October
21st 2009
WWT”FF”T? And who wants to live in their world, anyway?

Posted under: American history, Gender, race, unhappy endings

What would the “Founding Fathers” think? Newt Gingrich thinks they’re all rolling over in their graves because of President Barack Obama’s policies:

Says Gingrich (via The Daily Beast):  “I think all of the ‘Founding Fathers’ would have said, if you have government this big, it’s going to be really dumb, it’s going to have large sections of corruption, it’s going to waste a lot of money, and it’s going to be a threat to your freedom, and I think all of the ‘Founding Fathers’ would be appalled.”

I get it that Gingrich is making a political point rather than a serious point in a graduate seminar, but it really grinds my gears to hear comments like these that denature and flatten the early Republic to a period of ideological and political consensus, rather than the vicious brawl that it was (with some duels tossed in for good measure).  “I think all of the ‘Founding Fathers’ would be appalled.”  As if.  Isn’t this the guy who’s supposed to have a Pee Aitch Dee in History? 

My bet is that Alexander Hamilton and most of the Federalists would be well pleased by the firehose of government money flooding Wall Street in the past year under both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.  (Hamilton might be rubbing his hands with glee, but even he might be embarassed by this scale of looting of the treasury.)  And although a fellow Federalist, President George Washington might well ask why we “quit our own to stand upon foreign ground,” vis-a-vis our two ongoing foreign wars.  The Antifederalists like Thomas Jefferson, whose electoral strength was in the South and West, would probably be appalled by these modern times–but it would be hard to say which would shock these slaveowners more:  the close alignment of the federal government with moneyed interests, or the fact that an African American man is president.  They probably wouldn’t be too impressed by either Presidents Bush’s or Obama’s records on defending the Bill of Rights–although there is good news to report back to the eighteenth century:  at least the Third Amendment is safe! 

This brings me to the second reason to be skeptical of grand political arguments that begin with the expression, “The Founding Fathers would have thought . . .”  Let’s not romanticize the early Republic, m’kay?  This is a period in which the modest revolutionary promise of the 1770s was thoroughly and utterly strangled.  Maybe this is why I’ve never been drawn to do research in this period:  I find it to be an utterly depressing and demoralizing period in American history, but many people like to pretend it was totally awesome for every American, when clearly, it wasn’t:  there’s ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in the Northwest Territory and later in Cherokee country, Anglo-American women are being told to shut up and sing louder about how awesome things are, and get this:  slavery is going to become even more dehumanizing and unendurable!  More African American families will be further destabilized because of the invention of the Cotton Gin and the expansion of cotton culture into the Old Southwest.  States like Maryland and Virginia that have been aggressively farmed since the seventeenth century discovered that their most profitable export crop would be slaves.  (Yes, I know things sucked before 1770, too–but don’t stop me, I’m on a roll.) 

It’s not just Newt Gingrich and guys like him who romanticize the period–the dominant historiography of the early Republic is largely celebratory because it’s still focused on the white, elite, male minority and their politics.  Ah, Ça Ira!  Ça Ira!  Ça Ira!  Ça Ira!  (Loose translation:  Hope!)

34 Comments »

34 Responses to “WWT”FF”T? And who wants to live in their world, anyway?”

  1. JJO on 21 Oct 2009 at 9:35 am #

    B-b-but Gordon Wood tells me that except for “Indians, blacks, women, or perhaps displaced craftsmen” everything was TOTALLY AWESOME in the early republic, and that only social historians obsessed with the excluded and marginal fail to accept that “ordinary people” came to dominate emerging American society “to a degree not duplicated by any nation in modern history.”

    Heh. I still use that article to introduce my Early Republic grad class, just because I have so much fun beating up on it.

  2. perpetua on 21 Oct 2009 at 9:48 am #

    This one’s for the white guys out there – white men were of course also marginalized in the early republic, not only “displaced craftsmen” but every man who COULDN’T VOTE because there was no universal suffrage even for white adult men, because many of the beloved founding fathers despised ordinary folk and thought they should have no voice in their government.

