Fighting Over the Founders

cover53134-mediumAndrew M. Schocket
January 2015

In Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, historian Andrew M. Schocket examines how much of contemporary American political discourse is expressed through the two fundamentally different ways that Americans portray the American Revolution.

Schocket writes that “anything written or spoken about the American Revolution inherently holds political and cultural implications.” This divide hinges on the answers one gives to two fundamental questions:

Is the United States a nation in decline from a golden past, a founding moment of perfection that we can only strive to emulate but are fated to miss the mark? Or did the flawed founders set a standard that they failed but that we are continuing to struggle to approach?

Schocket labels the very different viewpoints that inform the answers to these questions as “essentialist” and “organicist.”

The essentialist view suggests a concept of history as a single text with one discernible meaning and so is inherently conservative in its outlook and in its prescriptions for the Revolution’s contemporary lessons, which often emphasize private property, capitalism, traditional gender roles, and protestant Christianity.

This conservative view is opposed by a more dynamic, less reverential conception of the Revolution:

While the essentialists see a Revolution with a perfect result, organicists believe that Americans are ever in the process of trying to complete a Revolution that the founders left unfinished. They see themselves furthering the never-ending task of perfecting the union through an inclusive multiculturalism that looks to celebrate historical agency in the Revolutionary era and embodies, not eighteenth-century actualities, but the lofty words associated with the Declaration of Independence.

Concentrating on the years from 2000 to 2012, and covering four presidential election campaigns, Fighting Over the Founders looks at, in turn, political speech, publishing,  museums and historical sites, movie and TV depictions for both children and adults, and finally groups like the Tea Party that adopt the trappings and espouse the presumed principles of revolutionary figures.

There is far too much absorbing detail to represent here, so I’ll just pass quickly over some of this engrossing book’s central points.

In almost all contexts, “Conservative candidates tend to invoke an essentialist view of the American Revolution.”

Would-be Republican presidents were often quick to mention the “Founding Fathers” (usually capitalized in official transcripts released by the candidates) and cite their wisdom to suggest that the founding generation, speaking with one voice, offered timeless, inviolable principles that apply directly to contemporary political issues.

In contrast, “Liberal candidates offered potential voters the chance to further ‘perfect the union’ to realize the egalitarian ideals of the Revolution, thus espousing a more organicist view of history and the Revolution.”

Schocket reports that Republican presidential candidates use the phrase “Founding Fathers,” usually capitalized in print, four times more often than Democratic candidates do. These “Founding Fathers” represent a group of hallowed patriarchs who laid down the eternal, conservative principles away from which Americans drift at their national peril. In contrast, in 2008 Hillary Clinton never used this characterization of white, Christian, Anglo-Saxon men. Instead, she referred more simply, and more inclusively, to “founders.”

The use of “founding fathers,” especially as opposed to the more neutral “framers” or “founders,” necessarily suggested a romanticized, white, male-dominated past that some Republican candidates clearly believed held considerable appeal for their audiences.

Schocket notes further that “Essentialism became most pronounced with the assertion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, on precepts consistent with a certain brand of twenty-first-century, conservative evangelical Christianity.” Hw writes that “Appealing to the founding patriarchs has often gone hand in hand with the notion of an eternal, essential American Christian religion. This kind of reference was wholly the province of socially conservative Republicans.”

Organicist Democrats, on the other hand, “tend to see history in terms of progress from a benighted world of slavery and patriarchy to a more egalitarian present and a still better future.” Schocket writes that “Democrats reclaimed the founders’ dreams, rather than their deeds, and the founders’ sense of the Revolution—and by extent, the republic—as a work in progress, rather than a completed act.”

… invoking the “founding fathers” has become coded political language, as has “perfecting the union.” In American politics, the American Revolution is still being waged.

Schocket writes that “founders chic,” the recent publishing boom of books about the “heroes” of the Revolution, “has become an ideological battleground, a proxy war waged by word processor.

For conservatives, “the founders-chic best-seller phenomenon at times presents a gentrified, politically correct neoconfederate America.” But “today’s organicist authors carry on a long tradition of historians plumbing the Revolution for progressive or liberal causes.”

Schocket notes that “the continuing battle over Thomas Jefferson’s relationship to slavery, and with Sally Hemings, reveals how tangled the politics of founder history has become. Jefferson’s reputation among historians has been the most volatile of any of the founders ….”

Essentialist histories continue to emphasize the outsized accomplishments of a few white men establishing a nation but retaining order. In doing so, wittingly or no, they make the political and cultural argument that the United States is a tidy, white, conservative, patriarchal nation. For their part, organicist writers picture a multicultural, forward-thinking and sometimes even radical past, potentially inspiring a more progressive present.

