The Founding Fathers: A Profitable Focus for Historians

Historians in the News

From the New York Times (July 4 2004):

In 1998, Ron Chernow, who had written successful biographies of J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, told his publisher he planned to write his next book on Alexander Hamilton. He got a chilly reception.

"They said books on the founding fathers did not sell well," Mr. Chernow recalled in an interview last week."They said books on the Civil War and World War II were much more popular."

On this Independence Day, Mr. Chernow's book,"Alexander Hamilton," is No. 6 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and Cokie Roberts's"Founding Mothers" is No. 13. Eight other hard-cover books about the Revolution and the early days of the country are also on the"new nonfiction" display at the Borders on L Street in downtown Washington.

Nor is this a short-term fad. Joseph J. Ellis's"Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation" and David McCullough's"John Adams" won Pulitzer Prizes in 2001 and 2002 and were among the biggest-selling history books of the last decade.

Many writers of history who once concentrated on different eras have switched their attention to the founding fathers. For example, Jay Winik, whose acclaimed book about the Civil War,"April 1865: The Month That Saved America," came out in 2001, is now writing a book about the 1790's.

"It's not coincidental that this vogue arose now, in probably the most bitterly divided time since the Civil War," said H. W. Brands, a historian at Texas A&M University and the author of ,"The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin," which was on best-seller lists in 2000.

"When the country is divided along cultural, economic and partisan grounds,'' Mr. Brands said,"people look for a time when we were all together."

Mr. Winik agrees with that analysis."Americans are looking for an anchor," he said."What better anchor can you get than the founding fathers, who made something out of nothing. What is so critical to understand is that they really differed in a number of ways. They had tough, hard debates, jealousies and rivalries. But they came together, and the sum became greater than the individual parts."

As Mr. Ellis toured to promote his book, which is a series of essays about the relationships between and among the founding fathers, he said he realized that people were impressed with the civil, respectful correspondence that Adams and Jefferson, bitter political enemies, conducted for years after they left office.

"It's difficult to comprehend Bill Clinton developing a correspondence with George W. Bush," Mr. Ellis said.

Over the years, views about the founding fathers have risen and fallen with the public mood. In the early 19th century, Americans"spat on the graves of the founding fathers," blaming them for having saddled the country with seemingly irreconcilable problems, Mr. Brands said.

Northerners" called the Constitution a covenant with hell because it allowed slavery," Mr. Brands said."Southerners thought 'all men created equal' was a glittering generality that meant nothing in everyday life."

But during the Reconstruction period, which coincided with celebrations of the country's centennial, people began to look at the founders in a different light - as great men of a golden age, beloved in the North and South alike.

Disdain for the founders was expressed once again at the turn of the 20th century, when some scholars argued these men were guided more by personal financial motives than patriotic impulses. During the days of the civil rights movement, Washington, Jefferson and others were sometimes seen as hypocrites for having owned slaves.

But in times of national crisis, like the two world wars, when Americans"especially wanted to feel unified and good about themselves," Mr. Brands said, the prevailing view of the founders tended to be uniformly positive....

comments powered by Disqus