June
18th 2010
Sausage party for the so-called “Founding Fathers”

Posted under: American history, bad language, book reviews, class, Gender, jobs, unhappy endings, weirdness

And why in the h-e-double-hockey sticks are we talking about George Washington?  Again!  (Like we haven’t done that enough for the past 250 years?)

I subscribe to an ancient technology called a “listserv” on early American history.  (You can read it in HTML digest form here.)  It’s mostly totes boring, and only rarely does it address stuff I’m interested in, but wev:  that’s why I have a blog, friends!  In any case, Jesse Lemisch wrote in yesterday to announce Gordon Wood Jumps the Shark!, and linked to a book review in the New York Review of Books in which Wood gets all cranky.  (Someone, alert the media!)  Now, I can attest to the fact that Wood is a perfect gentleman one-on-one, but in the 1990s, more than once I saw him angrily denounce and insult in person and in print, as Dorothy Parker would say, the gamut “from A to B”, of late eighteenth century political historians.  So, getting exercised about Gordon Wood being a big ‘ol meanie is . . . getting exercised about Wood being Wood.

Lamentably, the book review Lemisch links to is for subscribers only, and I’m not going to pay 6 bucks to read it.  (Feel free to do the homework yourself!)  But, the book in question that allegedly has Wood so angry is The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon by John Ferling.  John Ferling writes very glossy, somewhat gossipy, but on the whole completely inoffensive narrative histories about the so-called Founding Fathers.  (I once made the mistake of assigning a book of his in my American Revolution class.  We had absolutely nothing to talk about that week.)  I find this whole fracas a little strange:  a book whose subtitle is “The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon” is insufficiently worshipful of Washington?  Using both Genius and Icon in the title isn’t filiopietistic enough?  Lemisch’s comment on Wood’s review is “Calling Parson Weems! Back to the ‘fifties: sounds like another instance of what David Waldstreicher calls ‘Founders Chic.’” 

. . . or I'll bust a cap in your a$$!

Yeah, that David Waldlestricher, who wrote a book on Benjamin Franklin!  And Lemisch has edited an edition of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography!  Lemisch has more famously written about working-class men (seamen in particular), and although he eschews the label “Marxist,”I think it’s fair to say that he privileges class conflict as an animating force in eighteenth-century America a great deal more than most early Americanists, and infinitely more than the consensus historians like Wood.  Here’s a suggestion, boys:  just stop writing about the so-called “Founding Fathers!”  Stop it!  Stop!  Go find something new, interesting, and utterly undiscovered in the archives, for a change!

Like I said:  “the gamut from A to B” in early American history.  It’s all the so-called Founding Fathers, all of the time.  ((Yawn.))  Now, I’d better get back to my sure-to-be prizewinning book about a little girl who spoke only Wabanaki and French and became a nun. . .  yeah, that’s the ticket to a National Book Award, for sure!

35 Comments »

35 Responses to “Sausage party for the so-called “Founding Fathers””

  1. Susan on 18 Jun 2010 at 8:48 am #

    Well, *I’ll* read the book about the little girl who speaks French and Wabanaki long before I’ll read one about a FF. Harumph.

  2. Historiann on 18 Jun 2010 at 8:53 am #

    Thanks, Susan–can you get on a number of book prize committees, too? (Just wondering.)

  3. bc on 18 Jun 2010 at 9:36 am #

    Waldstreicher’s take on Franklin is pretty scathing and revisionist, its subjects are (in addition to Franklin) slavery and artisans, and the book builds on his article on “Reading the Runaways” (about African-Americans’ ability to “pass”) in WMQ. I understand your argument that historians should stop writing about the Founders (which is essentially an argument that academic historians should do more to ignore publsihers’ market incentives), but it’s hardly the case that Waldstreicher, Ferling, Lemisch, and Wood approach the Founders’ lives in the same way.

