Father Knows Best

Father Knows Best

Have you attacked the Founding Fathers lately? Know anyone who has? Gordon Wood knows you’re out there, on a campaign to dehumanize Washington, Jefferson and their peers.


Have you attacked the Founding Fathers recently? Do you know anyone who has? Gordon Wood is convinced that you’re out there, and that many of you (especially those who teach history) have embarked on a campaign to ignore or even to “dehumanize” Washington, Jefferson and their peers.

In doing this, you’ve betrayed the majority of Americans who feel a special attachment to the Revolutionary generation and who want to know “what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq.” This kind of sniping has been going on for 100 years, Wood concedes, but things have gotten particularly bad of late. Professors are steering students and readers toward alternative histories that disparage the Founders or simply overlook them. It’s all very well to write about “a midwife in Maine or a former slave in Connecticut,” but we’re losing sight of the white elite who should be at the center of America’s creation story.

Wood can be quite a curmudgeon. He’s also perhaps the most celebrated American historian alive, the author of one book–The Creation of the American Republic–that transformed the field in 1969 and another that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. His latest volume, Revolutionary Characters, has been packaged as an argument about “what made the Founders different.” In fact, it’s a collection of eight discrete essays, some of them rather creaky. (The chapter on John Adams is adapted from Creation; the original version of the epilogue was published in 1974.) But given the recent upsurge of popular interest in the Founders, you can see the appeal of this collection. All of your Founding Favorites are here: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams and Paine. The coup de grâce is an essay on Aaron Burr, the bad boy of the early Republic, whose moral divergence from the rest allows Wood to present him as “the exception that proves the rule” of Revolutionary genius.

The Founderphilia of recent years, as Daniel Lazare has observed in these pages, is in part a response to 9/11. David Hackett Fischer, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for Washington’s Crossing, concluded that book by linking the challenges of Revolutionary America to the destruction of the World Trade Center. (In an even more vertiginous analogy, Fischer likened George Washington to Norman Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks.) The other inspiration behind the upsurge in Founding Father studies was Monicagate and the perception that Bill Clinton’s gropes and fumbles represented a lapse of character. The Founders had their own problems with sexual continence, but recent historians have tended to close the bedroom door and to define character as an “outer life” (in Wood’s phrase) rather than an “inner personality.” Washington and the rest were committed to the maintenance of gentility and the performance of an exemplary public persona. By this standard, Clinton’s private antics with Monica leached into the public life of the nation, proving him to be a man of limited character in both senses. The Founding Fathers, according to their recent panegyrists, offer a window onto an age when people behaved much better–or at least kept up appearances more effectively than the most recent Democratic occupant of the White House.

The current bout of Founderphilia had seized some prominent historians even before 9/11. Joseph Ellis’s sympathetic portrait of the Revolutionary generation, Founding Brothers, was a bestseller in 2000. David McCullough’s John Adams raced up the bestseller lists the following spring. But the terrorist attacks encouraged this shift toward simpler, more flattering portraits of the Founding period. McCullough’s John Adams–in which a principled but unpopular President struggles to do the right thing in a time of war–had sold more than 1.5 million copies in hardcover by the end of 2001. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most colorful of the Founders, has been treated to four major biographies in the past three years–one of them by Gordon Wood. McCullough, who has written books on Harry S. Truman and a host of other subjects in American history, followed up John Adams with 1776, another chronicle of the Revolutionary generation. Even George Washington, whose glacial detachment had previously deterred the peppiest biographers, has recently received the sympathetic attention of Ellis and Fischer. Some of these books have come from writers who don’t hold academic posts (like McCullough), but the Founderphile charge has been led by academics who hold some of the top jobs in the profession: Edmund Morgan of Yale; Joseph Ellis of Mount Holyoke; David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis; Gordon Wood of Brown. With these heavy hitters batting for the team, how can Wood believe that the Founders are in trouble?

