Calling All Founding Fathers

[Cross-posted at Revise & Dissent]

I am currently making my way through Gordon Wood’s new book of essays on the Founding Fathers, titled Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different.  There are a number of things that I like about Wood’s scholarship.  While his recent books are accessible to a general audience [see The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin and to a lesser extent The Radicalism of the American Revolution] he hovers just below the level of the more popular historians such as David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  His books are written clearly, but they maintain a certain analytical rigor that raises the quality of his work to a higher levelThis combination means that I can easily use Wood’s essays in my AP US History courses.  My students enjoy reading his articles, and more importantly, they help with focusing the class on important points of discussion.

Wood’s place just below the tier of popular historians is played out in that wonderful scene in the Harvard Square bar in the movie Good Will Hunting.  In this scene Will (played by Matt Damon) confronts Clark, who is a graduate student in history, and who has just asked Will’s friend a difficult question about the market economy during the Colonial period in hopes of impressing two young girls who are listening in on the conversation.  At this point Will enters the discussion:

WILL: Of course that’s your contention. You’re a first year grad student. You just finished some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison prob’ly, and so naturally that’s what you believe until next month when you get to James Lemon and get convinced that Virginia and Pennsylvania were strongly entrepreneurial and capitalist back in 1740. That’ll last until
sometime in your second year, then you’ll be in here regurgitating
Gordon Wood about the Pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming
effects of military mobilization.

CLARK: (taken aback) Well, as a matter of fact, I won’t, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of–

WILL: –"Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inheriated wealth…" You got that from "Work in Essex County," Page 421, right? Do you have any thoughts of your own on the subject or were you just gonna plagiarize the whole book for me?

It’s a wonderful scene in the movie and as everyone knows this is his introduction to the Skyler character played by Minnie Driver.  This is the kind of publicity that most academic historians can only dream about, but later on in the movie Wood is overshadowed by another historian who turns out lived next to Matt Damon’s family in Boston.  The scene is set in Sean’s office (Will’s psychologist and played by Robin Williams) in which they are discussing various books that line his shelves.  At one point they get to a history book when Will comments: "If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s "A People’s History of the United States." That book will knock you on your ass."  If I remember correctly, Zinn’s book enjoyed a few weeks on the NYT’s best-seller list following the release of the movie. 

Even more than Wood’s accessibility, I especially appreciate his focus on trying to understand the Founders on their own terms, warts and all.  His judgments tend to be even-handed, never wanting to simply measure their success morally or politically by our own standards.  After all they did not occupy our world and many of them would have found it impossible to anticipate the logical consequences of their actions. 

One of the more interesting chapters in Revolutionary Characters is on James Madison.  Wood addresses the debate over the apparent inconsistency in Madison’s political thought between his support for the new Constitution and his shift to a states’ rights position by the end of the century.  Scholars have struggled to explain this shift or whether there ever was in fact a shift in his thinking.  Wood takes Madison at his word who maintained to the end of his life that he had remained consistent and that it was Hamilton who had abandoned him.  According to Wood, "There were really not two James Madisons":

How to explain the consistency in Madison’s thinking?  First of all we have to get back to the eighteenth century to understand exactly what he was trying to do in 1787.  It may be that we scholars have been attributing far more farsightedness to him than he was in fact capable of.  In our eagerness to make Madison the most profound political theorist not only in the revolutionary and constitution-making period but in all American history as well, we may have burdened this eighteenth-century political leader with more theoretical sophistication than he or any such politician can bear.  We want him to be one of the important political philosophers in the Western tradition.  If the English have Hobbes and Locke, and the French have Montesquieu and Rousseau, then we Americans at least have Madison. (155)

It turns out, according to Wood, that although Madison called for a strong central government – initially by introducing the Virginia Plan – that would act as a check on the states, he was not looking to prop-up the kind of government that Hamilton and the other Federalists created in the 1790′s.  And that government was nothing less than a "real modern European type of government with a bureaucracy, a standing army, and a powerful independent executive." (165)  There was in the end nothing inconsistent between wanting the new government to check what he perceived to be the "endless quibbles, chicaneries, perversions, vexations, and delays of lawyers and demi-lawyers" in the state assemblies and the creation of Hamilton’s "modern war-making state."