  4. Historiann on 18 Jun 2010 at 10:26 am #

    bc–I don’t care so much that historians approach the same 200-year old topic/s differently. I care about the creation of truly brand-new knowledge, and about mocking out these intentionally and purposefully stultifying debates.

    Traditionalism v. “revisionism” on the FF is still just a bunch of guys talking endlessly All About the Founding Fathers. Is there really nothing else going on in our field? Really?

  5. Comrade PhysioProf on 18 Jun 2010 at 10:34 am #

    I subscribe to an ancient technology called a “listserv” on early American history.

    I looooove listservs!

    The best is when some fucknut responds to the entire list to please take him off the list. Then a flurry of people all start responding to the whole list to take them off.

    And then the double plus ultra best part is when after Internet nerd d00d patiently explains on the list how to unsubscribe by sending an unsubscribe e-mail to the list management e-mail address and not the list itself, a bunch more people post “TAKE ME OFF THIS LIST! NOW!”

  6. Indyanna on 18 Jun 2010 at 10:36 am #

    I also got stopped at the paywall in the E-I-E-I-O post yesterday and so never quite figured out what the fluff the big fat fluff was all about. I’ve never been able to understand the compulsion to write biographies about people for whom the introduction must carry the boilerplate rhetorical question “why do we need another biography of…?” even if the author can supply some sort of a rhetorical answer. Or, more generally, the implicit notion that the arts of biography are best applied to subjects about whom we already “know” enough to be sure they “merit” a biography. The best ones are usually about people who even the author doesn’t seem to have heard too much about before they are effectively underway. Biographies should probably be assigned like that famous admissions office question about “…page 288 of your AUTObiography.” Who wouldn’t rather read the fifteenth book-length account of Anacharsis Cloots than, say, the eighty-fifth one on James Madison?

    (While I’m riffing and ranting here, I might also announce a distaste for the ten-page opening chapter that says “little *is known* about the early life of…,” which should be read as an admission that the biographer did the early research while not yet fully awake. Such works–when applied to subjects in the early American field, anyway–usually begin with some middle aged guy stepping through a curtain to announce that “I’ll be your royal governor for the next 218 pages. Can I tell you about our specials tonight?” These can best be gutted. The reconstruction of early lives does not *have* to be psychohistory, the fear of which is what I think (besides indolence) steers authors away from that subject.

    bc makes good points above, viz. that the trade publishing marketplace drives much of this practice and that scholars like Waldstreicher may significantly subvert even an icon like Franklin. But after the pantheonization of most historical actors, even new and disturbing material can often be effectively presented in articles and notes and document formats.

  7. Paul on 18 Jun 2010 at 10:40 am #

    Anecdotally, it seems like Lincoln gets a lot more written about him than Washington (or any other “founding father”), if the books that I catalog are in any way representative.

    These books get written because quite a few people are interested in the subject. I always found the attitude that studying more traditional historical subjects like the “founding fathers” is bad, bad, BAD to be kind of perplexing and insulting. Isn’t there room for studying history from many different angles?

  8. Historiann on 18 Jun 2010 at 11:00 am #

    It’s not “bad bad BAD”, in my view. It’s just reallyreally boring!

    Let’s discuss instead what the purpose is of continually revisiting the same personalities, the same old stories, the same events, albeit with an occasional “fresh” twist. What effect does this have on American historiography (or any historiography, really?) Or, to ask the same question a different way: what are we afraid of if we might talk about new stories, new events, and new people? Are we afraid of new stories? Are we afraid of having to learn something new in which we might not be experts? Are we afraid of disrupting a soothing and heroic nationalist narrative?

    What are we defending when we defend the so-called Founding Fathers? Who and what gets left out of these stories? Why do we leave them out?

  9. bc on 18 Jun 2010 at 11:10 am #

    @Historiann–another intriguing follow-up question is, what effect does the emphasis on the Founders’ personalities have on our current politics? Does it lead to an overemphasis on “character” and quirks at the expense of a serious discussion of policy differences? That’s the _real_ problem with “Founders Chic,” if you ask me–but then again the current state of our politics has many “fathers,” and not just the US history book market.

