History Lesson

Rating the Founding Fathers

The reputation market finds Adams up, Jefferson down, and the others holding steady. 

With the 225th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence at hand, the nation’s first leaders—the men (and women) who midwifed America into being—are enjoying a spell of adulation uncommon even for a group so long exalted.

Two well-reviewed best sellers, Joseph J. Ellis’ Founding Brothers and David McCullough’s John Adams, celebrate the founders’ achievements: bravely proclaiming the human right to liberty as a reason for breaking with the British monarchy, defeating the superior British army in battle, crafting the world’s first modern republican government, and weathering the tempests of early nationhood that doomed other infant republics.

Although they’ve always been lionized, in other eras the founders were not quite so sacrosanct. In the 1910s, Charles Beard charged them with subverting the revolution’s ideals to protect their own financial interests. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Bernard Bailyn and other historians exposed the addled conspiratorial thinking beneath the revolutionaries’ Enlightenment rationalism, and the civil rights movement spotlighted their support for slavery. Today, in contrast, a new conventional wisdom holds that these patriots, more even than the GIs of World War II, deserve the title of America’s greatest generation.

Within this collective revival, individuals’ reputations have oscillated. Riding highest now is Adams. Typically he has been seen as a bullheaded curmudgeon, one of the more conservative founders and a middling, one-term president. But, thanks to his biographers, Adams has rebounded. Ellis first gave him a boost in his 1992 book Passionate Sage and sings his praises again Founding Brothers. McCullough, reprising a trick from his 1990 biography of Harry Truman, turns Adams’ crankiness into refreshing frankness, his obstinacy into steadfast principle.

History says as much about the time in which it’s written as about the time it seeks to explore, and Adams has also benefited from today’s fetish for authenticity in politics. Both Ellis and McCullough excuse Adams’ political errors, seeing them as proof of his laudable refusal to posture, and admire his vital 54-year marriage to Abigail. Given today’s interest in politicians’ private lives, this enduring connubial love and fidelity have earned Adams a shower of bonus points.

Adams’ rise has come at the expense of Thomas Jefferson, his longtime foil. Jefferson hailed from Virginia, Adams from Massachusetts. Jefferson favored revolutionary France, Adams sympathized with monarchical Britain. Jefferson led the more democratic Republican Party, Adams the more aristocratic Federalists. As recently as 1996, Jefferson’s stock was up. A bevy of biographers scrutinized his life and ideas, devoting attention especially to his alleged affair with his slave Sally Hemings. Already consecrated (unlike Adams) with a monument in the nation’s capital, in 1996 Jefferson was graced anew with landmark status, in the form of his own Ken Burns documentary

But all that scrutiny found Jefferson wanting, particularly in the areas where Adams is now gaining praise. His ownership of slaves compared poorly with Adams’ opposition to bondage. Where a robust marriage reflected well on Adams, mounting evidence of an affair with Hemings (especially a 1998 DNA test) hurt Jefferson’s reputation—unfairly so since, contrary to some of his “defenders,” there’s nothing shameful in the affair, strictly speaking. Jefferson’s true crime was owning slaves in the first place, and that was never a secret or a mystery.

In the area of political philosophy, Adams’ skepticism about unbounded democracy also looks a bit better these days, at least to those who blame him for the dastardly deeds of right-wing fanatics, such as Timothy McVeigh, who have invoked his more radical statements (“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”). Yet another blow was dealt to poor Jefferson four years ago with Pauline Maier’s book American Scripture, which showed that the Declaration of Independence, considered one of Jefferson’s greatest achievements, in fact drew heavily from many similar proclamations that colonies and towns had issued throughout early 1776. As a final irony, Ellis and McCullough remind us that Adams was the one who picked Jefferson to write the Declaration in the first place.

If Jefferson is facing unwonted hard times and Adams is uncharacteristically popular, then the stock of the other founders is holding steady in the market of public opinion. A few years ago, a handful of admiring books appeared about Alexander Hamilton and the fatal duel he fought with Aaron Burr. The Hamilton boomlet rested on newfound regard for his prescient vision, almost unique among the founders, of an American destiny that included an industrial economy, a strong military power, and a powerful executive leading the federal government. Credit redounded to him, too, for being forthright when the scandal-mongering newspaperman James Callendar (who also attacked Adams and reported Jefferson’s Hemings affair) revealed his liaisons with another man’s wife. James Madison, meanwhile, with somewhat less hoopla, has been justly recognized in recent scholarship as America’s foremost political theorist. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington are awaiting their turns, which will surely come with the publication of biographies by Walter Isaacson and (if scuttlebutt can be trusted) McCullough himself, whose treatment of Washington can only improve upon recent, clumsy attempts to further burnish the general’s already dazzling luster.

So, why this revival of the founders now? Contemporary attitudes toward our own presidents range from indifference to contempt. Since Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, presidents have been cut down to size—their personal flaws and private lives laid bare, their integrity questioned, their capacity for greatness doubted, their achievements judged as small-time. In contrast, men who won the revolution and built the American republic can only look heroic (that is, when we’re not subjecting them to the same vivisection to which we submit our own leaders).

The ascendancy of liberal democracy, after a century of struggle against totalitarianism, also places the founders in an especially favorable light. “Though it seems somewhat extreme to declare … ‘the end of history,’ ” Ellis notes, “it is true that all alternative forms of political organization seem to be fighting a rearguard action against liberal institutions and ideas first established in the United States in the late eighteenth century.” In the 18th century, many Americans did not think the republic would endure—Washington gave the United States 20 years—and the dawn of a second American Century gives cause to reflect on the long odds over which Americans triumphed.

But there’s also a less comforting reason, it seems, for the founders’ current fashionableness: a popular taste for uncritical hero worship. In recent years our culture has taken an anti-intellectual turn. Leaders, including the current occupant of the White House, denigrate science, learning, erudition, skepticism, and critical inquiry; we commend the practical values of efficiency, the rituals of self-help, and the virtues of tradition, authority, and simple religious faith. We search history for role models and moral exemplars.

Thus, when we start with the premise that the founders led exemplary lives, it becomes easy to breeze by their petty feuds, their moral failings, and their stunning hypocrisies. As if singing a happy refrain, we default to a posture of slack-jawed awe before the greatness of their feats—which is, in a sense, the least interesting thing about them. Moreover, when we know that we’re studying the founders in such a spirit of reverence, it then becomes impossible not to suspect something more troubling still: that we end up judging this peculiar band of 18th-century politicians as virtuous, brave, farsighted, brilliant, and heroic solely because that is how we set out to see them in the first place.