What I find so valuable about Wood’s focus, which also explains why his publications are so useful in the classroom, is that he ignores the presentist obsession with how the Founders apply to today’s world.  Whether you agree with his conclusions and why is worth debating, but Wood forces his readers to step out of the modern world.  We assume they created a government and in doing so anticipated the drastic changes that have come to define this nation’s history.  Another way of getting at my point is in noticing the importance that contingency plays in his writing.  The Founders were uncertain as to what they were creating and differed widely over the Revolution’s success.  Wood constantly reminds the reader throughout the chapter on Madison that as much as his Virginia Plan and Federalist Papers anticipated modern politics that he was still deeply committed to maintaining elements of a pre-modern world.  In other words, as much as they were looking forward, they were at the same time holding on to important aspects of their pasts.  This is an incredibly valuable point to make in the classroom in attempting to get students to think about the dramatic changes that the Founders helped bring about and whose consequences could barely be seen.  I use Wood in the classroom to bring home the importance of stepping out of your own shoes when you study any aspect of history. This to me is a crucial part of the imaginative process that is so important for students of history to grasp.

I was recently reminded of this when I stumbled across a blog for Richard Brookhiser’s new book What Would the Founders Do: Our Questions Their Answers.  Here is a description of the book:

What would George Washington do about weapons of mass destruction? How would
Benjamin Franklin feel about unwed mothers? What would Alexander Hamilton think
about minorities in the military? Would Thomas Jefferson support assisted
suicide?

Examining a host of issues from terrorism to women’s rights to gun control,
acclaimed historian Richard Brookhiser reveals why we still turn to the Founders
in moments of struggle, farce, or disaster—just as Lincoln, FDR, Martin Luther
King, Jr., and Bill Clinton have done before us.

In the only book of its kind, Brookhiser uses his vast knowledge of the
Founders and of modern politics to apply their views to today’s issues.
Brookhiser also explores why what the Founders would think still matters to us.
After all, the French don’t ask themselves, “What would Charlemagne do?” But
Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams and all the rest have
an unshakeable hold on our collective imagination. We trust them more than
today’s politicians because they built our country, they wrote our user’s
manuals—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution—and they ran the
nation while it was still under warranty and could be returned to the
manufacturer. If anyone knows how the U.S.A. should work, it must be them.

I find this approach to be laughable.  (Amazon is selling both Brookhiser and Wood together for a special price, which is interesting.) The book is the result of the very popular questions that Brookhiser has had to answer on book tours from people wanting to know where the Founders stand on various issues.  I would much rather see Brookhiser respond to the point that he himself makes above which is that people in other countries do not obsess about equivalent historical figures in their own countries as we do with the Founders. Why is that?  Wood addresses this briefly at the beginning of Revolutionary Characters:

The awe that most of us feel when we look back at them is thus mingled with an acute sense of loss.  Somehow for a brief moment ideas and power, intellectualism and politics, came together–indeed were one with each other–in a way never again duplicated in American history. (9-10)

What Brookhiser seems to miss in the basic assumption underpinning his book is that it is a mistake to pick the Founders out of their material/cultural/political/economic world.  The error is even more egregious given that there is no doubt little attempt to understand their world. In the end we learn much more about Brookhiser than anything about the Founding Fathers.  I want to understand the Founding Fathers as they understood themselves
and am not interested in what they have to say to us today. 

I’ve thought about introducing an exercise along these lines in my classes.  The idea would be to ask my students to spend some time debating what various Founders might say about our own problems.  Here is why I’ve resisted.  First, I am much more interested in hearing what my students think about these problems.  More importantly, however, this obsession with the Founders fits too neatly into our tendency to look to others to solve our problems.  Go to any major bookstore and look at the size of the Self-Help section.  It is one of the largest and reflects how easy it is for most people to surrender to others the task of thinking for yourself through both personal and other external issues.

I am under no illusion that the "noble dream" of objectivity is possible, but it seems apparent to me that we can distinguish between historians who take seriously the task of trying to suspend their own values and assumptions about the past in hopes of gaining a glimpse of a very different time and place as opposed to using them for our own partisan purposes.   Historians like Gordon Wood introduce enthusiastic students of history to a group of men who lived during exciting times.  In the process students learn a great deal about individuals who helped bring about our modern world even if they did not fully anticipate or embrace itIt is in that little pocket of contingency and uncertainty where real historical understanding awaits.