This may be a generational thing. Readers under 40 (60?) will be amused by Wood’s rueful attack on J.D. Salinger for corrupting the young via Holden Caulfield and “his condemnation of adult phoniness.” Although Wood also enlists Dave Eggers to make his point–that we’re too ready to embrace cynicism and that we’ve taken a principled stand against any kind of principle–you get the impression that he’s been out of touch with the zeitgeist for some time. (If Salinger gives him the willies, what must he think of The Simple Life or G-Unit?) But his anxiety has more to do with those who write American history than with its readership. His tart references to Maine midwives and Connecticut free blacks are a warning about a politically correct American history: As professors and graduate students choose to focus on people who were left out of the traditional narrative, the historical profession runs the risk of forgetting that narrative altogether.

In fact, there’s very little evidence of the Founders disappearing from the teaching or writing of American history. In addition to the enormous popularity of John Adams and the like, the actions of the Revolutionary leaders are exhaustively debated in academic journals, textbooks and scholarly studies. In the past four decades, American history has been invigorated by a new awareness of women, nonwhite people, culture and other neglected topics. But you’ll find little evidence from college textbooks or academic journals that the American past has been hijacked by black midwives. Professional historians work hard to incorporate social and cultural history, but they hardly neglect the more familiar political questions and actors. Wood’s fear that Washington or Adams will drop out of the frame seems misplaced.

But the pages of Revolutionary Characters convey Wood’s genuine concern that irresponsible academics or cynical undergraduates might soon topple the statues of the Founders and raise false idols in their place. Hence he has crafted an argument to protect the reputation of the Founding generation from the most vituperative critic. Washington and the “Revolutionary leadership,” according to Wood, created the American Republic and then encouraged its democratic development even though this hastened their own demise. Men like Jefferson and Madison were aristocrats in the best sense of the word: They cultivated civilized values and a sense of the public good with a selflessness that qualified them to lead the nation. But they also encouraged a growing democratic spirit that finally overwhelmed them. The Founders were different from the men who followed, in that they acted with nobility and self-sacrifice while their successors became self-interested and crass. But the Founders’ achievement was to turn at least some of their transcendent beliefs into a political system of guile and beauty that could withstand the basest demagogue and the most rapacious businessman. The difference between the Founders and ordinary Americans, for Wood, is both a fact (enshrined in the Constitution) and a challenge, perhaps even an inspiration. The Founders were different, but their high example remains a guide to successive generations.

What’s wrong with this picture? Wood refers without any apparent irony to the “Revolutionary elite” who led the struggle against Britain, but the idea of a founding pantheon seems odd, for a couple of reasons. First, the Founders were remarkably disputatious. Although they supported the Patriot cause during the Revolution, they were soon at one another’s throats. Not even Washington was immune. During the turbulent 1790s, Thomas Paine wrote an especially biting pamphlet attacking the Father of the Nation, and Jefferson and Madison whispered about Washington’s senility and his deference to Hamilton from across the Cabinet table. Wood’s portrayal of Aaron Burr as the runt of the litter is understandable. In spite of his distinguished lineage (his father and his grandfather were Princeton presidents), Burr created mayhem by trying to snatch the election of 1800 from Jefferson, his running mate; then he courted infamy in 1804 by killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. But Burr’s flashy malfeasance should not obscure the fact that, after the British withdrawal in 1783, the other Founders were more often upbraiding one another than speaking with a single voice about the future of the nation.

We might also ask who qualifies as a Founder. In his introduction, Wood bestows Founding status upon some interesting characters: financier Robert Morris and Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, both of whom enjoyed prodigious careers and yet found themselves in debtors’ prison in 1798. But these intriguing men all but disappear from the main chapters of the book, leaving the predictable gallery of Jefferson, Adams and the rest. If the definition of a Founder is a person who played a role in winning the American Revolution and establishing American independence, could we count Boston shoemaker George Hewes among their ranks? Hewes helped to pour the East India Company’s precious tea into Boston Harbor in December 1773, and during the Revolution he served on an American privateer, a commercial vessel empowered by the Continental Congress to attack British ships. Or could we nominate Lemuel Haynes, a black minuteman who served in the Continental army during the early part of the war and then became a staunch Federalist in the 1790s? Or Mercy Otis Warren, who wrote Patriot propaganda during the war and later crafted one of the earliest histories of the Revolution to remind her fellow Americans of what they had achieved?

