Jewish World Review June 7, 2004 / 18 Sivan, 5764
Forgetting the Founding Fathers
Are our great universities abandoning the study of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers? It looks like they are. Two of the leaders in colonial- and revolutionary-era scholarship, Bernard Bailyn at Harvard and Gordon Wood at Brown, are being replaced by historians with no apparent interest in the Revolution and the founding. The same happened some years ago at Yale when Edmund Morgan retired.
Bailyn, Wood, and Morgan are members of a generation of American historians who have produced a luminous body of scholarship on colonial America, the Revolution, the founding, and the early republic. They have not written hagiographies of the Founding Fathers, but they have expressed an appreciation that these were extraordinarily gifted men the likes of which are seldom seen in public life. And they have not confined themselves to political and intellectual history. Bailyn has written of immigrants to the colonies and the New England merchants; Wood has shown how the mores of Americans became more democratic as a result of the Revolution; Morgan has written about the Puritan family and American slavery. Their books are beautifully written and accessible to general readers, and some have had large sales in the marketplace. You will find many on the shelves of your local Borders or Barnes & Noble.
Yet Yale, Harvard, and Brown have not found or have not chosen historians to carry on in their tradition.
Why not? As Wood said of the current generation of history professors in an interview with U.S. News, "They're interested in colonial America. Whether they're interested in the founding is another question. They are more interested in women and slaves. They're concerned with questions of oppression."
True, there still are fine historians working on colonial history. Jon Butler of Yale, who has written on religion in colonial and republican America, points to several: David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis (Washington's Crossing), Fred Anderson of the University of Colorado (Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War), Mary Beth Norton of Cornell (Liberty's Daughters), Elizabeth Fenn of Duke (Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82). These all sound like important topics, but only Fischer's work is on the founders. And one wonders what kind of historians will replace them when they retire.
Probably not scholars interested in the Revolution and founding. In an E-mail to U.S. News, Lance Banning of the University of Kentucky, who has written widely on Jefferson, Madison, and the founding, said, "I don't know if I'd say that universities are deliberately discouraging the history of the Founding, but some individual historians certainly would; and there is certainly a sort of systemic problem. Academics, of course, are hired, for practical purposes, by majority vote of existing departments. Academics in general are as captivated by fads and fashions as any group I can think of, and the political, intellectual, diplomatic and miltary history of the Revolution and the Founding are decidedly out of fashion at the moment. Many history departments have little interest in hiring anyone who specializes in these sorts of interests, and a good many teachers of graduate students may well discourage such interests because they do not seem as attractive to hiring departments as studies in race, gender, identity and the like."
Robert David Johnson, in the forthcoming Journal of the Historical Society, paper, provides evidence in support of this proposition. "Among public university departments with more than 10 Americanists, only three (Ohio State, Virginia and Alabama) contain a majority of U.S. history faculty with research interests in American politics, foreign policy, legal institutions, or the military." About 20 percent of the American historians on these faculties specialize in political, diplomatic, or constitutional history; and some of those approach the field from the "race/gender/class framework."
All of this is not to say that good scholarship cannot be produced within the "race/gender/class framework." Some surely is. After all, contemporaries of Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood and Edmund Morgan produced a brilliant body of scholarship on American slavery. And there is room for more than one kind of history; the problem is that many advocates of the race/gender/class framework want to stamp the other kind out. And one suspects that much of the scholarly work being done on these subjects is unreadable, jargon-ridden, didactic denunciations of Dead White Males and of America as an inherently oppressive society. In other words, garbage. One suspects most students with any knowledge of American history understand that they are being indoctrinated, not taught, and figure out how to give their professors the kind of answers they want and forget the whole thing once they've turned in their exams. But students who enter college without such knowledge and it is easy to graduate from high school without it may be taken in.
What is fascinating about the downplaying of the Revolution and Founding in our universities is that it comes at a time when American readers have a great appetite for information about these subjects. David McCullough's John Adams, Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin, Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, and Cokie Roberts's Founding Mothers popular histories of the highest quality have been bestsellers. Americans want to know more about the extraordinary Americans who created the United States of America. It's a shame that American universities increasingly don't want to teach them.
With Joseph P. Lindsley Jr.
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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report His latest book is "Hard America, Soft America : Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Send your comments to him by clicking here.
©2004, Michael Barone