Founding fathers' fever

March 13, 1998

Given that I am writing a young people's biography of Tom Paine, and our daughter has been accepted to Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia, I may be overly attuned to American revolutionary references. Nevertheless, it seems everywhere I turn - in scholarly, political and popular cultures - I encounter renewed interest in the Revolution and the founding fathers.

Apparently, more than a concern for the past is involved. Book-wise, in addition to Gordon Wood's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution and Al Young's Beyond the American Revolution, we find cartoonist Stan Mack's radically entertaining Stan Mack's Real Life American Revolution, David Hackett Fischer's engaging Paul Revere's Ride, Richard Ketchum's stirring Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War and Benson Bobrick's inspiring Angel in the Whirlwind.

The founders themselves are hot. Consider: for those needing a laugh, Paul Zail's Wit & Wisdom of the Founding Fathers; for captains of industry, Donald Phillips's The Founding Fathers on Leadership; for the prurient, Wesley Hagood's Presidential Sex: From the Founding Fathers to Bill Clinton; for the nerdish, Bernard Cohen's Science and the Founding Fathers; for those eager to undermine the wall separating church and state, John Eidsmoe's Christianity and the Constitution; and for those seeking to secure it, Isaac Kramnick and Laurence Moore's The Godless Constitution.

Authors seeking fresh historical perspectives have also turned to the founders. For example, Walter McDougall published the 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776, in which he explored the history of US foreign policy by tracing its development through eight phases or traditions. And, in 1995, former conservative Michael Lind finished The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution, tracing the development of American nationhood through three phases, starting with the founders' "Anglo-America". George Washington remains the foremost figure. To commemorate the 1999 bicentennial of his death, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association recently sent out a survey asking historians to join in choosing the ten great books on Washington. The newest of the many works include conservative essayist Richard Brookhiser's celebratory Founding Father; historian W. S. Randall's full-scale biography, George Washington; Matthew Spalding and Patrick Garrity's consideration of his farewell address and its legacy, A Sacred Union of Citizens; and Fritz Hirschfield's volume on Washington and the "peculiar institution", George Washington and Slavery. The last seems all the more timely given the recent political correctness campaign in New Orleans, which erased George Washington from the name of an elementary school because he was a slaveholder (even though he liberated his slaves in his will).

Jefferson remains the most controversial founder. In The Long Affair, Conor Cruise O'Brien fulminates against his French revolutionary sympathies. In the National Book Award-winning American Sphinx, John Ellis addresses his contradictions as democrat and slaveholder. In Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, Annette Gordon-Reed examines the evidence regarding his relationship with the slave woman.

Jefferson's antagonist, an author of The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, too, has been resurrected. J. S. Gordon praises his role as first secretary of the Treasury in Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt. And, in Hamilton's Republic, Michael Lind outlines a Hamiltonian intellectual tradition favouring hisliberal nationalism.

From the bottom up, Michael Merrill and Sean Wilentz edited The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic Writings of William Manning, "A Laborer". Following Abigail Adams's call to "Remember the Ladies", Mary Beth Norton wrote Founding Mothers and Founding Fathers. And, in the multicultural spirit, Benjamin Quarles's classic, The Negro in the American Revolution, was reissued with a foreword by Gary Nash, author of the new Race and Revolution, and Edward Countryman published Americans: A Collision of Histories.

Post-revolutionary politics have received renewed consideration. Jack Rakove's Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution won a 1996 Pulitzer. Also receiving high praise, Richard Rosenfeld compiled American Aurora, a hefty selection from the radically rambunctious Philadelphia newspaper that recounts the assaults on freedom of speech and the press pursued by the Washington and Adams administrations in the 1790s.

The "founding" theme has re-emerged throughout American culture. The 1969 Broadway musical, 1776, reopened in New York last August to great applause. The latest Kevin Costner epic, The Postman, is the story of the "re-founding" of the United States in a post-apocalyptic future. DC Comics has issued a two-part book, U.S., in which Uncle Sam is sent tumbling back to 1776 to critically reconsider American history since. And Marvel Comics has re-founded itself with the rebirth of its hero Captain America.

These diverse productions not only reveal the continuing American fascination for the events and figures of 1776, and the political and commercial contests under way to define how they should be remembered, they also reflect our shared anxieties about the nation's past, present and future.

Whether propelled by Cold War hangover; corporate globalism's threat to national sovereignty, immigration and diversification, culture war fatigue; hopes of transcending the less-than-heroic leadership of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, fears of a new aristocracy of millionaires and billionaires, or desperate searches to locate alternatives to an exhausted liberalism and a brutish conservativism, Americans are engaged - consciously or otherwise - in a great debate about the meaning and direction of the nation's history.

Much is at stake. I only hope in the process we discover the radical spirit and courage of those who saw fit to declare their independence and proclaim - just for starters - that "all men are created equal" and "We the People" shall rule.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.

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