Search Results for "so-called "Founding Fathers""

22nd 2012
Today’s example of brainless, fact-free so-called “Founding Fathers” worship

Posted under American history & European history & jobs & race & wankers

And it would have worked too, if it weren’t for you meddling Anti-Federalists!

Today’s example comes from Katherine Kersten, a fellow at something called the Center for the American Experiment in Crappy History.  It’s a twist on the “Obama is not an American” theme so popular with anti-Obamaniacs these days.  Big news, kids:  President Barack Obama’s agenda is not rooted in Kenyan anti-colonialism.  Instead, it’s rooted in Kaiserreich Germany!  Behold:

Progressivism views the roles of citizen and state very differently than our founding fathers did. The founders anchored the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in three principles. They believed that human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inherent in nature and human dignity, and preexist the state. They believed that government should be limited, and that its primary purpose is to protect these rights. Finally, they crafted our Constitution to disperse power and curb its abuse through mechanisms such as checks and balances, and federalism.

As the 20th century opened, progressives like Woodrow Wilson — a former president of Princeton University — dismissed the Declaration and Constitution as outmoded. They insisted that America’s archaic political system was unsuited to solving the problems of a new industrial age. Ironically, however, they drew their own vision for perfecting democracy from a very undemocratic place: the imperial Germany of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Dun-dun-dunnnnnnnnn!  Now, forget about some American intellectuals’ fascination with German education back in the 1870s for just a moment, a phenomenon to which Obama is only very, very distantly attached, to say the least.  Did you see what she did with the so-called “Founding Fathers?”  Continue Reading »


30th 2011
Public intellectual William Lloyd Garrison on the so-called “Founding Fathers” and historic preservation

Posted under American history

Old South Meeting House, Boston

On Wednesday, La Famille Historiann availed themselves of the Downeaster train service from Maine for a whirlwind day trip to Boston.  Because the train took us to North Station, we thought it made perfect sense to pick up the Freedom Trail in the North End and see where it might take us.  Well, friends, we walked it all from Copp’s Hill Burial Ground and the Old North Church, to Paul Revere’s house and the Union Oyster House for a little snack, and then on to Old South Meeting House, King’s Chapel Burial Ground, and all the rest on through Boston Common up to the State House and the memorial to the Massachusetts 54th.  We haven’t lived here since 1997, and a lot has changed over the past 15 years–most notably, the Old Corner Bookstore is (lamentably) a Chipotle.  But, whatever:  Boston is a thriving metropole, and it’s been remaking and rebuilding itself almost since 1630. 

Back in the mid-1990s, I was still a graduate student and so never went into any of the attractions on the Freedom Trail that charged admission.  This time we did it all, paying admissions left and right to make up for my previous cheapskatery and also to support the cause of public history in Boston.  Per the conversation going on in the previous post about who or what is a public intellectual, I was struck by comments about the movement to save Old South Meeting House by the 70 year old William Lloyd Garrison in an 1876 letter to his son Wendell Phillips Garrison, which is included in the Old South museum display.  No one can deny that Garrison is a prime example of the best kind of public intellectual in the American grain.  Wendell Garrison, then about age 35, was apparently an advocate for the preservation of the Old South Meeting House, which is commemorated by its museum now as a site of important civic debates and therefore of the liberty of speech guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.  (He was also the literary editor for The Nation for more than 40 years, nearly to the end of his life.)  Garrison the elder was unimpressed by all of the excitement of the centennial of American independence, and remained an old radical to the end.  (He also made me question my reflexive support for things like historic preservation!)  Here’s Garrison in a letter dated July 21, 1876:

My dear Wendell,

I was none the less gratified to receive your last letter because of its criticisms upon my article in the Independent, and particularly upon my views respecting the preservation of the Old South Church in Boston.  You know that I have always enjoined upon my children to do their own thinking, and never to hesitate in the fullest expressions of dissent from me whenever they should deem me to be in error; and therefore do I commend you in this matter.

Nevertheless, as to my “Centennial Reflections,” as this nation has been the guiltiest of all the nations on the earth since its independence of Great Britain, and as there is no end to the “gush” and “glorification” about its centennial career–the disposition to hide or overlook its criminality being well-nigh universal–I think they were specially called for, so as to rebuke all such blatant folly, and to induce sober reflection.  Too long have “our Revolutionary Fathers” been held up as the noblest of patriots and the truest friends of liberty.  They were too cowardly and too selfish to adhere to the principles they laid down, and, as time-servers and compromisers, they entailed upon their posterity as great a curse as could be inflicted upon any people; and I trust no child of mine will ever fail to recognize their exceeding blameworthiness, or consider a reference to it ill-timed when they are presented for the admiration of the world.

