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Radical History Review 84 (2002) 185-194

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Founders Chic As Culture War

David Waldstreicher

Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Knopf, 2000.
Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.
David McCullough, John Adams. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Something funny happened to the founding fathers on their way to the twenty-first century. Without a bi- or tricentennial in sight, they became, suddenly, newsworthy. "Founding Rivals: Startling New Research Shows Why America's First Political Wars Were Far Worse Than Today's," proclaimed the headline of the February 26, 2001 issue of U.S. News and World Report. "More like squabbling brothers than 'fathers,' how did they succeed?" Despite the rivals' tendency to attack each other, wrote Jay Tolson, "it was the human element that gave this peculiar politics its messy, improvised quality—and, in the end, made the founders' achievement all the more remarkable." 1 Not to be outdone, Evan Thomas of Newsweek went even further a few months later, explaining that "Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and all the rest were the real thing, all right. They were an Even Greater Generation." 2 Recent bestsellers made it clear that "they cut political deals and stabbed each other in the back on the way to inventing freedom." Compared to the current crop of Washington insiders, the founders deserved to be "suddenly hot again."3 [End Page 185]

Tolson posed renewed interest in the founders' personal battles as an alternative to academic trends:

Most academic historians of the past 30 years have ignored them, focusing on the marginalized and downtrodden and stressing social history rather than the grand political narrative. But political history of the founding generation is making a comeback. ... What distinguishes this new political history is "a greater sense of irony and skepticism about the founders," an effort to show how things turned out quite differently from what the founders intended—and could easily have turned out far worse. 4

During 2000 and 2001, several of the scholars praised by Tolson and Thomas—Ellis, John Ferling, and Gordon S. Wood, to name names—went on record identifying scholarship critical of the founders with a stance sympathetic to nonelite women, Native Americans, and African Americans in history. 5 At times they presented social history and the serious exploration of people besides "dead white men" as the antithesis of the true history of the early republic's leaders, whom they—before the journalists—enthusiastically named the real "greatest generation." 6

Ferling is the most direct and Manichaean, lamenting (and exaggerating) that "where once the likes of Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, or epic events such as the French and Indian War or the Constitutional Convention, received considerable attention in the pages of scholarly journals, today's reader is more likely to read about the plight of urban chimney sweeps or unwed mothers." 7 Ferling is referring to award-winning articles by Cornelia Hughes Dayton and by Paul Gilje and Howard Rock, works that linked experience to the politics of gender and race in the eighteenth century and the early republic, though Ferling refuses those terms and imagines the content of these articles as simple storytelling about the experiences of the ordinary and downtrodden. Social and cultural history as it came to be practiced in the 1990s is thus dismissed as subversive, the naive inversion of biographical political history, as venerable methods perversely applied to inappropriate subjects. 8

Ellis performs his academic generational politics with more care and more panache. He prefaces his series of paired character studies by presenting his approach as a middle ground between the "golden haze" of founders worship and the "radioactive cloud" of demonization—extremes we continue to enact because the founders were so (to coin a phrase) foundational (12). He can't resist a parting shot at the academic left, though, so he contrasts the real world's "smaller but quite vocal group of critics unhappy with what America has become or how we have gotten there" with "the scholarly community in recent...


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pp. 185-194
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Archived 2004
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