U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Who’s Your Founder?

I am teaching this spring at a local community college, and to get a feel of the lay of the land I gave my students an ungraded quiz at the beginning of the semester. One of the questions asked them to identify the author of the Declaration of Independence, and, somewhat to my surprise, the answers were a bit more diverse than I expected. Many correctly identified Jefferson as the primary author, but I also got a fair share of people simply putting down either Benjamin Franklin, or, usually, John Adams in conjunction with Jefferson or Franklin.


Two things struck me about this result. First, it was interesting to see students imagining the writing of the Declaration as a joint project; true, they could have also just been trying to put down every name they thought of, but I don’t think it is a coincidence that they almost always thought of the other two people who were in fact involved in the editing, if not the original drafting, of the Declaration. And it occurred to me that actually, this was a more fully accurate answer than simply writing Jefferson!

Second, I was surprised that the students knew about Adams at all; a mere decade or so ago, when I was a college student, I don’t think the majority of my peers had any idea of who he was. Yet the fact that he now shows up nearly as much as Jefferson and Franklin on a quiz given in a lower division survey course is a product of a process that I directly participated in – the rise of John Adams as one of the men that figures prominently in the public memory of the founding. So, by way of a bit of intellectual autobiography, I’ll encroach somewhat today on Eran’s territory of early American historiography.

For although I’m rather sure a majority of students, back when I was in high school and undergrad, would not have been very familiar with Adams – indeed I doubt few would have even recognized his name – I certainly was. In fact, there was no other historical figure that, for a period of probably three years, I was more familiar with. (Brace yourself for an either embarrassingly or – depending on your sensibility – charmingly clichéd account of adolescent nerdiness.) I owe this oddity to Joseph Ellis, who published his Pulitzer Prize winning book Founding Brothersin my last years of high school. I discovered this book browsing through the “local” Barnes & Noble, directed only by my youthful enthusiasm for the idea of the revolution as a glorious rebellious event. I picked out Ellis’ book, and I read it. And I loved it. Founding Brothers was the first book to introduce me to how exhilarating and absorbing a history book can be; and so not surprisingly, it is also to the experience of reading it that I can trace my first flirtations with the thought of perhaps writing such things for a living.

And my favorite part of Founding Brothers was John Adams. Here, presented to me for the first time, was a “founding father” in three dimensions; a rich, colorful, imperfect, flawed, endearing, and entertaining character. Indeed, unlike the “American Sphinx” – the title of Ellis’ book about Jefferson – Adams was anything but reserved, and nothing if not animate. For me, Adams operated as a gateway drug to early American history. I quickly gobbled up Ellis’ other books, including his lesser-known monograph entirely on Adams, Passionate Sage, and then moved on to other authors. By my second year of college, I had decided to major in history, and by my final year of college, I sat across from my undergraduate adviser discussing what I might be interested in doing for an honor’s thesis. I floated the idea of doing something on Adams, and I’ll never forget the bemused smile he cracked as he replied “Yeah, a lot of people are into him lately. I don’t really understand why, though.”

At the time, I found this reply endearing, but it did not strike me as significant – I didn’t write my thesis on Adams but I did begin researching various Federalist pamphleteers during the 1790s, an undertaking which would eventually lead to an initial project in graduate school that focused on Hamilton instead of Adams. (I had by then moved on to being more infatuated with Alexander than with Adams.) Nonetheless, my adviser’s puzzled look came back to mind as I felt my own eyebrows rise up while discovering how many of my students put down Adams’ name – why, indeed, did Adams suddenly become all the rage?

Of course, the how of the rise of Adams is pretty easy to answer. In 2001, David McCullough published the succinctly titled John Adams, a book that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. (Hilariously, I have this distinct memory of being in the same bookstore I later bought Founding Brothers in and seeing McCullough’s book and thinking dismissively, “John Adams? Who cares about John Adams?!”) Seven years later, the seven-part miniseries based on the book aired on HBO. A critical success, John Adams brought into the limelight a previously fairly obscure figure in a manner substantially more thoughtful and textured than any such previous treatment of a “founding father,” rocketing Adams to the top of founding father stardom and stimulating an emerging cottage industry in books about him, his family, and his very touching and thus incredibly marketable relationship with Abigail. Indeed, surveying the answers my students provided me with, I couldn’t help but imagine that many of them who wrote down the names of Jefferson and Franklin or Adams did so because they either saw or indirectly encountered the scene in John Adams that depicts the three discussing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration. (A scene that, incidentally, has to be one of the two most hilarious moments in the series, the other of which also involves Jefferson.)