As for the preservation of the Old South Church, I certainly take no special interest in it– Continue Reading »


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.’”  Continue Reading »


2nd 2011
Sausage party, or wiener roast? Founding Fathers/Presidential Chic, again!

Posted under American history & book reviews & Gender & GLBTQ & women's history

David Eisenbach, co-author of One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History along with pR0n king Larry Flynt, has responded to my critique of his book, which was more a critique of the genre than of his book in particular.  As some readers may recall, this was the nut of my comments:

It’s funny (and by funny, I guess I mean LOLSOB) how some analyses (like those offered by the feminists and queers) go from being dangerous, unsourced, risky, out-on-a-limb evidence problems, to being conventional wisdom in about 30 seconds these days.  Too bad for you, historians of sexuality–it looks like you risked your careers, your fortunes, and your sacred honor only to get buried in a footnote in a book by Joseph Ellis or Robert Remini, because those are the only books any authors of popular histories will ever read or cite.

These comments are of course aligned with my overall critique of Founding Fathers/Presidential history, which I explained most recently last summer:

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.)) 

Eisenbach replied to last week’s post on his new book like this: Continue Reading »


28th 2013
Pauline Maier, 1938-2013

Posted under American history & book reviews & unhappy endings & women's history

paulinemaierPauline Maier, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of History at MIT, died August 12 this year at age 75, a fact that this blog failed to note at the time.  (I can’t remember why, except to note that an extended family member of mine like Maier also died of a recently diagnosed lung cancer a few days earlier, so I suppose his death was on my mind instead.)  Mary Beth Norton writes to inform us that she will be speaking at a memorial service for Maier at MIT on Tuesday, October 29 in the Kresge Auditorium at MIT at 4 p.m.

You have to love the fact that in her obituary the Grey Lady 1) helpfully provides the pronunciation of Maier’s surname “(pronounced MAY-er)” and 2) called Maier the “Historian Who Described Jefferson As ‘Overrated’” right in the headline!  Awesome!  All historians should aspire to this irreverence, in my opinion.

The Jefferson-is-overrated comment is a reference to Maier’s brilliant history of the Declaration of Independence called American Scripture (1997).  Many readers and reviewers have failed to note that the title is ironic, given that the goal of Maier’s book was to illuminate the role of the hundreds of state and local declarations of independence that were issued before the Continental Congress got around to writing theirs in the spring and early summer of 1776.  It was a terrific book Continue Reading »


20th 2012
Historiann gets “big laugh” at the OAH, laments the absence of Constitution-burning in today’s politics

Posted under American history & fluff

Unlike Tenured Radical, I’m not in Milwaukee right now, but l’esprit de l’Historiann lives there, apparently!  A correspondent writes that at an Organization of American Historians panel yesterday on the Revolution and its public memory:

Your name came up by Fitz Brundage, the panel’s chair: your memorable line begging historians to stop writing hagiographic books about the founding fathers. Big, appreciative laugh in the room.

I don’t know if the crowd (or Brundage) was laughing at me or with me, but I don’t really care.  (There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?)  I think this is the post she means:

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!

But then, there have been so many posts to this effect on this blog that it’s difficult to pick just one! Continue Reading »


19th 2011
How we teach history? Thoughts on the work of professional historians.

Posted under American history & book reviews & class & Gender & GLBTQ & Intersectionality & jobs & race & students & women's history

Joshua Kim writes at the Technology and Learning blog at Inside Higher Ed that he’s reading and really enjoying Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  Then, unfortunately, Kim makes a whole lot of questionable assumptions about the ways in which history is currently taught or should be taught in university classrooms.

The last time I learned about the Columbian Exchange was in high school. Learning dates and the sequence of events, and getting familiar with maps and geography, was central to my high school history experience. As a history major in college the emphasis on maps, dates, and events diminished, as the work in primary sources came to the forefront.

I can’t imagine 1493will be much required in college history courses, as this type of historical narrative for a popular audience (written by a journalist and not a historian) probably does not conform to how postsecondary history is taught. This is perhaps too bad, as I just did not know most of the history of Columbian Exchange described in 1493.

