Founders Chic

Our reverence for the Fathers has gotten out of hand

"The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other," John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush in 1790. "The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod, and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures and war."

Adams never liked being wrong. Yet he, rather than George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, is the lion of recent historical literature. David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning John Adams, with more than 1.5 million hardcover copies in print, has enthralled American readers and elevated Adams—in the popular mind, at least—to the very first rank of American heroes. Not that the other Founders are faring badly. Joseph J. Ellis won a Pulitzer for his best-selling Founding Brothers (2000), a group portrait of the Washington-Franklin-Adams generation, which followed his American Sphinx (1997), a National Book Award-winning study of Thomas Jefferson. Founding Brothers describes the Founders as "America's first and, in many respects, its only natural aristocracy." (Washington's life is next in line for the Ellis treatment.) Richard Brookhiser has written recent appreciations of Washington, Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. Franklin, the oldest of the Founders, lives again in my book The First American (2000), which had the good fortune to make the best-seller lists. Edmund Morgan's 2002 portrait of Franklin was also a hit; Walter Isaacson's admiring Benjamin Franklin: An American Life appeared this summer.

Why the sudden interest in the Founders? Or was it ever thus?

In fact it was not ever thus. Interest in the Founders has risen and fallen over time, as has admiration for them and their accomplishments. Although such things are hard to measure, it's probably fair to say that their stock is currently at an all-time high. It's also fair, and necessary, to say that this isn't entirely a blessing for their country. In revering the Founders we undervalue ourselves and sabotage our own efforts to make improvements—necessary improvements—in the republican experiment they began. Our love for the Founders leads us to abandon, and even to betray, the very principles they fought for.

The Founders were anything but demigods to themselves and their contemporaries, who recognized full well that the experiment in self-government had only begun. Washington came closest to apotheosis in his time, but even he rubbed many republicans the wrong way. His aloofness was legendary. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787 the convivial Gouverneur Morris boasted that he could soften up the austere general. Hamilton dared him to try, saying that if he would clap Washington on the shoulder and make companionable small talk, Hamilton would buy dinner for Morris and friends. Morris accepted the challenge, and greeted Washington like an old drinking partner. Washington instantly grew stiffer than usual; he icily removed Morris's arm from his shoulder, stepped away in disgust, and drove Morris from the room with an ominous glower. "I have won the bet," Morris said at the promised dinner, "but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it."

Washington's haughtiness helped to win him the presidency: despite the Revolution, deference to rank wasn't dead in America. But it was losing ground to egalitarianism. Philip Freneau, the editor of the National Gazette, regularly denounced Washington as a monarchist: "He holds levees like a King, receives congratulations on his birthday like a King, makes treaties like a King, answers petitions like a King, employs his old enemies like a King." Benjamin Franklin Bache, Freneau's comrade-in-opposition (and the grandson of Benjamin Franklin), compared Washington to Oliver Cromwell and Louis XVI. In the columns of the Philadelphia Aurora, Bache alleged "political iniquity" and "legalized corruption" in the Washington Administration, and called the first President "the source of all the misfortunes of our country." Thomas Paine, the leading propagandist of the Revolution, accused Washington of abandoning the cause for which the Revolution was fought (not to mention abandoning Paine in a French prison, where he languished during the French Revolution). In an open letter to Washington, addressing him in the third person, Paine wrote, "[Washington] has no friendships ... He is incapable of forming any. He can serve or desert a man, or a cause, with constitutional indifference; and it is this cold, hermaphrodite faculty that imposed itself upon the world and was credited for a while, by enemies as by friends, for prudence, moderation and impartiality."

Washington believed that his sacrifices and service to the country had earned him better. His decision to step down after two terms owed much, as he put it to Hamilton, to his "disinclination to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers." When he handed the presidency to John Adams, he did so with palpable relief. "Me thought I heard him think," Adams recalled, "'Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!'"

Adams soon decided, being as sensitive to criticism as Washington and even more subject to it. Benjamin Bache tore into him as "the blasted tyrant of America" and "a ruffian deserving of the curses of mankind." He taxed Adams for obesity, referring to him as "His Rotundity," the possessor of a "sesquipedality of belly."

By Adams's tenure, the hope for a politics above party—the initial dream of the Founders—had been dashed on the twin rocks of majority rule and the French Revolution. Majority rule required coalitions, the stabler the better; the French Revolution ideologically polarized these coalitions. Adams's Federalists faced off against Jefferson's Republicans and held on tightly to the levers of power. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 attempted to outlaw criticism and to prevent the Republicans from recruiting new voters among recent immigrants. The measures provoked predictable outrage. A Republican patron of a tavern in Newark wobbled into the street in time to observe a sixteen-gun salute to President Adams and to wish aloud that one of the rounds should find Adams's ample rear. His arrest prompted a New York paper to worry that "joking may be very dangerous even to a free country."

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