Schocket next examines the often-heated conflicts about the stories that are told by the curators and caretakers of major national historical sites like Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. How much hero-worship? How much, if any, reference to black history, especially slavery?

Especially at the private or foundation-run sites, the political leanings of the owners and donors come directly into play. The best example is Colonial Williamsburg, a recreation of a Revolution-era settlement in Virginia. The donor most responsible for rebuilding Williamsburg was John D. Rockefeller, who “envisioned CW as an essentialist project: a way to restore and celebrate a more pure, more traditional, more homogenous, more heroic America than the one he perceived around him in the 1930s.”

Things changed considerably in 1999, when CW first presented “Enslaving Virginia,” depicting slave life. Schocket approves of the change, judging that “Colonial Williamsburg’s street theater offers the most successful amalgam of organicism and essentialism that I saw in terms of history and tourist engagement.” He contrasts this growth in balance and sensitivity to Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello. “Mount Vernon has embraced essentialist interpretations in a twentyfirst-century, high budget, sophisticated package.” In contrast, “the story of Monticello comprises both that of Jefferson and that of the African Americans who lived there, together and separately.”

One way that site presenters try to appeal to both kinds of interpretation, static “Founding Fathers” and dynamic “developing nation,” is to emphasize the attractively-ambiguous word “freedom.” Schocket writes that “By latching onto ‘freedom,’ institutions can appeal to organicists who value racial and gender equality.” However, he notes, “freedom is also a fundamentally essentialist value in contemporary American culture and politics.” This second kind of “freedom”  is “framed as national freedom, personal freedom, or economic freedom. The celebration of freedom as portrayed at most sites recognizes individuals rather than the mutual obligations between individuals or between individuals and the community.”

Through the portrayal of this narrowed sense of “freedom,” the American Revolution has been made safe for public agencies and for corporate and individual sponsors, co-opted as an endorsement of current social and economic conditions. The celebration of freedom is deeply American and politically correct in its emphasis on racial diversity, a seemingly race-neutral mode of rhetoric that belies the more ugly reality of racial, gender, and class inequality by many objective measures.


The next chapter “notes the tension between the multicultural ethic broadly accepted by many (but far from all) of the creative workers in the film industry, on the one hand, and on the other, the more traditional historical narrative of the Revolution focused on the political and military elites that they rely on, that their corporate parents are comfortable with, and that they ultimately offer to audiences.”

Schocket writes that “there are only a few historical movie genres, and they have less to do with history than with more contemporary issues. World War II and Vietnam War movie genres are now historical, but they both began as contemporary genres rather than historical ones.” He analyzes popular films like the “National Treasure” movies and “The Patriot,” as well as the hit HBO series “John Adams” and  the teaching series “Liberty’s Kids.”

His essential analysis is that while it is sometimes difficult to move beyond essentialism when filming the story of great heroes like Washington and Jefferson, contemporary filmmakers have successfully emphasized what historically have been secondary characters: wives, common citizens and soldiers, and slaves. This broadened focus allows organicist themes to emerge alongside the essentialist hero-worship previously endemic to the genre.

Turning to the judicial and the directly political, Schocket writes that “as the new judicial doctrine of ‘originalism’ and the explosion of the tea party indicate, many Americans want nothing more than to recast the nation in its founders’ images.”

This longing was the conservative response to “living constitutionalism,” the more elastic and progressive interpretations of the Constitituion that dominated the rulings of the Supreme Court until very recent times and provided the legal basis for advances that have reshaped American society. The “originalist” response to cases like Brown (segregation), Miranda (legal rights), and Roe (abortion) was to reassert the Consititution as a timeless and fixed guide to how society should work.

Originalist thought assumes that the Constitution has one, fixed, easily discernable meaning—notwithstanding that eighteenth-century Americans thought differently than we do, lived in a different world than we do, understood language differently than we do, and, crucially, often bitterly disagreed among themselves as to what the words meant. Conservative thinkers added an emphasis on private property and personal liberty and mixed in their particular mode of traditional Christian values.

Schocket argues that each view, “living constitutionalism” and “originalism,” has its weaknesses. The first, which is organicist, risks making new law first and only afterward finding ways to tie it to the Constitution. The second, firmly essentialist, risks a form of “historical ventriloquism,” speaking with presumed authority from two centuries further on about just what the words of the Constitution meant to the framers.

Fighting Over the Founders is an excellent short book. It covers a lot of ground, but it’s always engaging. Schocket’s review of the battle for the framers is necessarily a summary, given the scope of his subject, but I never had the feeling that the main points were either rushed or under-supported.

For those of us who don’t live in the United States, this would be a very good introduction to the emotional battleground that is the unending fight for control of the country’s history.

After all, not only do the victors write the history — sometimes, controlling the history is the victory.