H. W. Brands argues that too much reverence for the Founding Fathers is unhealthy—and that it's time to take them down a notch or two
Patriotism is thriving in America today, and its many symbols abound—flags, stars-and-stripes bumper stickers, and freedom fries are all going strong, and so are the reputations of the Founding Fathers. As global insecurity and economic uncertainty become ways of life and leaders appear increasingly tarnished by the compromises of politics, it's comforting to think about the successes of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and their compatriots, and encouraging to know that we are continuing their experiment. Confidence in the genius of the Founders and the conviction that their blueprint for our nation is infallible can lend a patriot a rare sense of security, even in troubled times.
And yet this security can be dangerous. In "Founders Chic" (September Atlantic), the historian H. W. Brands offers a reality check to a Founders-obsessed nation. From the newspapers of the Founders' own time, Brands points to some typically hostile opinions on the part of their contemporaries: Washington is said to have a "cold hermaphrodite faculty" that is responsible for his false reputation as a man of "prudence, moderation and impartiality"; John Adams is mocked for his "sesquipedality of belly"; and Thomas Jefferson is called "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." Not only were the Founders anything but deified in their own time, they were also held responsible by later generations for some of the young nation's most severe problems—and the questions they left unresolved did have serious ramifications, most notably the contradictions over slavery that eventually led to the Civil War. Through all this, the Founders have emerged as heroes, particularly in times demanding national unity; they have served as symbolic anchors of nationhood during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, the World Wars, and again today.
Although Brands admires the Founders, he argues that their most remarkable quality was their boldness in the face of great risk and uncertainty—the very quality that excessive reverence for previous generations stifles. Through their impressive feat of creating a structure of stability for their political descendants, the Founders created a leadership class with a genuine respect for the status quo, and bequeathed to these new leaders a complicated set of problems, both ideological and practical. Today's leadership class, Brands suggests, would do well to take a page out of the Founders' book and apply all their ingenuity to the nation's needs, reworking the Constitution when necessary to address the issues of the day. He argues that the confidence to do this would be a more important inheritance from the Founders than the particulars of the Constitution, a document produced by a small group of men during three months in 1787. It would also, paradoxically, provide a new opportunity for the kind of leadership for which the Founders have been remembered so reverently.
H. W. Brands is the author of a best-selling Founder biography, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2000), and of The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (2002). He teaches history at Texas A&M University.
We spoke recently by telephone.
One of the things that I was surprised by in your article was the nastiness of the criticism that was levied against the Founders in their own time. That level of political discourse strikes me as being more characteristic of our own time.
I think you're among many people who have that impression. But in fact the folks in those days were politicians, just as politicians are politicians today. They also had not yet come to an assessment of exactly what politics was all about, in the sense that in the 1790s and maybe the first decade of the nineteenth century there was this sneaking suspicion that political parties were illegitimate factions. When the Constitution was written in 1787, there was this supposition that American politics would be above party. The people who would staff the positions in government would have the interests of the country, or at least their states and congressional districts, at heart, and so they wouldn't form permanent political parties. Much of the nastiness of the first decade or two of the operation of the government under the 1787 constitution reflected the fact that people tended to think that those who disagreed with them were illegitimate in their disagreement: that they were not simply politically wrong, but they were morally wrong, they were motivated by self-interest—unlike our guys, who are motivated by the interests of the country as a whole.
So do you think that there was a purer ideology at the beginning than we would attribute to our politicians today?
Well, there was definitely the hope that America would be spared the corruption, as the Americans who participated in the Revolution saw it, of British politics. That was one of the principal reasons that they staged their revolution. They felt that British politics had been corrupted by "faction," as they called it—we would call it party. They were talking about more or less permanent institutions that divided along ideological lines, or along class lines, that tended to view politics as a team sport. Americans waged their revolution hoping that they could be spared that, that they would seek the common interest of the people of the United States rather than the narrow interests of party. It didn't take them very long to realize that that wasn't working. Part of the problem was in the nature of the constitution they wrote: the U.S. federal Constitution almost requires political parties in order for it to operate, to organize the Senate, to organize the House of Representatives, and to do all the other stuff that is implied by the Constitution but not specified. So they hoped that they would have a different kind of politics in America than the British had in Britain, and what they discovered fairly soon was that politics is pretty much politics.
