton, or Walter Isaacson’s depiction of Benjamin Franklin, in each case the author works outside the groves of academe. There are exceptions, of course. (And I am pleased to be one of them.) But the huge readership currently fascinated with the founders is not being served by card-carrying historians.

Indeed, the agenda of the academy remains resolutely focused elsewhere, on the ordinary rather than the extraordinary, on the periphery rather than the center, on the inarticulate rather than the articulate. As a general rule, the founders are either studiously ignored or contemptuously condemned as the deadest, whitest males in American history. And like the conversations among policy wonks inside the beltway, what scholars refer to as academic discourse remains an in-house affair largely unintelligible to the broader public.

And so the emergence of a sizable audience for serious books about the revolutionary generation—an audience that has begun to rival the longstanding popular interest in the Civil War—is an unusual phenomenon. It has not trickled down from academe, but rather bubbled up from below where ordinary readers live. There is a genuine appetite out there in the land for work on the men, not the myths, who founded the nation in which we all still live. The obvious question becomes: Why?

Based on my own experience responding to questions from audiences who represent this readership, there is a profound sense of despair with our modern-day political culture, a deep-felt conviction that we have somehow created a political process at the national level almost designed to eliminate excellence and leadership. Why, they ask, must we choose between George Bush and John Kerry, when in 1800 they got to choose between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson? We might call this mode of thinking “enlightened nostalgia,” for it is rooted in a once-upon-a-time mentality that, truth be told, is not quite fair to the present generation of political leaders, who lack access to Mount Rushmore. Being first gives the founders an incalculable advantage. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so nicely put it, “They saw God face to face; we can only see Him second-hand.”

And yet, there is an enlightened dimension to this modern-day nostalgia. For the revolutionary generation did discover the political values and invent the political institutions under which the American republic still functions. In that sense we are still living their legacy, and it behooves us to understand how it is that we reside in the oldest and most successful republican experiment in world history. Not only that, the ideas and institutions created by the revolutionary generation have enjoyed global success, having destroyed the monarchical dynasties of the nineteenth century and then vanquished the totalitarian despotism of the twentieth, just as Thomas Jefferson predicted they would. Within the American political universe, the founding era produced the “big bang” that has radiated its energies and implications right up to the present. If history is an argument without end, in American history the founders framed the argument that we are still having about our rights and responsibilities as citizens, about the proper relationship between individual rights and national security, about the role of religion in a secular state, about the tension between the twin goals of freedom and equality.

The founders, in effect, set the mold, and we go back to them, for the same reason that they went back to the Greek and Roman classics. They are, in fact, our American classics, the primal version and original intentions of our ongoing experiment to reconcile the competing imperatives that have fascinated and bedeviled political philosophers since Aristotle. They began the conversation we are still having.

So neither nostalgic nor celebratory motives by themselves can fully explain the surge of interest in the founders. For once you go back to meet them, in Emerson’s terms, “face to face,” you discover, whatever your original reasons for making the trip, people more palpable than icons, more complicated than mythical cartoons, often improvising at the edge of catastrophe, but ultimately defining the abiding shape of the republic we still inhabit. Since we can presume there was nothing special in the water back then, and that these men, collectively and individually, had no direct access to God’s will, and since miraculous explanations are generally regarded as inadmissible in the scholarly world, the obvious question then becomes: How did they do it?

The answer, or perhaps answers, can be found in the pages that follow, where the editor, Susan Dunn, has made a deft and judicious selection of letters and documents from the five most prominent founders. It is somewhat baffling, especially given the surge of interest in the founders, that a collection of this sort has not appeared earlier. To my knowledge, the only previous attempt to provide an introduction to the founders’ own words that spans the entire collective, not just one or two figures, is the book by Adrienne Koch entitled The American Enlightenment, which has been out of print for over thirty years.

Here they are, then, in all their throbbing intensity, personal quirks, marvelous detachment, temporary enthusiasms, brilliant inspirations, abiding jealousies, human doubts, final regrets. These pages allow you to enter the conversation at its formative stage. Do so with the confidence that it is, at last, safe to get to know them as they really were.


From the book Something That Will Surprise the World: The Essential Writings of the Founding Fathers, edited by Susan Dunn. Copyright © 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group (www.perseusbooks.com). All rights reserved.


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Jason Blake Keuter - 10/6/2006

I think the spate of books on the Revolutionary generation is a reaction against the drivel and hysterical and simplistic sloganeering that was so dominant for a good decade or two. One couldn't bat an eye in any discussion without being reminded of the fact that the founders were white (race), wealthy (class) and men (gender) and personaified all the sins attendent with those reductionist categories.

I have not read too many of the latest wave of books. I will recommend the following books on the colonial and revolutionary and Federalist Eras. These older books are as much an antidote to the luncay that passed for historical all-knowingness among the race-class-and gender crowd:

From Resistance to Revolution - Pauline Maier.

The Colonial Experience - Daniel Boorstin

A Struggle For Power - Theodore Draper

The Radicalism of the American Revolution - Gordon Wood.

The Federalist Era - John C. Miller




Rob Willis - 10/3/2006

Actually, they are big darlings, college students. I only teach the weaknesses to affirm the idea that that great people are not perfect people. Being perfect is too high a mountain to climb for those who wish to contribute their best; trying to be better, then best, is a more reasonable goal, I think.

Madison on the dime!.com?


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/3/2006

Yes, put him on a coin at once, and Ronald Reagan, too. And then put them both on Mt. Rushmore. Ole!