    Also: I think you can use a biography or “traditional” subject to disrupt a soothing and heroic nationalist narrative. That’s certainly Waldstreicher’s goal with _Runaway America_ and in some ways it was Ferling’s goal in the book that was the subject of Wood’s review. (Ferling argued, as other historians have argued about Lincoln, that Washington was “just another politician,” which is what prompted the sentence in Wood’s NYRB review that got Lemisch up in arms.)

  10. Historiann on 18 Jun 2010 at 11:17 am #

    Good points, bc. I think your questions about contemporary politics goes both ways. We’re all captive to the Imperial Presidency, so it undoubtedly shapes our cultivation and elevation of the SCFF.

    I appreciate that Waldestreicher and Ferling may have found a fresh twist or two on Franklin and Washington. I just think that ignoring them altogether and looking for some genuinely new knowledge can do even more to “disrupt a soothing and heroic nationalist narrative.” “Founding Fathers Are Totes Awesome” versus “Founding Fathers Are Totes Everyday Politicians or Even Douchebags” is not a debate that ranges very widely.

  11. Comrade PhysioProf on 18 Jun 2010 at 11:24 am #

    I think you can use a biography or “traditional” subject to disrupt a soothing and heroic nationalist narrative.

    I read a recent biography of George Mason that was totes like this. I forget who the fuck wrote it, though. Sorry. It was quite interesting.

  12. Notorious Ph.D. on 18 Jun 2010 at 11:47 am #

    I’ve just encouraged a good friend of mine to write a book on the Federalists and Antifederalists in modern political discourse. I won’t take it back (I honestly think it could be a good book), but I will apologetically concede to potentially adding another sausage to an already crowded grill.

  13. Historiann on 18 Jun 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    Oh, noes, Notorious!

    Actually, the book about the SCFFs in modern political discourse is something I would read. It’s the apparently endless mimesis of the SCFFs in the Revolution and Early Republic eras that fries me.

    (WTF is CPP doing reading a bio of George Mason? Is he an ancestor or something?)

  14. Comrade PhysioProf on 18 Jun 2010 at 12:41 pm #

    Nah. I was in the bookstore, and the book cover had a cool-ass painting of some fucking old d00d wearing some colonial shit, so I bought it.

  15. Jesse Lemisch on 18 Jun 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    Funny piece. For the record, I haven’t written about a Founding Father since, OMG, 1961 (when Signet published my edition of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and Other Writings)! But what I wrote was in effect a critical piece. I say, let a thousand flowers bloom.
    PS. Maybe my HNN piece on Gilder Lehrman’s corruption of US history in the N-Y HS Alexander Hamilton exhibit counts, but it’s hardly FFChic.

  16. Historiann on 18 Jun 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    Jesse–you’re a good egg, and you’ve had a heck of a career at 50+ years.

    Mais, Je suis desole que vous avez dit que vous n’etes pas un Marxiste.

  17. Paul S. on 18 Jun 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    I think that the main purpose for frequently revisiting the actions of the FF or any other promising historical figures is because some people are still interested and find the study useful. I don’t think that there’s any ulterior motive, or any desire to suppress the study of any other area of history. I don’t see why there isn’t room for a variety of different approaches without the announcements that people who specialize in a different approach to historical study are wasting everyone’s time and should just stop it.

  18. Western Dave on 18 Jun 2010 at 7:22 pm #

    I expressed my views on this years ago here: http://hnn.us/blogs/comments/5700.html. Although I now have 3 kids, and my daughter no longer plays with tampons. I still hope for the day when I walk into a bookstore and find a whole shelf of books on the history of menstruation.

    Sadly, we stopped assigning Ulrich. It was simply too hard for the kids to process on their own and we’d spend the first week of school helping them understand what they’d often spent way too many hours struggling through. They now read 10 short primary documents.

