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."
Yet the Republicans were in certain respects the least of Adams's worries. Adams fell out with Hamilton, whom he called "the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar," and Hamilton devoted a long pamphlet to cataloguing the President's deficiencies. His defection delighted the Republicans. Describing the Hamilton pamphlet as a "thunderbolt," James Madison told Jefferson, "I rejoice with you that Republicanism is likely to be so completely triumphant." Indeed it was: the split among the Federalists opened the door to Jefferson and the Republicans in the election of 1800.
The Republican victory was even sweeter for the scurrilous things the Federalists had said during the campaign. Jefferson was called "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." His deism shocked pious Christians (though it wasn't much different from that of Washington or Franklin or many other educated persons of his day), and his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution made him a Jacobin in Federalist eyes. Timothy Dwight, a Congregationalist minister and the president of Yale, foresaw a lurid future of freethinking: "The Bible cast into a bonfire ... our children ... chanting mockeries against God ... our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution ... our sons the disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat." A Connecticut paper warned of the orgies a Jefferson presidency would bring: "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced; the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed; the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes."
When Jefferson became President and the heavens didn't quite fall, his enemies found other means of attack, including the charge, originated by James Callender and avidly circulated by the Federalist press, that Jefferson had fathered several children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. The steamy tales took sundry forms, including verse: "Of all the damsels on the green / On mountain or in valley / A lass so luscious ne'er was seen / As Monticellan Sally." Historians and forensic geneticists would still be debating the accuracy of the paternity charge two centuries later. In Jefferson's day, as the Federalists' campaign of slander made plain, accuracy was beside the point.
The second generation of American independence was somewhat more respectful of the Founders than their contemporaries had been. But it was no less critical. The republican experiment had survived, against the forecasts of many naysayers, and that warranted respect. But it might not survive much longer, because of some glaring deficiencies in the Founders' work—and that warranted criticism. By the 1820s two grave sins of omission hung ominously over the country: the Founders' failure to deal with slavery, and their failure to specify whether sovereignty lay with the states or with the nation.
The ambivalence toward the Founders became apparent in the celebrations surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of independence. In cities, towns, and villages across the country Americans congratulated themselves on "Freedom's Jubilee." Toasts to "independence" and "the glorious Fourth" typically launched the rounds of patriotic drinking; references to the Founders collectively, and to General Washington himself, were often placed in the context of salutes to "the soldiers of the Revolution." Deference to the demos, the people, at the comparative expense of the elites reflected the most visible political trend during that period: the dramatic expansion of the electorate. By the late 1820s the states had eliminated most property qualifications for voting, and state legislatures, which previously had chosen most presidential electors, handed that task to ordinary voters. The common man came to the fore, and the old elites—including, after the fact, the Founders—lost ground commensurately. (Interest briefly revived when the country learned, to its astonishment, that Jefferson and Adams had both died on the very day of the Jubilee.)
Not just democracy ate into the historical reputation of the Founders. As more Americans gained political rights, those who lacked them became increasingly conspicuous. Abolitionism came of age as a political and social force. Many of the Jubilee speakers (in the North, at least) called for the current generation to fulfill what the Founders had only promised. In Braintree, Massachusetts, the birthplace of Adams, the Reverend Josiah Bent recalled the original meaning of a jubilee as an occasion for freeing slaves, and challenged his audience to live up to the biblical precedent. "Can America be glorious in freedom," he asked, "with such a number of human beings so degraded, so oppressed, so wronged, and so bleeding in her bosom?"
In contemplating this question, Americans of the second quarter of the nineteenth century were compelled to confront the deficiencies of the Founding. The landmark documents of the Revolutionary era—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—were scrutinized and found wanting. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was so outraged at the Constitution and its framers for fastening slavery upon the American body politic that he damned the federal charter as "a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell," and publicly burned his copy. Politicians signaled their dissatisfaction with the Founders in other ways. Senator William Seward, of New York, described "a higher law than the Constitution" and said that this law—the natural law of human liberty—dictated the demise of slavery.
Abraham Lincoln chose his words more carefully, which was one reason he, rather than Seward, eventually became President. Lincoln didn't go over the heads of the Founders, but he did regret that they hadn't done more to restrict slavery. He credited them with good intentions. "Our revolutionary fathers," he said, had understood that slavery was unjust; they simply hadn't known how to eliminate it without jeopardizing their experiment in unifying the thirteen states. Even so, by refusing to mention slavery by name in the Constitution, they had preserved the possibility of future change—"just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time."