Learning how to “do history”, to work like historians, is probably not a bad thing. But most history undergraduate students will not go on to graduate school. A book like 1493, a book with strong opinions and lots of dates, geography, people and events, might be an example of the kind of works we should make room for in our history courses.

Kim is probably right that a synthetic work aimed at a popular audience probably won’t be on a whole lot of college and university syllabi.  But why should books aimed at a general audience be taught by professional historians, when students might instead read a more challenging book with a professor on hand to guide them through it?  Students are perfectly free at any point of their college or post-collegiate lives to pick up a book like 1493 and read and enjoy it, just as Kim did.

Quite frankly, I don’t think I need to show my students how to read a book like 1493 or celebratory biographies of the so-called “Founding Fathers” by David McCullough.  Continue Reading »


3rd 2010
Stars & Stripes Forever: Marla Miller’s Betsy Ross and the Making of America

Posted under American history & book reviews & Gender & women's history


I’ve written a long post for this Fourth of July holiday weekend.  It’s a really long one, so feel free to go get a snack and a refill of your festive and patriotic cocktail.  Consider this a follow-up to my latest foot-stamping tirade about the So-Called “Founding Fathers” and the endless production of trade biographies thereof.  Here’s a biography that, while not exactly about a person you’ve never heard of, managed to be the first serious biography of its subject.  

Betsy Ross (1752-1836)–how many of you have thought about her seriously since elementary school?  In Betsy Ross and the Making of America (2010), Marla Miller is candid about the challenges of writing a biography of a person whom most of us–especially professional historians–have long since relegated to the kiddie lit/grade school play bin without a second thought.  Trained as a professional historian in the 1990s, I assumed Betsy Ross was half-myth, half-misguided Colonial Revival fantasy that romanticized colonial women as spinners and seamstresses.  (This is an important theme Miller explored in her first book, The Needle’s Eye:  Women and Work in the Age of Revolution, 2006).

Miller writes in her introduction to Betsy Ross, “when I told people that I was writing the first scholarly biography of Betsy Ross, they usually expressed considerable surprise–surely there’s something out there somewhere?  No scholarly biography of Ross has ever been published; her legend looms so large that her life itself has been largely overlooked.”  There are no Betsy Ross papers–in spite of her half-century of work as an upholsterer and her care for dozens and dozens of extended family members, there are few records of these labors, and none in her own hand.  There are no letters or journals that might provide some insight into her inner life as she endured Revolution, war, and widowhood three times over.  What Miller says about Betsy can be said about most women subjects:  “her descendants saw no need to preserve the letters she wrote, the shop accounts she kept, or any other record of her thought or actions,” 13.

Nevertheless, Miller’s story about the woman known as Betsy, and variously as Griscom (her family name), Ross, Ashburn, and finally Claypoole (her third husband, and the name she kept the longest), is a beautifully written and absorbing tale of the different Bestys, her many families, and of their times in Revolutionary Philadelphia and of the capital city in the Early Republic.  She discovers as much about the real Betsy as can possibly be gleaned from archival, museum, and material sources in this impressive definitive biography.  Continue Reading »


3rd 2015
Gender, history, and best-sellers

Posted under American history & Gender & publication & women's history

See more brilliance at

See more brilliance at

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a so-called “Founding Father” in possession of a good fortune must be in want of the twentieth biography written by a man in this century!

Why do I say this? I was alerted to this interesting fact sheet via Marla Miller on Twitter yesterday.  Go ahead and click it–I’ll wait. Continue Reading »


4th 2014
What’s wrong with this vision of American history?

Posted under American history & class & Gender & race & unhappy endings & women's history

John Judis lists his top ten American history books.  “They’re my favorites; they’re not the best books, because I haven’t read comprehensively, especially in certain periods. It’s much heavier on the history of religion than on social history, and on the Progressive Era than on, say, the Civil War.” Everyone is entitled to her favorite writers and periods of history.  Fair enough.

See if you can guess why Historiann has a problem with this list (aside from the fact that the latest publication date on his list is 1988!):

  1. Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness, (1956).
  2. William McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings and Reform, (1978).
  3. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, (1969).
  4. Michael Paul Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian, (1988).
  5. Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life, (1909). Continue Reading »


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