A review of:
The Founding Fathers Reconsidered
By R. B. Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
New perspectives are richly engendered by employing multiple academic and research disciplines. In a recent example, R. B. Bernstein combines the study of Law and History to assess the contributions of the Founding Fathers. As there is current controversy surrounding the definition of Founding Fathers ( see recent Journal of the American Revolution article How Do You Define Founding Fathers? ), Bernstein provides a his definition which consists of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and several other prominent leaders in an Appendix.
In his book, Bernstein addresses two major issues – original intent and Founders’ Chic. Since the enactment of the Constitution, people have argued over whether it is proper to follow the original intent of the framers or to interpret its provisions in the context of current events and society. Bernstein points out that both sides of this argument use the views of the Founding Fathers as scapegoats or as excuses why a provision needs to be interpreted the way they would like.
With respect to Founders’ Chic, Bernstein warns of the perils of uncritically venerating the Founders. He points out David McCullough’s book on John Adams as the prima facia case of overdone veneration. While others may disagree, it is clear that the Founding Fathers, like all humans, had their strengths and weaknesses. Bernstein also provides a great lesson for all historians as Warren Harding coined the term “Founding Fathers” in a speach. But in a subsequent section, Harding warned about holding up the Founders as “supermen or demigods”. This is a perfect example of the fallacy of solely relying on sound bites to interprets peoples’ views.
In a most interesting chapter, Bernstein posits the question of “Which Founding Father are You?” He discusses the personalities and political views of Jefferson and Hamilton as two poles with people in between including Washington, Adams and Madison. He singles out John Jay as the most oft neglected Founding Father who has been underestimated in current historical accounts.
Throughout the book, Bernstein provides interesting historiographical information, especially concerning the first historian accounts of the Revolution and first biographies. Bernstein’s book is eminently readable. One of the main attractions is its conciseness. In less than 200 pages, he presents a cogent survey of the legacies of the Founders and how they have been interpreted and reinterpreted in the subsequent 200 years I recommend the book to those who want to better evaluate the policy statements of those who invoke the name of our nation’s founders in today political discourse.