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The New Founding Hagiography and Its Enemies

In 2002, David McCullough’s life of John Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The year before, Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers had won it for History. Books on Adams were nothing new, but never before had he and his “founding brothers” experienced quite such wide and uncritical admiration in the mainstream of American popular culture. John Adams carried the flag for a resurgent public and publishing interest in the Founding Fathers.

It’s no coincidence that it did so in the same year that neoconservative and neoliberal ideologies coalesced in the presidency of George W. Bush. The new Founding hagiography, which McCullough perfected, performs a particular function within that ideological matrix. In its celebration of exceptional genius and leadership, the like of which can never be found again, mainstream literature on the Founding Fathers alienates its readers from the possibility of creative political action. The compromises and strategic decisions of eighteenth-century politicians, and the rhetoric in which they couched them, become the definitive articles of a popular faith, the Founders themselves its unassailable prophets and scribes.

If neoliberalism demands that democratic governance over domestic communities, in the form of the state, should diminish in favor of market and corporate organization; and if neoconservatism demands that the non-democratic, military and security apparatus of the state should expand to the point of possessing total potential control; then this kind of historical writing, perhaps better than any other discourse, can fulfill both aims simultaneously within the bounds of their distinct aesthetics.

Writers in this genre have learned one thing from academic historians of the period: its characters are people of a different world, whose thought and language cannot be freely translated into ours. Critics like Jill Lepore have accused Tea Party publicists of acting as if the Founders are modern day thinkers, but the mainstream literature of the Founding turns this assumption upside down: we should respect them precisely because they’re not like us. Gordon Wood’s 2006 collection, Revolutionary Characters, sums this up nicely in its subtitle, What Made the Founders Different.

So in a book like Thomas McCraw’s Founders and Finance, which came out with Harvard University Press this October, figures like Alexander Hamilton, Albert Gallatin, and Robert Morris are portrayed as experts whose “financial wizardry” created all that is good in American economic governance. Their backgrounds – in this case, all three men were immigrants to America – are taken as clues to their character and genius, not as environments in their own right, locations of diverse historical communities and processes. McCraw relies on broad paradigms attached to his heroes’ names — Hamiltonian centralization, Jeffersonian laissez-faire — to frame his book transparently as contemporary commentary. If only we could combine the grand designs of these old masters, he tells us, American capitalism might continue undamaged and unchecked on the road to freedom.

McCraw’s depiction of his financial Founders combines comfortable “principles” with individualist “pragmatism”— perfectly embodying the genre’s ideological function of separating the ruled from the rulers, the deciders-in-chief from the subjects of their decisions. Likewise, Jon Meacham, in November’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, defines his hero as a “pragmatist” whose personal political judgement naturally trumped the ideals he sometimes expressed in writing. What links these accounts is the way they stretch to give the Founders maximum agency and leeway, even as they constrict the role of ordinary Americans in both account and reality.

This kind of writing is made easier because the Founders themselves started it, and because it implements a strategy they themselves adopted. Alienating most people from political leadership was precisely the project of the Constitution and the early Federalist party – of Washington, Hamilton, John Adams and the rest. Diluting the individual vote in an enormous electoral district would, Madison wrote in Federalist No.10, lead to the election of the right kind of representatives, those least likely to pursue ”improper or wicked projects” like “an abolition of debts” or “an equal division of property.” Framing this kind of language as a sense of responsibility and wise paternal leadership, books in the Founding Father genre are permeated by the ideology of eighteenth-century elites. They don’t capture the minds of their subjects so much as become captive to them.

We might be tempted to look for a counter-genre in a book like Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and his Slaves, which has received excoriating reviews in the popular, online press by well-credentialed historians eager to defend their period and professional code. Wiencek’s earlier book, An Imperfect God: George Washington, his slaves, and the creation of America, was much better received. But what both have in common is that the question they raise about the Founding Fathers is their relation to slavery – a question mainstream America believes it has already answered. Seen from the hagiographic mindset, if these men’s sin was slaveholding, and slavery no longer exists, then the nation they founded must be complete and perfect. It can never fail, it can only be failed.

We find something quite different in William Hogeland’s new book, Founding Finance. It sits alongside Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes in that it reflects on historiography as well as on its historical subjects; but where Lepore acerbically mocked Tea Party “historical fundamentalism,” Hogeland’s critique takes aim at the mainstream. He argues that the way we’ve been told to see the Founding Fathers, by “the leading historians of our time” as well as by non-specialists like McCullough, is damaging to our understanding of politics, finance, and the world we’ve inherited. Although his critique differs from the one outlined above, he does offer a radical revision of the standard popular view.

Hogeland’s is an accessible account of the way men like Hamilton, Washington, Madison and Morris constructed the American state in order to protect and further their class interests – and, importantly, of the radical egalitarian movements they had to ruthlessly crush in the process. From the 1760s up to 1794, thousands of people on the North American continent – the British colonies, and then the United States – organised and participated in large-scale acts of economic and political resistance. The North Carolina Regulation, Shays’ Rebellion, and the Whiskey Rebellion constitute the principle episodes; there’s also, however, a sense in which the American Revolutionary War itself is the fourth corner of this radical movement. Not, that is, because its famous leaders were egalitarians, but because, as historians since Carl Becker have pointed out, the war gave some of America’s oppressed the opportunity to fight against their oppressors.

