posted September 20, 2006 (October 9, 2006 issue — The Nation Magazine)
Father Knows Best
Have you attacked the Founding Fathers recently? Do you know anyone who has? Gordon Wood is convinced that you’re out there, and that many of you (especially those who teach history) have embarked on a campaign to ignore or even to “dehumanize” Washington, Jefferson and their peers.
In doing this, you’ve betrayed the majority of Americans who feel a special attachment to the Revolutionary generation and who want to know “what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq.” This kind of sniping has been going on for 100 years, Wood concedes, but things have gotten particularly bad of late. Professors are steering students and readers toward alternative histories that disparage the Founders or simply overlook them. It’s all very well to write about “a midwife in Maine or a former slave in Connecticut,” but we’re losing sight of the white elite who should be at the center of America’s creation story.
Wood can be quite a curmudgeon. He’s also perhaps the most celebrated American historian alive, the author of one book–The Creation of the American Republic–that transformed the field in 1969 and another that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. His latest volume, Revolutionary Characters, has been packaged as an argument about “what made the Founders different.” In fact, it’s a collection of eight discrete essays, some of them rather creaky. (The chapter on John Adams is adapted from Creation; the original version of the epilogue was published in 1974.) But given the recent upsurge of popular interest in the Founders, you can see the appeal of this collection. All of your Founding Favorites are here: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams and Paine. The coup de grÃ¢ce is an essay on Aaron Burr, the bad boy of the early Republic, whose moral divergence from the rest allows Wood to present him as “the exception that proves the rule” of Revolutionary genius.
The Founderphilia of recent years, as Daniel Lazare has observed in these pages, is in part a response to 9/11. David Hackett Fischer, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for Washington’s Crossing, concluded that book by linking the challenges of Revolutionary America to the destruction of the World Trade Center. (In an even more vertiginous analogy, Fischer likened George Washington to Norman Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks.) The other inspiration behind the upsurge in Founding Father studies was Monicagate and the perception that Bill Clinton’s gropes and fumbles represented a lapse of character. The Founders had their own problems with sexual continence, but recent historians have tended to close the bedroom door and to define character as an “outer life” (in Wood’s phrase) rather than an “inner personality.” Washington and the rest were committed to the maintenance of gentility and the performance of an exemplary public persona. By this standard, Clinton’s private antics with Monica leached into the public life of the nation, proving him to be a man of limited character in both senses. The Founding Fathers, according to their recent panegyrists, offer a window onto an age when people behaved much better–or at least kept up appearances more effectively than the most recent Democratic occupant of the White House.
The current bout of Founderphilia had seized some prominent historians even before 9/11. Joseph Ellis’s sympathetic portrait of the Revolutionary generation, Founding Brothers, was a bestseller in 2000. David McCullough’s John Adams raced up the bestseller lists the following spring. But the terrorist attacks encouraged this shift toward simpler, more flattering portraits of the Founding period. McCullough’s John Adams–in which a principled but unpopular President struggles to do the right thing in a time of war–had sold more than 1.5 million copies in hardcover by the end of 2001. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most colorful of the Founders, has been treated to four major biographies in the past three years–one of them by Gordon Wood. McCullough, who has written books on Harry S. Truman and a host of other subjects in American history, followed up John Adams with 1776, another chronicle of the Revolutionary generation. Even George Washington, whose glacial detachment had previously deterred the peppiest biographers, has recently received the sympathetic attention of Ellis and Fischer. Some of these books have come from writers who don’t hold academic posts (like McCullough), but the Founderphile charge has been led by academics who hold some of the top jobs in the profession: Edmund Morgan of Yale; Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke; David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis; Gordon Wood of Brown. With these heavy hitters batting for the team, how can Wood believe that the Founders are in trouble?
This may be a generational thing. Readers under 40 (60?) will be amused by Wood’s rueful attack on J.D. Salinger for corrupting the young via Holden Caulfield and “his condemnation of adult phoniness.” Although Wood also enlists Dave Eggers to make his point–that we’re too ready to embrace cynicism and that we’ve taken a principled stand against any kind of principle–you get the impression that he’s been out of touch with the zeitgeist for some time. (If Salinger gives him the willies, what must he think of The Simple Life or G-Unit?) But his anxiety has more to do with those who write American history than with its readership. His tart references to Maine midwives and Connecticut free blacks are a warning about a politically correct American history: As professors and graduate students choose to focus on people who were left out of the traditional narrative, the historical profession runs the risk of forgetting that narrative altogether.
In fact, there’s very little evidence of the Founders disappearing from the teaching or writing of American history. In addition to the enormous popularity of John Adams and the like, the actions of the Revolutionary leaders are exhaustively debated in academic journals, textbooks and scholarly studies. In the past four decades, American history has been invigorated by a new awareness of women, nonwhite people, culture and other neglected topics. But you’ll find little evidence from college textbooks or academic journals that the American past has been hijacked by black midwives. Professional historians work hard to incorporate social and cultural history, but they hardly neglect the more familiar political questions and actors. Wood’s fear that Washington or Adams will drop out of the frame seems misplaced.
But the pages of Revolutionary Characters FULL REVIEW