Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Thursday Soapbox: Oh, Those Founding Fathers

Article by Ken

A look at the American history section of any bookstore brings with it a familiar sight. The smiling (or heroic, depending on the subject matter of the book) visage of one of a small number of figures will be staring back at you. The names are entirely predictable: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and, if you care to remove yourself from the revolutionary era just a little, Lincoln, too. For the ‘Founding Fathers’ have entered the 21st century much as they departed the 18th – as the most venerated figures in the popular mind.

Indeed, such is the power of the designation of ‘Founder’ that its iconography gets appropriated to demonstrate the importance of other figures. We have first founders, for those figures who were visionary but had the misfortune not to be born in the middle years of the eighteenth century; fallen founders, for those who once shined bright but couldn’t handle the heavy responsibilities of liberty; or forgotten founders, for those whose names are remembered only for the occasional brilliance of namesake basketball teams.

There is a variation on this theme, of course, which is the designation ‘American’. Nothing can add greater dignity to a biography than to claim it is the story of an ‘American Life’ – a title which unites, among others, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Boone, Ronald Reagan, Andrew Jackson, Dr Benjamin Spock, Jerry Garcia and Sarah Palin. I can’t quite decide if this is a Hall of Fame or a rogue’s gallery.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not a big fan of this state of affairs. Indeed, in my more uncharitable moments, I wonder what the thought processes of various authors and publishers must be. “Say, we’re looking for a new way of considering the founding of the American republic. What do we need to know more about? Oh, I know! We haven’t heard about that Washington chap in a while. Let’s see what he had to say for himself!”

Of course, it is unbecoming of me to be so chippy. Many of the books I have in mind while writing this piece are fine examples of scholarship. Others, while maybe not suiting my tastes as an aspiring academic, do an excellent job of presenting information to a reading public who might not have the same obsessive interest that I do. Why, then, do I feel so strongly about this? Is it not a good thing that books exist which communicate recent developments in academic studies in a way that allows them to be more easily and publicly digestible?

The problem is that a monomaniacal focus on the lives and actions of a small coterie of ‘great men’ can fundamentally distort not only the way we look at the past, but the way we look at the present, too. The group of approved ‘Founding Fathers’ includes men who I admire for many reasons myself – Madison, Franklin, and Jefferson in particular. Those who I care far less for, in particular Adams and Hamilton, I still recognise as men of particular and remarkable talents. Yet, once you throw Washington into the mix as well, you are still looking at a group of just six leading men.

Let’s be charitable, and add more obscure figures like John Jay, James Wilson, George Mason, and Robert Morris to our list. I am self-censoring here for reasons of brevity, but even were I not, I could still count the number of canonised men and not need any counting aids beyond my own digits. All of them are interesting men who are worthy of study in their own right, but who we should not focus on entirely.

Given the importance of the American Revolution within American national identity, attributing historical interest to such a small group of actors is fraught with particular danger. A group of twenty men, all of whom knew each other well and corresponded with each other frequently, are not representative of thirteen very different colonies, themselves riven with all kinds of sectional strife. To focus on a small slice of national leadership gives a false sense of unity, and a false sense of moral purpose, to an event that still helps define the ways Americans conceive of themselves and of their own government.

For implicit within the reverence of the leaders of the Revolution is the notion that this was a purer time. That we can understand the American mind if only we study the leaders of the nation in its formative years. That political leaders nowadays need to go back to a time when great men like Washington and Jefferson were able to impartially consider the best interests of the nation. Never mind that those two men fundamentally disagreed with each other on the direction of America’s government and pursued very different goals in their political lives.

What makes the American Revolution such a fascinating event for me is the ways in which it should never have happened. Colonists in South Carolina had very different perspectives on government to their counterparts in Pennsylvania or in Massachusetts. Those who lived in constant fear of Indian attack on the frontier wanted very different things from their government than did merchants in the great port cities. Those accustomed to high political office on account of their social status had radically different ideas on the meaning of liberty and democracy than the poor and marginal of society.