Arguments over what Congress could do naturally hinged on the Constitution and its construction; arguments over what Congress should do involved the Declaration of Independence. Both sides in the slavery debate drew support from Jefferson's manifesto—but for different reasons. What, precisely, did he mean when he said that "all men are created equal"? Which men? What kind of equality? To the dismay of the anti-slavery forces, the Supreme Court proclaimed in the 1857 Dred Scott case that blacks could not be citizens. Lincoln lambasted Chief Justice Roger Taney, asserting that the slaveholding class had seized the government, so that the Declaration was "assailed, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, if its framers could rise from their graves, they could not at all recognize it."
Whatever the truth of Lincoln's statement, he would have been the first to admit that had Jefferson been more explicit in embracing blacks in his universe of equality, or had the Continental Congress been less vigorous in excising the parts of Jefferson's draft that dealt harshly with slavery, the abolitionists' cause would have been strengthened. The excisions lent weight to both sides of the argument, with slavery's foes extrapolating from them to interpret Jefferson's "all men" as "all men," and slavery's defenders citing them as evidence that the Continental Congress meant "all white men."
In any event, the unfinished work of the Founders burdened their successors with determining whether slavery could exist within a republican (now democratic) framework of government, and whether the states or the nation held the dominant political authority. It isn't hard to understand why Americans weren't overly impressed with the Founding generation as that debate turned bloody in the 1850s in Kansas and within a few years provoked secession and civil war.
Six hundred thousand lives later, the Founders' work was finally completed. Slavery was abolished, and the nation stood supreme. The cost was staggering—a cost that by any reasonable reckoning should be charged, at least partially, to the Founders' account. Yet the very cost of the Civil War contributed to the emergence of a myth of the Founders—a myth that has persisted, with occasional challenge, until today.
The myth served an obvious political purpose in the wake of the Civil War. Reconstruction ended about the time of the American centennial, which occasioned a backward glance to an era when the country was united and Americans directed their anger and fire at foreigners. (This nostalgia glossed over the fact that the bitterest fighting in the Revolution had been between Americans. But this had always been glossed over, and generally still is.) The end of Reconstruction marked the return to power of the southern white aristocracy, which sought to reaffirm its attachment to the nation lest the North be tempted to reoccupy the South. That so many of the Founders were of the southern planter class made it easy and politically convenient for southerners to embrace them. For the North, the end of Reconstruction signaled an exhaustion of the reforming spirit and, with the Industrial Revolution in full tilt, a return to the business of business. ("What is the chief end of man?" Mark Twain inquired. "To get rich. In what way? Dishonestly if we can, honestly if we must.") The discovery of common ground with the South, in the form of a shared reverence for the Founders, helped to soothe those northern consciences bothered by the egregious inequalities that still pervaded southern life. It also, by a kind of tacit pact, discouraged the South from raising questions about increasing inequality in the industrializing North.
James Schouler, whose seven-volume History of the United States of America Under the Constitution commenced publication in 1880, admired nearly everything about the Founders. Hamilton and Madison, the moving spirits behind the Constitutional Convention, were his favorites; George Washington was a paragon, naturally, being "not unconscious of his surpassing influence" but becomingly modest withal. Franklin was "the sage of commonsense." John Bach McMaster, in his similarly monumental history of the United States, shared Schouler's conviction that the Founders were of keen mind and elevated character. "Franklin," he wrote, "was in truth the greatest American then living; nor would it be safe to say that our country has since his day seen his like."
Henry Cabot Lodge joined the encomiastic chorus. A Harvard professor before entering politics, Lodge wrote biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, among many other books. Lodge's Hamilton was the essence of patriotic virtue. "He was a great orator and lawyer, and he was also the ablest political and constitutional writer of his day, a good soldier, and possessed of a wonderful capacity for organization and practical administration. He was a master in every field that he entered." Lodge said he had tried to find fault in Washington but had failed, because no fault existed. Put simply, Washington embodied "the noblest possibilities of humanity."
Every generation of historians is compelled to revise the wisdom of its immediate predecessors, even if that means reaffirming the wisdom of an earlier generation. The Progressive era produced its own revisionist imperative, in the form of investigative—"muckraking"—journalism that laid bare the sordid means by which the great fortunes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, and other capitalist titans were amassed.
Charles Beard, a professor at Columbia University, brought both generational and Progressive revisionism to bear on the Founders in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, a 1913 study that argued that the Constitutional Convention was guided less by patriotic genius than by material self-interest. Much the same could be said, Beard wrote, of the groups that backed, and won, ratification of the Constitution by the states. Many of the creditors of the government had bought up bonds from the original buyers for dimes on the dollar and now wished to ensure that the bonds were honored in full. Shippers, merchants, and manufacturers wanted to override the state governments, which got in the way of business. The result was a charter founded on class interests. Beard couldn't deny the abilities of the Founders, but he judged that their gifts were closer to those of Rockefeller and Morgan than of Solon and Socrates.