  19. Paul S. on 18 Jun 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    I forgot to add earlier – I don’t think there’s been a “soothing and heroic nationalist narrative” for several decades at least, so there’s nothing to defend or disrupt on that score. Truthfully, I doubt that there ever really has been.

  20. Western Dave on 19 Jun 2010 at 5:58 am #

    “I don’t see why there isn’t room for a variety of different approaches”

    Paul – Have you been in a bookstore? Finite amount of space. Also, consider what gets reviewed in the mainstream press. There are only so many pages in the NYT book review section. So the let a thousand flower bloom thing doesn’t really work once we start talking about the realities of book marketing, reviewing, and publishing.

  21. Historiann on 19 Jun 2010 at 7:46 am #

    Western Dave–that’s a nice essay. I remember that my brother and I discovered tampon applicators one trash day before it got carried out, and found them to be excellent telescopes! We didn’t know why our mother was horrified, and told us they were “dirty.” (They looked clean to us, since they weren’t covered in filth. Clean enough for a kid!) You make great points about why we find stuff interesting, and implicitly, whose interests are getting served by trade publishers (to tie it all back together.)

    We had a few papers about menstruation at the Berks 2008–from very junior scholars. My sense is that it’s a subject of interest to people working at the intersection of gender, technology, and the body. (I haven’t looked at Andrea Tone’s or Elaine May’s books on birth control/the pill, but they may address it too.) It’s a topic I address in my book, as the Wabanaki practiced menstrual seclusion, so I riff a bit on how colonial English and Wabanaki women probably dealt with menstruation and how that might have looked to a 7-year old girl. As you know from experience, premenstrual girls are keyed into it pretty quickly, and are fascinated by it and the accoutrements. . .

    Just to be clear here: my rant is hardly a call for censorship. People will write and talk about whatever they want. But I think it’s fair to point out how narrow those conversations are.

  22. Shane on 20 Jun 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    As a graduate student in coursework, my major impression of every recent work on the US-Britain revolution (and a good many on the early republic) was that everyone was Very Serious and combative about the stakes of their work. Even the most fascinating works seemed to be constantly embroiled in contentious historiographical debates— of which this post is a perfect example (and more hilarious than most.) And there are historians who do great work on women and people of color in the period, but y’all are always having to work in the neighborhood of founder-chic.

    I’m interested in the period, and particularly in the aspects of it that don’t lend themselves to sausage-party treatments. (I teach the war in Iroquoia via Mary Jemison’s narrative, for example, which helps modify some students’ founders-chic ideas.) OTOH, as a researcher, I have no heart to work in a subfield with this level of animus, and so I decided to write my dissertation on a different time period.

    Historiann, more power to you for hanging in with it. (I’m interested in the Wabanaki-French-speaking girl, too.)

  23. Western Dave on 20 Jun 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    Thank’s for the compliment. Means a lot to me. Is that menstruation stuff for the new book or is it in Abraham in Arms? (which I think I will be looking at for my 10th graders’ sakes)

  24. Historiann on 20 Jun 2010 at 8:50 pm #

    Next book. Sorry! The blood in Abe in Arms is all brutally extracted in the borderlands and imperial wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. (Although, it has lots of the blood of women and children too, not just guy blood!)

    Ugh.

    Shane’s observations are interesting. I’ve never thought of it as a particularly polarized field, but you’re right that there are some longstanding grudges out there that have never made sense to me. But, there were famous semi-feuds between Bernard Bailyn and Jack Greene, and then some bust-ups involving Lance Banning versus Joyce Applebee and then Gordon Wood versus the Whole World. Now, it seems like the heat in my field is all in slavery studies, and the lineup of the white, male, Oxbridge trained dudes versus the African American U.S.-trained women.