    Gingrich’s type of delusional re-reading of history is what leads people to assert that Jefferson was some kind of Bible-thumping born again Christian.

    I’m so glad I’m not an Americanist, because popular renderings of US history would make me have a stroke. I already have a hard enough time when I hear those god-awful arguments in favor of public monuments of the 10 commandants using the argument that this was a “foundational document” in the evolution of western law. Um, not really, dude (and by “not really” I mean not in any way).

  3. Tom on 21 Oct 2009 at 10:10 am #

    Off topic, I know, Historiann, but your post reminded me that among our collections is a 1906 postcard with a photograph of a statue of Lincoln, upon which the sender has written “Would he be a Republican today? I think not!”

    Of course, if the founding fathers were alive today, they’d all be well into their third century (and Franklin into his fourth?), and I doubt they’d have much coherent to say (see Swift’s discussion of the immortals in Gulliver: Book III, I think). But always people (i.e., most public discourses) see the past as monolithic and lacking in diversity (esp. diversity of opinion, but not only that). In short, we stereotype the past shamelessly.

    What Gingrich’s ability to deploy this particular rhetorical strategy really seems to mean is that the FFs (can we call them “Brave Founding Fathers” or something so we can abbreviate to BFF?) are so remote that they function in our cultural imagination as a unit, in which their diversity is occluded.

    But the best response to Gingrich is that, of course, the FFs are not alive to see today’s events: only we are, and its only our opinions that matter. Gingrich is simply playing that old but pointless game: how would history be different if history were different?

  4. Tom on 21 Oct 2009 at 10:12 am #

    I should say, “How would history be different” makes a great premise for a science fiction novel, but it’s not much use otherwise.

  5. Clio Bluestocking on 21 Oct 2009 at 10:17 am #

    Everytime that I hear the Founding Fathers invoked in this exact “WWJD” way, I am reminded of “Jurassic Park.” At the beginning, the characters were all, “cool! Dinosaurs are groovy!” Then, the dinosaurs start acting like dinosaurs, eating one another up and devouring humans.

    I always thought that there should be a Jurassic Park for history. Everyone would think, “cool! The Founding Fathers are so brilliant!” Then, the Founding Fathers would start acting like 18th century, elitist, white men, eating one another up and devouring anyone not like them (figuratively speaking, of course!).

    Then, again, I began to worry that people like Gingrich would begin to think, “total oppression of women, African Americans, Native Americans, the working class? None of this pretending to care what they think? What great ideas!”

  6. perpetua on 21 Oct 2009 at 10:24 am #

    @ Clio – I totally agree! I was thinking when I wrote my comment “Would ANYONE want to live in the 18th c?!” Then I realized – Oh, Gingrich would. Is the WWTFFD argument then a sort of repackaging of the idea that we should return to an era of complete elite white male domination?

  7. quixote on 21 Oct 2009 at 11:22 am #

    (This is just fan mail. I love this site. And it’s not just the posts, but all the further illuminating comments from other historians. Why couldn’t my history classes have been like this? I might not have become a biologist.)

    (Oh, and Clio? The Jurassic was nothing like Jurassic Park either. That predator to prey ratio, just for starters. Pure Hollywood.)

  8. Caleb on 21 Oct 2009 at 11:36 am #

    Let’s also not forget that at least some of the Founding Fathers would roll in their graves if they could hear Americans basing political arguments on the authority of the past and the wisdom of people in their graves. Isn’t that the kind of thing Paine and Jefferson were always in a tizzy about?

  9. Tenured Radical on 21 Oct 2009 at 11:48 am #

    I think the Founding Fathers would want to know what household Barack Obama had escaped from, and seek to return him there post-haste.

  10. Indyanna on 21 Oct 2009 at 12:07 pm #

    How soon did you have to bail out to still be considered a “Founding Father?” The comparabilities between the 1790s and today seem to me to be quite manifest, especially on the speculative and bubblific side of the ledger. Who didn’t have a hand in ten thousand acres of Yazoo stock or paper shares in some start-up manufactory scheme? I think a lot of those guys would have been right at home in a world of credit swap default debentures. As Newt just said, you can’t just keep spending money you don’t have and expect to survive. Right. He should have told that to Lehman Brothers.