It was Beard's misfortune that his book appeared just months before World War I began and a few years before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. As America approached and then entered the war, anything critical of the Founders smacked of disloyalty or even Bolshevik treason. Beard's writings upset his employers at Columbia, whose board of trustees managed to rid the university of this dangerous radical. His fellow historians were hardly more supportive.
For the generation that lasted from World War I to the early Cold War, the reputation of the Founders stood firm. Carl Van Doren won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for a biography of Benjamin Franklin that began by describing its subject as "unsurpassed by any man in the range of his natural gifts and of the important uses he put them to." In the 1940s and 1950s Douglas Southall Freeman, the editor of the Richmond News Leader, produced a seven-volume paean to Washington, Virginia's most illustrious son, which celebrated the whole generation of the Founders. Dumas Malone launched a similarly glowing and almost equally lengthy life of Jefferson, in which he remarked of his subject (in words that might have applied to the Founders as a group), "His fame is probably greater in our generation than it has been at any other time since his death." The title of Catherine Drinker Bowen's Miracle at Philadelphia (1966), on the Constitutional Convention, captured the mood.
The Founders took their hits during the later 1960s and the 1970s, along with everything else associated with the establishment. The mere idea of slave owners declaiming about liberty seemed the height of hypocrisy to a generation crusading for civil rights and taught to detect phoniness at five hundred paces. Vietnam and Watergate spawned suspicion of anything associated with government, recent or ancient. Neo-Beardians reopened the investigation into the convenient coincidence between the professed ideals of the Founders and their pocketbooks.
Yet the sharpest insult was not criticism but neglect. Academic historians shunned dead white males for sexier subjects, and although the old icons never entirely lost their appeal, many readers were enticed away by tales of less familiar, less privileged persons. Women, members of minority groups, and ordinary people displaced the Founders, until it seemed that Abigail Adams ("Remember the ladies ...") was more familiar to schoolchildren than her husband, and George Washington Carver more familiar than George Washington.
And now they are back. The Founders' revival is in part a reflection of the anti-liberal reaction that began with Ronald Reagan and continues today. Combined with this, no doubt, is a certain roots-seeking among readers, which increased as the new millennium approached and hasn't let up in the troubling time since. Beyond the zeitgeist, the current revival reflects an appreciation of some brilliant writing. McCullough and Ellis are two of the finest nonfiction stylists now writing, and would attract readers whatever their subject. (McCullough won his spurs, and much of his following, by recounting natural disasters and the construction of public works.)
Shouldn't we applaud the Founders' restored popularity? Isn't patriotism a good thing, especially amid our current difficulties? Yes—but like anything else, it can be taken too far. And when it causes us to overvalue those who have preceded us, it does harm. Here a personal note may be in order. Since my book on Franklin was published, in the autumn of 2000, I have given numerous talks around the country on Franklin and his times. Listeners are appreciative, and they ask various questions after I finish. But one question, worded one way or another, comes up at almost every session: How was it that America was so blessed with intellect and virtue at the moment of its founding? And, by implication, Why is it that the current generation falls so short?
I don't dismiss the premise. But I do point out that the Founders' work was very much unfinished at the time the torch was passed to the next generation, and that tidying up the loose ends took eighty years and one of the most destructive wars in the history of the world before 1914. Whether I change many minds about the Founders is hard to say. Most people still seem to think that God or fate or something smiled on America in the 1770s and 1780s, and hasn't smiled that way since.
Americans aren't alone in looking to a golden age, but in our case this inhibits action on important public issues. We marvel that our predecessors, living at a time when the free population of the country didn't exceed the population of greater Chicago today, could have gained independence from Britain and fashioned a republic that has lasted more than two centuries; and we bewail our inability, in a population eighty times as large, to find anyone like them. Leaving aside the statistical improbability of this supposed lack (which only confirms true believers in their conviction of America's miraculous birth), the history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries doesn't bear out the golden-age idea.
The Founders got the country off to a good start, but they would have been the first to admit that it was no more than a start. They were acutely aware of the continuing nature of their experiment in self-government, and they expected future generations to accomplish as much as they had. They would have dismissed as ludicrous the notion that theirs was a blessed generation, to which others might never compare. That notion is essentially anti-republican, too, and therefore insults all they struggled to achieve.
