Fighting over the Founders: A book review by Bob Morris

Fighting over the FoundersFighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution
Andrew M. Schocket
New York University Press (2015)

Why “the American Revolution will take place in different ways depending on the medium in which it is depicted.”
Andrew Schocket

Officially, the Revolutionary War ended when the Treaty of Paris was signed by representatives of King George III of Great Britain and representatives of the United States of America on September 3, 1783. However, as Andrew Schocket explains in this book, there have been disagreements — sometimes severe disagreements — about various issues. For example, “One of the debates for which we conscript the founders is whether the United States is a national of individuals or a national community. It comes up when we talk about guns, or health care, or speech, or the Internet and in many other arenas. Of course, we are both individuals and community members.”

Schocket then observes, “Despite being a process more than two centuries ago, and memorialized everywhere, the American Revolution continues to be a subject of controversy. It’s rarely the subject of open debate. But the way Americans show it, talk about it, and wrote about it reveals that wee are deeply divided about the Revolution ‘s meaning.”

These are among the subjects discussed in the book that are of greatest interest to me:

o Differing contemporary (i.e. Revolutionary era) perspectives on the Founding Fathers (so named by President Warren Harding)

o How the Revolutionary era has been portrayed in films (The Patriot and American Treasure), on television (the PBS series, “John Adams” and “Adams Chronicles” as well as “Liberty’s Kids”), and in textbooks such as Cleon Skousen’s The Making of America.

o Appropriation of Founding Fathers to serve political purposes in recent years (e.g. what Evan Thomas characterizes as “Founders chic”)

o Differences of opinion between and among authors of books about the Founding Fathers and their era, including (in alpha order) W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Ron Chernow, Francis Cogliano, Joseph Ellis, Walter Isaacson, Alex Kulikof, Jesse Lemisch, David McCullough, Gregory Nobles, Cokie Roberts, and aforementioned Evan Thomas

o The evolution of attention to and discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Heming

o Differing opinions about the career, character, and significance of (in alpha order) Sam Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton

o The defining core values of essentialism

o The defining core values of organicism

o Differing views and definitions of “freedom” since the Declaration of Independence

o Recent appropriation of Founding Fathers, Declaration, and War to serve political purposes by Presidents Reagan, Clinton, G.H. Bush, and Obama as well as by Tea Party and Hillary Clinton (e.g. her call for an “Energy Declaration of Independence”)

The “fog of war” makes it difficult (if not impossible) for combatants to see more than the circumstances in which they are involved. Schocket invokes another metaphor: “considering how historians have interpreted the Revolution, and how I encounter it, I realized that I was looking through the haze of my own perceptions and view of the world. So, too, were other historians. So, too, are we all. And the more I thought about it, the haze is not even natural; it’s more like the ‘smoke’ from a dry ice machine — in other words, a haze largely of our own making. This book attempts to clear the air, if only a little.”

In fact, Andrew Schocket shares a great deal of light on areas in which there had either been shadows or the “haze” to which he refers. He possesses the skills of a world-class raconteur while sharing a wealth of historical information and insights about one of the most important eras in human history. Bravo!

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