Hewes didn’t leave much of a paper trail from the Revolutionary period, but Haynes and Warren did. Again, one wonders about Wood’s criteria for admission into the Founding club, and about what made his Founders different from these other participants in the Revolution. Although Wood implies that the Revolutionary elite shared a vision of themselves and of America’s future, we know that their arguments weren’t cosmetic but fundamental to the nation’s prospects. Hamilton admired the commercial transformation of Britain in the eighteenth century, and he marveled at Britain’s extraordinary and apparently spontaneous ability to bully the rest of Europe. After 1783 he reasoned that the United States could follow the British example by adopting a strong federal government. Jefferson and Madison were wary of the influence of a new financial class over the highest departments of government; they envisaged a smaller federal bureaucracy and the expansion of agriculture into the Western Territory. Neither the Federalists–Hamilton’s party–nor Jefferson’s Republicans triumphed in this battle, and the hybrid commercial/agricultural nation that emerged from their tussle hardly proves the Goldilocks argument that America was just right in its nineteenth-century development. (The Civil War, or the serial tragedies of Indian removal, should be enough to spoil your porridge.) So why should we assume a common identity that bound together the various proponents of the United States after 1776, or downplay the Founders’ divergent philosophies and heated arguments?

Wood sidesteps these problems by suggesting that the Founders were united by a benign elitism: They rose from relatively humble origins on the fringes of Britain’s vast empire and made strenuous efforts to become “natural” aristocrats. Wood assures us that this process of self-fashioning was driven by disinterestedness and a sense of duty rather than by ambition. Jefferson may have known more about wine than anyone else in America, but he cultivated this knowledge because he believed that refined tastes were essential to public morality. Hamilton was eager to strengthen the executive, and he held some troubling views about America’s military potential, but he also looked to the populace to return natural aristocrats to office at election time. Another shared experience that defined the Founders was their surrender of power in the nineteenth century. As the American people elected ordinary men to public office, showing they had little faith in the idea of a disinterested elite, the selfless aristocracy of the Revolutionary generation fell by the wayside. Madison and Jefferson lived long enough to see the rise of Andrew Jackson, the earthy Tennessean who claimed to embody, rather than to manage, the desires of ordinary Americans. The Founders had not envisaged this kind of politics, and survivors like Jefferson and Madison were appalled by Jackson’s ascent in the early 1820s. But they’d built a government that allowed for a true democracy and that was brilliantly equipped to curb its excesses.

Again, this vision of a selfless, heroic elite makes less sense if we broaden our definition of who qualifies as a Founder. Consider Wood’s discussion of how Madison came to support a strong federal government by 1787. According to Wood, Madison became disillusioned with state politicians and local power when he was forced (by term limits in the Confederation Congress) to spend four sessions in the Virginia legislature. Between 1784 and 1787, as the nation labored under the loose Articles of Confederation, which had been drafted during the Revolution, Madison witnessed firsthand the selfishness of ordinary politicians. Wood sees these state representatives through Madison’s eyes: They were “clods” who “had no regard for public honor or honesty,” and they passed bills that advanced their own interests rather than the greater good of the state or the nation. But when you examine this episode more carefully, you begin to realize that Madison was upset not by the personal selfishness of these representatives but by their commitment to their poorer constituents.