    Newt himself seems like a sort of DiPLODicus, grazing morosely knee deep in an Allegheny bituminous swamp and wishing he had a little more Rex in him (instead of a little of him inside of some nearby Rex). That’s also the first time I ever laid eyes on this guy “Hannity,” who grew up in a house right next to one that I grew up in, although several years after we moved out.

  11. Historiann on 21 Oct 2009 at 12:15 pm #

    I hope I won’t offend my conservative readers by saying that Sean Hannity is probably the dimmest guy on TV. Glenn Beck is pretty stupid, but I get the impression that teh stupid is just part of his schtick. Whereas I think Hannity really means it. (Teh stoopid, that is.)

    Gingrich is not stupid, but his invocation of “all” of the “Founding Fathers” as being of one political and ideological persuasion is just crushingly stoopid.

    I like JJO’s invocation of Wood’s “displaced craftsmen.” You don’t love this early Republic? We’ll you’re displaced, or downright un-American. (I keep reading that as “discalced” for some reason. I like the notion of the “discalced shoemaker,” a la Al Young’s George Robert Twelves Hughes, who was as poor as a churchmouse and probably in fact a frequently discalced shoemaker.)

  12. Historiann on 21 Oct 2009 at 12:16 pm #

    Oh, and p.s. to quixote: thanks!

  13. Paul on 21 Oct 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    Some people definitely elevate the “founding fathers” too much, treating them as if they were all geniuses with unique insights into just about everything – and ignoring how much they disagreed with each other. Given how common this view is, politicians on both sides of every issue like to claim that the “founding fathers would agree with me”, etc.

    On the other hand, I definitely don’t agree with the “they’re a bunch of dead white guys so they don’t have anything useful to say about anything” school of thought, either. (I’m not saying that anyone here necessarily thinks that, just that it’s a pretty common viewpoint.)

  14. Historiann on 21 Oct 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    Paul, right on. I don’t think the “Founding Fathers” are useless–in fact, I wish our political leaders thought more and more thoughtfully about them. But that’s not what’s going on with Gingrich here.

    We all play the WWT”FF”T game, I’m guessing–but for every “FF” who might agree with me on an issue, there’s another who would disagree.

  15. Indyanna on 21 Oct 2009 at 1:29 pm #

    We should compile a list of “outerbelt” FFs, the ones who keep getting conveniently deaccessioned (like Pluto) when the pundit class decides to turn big “innerbelt” names into ventriloquist puppets for their own ideas. Like whatabout my Alleghenian neighbor here, Harmon/Herman Husband (1724-1795), for example, an outside-adjectator if there ever was one, from Delmarva to the Carolina backcountry to the hearth of the Whiskey Rebellion? A Forgotten Founder if there ever was one.

  16. John S. on 21 Oct 2009 at 1:47 pm #

    Hey, the 3rd Amendment doesn’t protect itself! As an early Americanist, this is one of my favorite Onion stories ever: http://www.theonion.com/content/news/third_amendment_rights_group

  17. Historiann on 21 Oct 2009 at 2:28 pm #

    Dr. Mister and I host an occasional Fourth of July bash whose purpose is to raise awareness of our forgotten Third Amendment rights.

    NO QUARTERING, OR DEATH!

  18. HistoryMaven on 21 Oct 2009 at 3:18 pm #

    Discalced! Oh, thank you, thank you. Now when I sit with my baseball buds I can talk about “Discalced Joe Jackson.”

    In my little home town cemetery stands a gravestone to a “Veteran of the Whiskey Rebellion.” During graduate school I interned at Independence National Historical Park and inventoried all the stuff–oops! artifacts–in City Tavern. I learned that the Founding Fathers partied harder than my graduate student cohort. And with more top shelf booze. What would Newt say?

