Finding More Founders
From the page: “Historians refer to the trend as Founders’ Chic: the recent flurry of interest in biographies of the “great white men” of our nation’s founding generation. Although George Washington has consistently attracted Americans’ attention since Parson Weems’s biography appeared in 1800, during the last decade published examinations of Washington’s contemporaries have multiplied dramatically. Take John Adams. By my rough count, he alone or in conjunction with other men has been the subject of 19 biographical studies and five documentary collections since 2001. Two more books have examined his marriage to Abigail Smith; she herself has warranted two separate biographies. Remarkably, a recent search in the Cornell library catalog for the phrase “founding fathers” in titles of books on American history published since 2001 identified 37 volumes.
“Revolutionary Founders” might seem at first glance to be just another iteration of the genre. But its subtitle — “Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation” — differentiates it from the rest. So too does its introduction. The three editors inform their readers that they hope to correct the image of the Revolution found in most textbooks, an odd goal because one of them, Gary B. Nash, is a lead author of a major textbook. The editors assert bluntly that the gentry who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “opposed popular democracy and social equality. . . . They did not hold fundamental values that we accept as common currency today.” The book’s goal, they explain, is to help Americans “grasp the full scope of the American Revolution” by taking “seriously its most progressive participants” and incorporating “them into our national narrative.”
Have they succeeded? In large part, yes. In 22 succinct essays, each accompanied by a paragraph of useful bibliographical references, the contributors examine a few familiar people (Abigail Adams again, Thomas Paine), some known primarily to scholars of the period (the African-American clergyman Richard Allen, the soldier and memoirist Joseph Plumb Martin) and some (Robert Coram, who advocated economic equality; Han Yerry Doxtader, an Oneida leader) whose names will be unknown to nearly all readers. Many of the writers have published longer studies of the same people, or books that in some way touch on the figures they discuss. For example, Alan Taylor, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “William Cooper’s Town,” writes about Jedediah Peck, one of Cooper’s fellow townsmen, who was notable primarily for advocating free public education in New York State, a goal achieved by legislative action in 1812. (I should mention that I know Nash and his fellow editor, Alfred F. Young, relatively well, and about half the individual authors too. Early American history is a field where scholars tend to be acquainted with one another.)
The essays constitute an eclectic mix. Most of them concentrate on individuals, but nine consider groups linked in various ways. In several instances, terming the subjects “founders” of the United States stretches the definition beyond the breaking point. The black loyalists ably discussed by Cassandra Pybus surely were rebels, but founders of this nation they were not, although they ended up as early settlers in the British colony of Sierra Leone. Likewise, Colin G. Calloway explains that the Cherokee leader Dragging Canoe opposed the rebellious colonies, moving his followers westward to found the Chickamauga Cherokees, a nation that managed to survive despite forced removal to Oklahoma in the 1830s.
Questions remain about the message conveyed by some of the essays in this volume. Were all the participants in the local disturbances known as Shays’s Rebellion (1786) and the Whiskey Rebellion (1794) by definition more aligned with revolutionary ideals than were the government officials, military officers and ordinary soldiers who fought them? Could a true revolutionary support the adoption of the Constitution? In the opinion of most contributors, it seems the answer to the first question is yes, and to the second, no. But all readers might not find such responses so obvious…”