The Virginia Assembly, like many other state legislatures, spent the 1780s responding to the financial crisis that followed the Revolutionary War. The national government was broke; so were the states, which struggled to pay back the debts they’d incurred fighting the war. Ordinary Americans had initially financed this debt with war bonds, but the prolonged conflict and worsening financial climate had forced many poorer farmers and workers to sell their bonds at a fraction of the original value. By the 1780s the Revolutionary debt had been largely transferred out of the hands of ordinary people and into the portfolios of wealthy investors; the states were therefore obliged to pay interest on these debts to speculators, and to tax ordinary people to pay for this. The landscape of state politics in the 1780s was dominated by populist economics: Representatives were encouraged by their constituents (often in person) to pass debt relief, to curb the tax burden and to increase the supply of credit and paper money. State representatives were also pressured by ordinary people to cancel the Revolutionary debt, since it was now held not by the original Patriots who’d funded it but by an opportunistic class of financiers and investors.

Wood seems to agree with Madison that these representatives were clods for complying with the requests of the voters. In a revealing passage, he upbraids populist legislators for fueling inflation and “victimizing creditor minorities.” But it seems churlish to present these locally minded politicians as derelict or to suggest that their vision for America was less legitimate than that of the Revolutionary elite. Wood takes the longer view here. Madison and especially Hamilton believed that the American Republic would never succeed unless it was fortified against this excess of democracy. Although poorer Americans could lament that they’d sold their war bonds at such a loss and that their taxes were giving wealthy speculators an annual return of perhaps 30 percent on their investment, struggling farmers had not actually been compelled to part with the debt certificates. Nothing illegal had taken place. Madison grappled with the morality of all this in a way that Hamilton never did; when Hamilton proposed in 1790 that the federal government should assume all these state debts and guarantee huge profits to the speculators, Madison fretted about the appearance of unfairness that might easily turn voters against the new Constitution. But Wood is surely right to argue that both Madison and Hamilton wanted to build a United States from the top down, rather than the bottom up: They looked to wealthy individuals as the most important supporters (and sponsors) of the government and expected that the population at large would defer to their broader vision of federal power.

The question of popular acquiescence in the Founders’ achievement is, in some respects, the most baffling part of Wood’s book. Although Wood keeps reassuring us that ordinary Americans will eventually wrest the Republic from the Revolutionary elite, there are few of these poorer sorts to balance the Revolutionary Characters featured in every chapter. Andrew Jackson, he rightly observes, was a very different product of the political process than Thomas Jefferson. But the contrast between the two men–between an era of elites and an age of democracy–is presented by Wood as another case of Great Men talking to other Great Men in the Founding period. There was a good deal of grassroots democracy in the 1780s and ’90s, but local politicians and their engaged constituents struggle to make it past the red rope that Founderphiles like Wood have thrown around the Revolutionary generation. Ordinary Americans demanded a say in the political process before the Constitution was drafted; they mobilized societies, newspapers and candidates to take back control from the Federalists when, as many of them feared, the “miracle at Philadelphia” produced a government that was unresponsive to their concerns. Jefferson and Madison certainly encouraged this process from the federal capital of Philadelphia and from their country seats at Monticello and Montpelier, but the demand for popular participation in government and decision-making arose from below. Wood’s notion–that the Founders used their superior vision and integrity to birth a hurly-burly politics that was vulgar but democratic–seems as backward as it is quaint.

Given the circumstances of the Constitutional Convention, in which fifty-five delegates were hastily assembled in Philadelphia to draft a completely new form of government without any public knowledge of what they were doing, we can reasonably argue that a Revolutionary elite seized control of America’s destiny in 1787 and set the nation on a different course from the one its people would have liked. (The state conventions that narrowly ratified the Constitution in the following months were an unreliable guide to the feelings of most voters.) Can we also say that the participation of succeeding generations in that political system confirms the prescience and superior wisdom of the Revolutionary elite? If an uncouth soldier like Andrew Jackson could be elected to the White House in 1828, but would then willingly follow George Washington’s example by retiring in 1837, does this prove that the Founders passed down a political system that made the United States safe for democracy?