If anything, I think that politics in our day is toned down by a couple of things. One difference is that in the early days, in the 1790s and early 1800s, newspapers were often explicitly associated with political parties. So John Adams and the Federalists had their newspaper, and Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans had theirs. The editorials and the reporting made no effort to be objective; they just hammered away at each other along party lines. There was very little sense of an objective press as the fourth estate that would try to act as a fair referee between the various parties. Also, there was no such thing as a mass media in those days, so people often thought they could get away with telling different things to different audiences. Now anything the Speaker of the House, or the President, or the White House spokesman, or any politician says is reported everywhere. So it's very hard to hide behind excuses like "I was misquoted," and "I didn't mean that." In the early days it was done all the time, because what somebody said in Boston would not necessarily be reported back to South Carolina, and vice versa. Another difference is that political campaigns were waged only in very small part by the candidates themselves, because it was a big country and candidates couldn't travel all over. So they often had spokespersons who tended to be much more partisan, and often much more bitter, than the candidates themselves.
Was this intense partisanship limited to a small class that was interested in that kind of thing, or was it pretty widespread?
The class that was engaged in politics was relatively small. First of all, women weren't voting at all, so they were essentially not participating in public life. There was some kibitzing—Abigail Adams was often telling John Adams what to do. But there was no direct participation by women. There was almost no participation by African-Americans. Slaves couldn't vote. Free blacks could vote in a few places, but they were a very small part of the political scene. In, let's say, 1790 only about half of the adult white males could vote because of property qualifications. These property qualifications diminished over the next generation, so that by 1825 or 1830 nearly all adult white males could vote. This had an important influence on the nature of politics. It led to the election of Andrew Jackson, for example, as the candidate of the common man. Jackson was someone who couldn't have been elected in 1790. It's remarkable that after Jackson established this model of the populist candidate for President, every presidential candidate has been forced to adopt this role. Even when candidates have degrees from Harvard and Yale, they try to run as the candidate of the common man.
And not only the candidate who supports the common man, but whose own background is not too elite.
In fact, it's more important to have the common touch, whatever that is or means, than it is to have policies that are embraced by the common man. You can always find people, ordinary people, who will support your particular view, so it becomes a politics of personality, especially at the presidential level. People often go for somebody that they like, or somebody that they can identify with. We've seen it in recent election campaigns for President, when the person who by any standard of debating loses the presidential debate gets a bump in the popularity ratings because he comes across as more of an ordinary guy. That counts for a lot.
One of the image problems that candidates seem to have these days is that they are perceived as being motivated not only by the narrow interests of party, but by personal interests of greed and ambition. History seems to have exempted the Founders from that perception—do you think it's correct in doing so?
That view that the Founders were above narrow self-interest applied very briefly to just a very few of the figures. Almost nobody thought George Washington was in it for the money, or was in it for the prestige. I cite some critics of Washington's who thought that he was putting on airs and acting like a king, but most people accepted that he was doing it for what he thought was the good of the country. And maybe people would have said the same thing about Benjamin Franklin—except, of course, that he died in 1790, early on in the United States' history. When you get to the younger men, who hadn't won their reputations in the Revolutionary War, and who apparently were going to make a career out of politics, then you see all sorts of suspicion that these folks are in it for the money. The notion of influence peddling, of doing things for your friends who will take care of you after you leave office— those sorts of charges, which we hear a lot today—arise fairly early on.
And do you think that there's something to be said for those charges?
Yes, I think that politicians in the early days of the Republic were pretty much comparable to politicians today in terms of their motivations and their ambitions. I certainly don't think that the heirs of the American Revolution were a particularly noble class. I'll give credit to the people who actually signed the Declaration of Independence and fought the Revolution, because they were taking a very bold step. They were almost literally putting their necks in the noose, and this took a kind of courage that we are not called upon to exhibit these days. I don't know how many people today would do that, at least within the current leadership class. Of course, the folks who launched the American Revolution weren't the ones in the leadership class at the time. A lot of the leaders at the time stayed loyal. So you have these revolutions, and you get a big turnover, because there's a selection process that chooses for different characteristics. If you took the five hundred and thirty-five members of the House of Representatives and the Senate I'm not convinced that they would match for courage and boldness the people who launched the American Revolution. I kind of have my doubts about that. But I think that if you took the group that sat in the U.S. Congress in 1810 and matched them against the people who sit in the U.S. Congress today, I don't think you'd find a whole lot of difference in terms of integrity, high-mindedness, and that sort of thing.
Do politicians today identify with the Founders—is the cult of the Founders as strong among politicians as within the general population?
I think they would all like to be considered in the same category as the Founders. One thing that's very interesting to me as a historian is the way that political figures who are extremely controversial in their own day become embraced by members of both parties after they leave office. Everybody today wants to be like Theodore Roosevelt. Well, Theodore Roosevelt was a lightning rod in his day. Everybody now embraces Thomas Jefferson. But he too was very controversial in his day. There's something about simple historical survival—once you've been dead long enough, people can identify with the virtues that they like. And of course there's also an element of simple historical envy. Everybody in the Senate today would like to think that people will remember them the way they remember Henry Clay or John Calhoun or somebody like that.
Do you think that common reverence for these figures is potentially a unifying force?
Yes, and in fact one point that I make in the article is that this notion of reverence for the Founders was an explicitly, deliberately unifying factor after the Civil War. Until the Civil War, the criticism of the Founders was quite broadly based. They were hammered from both sides in the sectional dispute, either for or against slavery. But after the Civil War, both North and South were looking for something that they could do to pull the country back together. They went back to the generation that fought the Revolution, invoking a time when everybody in America was fighting on the same side against a foreign foe rather than fighting one another. It's during the period from about 1875 to 1900 that we first get this notion that the period of the American Revolution was a golden age, and we've lived with that memory ever since.
Do you think that the pendulum is going to swing back to having more emphasis on the things that the Founders did poorly?
You have to consider where that pendulum might come from. If you're talking about academic history, academicians are always revising the past, because that's what each crop of Ph.D.s has to do. They have to say something different than the previous generation. But in terms of a popular understanding of the Founders, I don't know that there's much mileage to be had out of trashing the Founders. That might change if we come to a point in American history, and we certainly may well, when there is some current public issue that is really polarizing society—for example, something comparable to the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War, people tended to look to the past to find the roots of problems. If you wanted to, you could look at the split in society that happened in the 1960s and say, Oh yeah, it goes back to the sad compromise over slavery in 1787. Or you could say that the roots of American empire, trying to conquer other people, comes from our mistreatment of the Indians in the early 1800s, or something like that. So if we reach a point where the American public is saying, How did we come to this horrible state?, then historians will go searching back in the past to find the root of the current polarization, whatever it might be.
At the moment, I think one of the things that has driven this recent reverence for the Founders is a sense of unease. The American public consciousness isn't split in two today the way it was in the 1960s, but there is a sense of insecurity. Some of this, which I allude to in the article, has arisen from the approach to the millennium, and the notion that during the 1990s we were at peace and there was prosperity, but there was also a lot of unease about inflation, and a fear that maybe this bubble was growing out of control. There's a feeling that if we can look back two hundred years into the past and find a historical anchor that we can hold onto then all will be well. At least during the Revolution the Founders knew what they were trying to accomplish—the focus was on achieving American independence. As long as the war with Britain was on, everybody could agree about what they were going to do, and there was a sense of patriotism and of rallying around a common interest. But once the war was over, states began to wander off in their separate directions, and they wouldn't pay their obligations to the central government, and there were various rebellions—Shay's rebellion in Massachusetts, for instance. People began to wring their hands and say, What have we done? We overthrew King George and there's nothing to replace him. A lot of people at the time thought of the Constitutional Convention, in 1787, as almost a counter-revolution. It was anointing a new King George Washington to replace King George III of England. But now people are content to look at those early days and say, Ah, that was a glorious age.
What's your sense of the different needs of the popular audience versus the academic one? Does writing for different audiences help one discover different truths, or is one kind of history more important than the other?
Well, I would be very cautious about saying that any historian, or any branch of historians, uncovers truth. What we do is we tell different stories about the past. People who write for popular audiences are looking for stories that resonate at a pretty fundamental level with large groups of people. So they tend to be dramatic, narrative-based histories. These writers certainly give much more space to large historical figures whom you can write full and compelling biographies about. It's fair to say that these popular kinds of history give too much weight and importance to the dead white guys, the important people, the Founding Fathers. There's a reason for that: we can write about those people because they left letters—because they were important at the time people saved those letters. There are plenty of folks who would like to write the life story of some obscure person who lived an ordinary life in western Massachusetts, but it's really hard to do because the records aren't available. Having said that, the popular histories can be very compelling. For instance, in the case of David McCullough's book on John Adams, the thing that really makes the story work, in my opinion, is the interplay between John Adams and Abigail Adams. David McCullough has a wonderful source in the collection of letters between this couple. They was married for fifty years or so, and it was a wonderful partnership; they were both very sharp-tongued and opinionated, but the secret ingredient of it all, from the point of view of a historian, is that they spent years and years apart, which meant that they had to write letters back and forth to each other. So the historian can follow the story of this couple's evolving relationship. For the popular historians, the moral of the story is less important—it will come out in the end, or between the lines. For the academician, typically, the moral, or the thesis, tends to be more important than the story itself, in part because they're writing for a much smaller audience, and they can make an assumption that their readers know the basic facts of the matter. It's really a matter of asking, What was the meaning of the American Revolution? How was the American Revolution like and unlike other revolutions? Unfortunately, there is often a disdain on the part of academic historians for the work of popular historians. But frankly, one of the things I find is that the more accomplished academic histories, the ones who have been doing it longer, tend to give more respect to the so-called popular historians. The graduate student-types, the ones who've just finished their dissertations, tend to look down their noses. And of course some of the best popular historians come out of the academy. Joseph Ellis is certainly one of the best writers on the period of the Revolution and the early Republic, but he's also an academic.
Is there a danger in writing popular history of trying to tell a story that makes the people in the audience feel good about themselves?
I don't know if danger is the right word—there may be a temptation in that. If you look at the kind of books that sell really well, they tend to be books that make the readers come away thinking, Gosh, I feel good about America now. But I am nervous about the notion of patriotism per se. I am very hesitant to call anybody a hero. I think the term is vastly overused. Now, I know good and well that people love to read about heroes because it allows them to transcend their own generation—it's one of the reasons that there's this reverence for the Founders. It's kind of nice to think that as muddy and compromised as our generation might be, there was a time when giants walked the earth. Well, in fact I don't believe that, so I would have a real hard time writing it. But frankly, I find it much more interesting and compelling to know that somebody like George Washington or Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln accomplished what he did despite being simply an ordinary person like you or me. So maybe it's a matter of taste. I suppose there are people who calculate this matter fairly coldly. I wouldn't be at all surprised—well, that's too charitable; I know for a fact—that in some cases the marketing people at publishers like to push a patriotic theme, if they can do it without doing violence to the argument of the book, because it sells copies. So I guess you have to decide what you're trying to accomplish when you sit down to write a book.
Have you found that readers are more receptive to complicated stories than the marketing people think?
I definitely think that's true. The marketers often are stuck in a position where they're sending their sales reps out to an account, and the sales reps have ten seconds to make a pitch for this particular book. It's hard to explain that this is a complex story and that it's compelling in its complexity. It's easier simply to say, Hey, let's call the book The Greatest Generation. That sells itself. But when I talk to readers, when I lecture on my subject, I think I convince a lot of people that in fact the complicated story is a much more interesting story.
If too much love for the Founders is a bad thing, what do you think the right attitude toward them is?
I think that we should respect and admire them for the things they accomplished that really were outstanding. The decision for independence in 1776 was a remarkable thing. I try to imagine anybody in this country, any members of the political leadership class today, taking such a bold step. I think that the strongest criticism that can be made of politicians today is that they look for the safe middle ground, and they look to get re-elected. They look for the sort of thing that's not going to alienate too many people. Well, good heavens—launching a revolution is about as alienating as you can get. And there was a lot at stake. When they talked about their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, they weren't kidding. Certainly their lives and fortunes were at risk. As for their sacred honor, that was something that history would have to debate.
As I say in the article, there are all sorts of debates over important issues today, issues of money in politics, gun control, affirmative action, immigration, all sorts of hot-button issues. The most remarkable thing is that the political system prevents any really open and honest discussion of these issues. One of the things that strikes me as mind-boggling is this timid reverence toward the Constitution, as though it would violate the spirit of the Founders to rewrite the Constitution. My God—they tore up their connection with Britain and waged a war to terminate it, and then they sat down and in three months wrote this Constitution anew. None of them would have thought that something they had written over the space of three months was supposed to last for all time. And I think they would have been appalled at our timidity in taking on issues that are as important to us as those issues were to them. It seems to me that if we want to be in the spirit of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin and all, we ought to have a constitutional convention about every twenty or thirty years. Times change. The Founders were willing to make drastic changes in the governance of America, yet we're not willing to make even the smallest changes. That's what I would like people to think about when they think about the Founders. They were a group characterized by courage and boldness. I don't think they were any wiser than we are, but they were a whole lot more willing to take risks on behalf of what they believed in.
What do you think should be the mechanism for this rewriting of the Constitution? Are you imagining that it would be rewritten within the existing process of amendments?
Well, that would certainly be a start. If we were really in the spirit of the Founders, people would just get together and call an utterly extra-legal convention, because that's what the convention of 1787 was. They had no authorization to do anything. They said they were going to get together and amend the Articles of Confederation, but they very quickly wrote a new constitution. And their work wouldn't have meant anything if the various states had refused to ratify it. Now, actually, I think that's beyond all hope, and that's probably a good thing, because on the whole our system works reasonably well. But for people to say, for example, that we can't do anything about gun control because the Second Amendment prevents it—well, let's just rewrite the Second Amendment. If the First Amendment says we can't control political spending, let's rewrite the First Amendment. At least let's have an honest debate about it. Now, I'll admit that the First Amendment's a pretty good thing, and I would certainly hope that most of it would survive. But it's two hundred years old. It might need a little tweaking.
Do you think that there's a risk to too much boldness?
Oh, sure. That's the essence of boldness. From a historical and political standpoint, I can understand why political leaders are timid: because there is no groundswell of popular support for major changes. Most Americans are reasonably happy with the status quo. They grumble, but they re-elect incumbents, or they don't vote, both of which indicate that things aren't so bad. In 1787, this group had just fought a revolution. They had just overthrown their government. The first try, under the Articles of Confederation, wasn't working too well, so they were going to try again. It's historically understandable why that generation did what it did, and why our generation doesn't. Nonetheless, I think that a certain kind of boldness well serves any generation.
Is anybody currently talking about changing things along the lines that you suggest?
I don't know of anybody who's talking about really serious changes in the operation of government. There are still people who would like to see an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. But that's not going to change the way the government operates. That's sort of a statement of principle that will codify what has become largely accepted anyway. No, in fact, one of the reasons that I wrote the article is that there is little or no fundamental debate about the issues that underlie some of our problems today and are connected to the work of the Founders.
Might the basic principles that the Constitution and the structure of our government embody be mortally threatened by being a little looser with the Constitution? Or do you think that time would balance things out?
Well, I think that most Americans are pretty satisfied with the way things work. I also think that if the Founders came back today they would be quite pleased that this republic that they established in the 1780s is still operating, and operates as well as it does. So, in that regard, I think the Constitution has been a great success. And I fully recognize the argument that one of the reasons for the Constitution's success is that it is really a mere blueprint, compared, for example, to a lot of state constitutions, which are much more specific and detailed, and have to be changed all the time. I fully accept the validity of the argument that says don't tamper lightly with the Constitution. And in fact the arithmetic of amending the Constitution strongly favors the status quo.
Do you think that the arithmetic that favors the status quo is itself a problem?
No, in fact I think that it's probably a good idea. I think that if constitutions could be rewritten willy-nilly then there would be an important and critical loss of stability. One of the things that people need to know in dealing with government is what to expect. And one of the things about the Constitution and the way it's interpreted by the courts is that you tend to be able to know what to expect. So I wouldn't be in favor of allowing a sixty percent majority, for example, to be able to amend the Constitution. Let's keep it the way it is. Let's make it hard.