Reading the Founders’ Minds

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson; drawing by David Levine

It is a truism that history writing tends to reflect the times in which it is written. All history is “contemporary history,” wrote the Italian historian Benedetto Croce, by which he meant that history is seen mainly through the eyes of the present and in relation to its problems. The distinguished American historian Bernard Bailyn agrees that history writing is not mere antiquarianism; he is keenly aware of the present’s need to relate to the past and the power of that need in stimulating historical inquiry and writing. “There is always,” he writes, “a need to extract from the past some kind of bearing on contemporary problems, some message, commentary, or instruction to the writer’s age, and to see reflected in the past familiar aspects of the present.” But without “critical control,” this need, says Bailyn, “generates an obvious kind of presentism, which at its worst becomes indoctrination by historical example.”1

Thus at the beginning of the twentieth century when class conflict was rife—poor versus rich, western farmers versus eastern merchants, soft money versus hard money—it was not surprising that history writing about the American Revolution and the formation of the Constitution tended to express these turbulent social circumstances. Historians like Carl Becker and Arthur Schlesinger Sr. wrote about class conflict in the Revolution and Charles Beard attempted to show that the Constitution grew out of a struggle between different kinds of property interests.

Since our greatest domestic issue over the past half-century has been race relations, it was inevitable that historians would look back at the sources of our race problem and write the fullest and richest accounts of slavery in America that we have ever seen. It was inevitable too that our recent accounts of the Revolution and the founding of the nation would reflect our increased understanding of the importance of slavery to the history of America. Indeed, there is hardly a book now written about the founding of the nation that does not place the problem of slavery at its center. So in recent years we have had Leonard L. Richards’s The Slave Power (2000); Don E. Fehrenbacher’s The Slaveholding Republic (2001); Paul Finkelman’s Slavery and the Founders (2001); Garry Wills’s “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power (2003); Alfred W. Blumrosen’s and Ruth G. Blumrosen’s Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution (2005); and Gary Nash’s Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (2006). Now we have these additional two books under review to help satisfy the seemingly insatiable desire of many historians today to place slavery at the heart of America’s origins.

Thanks to the works of these historians and many others, we now know more about slavery and the founding of the nation than previous generations of historians ever thought possible. But is all this new historical knowledge true to the reality of the past? Have the…

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