But if this is the how of Adam’s rise to glory, the why is a bit trickier. What, indeed, was and is the big deal with John Adams? Whatever the arguments for his historical significance might be, they are certainly not new, and so the question of why he suddenly became so attractive, and so marketable, remains. I ask this question only intending to float one possible answer, and thus am very much hoping readers feel free to contribute their thoughts – because, other than the almost too easy and obvious reason, I’m really not sure.

And that reason is, of course, the downfall of Jefferson. Perhaps “downfall” is a little too dramatic, but suffice to say that the reputation and symbolic usefulness of the man certainly took quite a hit in recent decades. For it finally became abundantly, undeniably clear that Thomas Jefferson fathered many children with his slave Sally Hemings. After nearly two hundred years of skepticism, DNA evidence left everyone who had ever hedged their bet against the relationship being sexual (most famously in scholarly circles, Joseph Ellis’ own inaccurate instinct on the question) having to incorporate this new information. This revelation was particularly profound if, as myself, you consider the nature of the drastically unequal power dynamic between Jefferson and Hemings to be far more important in understanding their relationship than whatever personal dynamics may have passed between them – if in your eyes, in other words, Jefferson was revealed to be a rapist.

Americans work through their relationship with their history via a historically specific and documented group of “founders” perhaps more than any other contemporary Western culture. And for a long time, Jefferson was the golden boy of choice; amendable both to modern day liberals and conservatives (depending on which quotes you pulled), and author of our most holy of holy “American scriptures,” his role in the historical imagination of the country is hard to understate. Thus once the speculations about Hemings were moved out of the category of gossip and conjecture and into the category of scientific fact, it is not at all surprising that a few years later the craze for John Adams began. This is not to say that scholars or history buffs who researched or appreciated Adams all did so simply because they could not handle the trauma of the Jefferson revelation, but, it is to say that, as a popular culture phenomenon that felt (at least to someone who lived through it) to come out of nowhere, it seems highly likely that the rise of Adams resulted at least partially – and I would guess substantially – from a scramble for a new founder to love. All the better, moreover, that Adams, far from being a Southern planter who owned slaves, was from the part of the country that considered the practice unseemly at best and clearly immoral at worst.

It is, I would argue, a very unfortunate solution. Not because Adams is an uninteresting or irrelevant figure in history, but because such a refusal to reassess our relationship with the founders is sadly typical of American political culture. As David Sehat’s soon-to-be-published book discusses, the grasp the founders hold over both our political and historical imaginations has directed our attentions away from deciding what we believe is just today to what a very flawed and fractious group of men once thought was just. And although I personally find Adams substantially more lovable than Jefferson, I no longer believe, as my younger self once did, that he should be called upon to moderate our contemporary political discussions. Thus looking back on how Adams introduced me to American history, I feel as though I am merely remembering, as the classic break-up song puts it, someone I used to know.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m somewhat surprised (rather astonished, actually) to hear that your peers of a decade ago would mostly not have known who Adams was. OTOH, it’s nice to know that your current students largely correctly identified Jefferson as the author of the Declaration. I don’t know quite what to think about your rise-of-Adams/eclipse-of-Jefferson argument, so I’ll let others comment on that.

    This is not really on point to your post, but a few months ago I took out of a library and read chunks of Arendt’s On Revolution (1963), a book (the parts of it I read, that is) I neither especially liked nor agreed with (though I’m not questioning her erudition). Arendt makes fairly extensive use of John Adams — though I had to go to Google Books just now to remind myself how she makes use of him. The first quote to pop up is a passage in which Adams talks about the poor living, or feeling themselves to live, “in the dark,” i.e., being excluded from the public realm. This fits in with Arendt’s argument that poverty in Revolutionary-era America was not a matter of material misery so much as one of political or public exclusion — which in turn fits in with her broader argument about the American and French revolutions. All of which is neither here nor there from the standpoint of your post, but since I didn’t write anything about On Revolution at my blog (for a variety of reasons), I guess I’m bringing it up here instead.