At times, these different groups often faced each other at the barrel of a gun. At other times, conflict came in the form of virulent and vituperative newspaper debates. Or, perhaps more commonly, these tensions in society became most visible at election time – with all kinds of rumour, gossip, lies, and dirty tricks employed to electoral advantage. In the most extreme case I have seen, opponents spread the ‘news’ of a candidate’s death shortly before the election so as to change the minds of the voters.

In this light, then, it is all the more surprising that the United States of America endures. That it does so is due to the fact that despite these wildly different interests and opinions on how their government should be run and how their country should develop, Americans still managed to find mechanisms through which they could find a way forward. That is a truly remarkable historical outcome. And to understand it properly, we need to know a lot more than a closed club of ‘Founders’ and ‘Americans’.

Image: Portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, displayed at the White House. This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

5 comments on “Thursday Soapbox: Oh, Those Founding Fathers

  1. Gwilym
    April 8, 2010

    This is a wonderful observation you have made Ken, a template of what is and isn’t written about historical events and how these can distort or limit our understanding of a time, a people, and their motivations. Though the literature for my area of study (the former Yugoslavia) is nowhere near as prolific as the American Revolution, it has the same specific character set that defines popular narratives on that country.

    I’m certain this happens elsewhere (Russia, anyone?) and so we can perhaps conclude that popular history – even when well researched and excellently written is writing with a target in mind. Appealing to notions that people may already hold through basic education of a topic or their digestion of media portrayals is a surefire way to sell a book. Washington was a great leader with great friends, the creators of America, just as Milosevic was solely responsible for destroying Yugoslavia. We know there is more to it than that, but then how much history do people really want to hear?

    It is indeed a shame that those lesser known actors get their stage time – from what you have described here the differences in needs and aspirations between “Americans” is a mirror for its modern society and all the challenges it faces.

  2. kirstyjane
    April 8, 2010

    I absolutely agree. Historians should really direct their energies away from working on canonical figures… such as… *looks at own research*

    Oh dear. I’ll get me coat.

    (Really wonderful soapbox though, and I do thoroughly agree!)

  3. Michael Ng
    April 8, 2010

    A thoroughly enjoyable piece of writing and it puts me in mind of the types ‘great man/big man’ theory of ancient history once very much in vogue and which is, in some ways, still in vogue. The ‘big man’ theory of history is nothing new to any historian, whatever their particular field. It is, however, most common still in popular writing. This is not to say that understanding great leaders is not important but it does run the risk, as you point out, of alienating the readership from the actual context and we also lose the voices of those less visible.

    As an aside, I also must admit that the reference to John Jay as ‘obscure’ brought a slight smile to my face. Very enjoyable work, I salute you.

  4. bZirk
    April 9, 2010

    I tried to chuckle at John Jay being an “obscure figure,” but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it when I thought of the ignorance that is the general American public.

    Such a rich history we have. Aren’t those tired words to the ears of so many. They don’t care about history, and if no one is buying, then it makes it hard to justify lining the shelves of a bookstore with books on anyone outside the revered circle. It would be interesting to see the numbers on those books.

    I’m not sure who to blame for the situation, but when I think back to the teachers I had, a thought comes to mind, and I went to “very good schools.” If those were the good teachers, ohmygod! what did most others have to listen to.

    It’s no wonder to me why so many people’s eyes glaze over and their mouths dry up when the words “Founding Fathers” are mentioned much less being loath to trot down to the local bookstore to buy a tome on Ethan Allen and his religious polemic.

  5. Christy
    April 13, 2010

    A little late in commenting, but I enjoyed this article. I’m not a history buff, more a member of the ‘general public’ as far as American History is concerned. I was wondering if you had recommendations of books that get beyond that revered circle and delve into the more complicated, detailed picture of the American Revolution.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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