In recent months the founding fathers have returned to the center of America’s culture wars. On March 12, 2010, the Texas Board of Education adopted new curriculum standards that included the removal of Thomas Jefferson from a list of thinkers whose ideas inspired the revolutions of the late eighteenth century. Jefferson was removed because of his belief in the separation of church and state and replaced by Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. Since Barack Obama’s inauguration his more extreme opponents have coalesced in the “Tea Party movement,” which takes its name from the Boston Tea Party. Tea Party protestors often adopt the symbols, rhetoric, and icons of the American Revolution in their opposition to Obama’s policies. Opponents of health care reform have adopted the revolutionary-era “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, and some have appeared at rallies dressed as Minutemen.1
Such appropriation and distortion of the founding for contemporary social and political ends is itself an activity with a lengthy historical pedigree, as R. B. Bernstein, one of the most insightful and prolific scholars of the founding fathers, demonstrates in his most recent book, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered. Bernstein writes, “What history has made of the founding fathers as a group has unfolded on two tracks—one being their developing role in the American people’s historical memory and the other being their evolving place in history as interpreted by successive generations of historians as an American historical profession emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Increasingly, these tracks have diverged, opening a gap between the general public, who seek reassuring narratives presenting role models to guide posterity, and historians, who seek to understand the past on its own terms” (117–18). The divergence identified by Bernstein casts a long shadow over the [End Page 624] scholarship on revolutionary and early national America, especially that which focuses on the founding fathers. Historians may seek to understand the past on its own terms but they write and, crucially, are read (and misread) in the present. Each of the books under review considers the divergence identified by Bernstein, either implicitly or explicitly.
In The Founding Fathers Reconsidered Bernstein offers an introduction to the subject based on his wide reading in the historiography. (Readers familiar with Bernstein’s postings on the H-Shear listserv will appreciate his impressive command of the literature.) In a series of four chapters Bernstein considers how historians have sought to explain the founding fathers; the geographical, political and intellectual contexts in which the founders operated; how they confronted (or ignored) the major challenges that faced them; and, finally, how posterity has sought to make sense of the founders’ achievements. In an epilogue Bernstein considers how five African American leaders—Frederick Douglass, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Barbara Jordan, Thurgood Marshall, and Barack Obama—have reinterpreted the founders’ words to transcend the founders’ greatest failure, their inability and unwillingness to solve the problems that slavery raised for the new republic. As befits a constitutional historian, Bernstein focuses on constitutional developments.
Although it is aimed at general readers, specialists will learn much from The Founding Fathers Reconsidered—not least that the term “founding fathers” was coined by then-Senator Warren Harding in his keynote address to the 1916 Republican Convention in Chicago. Perhaps the greatest value of this study to historians is Bernstein’s general theme—the divergence between what scholars have to say about the founders and what the public, including politicians and jurists, think about them. He develops this most fully in his final chapter, which constitutes an important meditation on the purpose of historical writing. Bernstein intends to...