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.