  25. Paul S. on 20 Jun 2010 at 9:26 pm #

    I am under the (perhaps false) impression that “founder chic” has been mainly a phenomenon of books written more for a popular than for an academic audience. I thought that the main focus of the majority of academic historians of the Revolutionary period is far from either “great men” or traditional high politics and military history. If that isn’t the case, then I can understand some of the opposition to the study of more traditional subjects in the American Revolutionary period at least a little bit better.

  26. Historiann on 20 Jun 2010 at 9:32 pm #

    Paul, you’d think that academic historians’ and popular historians’ books would look different, but in my view, when they’re about the SCFFs, they don’t! My point here was to point out how suffocatingly narrow are the frames through which many people see early American history. Debates that are like “Geo. Washington: 100% a genius visionary, or only 90%?” seem so fake and artificial to me. My point is that if we get out of this SCFF-centered vision of history–or even the wives or the slaves of the SCFFs–we’ll find a whole lot of new, interesting, and perhaps important stories to tell. But we won’t if we don’t go looking for them.

    But then, my vision of where my field should go is hardly determinative! ((Sigh.))

  27. Paul S. on 20 Jun 2010 at 9:46 pm #

    I’m saying that I thought that the focus in most of American historiography for the last several decades has been away from the elite white men, and that people who do want to study them (as well as traditional political or military history in general) have been on the defensive for a couple of generations now just to justify their relevance. I thought that the writing of biographies for a more popular market was something that people did at least in part because they couldn’t get much attention or respect from their fellow scholars because the subject matter that they studied is no longer respected. It sounds like you think the opposite is true, which makes me curious about the accuracy my impressions.

  28. Shane on 20 Jun 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    The particular “longstanding grudges” you cite weren’t so much visible to me in my several semesters of graduate-seminar reading, but I did get a sense that many people in the field have been fighting these battles for decades. What was clear to me was that now-senior historians I respect got their battle scars (and tenure) via book-length arguments about the importance of taking (mostly white) women’s historical experiences seriously, and that 30+ years later, the field’s still busy in debates that are structurally and ideologically similar. As you say, I’d rather contribute to new knowledge than get tangled up in those debates.

    (Did you see, by the way, that there’s a new tour at Monticello, highlighting the aspects of the architecture designed for enslaved people to work unobtrusively? Given the recent fuss you describe about slavery studies, I’d love to read a historian’s review of it.)

  29. Western Dave on 21 Jun 2010 at 7:04 am #

    It is funny how some of the biggest major rethinkings of Colonial history came out of people who did not identify as Colonialists but as Western US or Native American historians. I’m thinking here of Bill Cronon, Changes in the Land, Richard White’s Middle Ground, and the Dans Richter and Unser. I’m not sure how much these works got attention from “mainstream historians.” I remember there was a lot of hoopla for the White book but then it all seemed to go back to which ff do I admire most?

  30. Historiann on 21 Jun 2010 at 7:46 am #

    Shane–I don’t think that tour does anything really new. I had a similar tour there 15 years ago–this sounds like a rebranding of stuff they already did on that tour. (At least our tour guide pointed out all the ways that the labor of enslaved people was hidden or disguised to support the illusion that Monticello operated by itself.)

    Dave–good points. I think those books are only current for people in those subfields, quite frankly. White’s book is taken seriously by borderlands scholars, but that’s about it right now. (One reason may be that White himself abandoned that line of inquiry, and the last I heard he was writing a history of the transcontinental railroad and focusing much more on environmental history.)

    The SCFF scholars never read or cared much about the books you mention. Your comment helps make my case that the SCFF scholars inhabit a claustrophobic intellectual world, and they’re happy in that tiny, navel-gazing world, I think. (After all, if they took White, Cronon, or Richter seriously, they’d probably change fields and write something new.) For me, the example of Joseph Ellis is particularly instructive. To what extent did his fascination with the SCFFs and their biographies lead him to embroider his autobiography and cast it as more heroic and historic than it actually is? I think a lot of SCFF scholarship and biography is just hero-worship, which seems to me to be an extremely primitive approach to historical scholarship.

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