Founders & Keepers

Every month, it seems, we have a new book on one or another of the founders who more than two hundred years ago created the United States. This is something peculiarly American. No other major nation celebrates its past historical characters in quite the way we Americans do, especially characters who existed two centuries ago. We want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action or what George Washington would think of the invasion of Iraq. The British don’t have to check in periodically with, say, either of the two William Pitts the way we seem to have to check in with Jefferson or Washington. Americans seem to have a special need for these historical figures in the here and now. Although Americans understandably have had a continual interest in the Revolutionary period, the recent flood of popular histories and biographies of the founders seems unusual. What’s going on?

To get some answers to this question The American Scholar in its spring 2005 issue polled eight scholars. Some of them thought quite sensibly that the interest in the Revolutionary generation has to do with national identity. The identities of other nations, say France or Germany, originated so long ago they are usually taken for granted (which is one reason why such nations are having greater problems with immigrants than we’re having). But Americans became a nation in 1776, and thus in order to know who we are we need to know who our founders were. That’s true enough, but since we’ve had problems of identity for two centuries, why this recent special interest in the founders? Is there something different about the past two decades that accounts for the founders’ popularity?

Other scholars have suggested that the recent interest in famous figures of the eighteenth century might have something to do with cycles of history writing. The generation of historians dating from the 1960s wrote social and cultural histories that concentrated on people in the past who had often been forgotten—women, slaves, and the poor who were at the bottom of society. Now, it is suggested, historians have swung away from that kind of history and are writing more traditional narrative histories about leaders and elites. But this explanation doesn’t seem quite right. Most academic historians haven’t yet changed their approach to the past; they continue to write social and cultural histories concerned with questions of race, class, and gender.

In fact, most if not all of the recent histories and biographies of the founding era have been written not by specialists in the eighteenth century but by biographers and historians who more or less ignore the esoteric debates the academics have among themselves. That is one reason at least for their wide readership. No doubt most academic monographs by their very nature have limited numbers of readers, but their being poorly written makes it all the more difficult for them to find readers. Whatever the limitations of the recent …

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