    • Sorry about the italics — I didn’t close the tag correctly, obviously. (Must be more careful about that.)

  2. This seems to fit into Jeffrey Pasley’s “Federalist Chic” argument, although that was a while back: http://www.common-place.org/publick/200202.shtml

    Is Jefferson still suffering a downfall? Meacham’s book sold well, and although it wasn’t hagiography, it ignored or smoothed over things like the impact of the 1807 embargo, or his dealings with Philip Freneau. Then again, we also had “Master of the Mountain,” which was pretty tough on Jefferson and was also successful. Gordon-Reed probably has a popular claim to Jefferson mastery more than Meacham and Wiencek, and she promotes a balanced, ‘realistic’ version of Jefferson.

    So I think we currently have some lingering Founder’s Chic and a ‘realist’ vision of Jefferson in the popular imagination.

    I wonder how the Sons of Liberty series will change or sustain this popular vision. Probably the latter, since Adams has a starring role and Jefferson doesn’t. (At least, he’s not in the main featured cast. I haven’t watched.) It certainly isn’t going to persuade Americans that the Founders can’t help us solve contemporary problems.

  3. @Louis: Ya, amongst scholars Adams was more, you know, around in balanced proportions to the other founders well before the late 1990s and 2000s. But both scholarly output on him and, most noticeably, popular treatments of him (from McCullough to the movie to this recent Sons of Liberty) seems to have up ticked quite a lot. Interesting though how Arendt is going a kind of inverse of Wood’s argument decades later, huh?

    @Christian-James: Yeah, I think that the “Jefferson problem” was addressed not so much by tackling it head on, but just looking somewhere else. There are, as you point out, both moderate and harsh treatments of him still out there; but in the popular realm, they seem to have been offset by focusing more on other founders, Adams most of all but I feel like also Franklin to a degree.

    I saw a couple of scenes of Sons of Liberty. Other than a hilarious depiction of Hancock I enjoyed, it seemed awful. The moment where you have an angry John Adams saying, “Oh Sam, that’s bullshit!” to his handsome-trouble-making cousin, you know that the script writers just totally gave up on any attempt to make these people sound like they are not from 2015.

  4. Excellent post, and glad to see that scholarly interest in John Adams and family continues to evolve. IMHO, one reason for the renaissance may be greater access to the family papers via letterpress and digital editions (http://www.masshist.org/adams,Read_Documents).
    Another reason may be that the Adamses yield a multigenerational saga of civic service and political thoughts that stretches into the antebellum and Victorian eras. Shared by accident or design, John Adams’ ever-candid comments on the contours of American life managed to provoke strong cultural reactions in both the public and private spheres, and far beyond 1826.

    • Hi Sara, thanks for the comment; I definitely agree; availability & voluminosity of sources, in combination with the dynastic quality of the Adamses, makes them very useful sources for telling a story of change and perhaps some continuity over time.

  5. At the risk of being cynical and flip, isn’t a good part of John Adams’ rise due to Abigail? They make a very interesting pair of human beings and with lots of source material. And I think the value of human interest has climbed in recent years relative to cardboard stereotypes. I’d point to the esteem now given to TV series like The Wire and Breaking Bad, as opposed to the simpler dimensions of TV in the 1960’s.

    • Yeah, perhaps; I mean I think as soon as more people, especially those in the mainstream publishing press, found out what a good story Abigail makes, they were very happy to take advantage of that. Then again, that’s been information more or less available for a long time now, and the timing of it seems significant to me.

      As for whether there is a larger market for thoughtful treatments of people in general; well, on the one hand I certainly hope so!, and the proliferation of cable stations does seem able to enable a kind of sophistication difficult to pull off when there were only a handful of stations needing to cater broadly and thus avoiding very controversial or difficult material. On the other hand, I’m not sure what to make of a conclusion that the American public, broadly speaking then, is getting less immune to cardboard stereotypes; if that were true, it would require quite an explanation and second, one would expect to see a bit more substantial shifts on other fronts other than TV. But maybe I’m being unduly pessimistic.

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