If I were teaching children who had never heard of him about Madison, I would never say anything about his weaknesses... I don't understand these compulsions to say something bad about people who are mostly wonderful. Similarly, I think it is an outrage to portray Western civilization as equal to or inferior to Eastern civilization in any respect--even if it is inferior or equal in some respect--when the totality of it is so immensely superior. Let's keep our eyes on the ball, and try to make the little darlings remember what is really important.


Rob Willis - 10/3/2006

Sorry about the garble, I was as usual in a great rush. I agree about the sad way the Founders lights have been hidden under the bushel of a distracted education system. I am personally hammering home the human qualities of these men in my survey class, and have made a point of showing their weaknesses as well as their genius. I wonder, as we search around today, if we can hope to find men like them to guide us throught the next steps.

Madison should be hailed as one of our most treasured Americans, but as you pointed out, no one even knows who he was. Guess we should put him on a coin, that would be a start?


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/2/2006

Hey, Rob Willis,

Your final sentence is somehow garbled...

Far be it from me to denigrate Mr. Madison, who was more than anyone the author of the Constitution, a beacon which continues to inspire people as far away as Ulan Bator... Madison's original draft of the Second Amendment, by the way, BEGAN with the words, "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." It was others in Congress who added the confusing language, although Madison's words "of the people" remain sufficient to render the meaning unambiguous... The day my wife and I went to Montpelier, ten years ago, we caught a party of 15 and the guide suggested everyone stop afterward at the Madison family cemetery 200 yards down the road. We did, the other 13 in our party did not. We were there all alone. It was a perfect summer's afternoon when perhaps 160,000 people were at Disneyland and Disney World with their children, and a half-million others were enjoying big league ballgames, and millions more were at the beaches. But we had James and Dolley all to ourselves. I often think of that moment because it illustrates how badly the people of this country have dropped the torch--there should be crowds there every day. It is interesting when you go to Constitution Hall or Mount Vernon now, how many guests are foreigners, and how much more they know about what they are seeing than the typical Americans with them. It reflects, I think, on how little and how badly American schools are teaching American history. And it certainly does not portend well for the future.


Rob Willis - 10/2/2006

Sir:

I am not shocked at your separation of the grain from the stalk, it is a healthy exercise, but I am surprised at the definitions of the two. You speak as though you are an "insider", which may imply that your terrible comments concerning several notable names in the history profession are as more in the spirit of competition rather than objective review. Who else, might I ask, approaches Washington with usual predjuduces, except someone who has a subjective opinion in the first place?
Ambrose may have been a hack, I am in no position to argue otherwise. But he did inform, and was able, as you laud, to tell a story. He is dead. Be kind.

Of the founders, James Madison is my personal hero. Why? He used the historiographical method to design his vision of a republic, not consensus. He was right, and he was wrong, but he was there and he did it. I am trying to encouarge my students to pick their own hero from a rich field of contenders, and I expect that their reasons will run the spectrum from the McCullough/Ambrose ghetto to the Ellisian utopia. (I like Ellis very much too, BTW).

The Founders were forced to offer everyone something. Don't begrudge those who find their own connection to 1787, it makes me cringe and worse, makes your own unattractive.


Rob Willis - 10/2/2006

Sir:

I am not shocked at your separation of the grain from the stalk, it is a healthy exercise, but I am surprised at the definitions of the two. You speak as though you are an "insider", which may imply that your terrible comments concerning several notable names in the history profession are as more in the spirit of competition rather than objective review. Who else, might I ask, approaches Washington with usual predjuduces, except someone who has a subjective opinion in the first place?
Ambrose may have been a hack, I am in no position to argue otherwise. But he did inform, and was able, as you laud, to tell a story. He is dead. Be kind.

Of the founders, James Madison is my personal hero. Why? He used the historiographical method to design his vision of a republic, not consensus. He was right, and he was wrong, but he was there and he did it. I am trying to encouarge my students to pick their own hero from a rich field of contenders, and I expect that their reasons will run the spectrum from the McCullough/Ambrose ghetto to the Ellisian utopia. (I like Ellis very much too, BTW).

The Founders were forced to offer everyone something. Don't begrudge those who find their own connection to 1787, it makes me cringe and worse, makes your own unattractive.


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/2/2006

Ron Chernow is the best, of course, followed by Robert Caro. These are two men who work "away from the plantation," so to speak, and are not hidebound by the politically correct formulations of, say, a Gordon S. Wood--which is not to say the latter is not excellent, which he is--but one needs his liberal muck chipped off. There are some gifted amateurs around who are well worth reading, too, and Christopher Hitchens comes to mind. Likewise there are grand foreign scholars, like Paul Johnson, who were never infected by the American campus fungi. The type I cannot abide are the Robert Dalleks and Douglas Brinkleys, who can only be described as political hacks. They are Ken Burns's of the printed page. David McCullough started out like that, as a superficial TV historian, like Richard Norton Smith or Michael Beschloss, but he has grown much better in recent years as he began to acquire reverence for people like John Adams. (He always did have the knack of telling a good story). McCullough's book on Truman, of course, is worthless, as is most of his early work. The same can be said for the late Stephen Ambrose, whose World War II stuff is almost unreadable, but who hit his stride in his last decades by discovering the miracle of capitalism.

Where, you ask, does Joseph J. Ellis fit in? "His Excellency, George Washington" was a tour de force, because you put yourself into Washinton's mind in a way none of his previous biographers ever had. Above all, you considered him an intelligent man and a very astute politician, which of course he had to have been. You consider his options for us, as he must have done hmself. Best of all, you approached the project with the usual prejudices against Washington, but found yourself standing up and cheering like everyone else. If he were here today and told you to jump off a bridge, you would jump. You're sort of a jaded Flexner, who found Washington terribly impressive, warts and all. And why not? When it comes to Founders, there was Washington... and then all the others.