    Likely made living in the 18th century all the more endurable. Imagine the discussions after a punch bowl of punch from the Schuylkill Fishing Club:

    * 3/4 cup superfine sugar
    * 5 cups water
    * 3 cups dark rum
    * 3 cups fresh lemon juice
    * 3 cups brandy or cognac
    * 1 pint peach brandy
    * 2 peaches, peeled and sliced

  19. Historiann on 21 Oct 2009 at 3:56 pm #

    HistoryMaven: excellent contribution to our recipe file. That’s some powerful punch–but the thing that’s getting me is the 3 CUPS of fresh lemon juice. Talk about repetitive motion injury! There must have been lots of Philadelphia tavernkeepers (or barmaids, or slaves owned by tavernkeepers) with sprained wrists or carpal tunnel syndrome from all of that lemon squeezing.

  20. thefrogprincess on 21 Oct 2009 at 5:24 pm #

    Oh yes this line of thought: so pernicious and infuriating, so utterly insensitive to anybody not a white rich able-bodied man, such nonsense. Gingrich may have a PhD (though not in American history, if I remember correctly) but the idea that the Founding Fathers (as one block group) thought this and that and never held any opinions we now consider offensive or unsavory is certainly lurking in our elementary, middle, and high school curriculums. What really bothers me is when this stuff shows up at church. The Thomas Jefferson=born-again Christian stuff is no urban legend; the last time I went to the Southern Baptist church I grew up in, I heard that exact line being spouted by a PhD-holding pastor. Guess the whole deist thing and that minor business with Sally Hemmings doesn’t matter at all…

    I’m always surprised when I hear people say in all seriousness that we’re getting away from the great country our Founding Fathers founded or the newer version of this statement, Obama doesn’t love this great country. Great for whom? I always wonder because it’s only recently that this country has been “great” for people who look like me and frankly, it still isn’t “great,” whatever that means.

  21. Indyanna on 21 Oct 2009 at 5:56 pm #

    Watch that punch, folks. I once worked in a historical capacity for a federal agency and had two bosses; an o.k. boss and a bad boss. One Christmas, Bad Boss held a party for the personnel in his house on the grounds of the agency facility and I said what the heck and went. He served a huge bowl of “Philadelphia Fishhouse Punch,” which was exactly the stuff above. Before long I was having a fluid and animated conversation with the Chief Ranger, which should have been danger signal no. 1. Suddenly I realized I was in trouble and rushed up a nearby stair to the bedroom floor looking for a bathroom in which to recycle the punch. I was confronted with three doors, only one of which could have been the bathroom, and with no time to analyze the matter, I opened the one with the louvered door and…. recycled the punch into the main cylinder of Bad Boss’s cylindrical vacuum cleaner! I was later found resting in a sort of stupor on the top step of the stairs, too late to catch a bus or train back home. So Bad Boss had no choice but to offer to put me up in the guest bedroom. I slept like a sobering fish and the next morning I had to sit through breakfast with Famille Bad Boss, all the while wondering how soon they would think about firing up the vacuum to straighten up from the party. I fled as soon as I could and have never gone near that stuff again. I also never heard from the guy about any problems with the vacuum, though.

  22. Comrade PhysioProf on 21 Oct 2009 at 6:17 pm #

    That stuff sickens me as well. Anyone who has devoted even the slightest actual attention to the constitutional convention and the ratification debates knows that WTFWT”FF”T is about as cockamamie a basis for assessing current policy as WTFWT”TF”T.

    Of course, far-right-wing plutocrat scuzbuckets like Gingrich know this full well, and are just piggybacking on “Whoah, those dudes are, like, totally on the money. They must, like, totally be teh awesum!”

  23. Hotshot Harry on 21 Oct 2009 at 7:42 pm #

    I rather expect such crap from Hannity, Beck, Gingrich and the like, and I take a warped kind of solace in knowing that, well, of course they say this–they’re idiots. No normal, thoughtful, sane, educated person would say something even close to this. Then I remember Joe Ellis.

    Historiann, I think it is high time for the creation of an award. Or perhaps several awards. But one in particular: the award for Highest Achievement in Historical Violence and Asshattery. I’ll get working on the trophy….

  24. Rad Readr on 21 Oct 2009 at 8:07 pm #

    Another great post, Historiann! I wonder if any FF used a phrase that approaches “it’s going to be really dumb.”