In making giants of the Founders, we make pygmies of ourselves; in making saints of them, we make sinners of ourselves. Sinners we may be, but no more so than they (where is our Benedict Arnold? our Aaron Burr?). And although humility is a virtue, when consciousness of our sins becomes an inferiority complex that causes large numbers of the present generation to turn away from politics as incomparably inept or corrupt, it does the Founders no honor. The point of their revolution was to craft a government based on the will of the people; they would have judged themselves failures if they thought their mechanism required saints to run it.
Another question I hear frequently is, What would Franklin think if he were restored to the world of the living? I answer that he would be tickled by the technological advances since the eighteenth century. I also say that he would be gratified by the durability of the republic that he and his fellows established, and by some of the recent accomplishments of their successors. As an early abolitionist, Franklin would be delighted at the civil-rights reforms of the 1960s, which transformed race relations in this country almost as thoroughly as did the Civil War and Reconstruction, and far more positively than anything the Founders managed. As a lifelong opponent of authoritarianism, he would be thrilled at twentieth-century America's defeat of fascism and communism. British imperialism was oppressive, but George III was neither as dangerous nor anywhere near as evil as Hitler and Stalin.
But Franklin would be dismayed by the popular denigration of politics, and exceedingly impatient with us for acting helpless in the face of problems that the Founders would have tackled at once. To take one example, arguments over the Second Amendment, with its almost certainly inadvertent ambiguity about the relation of militia service to gun ownership, would largely cease if we simply rewrote it. Gun advocates already treat the militia clause as a nullity; let them erase the clause—or try to. Gun opponents want the clause to govern gun ownership; let them rewrite the amendment—or try to. But almost no one suggests such an obvious solution to the problem. Instead we treat the Constitution as holy writ, to be parsed and glossed but not otherwise tampered with. We agonize over "original intent" as if what the Founders believed ought to determine the way we live two centuries later. They would have laughed, and then wept, at our timidity.
The same applies to any number of other issues. It is fair to say that nearly all the Founders would have been shocked at the overwhelming role of money in modern American politics. (Franklin thought the President, for example, ought to serve without pay.) When they decried "corruption" in British politics, and cited it as a prime reason for their revolt against King George, they were talking about the very thing—the golden triangle of wealth, access, and office—that campaign-finance reformers decry today. But until now every effort to diminish the role of money in politics has been stymied by the First Amendment, which has been interpreted by the courts as equating political advertising with political speech. Many other countries simply limit how much money may be spent on campaigns. There is no reason we can't too—if we simply recognize that we may have to rewrite the First Amendment. This rewriting would be far closer to the true spirit of the Founders than some misplaced reverence for their handiwork. Of course, an amendment-blocking coalition, either in Congress or in the states, could ensure that the First Amendment was left as is. But at least we would have had an open debate.
Or consider the Electoral College. It is surrounded by the same mystique that befogs other aspects of the Constitution. For decades it was easy to consider the Electoral College a harmless vestige—or to predict that should it ever again confer victory on a popular loser, as it had in 1876 and in 1888, there would be such an outcry that it would be abolished. But in the aftermath of the presidential election of 2000 the outcry quickly faded into silence. Nearly everyone agrees that the Electoral College is undemocratic, and that if modern Americans wrote the Constitution, it wouldn't be included. But we can't get ourselves to do anything about it. Ironically, the system we are so reluctant to touch works not at all the way the Founders intended (they anticipated autonomy among the individual electors—which would, in fact, have been even less democratic). The Founders, far from being pleased at our respect for their work (which in this case doesn't even reflect their intent), would have been appalled at our paralysis.
Some will argue that the Constitution ought not to be tinkered with. This bears consideration to the extent that the argument is an honest one and not simply an apology for the status quo. One of the beauties of the federal Constitution, in contrast to many state constitutions, is that it deals in broad and enduring principles—principles that have allowed it to last. But an uncritical embrace of constitutional beauty can degenerate into the same form of ancestor worship that shapes much of our thinking about the Founders. They certainly weren't beguiled by the past; though they spoke of their ancient rights as Englishmen, they knew full well that they were leaping into an uncharted future. And the last thing they intended their revolution to produce was a new orthodoxy.
The one trait the Founders shared to the greatest degree is the one most worth striving after today—but also one that is often forgotten in the praise of their asserted genius. These men were no smarter than the best their country can offer now; they weren't wiser or more altruistic. They may have been more learned in a classical sense, but they knew much less about the natural world, including the natural basis of human behavior. They were, however, far bolder than we are. When they signed the Declaration of Independence, they put their necks in a noose; when they wrote the Constitution, they embarked on an audacious and unprecedented challenge to custom and authority. For their courage they certainly deserve our admiration. But even more they deserve our emulation.