I don’t mean to be glib about this question, not least because the early American Republic did a better job of providing liberty and opportunity to white men than virtually any other government on the planet. But in answering it, we should consider the experience of those Americans who were excluded from political participation. The assumption of most books about the Founders is that they created a system that naturally expanded to encompass everyone. If you’re a recent immigrant from Laos or Guatemala who has become an American citizen, the liberties and prerogatives enshrined in the Constitution belong to you in the same way that they belong to those Americans who can trace their families back to the Mayflower. You can’t run for President–unless Orrin Hatch manages to change the rules for Arnold–but otherwise you’re thoroughly equal under the law. This thinking about inclusion and equality isn’t a modern invention: Go back to 1784, when Jefferson considered what to do with the boundless territory that covered the present-day Midwest, and you’ll see an admirable desire to extend equal citizenship into these new areas. Jefferson believed that a settler who took up residence in Indiana or Wisconsin should, as quickly as possible, receive the same rights as a resident of Massachusetts or Virginia. British policy-makers had looked into the American West and imagined an empire of subjects and second-class citizens; Jefferson and the Founders, by contrast, envisaged an empire of liberty.

But this liberty came to depend on the denial of freedom to Native Americans, just as the liberties claimed by white Southerners before and after the Civil War were grounded in the subjugation of African-Americans. Wood touches on nonwhite people only briefly, insisting that the Founders would have liked to abolish slavery and to treat the Indians with respect. But one thing that the Revolutionary elite agreed upon was that the rights of white people should be privileged over those of nonwhites, from the formation of Indian policy in the old Northwest Territory to the protection of slavery in the Constitution. While it’s true that many of the Founding generation hoped that slavery would eventually disappear, and that Jefferson paid lip service to the idea of assimilating Native Americans as full citizens, none of the Founders could muster the conviction and the consistency to promote a Republic of racial inclusion. As historian Anthony Wallace has shown, Jefferson gradually undermined the basis for Indian acculturation and channeled his enthusiasm into cultural nostalgia rather than the welfare of Indian nations. Madison, meanwhile, spent his last years as president of the American Colonization Society, a private organization that was committed to removing black Americans to the white-run colony of Liberia. Gordon Wood would probably say that the Virginian titans had simply lived too long, but the racial dilemmas that clouded their later years were the product of a system they had created.

More significant for Wood’s bigger argument about a democratic legacy, racial exclusion played a critical role in securing popular support for the Constitution and federal power. For the white settlers of Ohio and Kentucky, the most appealing thing about a national government was its willingness to expedite Indian removal, either by providing the federal troops who would settle local disputes between settlers and Indians or by ensnaring Native leaders in traps of debt and commercial dependency, which facilitated the seizure of Indian land. The Federalists were already doing this in the 1790s, having eschewed the role of impartial umpire (with which the British briefly flirted). The Republican Party perfected this idea of the federal government as the guarantor of white expansion, under the uninterrupted leadership of Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. When Andrew Jackson won the White House in 1828, it was his reputation as an Indian killer that endeared him to many ordinary Americans. Indian killers also featured on the winning tickets in 1836 and 1840, bolstering the appeal of career politicians from New York (Martin Van Buren) and Virginia (John Tyler), respectively. Soon after his inauguration, Jackson rewarded his supporters by pursuing the most aggressive campaign of racial removal in American history, an effort all the more shocking since it targeted Cherokees, Creeks and other Indians in the Southeastern states who had made the most strenuous efforts to adopt white “civilization.”

Democracy in the early Republic was a turbulent mix of popular participation and racial exclusion. The Constitution encouraged both, and we distort the achievements and limitations of the Founders by focusing on one aspect at the expense of the other. Unless we’re willing to consider what Thomas Jefferson thought about Native Americans, or what Alexander Hamilton thought about immigration, or what James Madison thought about black people, we shouldn’t spend our time trying to determine what the Founders would make of affirmative action or the war in Iraq. Alternatively, we could abandon the idea of a Revolutionary elite and create a new history of the Founding period in which the array of Americans who supported independence from Britain–which included blacks, women and unlettered white people, as well as Wood’s aristocratic leadership–are recognized but not homogenized. Many historians are already at work on this project, though they’re competing with Founderphiles who have transfixed the media and the publishing industry. Perhaps this revolution in the writing and teaching of American history will also come from the bottom up.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy