"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.