Placing the Revolution within a longer story of violence and resistance helps account for the complex, conflicted nature of revolutionary thought and action. It also poses a deep challenge to a historical understanding in which the Revolution was a unique and uniquely transformative moment – an understanding which, of course, underpins the hagiographic treatment of the Founding Fathers. Thomas Paine envisaged the Revolution as but the first wave of a coming anti-monarchical surge; Hogeland’s other hero, Herman Husband, saw it as the latest chapter in history’s long march towards an egalitarian Christian millennium.

In reconstructing the thought of Paine and Husband alongside that of Hamilton and Washington, Founding Finance helps to reimagine the relationship between the Revolution and the history of American radicalism. It’s a similar approach to the one Staughton Lynd took in his 1968 book, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism – the one that ostensibly lost him his post at Yale. Lynd offered a powerful rejection of the supposed democratic idealism of Founders like Jefferson, feted by the New Dealers, in favor of an egalitarian and especially abolitionist radicalism which could also be traced to the Revolution. Even while it took the “form” of Jeffersonian language, radical eighteenth and nineteenth-century Americans’ “questioning of private property in the name of natural rights” differed in “substance.” Lynd’s heroes were Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison and Henry David Thoreau, and he heard in their language echoes of Marx.

Lynd’s Intellectual Origins was such an important and controversial book within the historical profession of the time because, in its preface, he declared that “the concern of the following chapters is ahistorical. I am less interested in eighteenth-century radicalism than in twentieth-century radicalism.” The irony is that writers of the new Founding hagiography – especially those like McCraw whose topics seem particularly topical – no longer give much of a nod to historicism for its own sake. The New York Times recently published McCraw’s posthumous op-ed advice on what Hamilton would have done to solve the financial crisis. In that sense we might say that Staughton Lynd won and Eugene Genovese lost. But if the current mainstream of historical writing is what was won, then it was a Pyrrhic victory indeed.

Thus where once the right and the liberal mainstream defended the objectivity of history against heretics like Lynd and Howard Zinn, now they’re each as openly present-minded as the rest of us – and in that context a book like Intellectual Origins can come to seem like just another brick in the temple of the Revolution. In a new preface to the 2009 Cambridge University Press edition, Lynd asks, “What alternative do we have to the American Revolution as the archetype of our hopes and dreams?” That’s a peculiarly constricted vision, although perhaps a prevalent one. As Hogeland points out, even Occupy Wall Street laid claim to Boston’s liberty tree.

So we might ask of a book like Hogeland’s Founding Finance the question that the New Left historians were brave enough to ask of their own work in the 1960s: what does it do? One thing it does, like Lynd, is to present a lost radical tradition. “Radical economic egalitarianism, concentrated especially in the western parts of the states and territories,” was a force powerful enough to scare the East Coast men who would become the famous Founding Fathers. The process of establishing the Constitution and the American national government, along with its national debt, was part of the elite’s strategy of defence and entrenchment. In 1794, federal troops brutally put down the Whiskey Rebellion, the last stand of a radical tradition that started with Husband and the Carolina Regulators in the 1760s.

Hogeland’s heroes, Paine included, are tragic ones. The chronology of that unfolding tragedy requires us to rethink the Revolution’s significance. In this reading, it’s an ending as much as a beginning, a defeat at least as much as a victory. Hogeland has built on the work of several academic historians, among them Terry Bouton and Woody Holton, whose recent books describe the way the constitutional movement and subsequent Federalist party fought against nascent American democracy. But as Hogeland has pointed out, even they fall back on the position that the Revolution itself has something to offer in terms of a radical tradition, an “archetype of our hopes and dreams.”

On one hand Founding Finance is a heroic historiography, a portrait of Founding Fathers for the left – both his named intellectuals, and the thinking, organised, inspired crowd. This is Hogeland writing in the romantic tradition of E. P. Thompson and Jesse Lemisch. Or rather, it’d be in that tradition if we were to read him that way. But the book can sustain a more radical reading. One thing Husband and Paine could agree on was the desire not so much to be Founders, as to witness the end of the world — the corrupt world of monarchy, inequality, and unfreedom. Hogeland’s position, then, deserves to be seen as a politics of anti-founding.

If the book’s genealogy is to be traced back to Lynd and the New Left, it’s the Lynd of “Beyond Beard,” in which Charles Beard, the father of Progressive history – who declared that the Founders wrote the Constitution with their financial interests at the forefront of their minds – is taken to task for not going far enough or deep enough. “Beard’s drama for villainous capitalist and virtuous farmer,” Lynd wrote, “must make room for a more complex scenario which preserves his sense of the role of economic power.” What especially undermined Beard’s synthesis of American history from Revolution to Civil War was his failure to acknowledge the importance of slavery, a failure Lynd linked to Beard’s – and his whole Progressive generation’s – admiration of Jefferson. A truly radical historiography of the early republic had to take on the whole raft of Founders, Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian alike.

That was the work of the New Left, and it is still the work Hogeland is doing in Founding Finance. But all this talk of lineage and fatherhood almost misses the point. Yes, the book inhabits a particular market in which it’s the concept of “founding” itself that sells. It’s part of a general cultural obsession with “origins” that includes superhero prequels as much as history books. We have to know who our Daddy is. But the particular figures Hogeland lionizes, and the particular stories he tells, are all about blowing that obsession up and turning it against itself.

There’s an unspoken metaphor running through Founding Finance, by which the constellation of authors and publishers, historians and endowed institutions that generates and disseminates the new Founding hagiography is linked to the network of powerful white men it celebrates. The mechanisms of power utilized by this modern force aren’t laws or contracts, army detachments or tax collectors, but books, newspaper articles, and lectures on C-SPAN. They too must be resisted. For the rebel Herman Husband, the only higher authority was God. With his paradoxical example, we shall do even without Him.