    In lit crit we don’t much use the term “the early Republic” but I must admit to having a soft spot for it. There’s an aesthetic appeal. Reminds me of antique furniture.

  25. Paul S. on 21 Oct 2009 at 8:19 pm #

    On a tangent, I grew up practically within a stone’s throw from the birthplace of the guy generally credited with inventing the cotton gin (although he spent the majority of his life elsewhere). Eli Whitney is definitely the most prominent figure of the early U.S. to come from my hometown. Since his invention may have helped reinvigorate slavery in the USA by making cotton growing much more profitable, I’ve generally considered it prudent not to brag too much about this local success story.

    I think that some historians now claim that Whitney didn’t actually play such an important role – he may have gotten some of his ideas from others, and a couple of other inventors developed their own cotton gins around the same time, and at least one of them was a better design than Whitney’s (which ended up being the most widely used design). So maybe the fame and the blame are both exaggerated.

  26. Lance on 22 Oct 2009 at 3:17 am #

    It was magical to read this thread last night even as I watched the episode of 30 Rock where Tracy learns that Thomas Jefferson was his ancestor, and then dreams that he meets Jefferson after a paternity test on the Maury Povitch show. When Jefferson (played by Alec Baldwin) walks on stage and is booed, he flips the double bird to the audience. WWTFFD? Indeed. We should put that episode in Gordon Wood’s hat and smoke it.

  27. Historiann on 22 Oct 2009 at 7:49 am #

    Heh. Jefferson on Springer/Povitch/Tyra Banks. People don’t realize that the “Founding Fathers” would look more like John Edwards now than the “Founding Fathers” of sacred memory.

  28. Liz2 on 22 Oct 2009 at 2:03 pm #

    For the record, Gingrich’s thesis was “Belgian Education Policy in Congo 1945-1960″. Please don’t ask me why I know that, I have to live with the shame…

  29. Historiann on 22 Oct 2009 at 2:44 pm #

    Liz2–I remembered that. Since his Ph.D. was from the 1970s, that would barely have qualified as history, right? Can’t we palm him off on Political Science?

  30. Indyanna on 22 Oct 2009 at 8:11 pm #

    I’m looking at a copy of Vol. 1 of the 1978 Edition of _Directory of American Scholars_, p. 244, and the entry for Newton Leroy Gingrich gives his research specialties as: “Futurism, process of change, management and communications.”

  31. Paul Zummo on 23 Oct 2009 at 9:34 am #

    My bet is that Alexander Hamilton and most of the Federalists would be well pleased by the firehose of government money flooding Wall Street in the past year under both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.

    No, they most certainly would not be well pleased. I know it’s the standard argument that Hamilton was some big government pushing monarchist, but he did not advocate a government that reached into every nook and cranny of American life. He desired a more energetic and efficient government, but one that was efficient in carrying out its limited powers. Perhaps Newt is guilty of slight hyperbole here, but I think that his general take on what the Framers would have thought of such out of control spending is generally on the mark.

  32. Rad Readr on 24 Oct 2009 at 3:46 pm #

    In response to Paul Zummo, How did we go from “flooding Wall Street” to “government that reached into every nook and cranny of American life”? For those of you whose American life is on Wall Street, then celebrate your big bonus this weekend!

    As far as “out of control spending,” man there are lot of Lexi and BMW (5 series) in my county!

  33. The jaw-dropping stupidity of opinion journalism today : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 23 May 2010 at 9:13 am #

    [...] in 1801 to “prove” that the U.S. has always been about free enterprise.  (Because as we’ve already established, many editorialists, especially of the conservative variety, are apparently incapable of recognizing or understanding the fact that there was no such thing [...]

  34. Monday Meanderings « Blue Lyon on 24 May 2010 at 6:41 am #

    [...] Jefferson in 1801 to “prove” that the U.S. has always been about free enterprise.  (Because as we’ve already established, many editorialists, especially of the conservative variety, are apparently incapable of recognizing or understanding the fact that there was no such thing [...]