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Museum of the Confederacy In Financial Trouble

Today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch reports the following:

The Museum and White House of the Confederacy, struggling financially for
several years, got more bad news yesterday with the General Assembly’s approval
of a two-year state budget. The museum would receive just $50,000 of a $700,000 grant the downtown
institution had requested for fiscal 2006-08.  "We anticipated a one-time grant to help us temporarily sustain our operation
and allow us to plan a more financially secure future," said Carlton P. Moffat
Jr., chairman of the museum’s board of trustees. "We are disappointed that the
state chose not to grant the majority of our request.  The money was to have been used to reverse the museum’s deficit, expected to
reach $500,000 this year, and for planning.

Behind their financial concerns the museum has contemplated moving, along with the White House of the Confederacy, to a more accessible location. 

Visitation at the White House, a National Historic Landmark, has declined
steadily from a high of 92,000 in the early 1990s to about 55,000. One problem
is that the museum’s small campus near 12th and East Clay streets has been
nearly crushed amid expansion of Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical
campus.

I sincerely hope that the museum and the city can work through these issues.  The museum holds a wealth of valuable artifacts and documents, and their recent exhibits clearly reflect a willingness to consider controversial topics that are all too often ignored. As a historian and teacher I would hate to see us lose all of this.

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It Ain’t Over Until You Cross That River and Rest Under the Shade of the Trees

Last night Frank O’Reilly presented a talk to Charlottesville’s Civil War Roundtable.  As many of you know he is a historian with the National Park Service in Fredericksburg and the author of the award-winning book The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (LSU Press, 2003).  Although I’ve mentioned more than once my preference for George Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (UNC Press, 2002) I thoroughly enjoyed O’Reilly’s study and learned last night that the book had been nominated for a Pulitzer prize.

I attended last night’s meeting with the assumption that he would talk about the death of "Stonewall" Jackson at Guiney Station where that NPS continues to maintain and interpret the site of the generals death.  While I’ve never visited the site I’ve heard my share of goofy stories of how the event is reenacted, leaving at least one visitor with the belief that she could "sense" Jackson’s presence.  Unfortunately, O’Reilly focused his presentation on the events of May 2, 1863 and specifically on the wounding of Jackson by his own troops.  Needless to say I was disappointed, though I probably would not have been as upset if he had decided to focus on a topic all-together different from the popular mantra of Jackson’s last moments with the Army of Northern Virginia. 

Before I continue I do want to point out that O’Reilly did a great job last night.  Although his presentation was clearly pulled right out of the battlefield tours that you can hear if you visit Chancellorsville, O’Reilly was incredibly enthusiastic.  It is a clear sign that he enjoys what he does and wants you to be able to identify with a piece of American history.  And that’s always nice to see.

Last night was just another confirmation of my belief that most Civil War enthusiasts are content with hearing the same stories told well over and over.  The more detail the better as if the added information will get us to some little gem or uncover the secret that implicitly lay just below the surface.  O’Reilly began by reminding the audience that Jackson was at the "peak" of his career and that his wounding represented one of the "tragic moments in American history."  Notice how setting things up in such a way shapes the narrative of the day’s events.  Confederates become the principal actors, as they should be, considering that it’s Jackson’s corps that is on the move.  My concern is that this can be and usually is taken to the extreme.  The battle becomes the Confederate’s to lose; this tendency to tell the story from their perspective in the hopes of achieving some kind of dramatic effect can also be seen in the way the story of the battle of Gettysburg is often told. 

Worst of all, our understanding of contingency on the battlefield is shaped by what one side did as opposed to a richer discussion of how the actions of both sides brought about a certain outcome.  In the case of May 2 the story ends up as a build-up to Jackson’s own wounding.  Hanging there in the background is the possibility that Jackson can continue his assault and destroy the Federal Army.  And if he can’t do it on the evening of May 2 there is the possibility – given that he has maneuvered his men on the field with the goal of pinning the Federals down rather than pushing them beyond the Rappahannock – of continuing the assault the following day.  Meanwhile, little is said about what the Federals are doing just a stones throw away to hamper any further advance. 

Rather than see May 2 as a build-up to a decisive Confederate victory why not interpret Jackson’s attack as putting the Federal army around the Chancellor House in a much better position given that they are now more tightly compacted and as a result are in a position to either sweep down and take the smaller force commanded by Lee or counterattack against Jackson?  With Jackson on the field, however, anything is possible.  With such a focus on May 2 it is no surprise that few people appreciate the importance of the fighting the following day which goes down as one of the bloodies days of the war.  My guess is that most people who travel to Chancellorsville want to hear about Jackson so it is no surprise that interpretations focus on Jackson and the events of May 2. 

