The Revolution Will Be Politicized

(Jean Leon Gerome Ferris/Library of Congress) (National Journal)

Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, by Andrew M. Schocket (New York University Press, 2015)

What It's About

Fighting Over the Founders examines the ongoing clash over the meaning of the American Revolution. Schocket sorts the camps into "essentialists," who view the Founders as visionary "demigods," creators of  "a legacy from which straying would be treason"; and "organicists," who "believe that  Americans are ever in the process of trying to complete a Revolution that the founders left unfinished." He then details how this tug-of-war over our national origin story plays out in politics, entertainment, academia, and institutions such as museums.

Target D.C. Audience

Historians, speechwriters, museum curators, tour guides, documentarians, constitutional law experts, dog-whistle decoders, plus self-reflective tea-party activists and anyone else who might claim the mantle of the Founders.

Best Line

"Let's not fight, they suggest, let's share the nation's founding symbols. But I think that we should continue to debate the nation's origins. At least the American Revolution gives us a common set of characters, settings, and events. That civic vocabulary allows for debate through a rhetorical shorthand. The point in a democracy is not for us to agree on everything. But we can have discussions if at least we're speaking the same conceptual language."

To Be Sure

Schocket is forthright about his liberal bias, so it is not surprising that he tends to be more critical of essentialism, the view he argues conservatives are more likely to hold, than he is of organicism, a perspective he says is more commonly found on the left.

One Level Deeper

The book's first chapter is a veritable glossary of founding-era quotes and how they've been used on the stump by members of both parties. This could be a valuable tool for speechwriters. As Schocket notes, "Quoting the founders represents a strong rhetorical gambit, reflecting the assumption that no one can gainsay Jefferson on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence." Journalists and others looking to decode the rhetoric might also find it useful.

Among the more telling revelations: Republicans have used the phrase "Founding Fathers" four times as often as their Democratic counterparts since 1968, while Democrats have overwhelmingly stuck to "a more perfect union" and "created equal" when echoing the founding generation.

The Big Takeaway

The American Revolution isn't the national unifier it might seem to be—and you can learn a lot about someone's politics by how they think and talk about it.