Not only is the shooting of Jackson tragic, but we’re not satisfied until we put him in the grave.  Not so fast, however, as we need to milk those final dramatic scenes at Guiney Station for all it’s worth. 

Soak It Up!

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Frustrations

I’ve had this vision of myself for the last 5 months sitting at home over the course of the summer and working diligently on completing my Crater study.  I can flesh it out for you even more.  I’ve got assorted papers scattered over my desk, the cats are sitting quietly on the windowsill; next to the computer sits a fresh cup of coffee, and cigarette.  Wait just a minute, I don’t smoke.  Anyway, some of you out there know what I am getting at.  Well, two weeks into my summer and I am stalled at the gates.  This is the classic example of the sharp difference between our perceptions of the life of a writer and the harsh reality.

I’ve been working on this study for close to 4 years.  It evolved from an essay on the postwar political career of William Mahone and expanded into a study and M.A. thesis for the University of Richmond on how the battle of the Crater has been commemorated and remembered by white southerners.  While the thesis is fairly well organized each chapter was conceived as a separate essay with plans to publish sections of it in various magazines and academic journals.  Luckily that has come to pass. 

My problem, however, is in re-thinking how I want the individual essays to fit together into a book-length narrative.  I’ve spent so much time thinking about this project as a collection of individual essays that I am finding it very difficult taking one step back in hopes of gaining a broader perspective.  I have three boxes of hanging folders that are packed with research material from various archives, but I don’t know if I should take a few weeks and go through everything once again in hopes of picking up something that I may have missed and attaining that new insight on how it all comes together.  Perhaps I should quit trying to revise my chapters and start from scratch.  My frustrations are compounded by the fact that I have a university press that is very interested in in publishing this project.  I simply don’t want to screw this up. 

A big part of the problem is that I’ve trained my brain into thinking along the lines of a journal-length essay.  I pretty much have the formula down: start off with a catchy opening that grabs the reader’s attention and anticipates the body of the essay, lay out your thesis, comment on the relevant historiography, present your evidence and analysis, and top it off with a conclusion that leaves the reader with something to think about.  Maybe some of you out there have a little advice that would be helpful.  I assume there is no formula out there, but some of you no doubt have been in my situation.  I am clearly not in a state of desperation, but I do need to utilize my time wisely this summer.  High School teachers don’t have the luxury of being able to do serious writing over the course of the year. 

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Hooked on World Cup Soccer

Well, I am hooked on World Cup Soccer.  I am still not sure how it happened, but I have to admit to sitting in front of the TV this past weekend riveted.  Keep in mind that I attended schools that did not offer soccer as a sport and my friends and I didn’t play or watch soccer.  The more I think about my new found interest the more I realize that it may have more to do with wanting to take part in an event that involves people from all over the world rather than simply wanting to watch 22 men kick a ball back and forth.  Perhaps this interest is magnified given the general perception that the United States takes little interest in the affairs of the rest of the world. While I cheered for the U.S. team on Saturday against Italy I have to admit to enjoying the fact that we can’t claim to be the "big boys" on the block.  The U.S. isn’t perceived as anything special or even necessarily respected on the international soccer scene while other teams such as Brazil have a rich history of success.   In the end, the game acts as an equalizer among nations.  It was a thrill watching and listening on Saturday to the Italians as their national anthem was being played.  They had their arms around one another and enthusiastically belted out the words.  The Americans were much more complacent and very few took the opportunity to sing along. 

Given that I have no experience playing the game I’ve had some difficulty following the rules.  I understand that the goal is to place the ball in the opponent’s net, but beyond this I am lost.  What’s a yellow card as opposed to a red card, how does substitution work, and why do they add time at the end of the half?  Luckily I have my wife who is from Germany who explained it all to me in very clear language. 

This stands in sharp contrast to our trip to Fenway Park a few years back and my attempt to explain baseball to my wife who understood about as much as I understand the game of soccer.  I never realized how complicated the game is.  My wife asked some excellent questions: Why three strikes?  Why do they run in that direction?  Why does that player keeping touching himself in the crotch?  I’m sure I didn’t handle these questions in nearly the same fashion as my wife did in response to my questions.  I’m sure I thought to myself, "How can you not understand the game of baseball?  Didn’t you watch or play it when you were a kid in northern Germany?" 

As I don’t have cable I am going to have to find a sports bar on Thursday to watch the U.S. and Ghana.   

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