The Founding Fathers Reconsidered
Oxford University Press, 2011
R. B. Bernstein leads the reader down three important and intertwined roads in The Founding Fathers Reconsidered. The first explores the importance of the Constitution in American history; the second leads the reader to reject the value of “original intent.” On the third road, the author “reconsiders” (that is he resuscitates) the reputations of some founders while crushing that of one alone.
Mr. Bernstein’s is a vigorous examination of the Constitution and the Patriots who created it: “Their humanity, with its complimentary components of human greatness and human frailty, allows us to reclaim our humanity as well.” It is unlikely though that the founders ever caused anyone to lose their humanity.
Bernstein suggests that there is a “general tendency of Americans to venerate the founding fathers for their omniscience or their peerless political and constitutional wisdom.” No evidence is presented to explain or prove this “general tendency.”
An effective argument is made, however, for the importance of the Constitution and its relationship to the branches of government, with particular emphasis on the Supreme Court. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other African American politicians and jurists are cited to illustrate the importance of the black experience in understanding the Constitution. The failure of the founders to resolve the issue of slavery is a central theme. Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union address is cited to prove the point that any good (and insightful) historical perspective will demolish any “original intent” argument; that is, making determinations on points of the Constitution based on what one considers to be the original intent of the Constitution’s architects.
John Jay, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe all benefit from the author’s “reconsidering.” Thomas Jefferson fares less impressively.
Since the undeniable linking of Jefferson’s family (though not him personally) with that of his slave–Sally Hemings– through DNA analysis of descendants, criticism of the third president and leading author of the Declaration of Independence has been in vogue. When John Adams and Jefferson returned from their missions to Europe as ambassadors to England and France respectively, both men were affected by their sojourns in the “old country.”
“These experiences left both men out of synch with things in America,” writes Bernstein. “On his return, Jefferson found his countrymen entranced by trade, commerce, and the quest for luxury goods…he responded with all the vehemence, eloquence, and horror of which his humorless, thin-skinned soul was capable.” Mr. Jefferson alone is set aside in Mr. Bernstein’s book for such censure–even Aaron Burr’s “soul” is not exposed to view. How the author comes to understand Jefferson’s “soul” is not made clear.
Such rhetoric ignores the deeply conflicted nature of Jefferson’s character, and his complexity and brilliance. Nor does it acknowledge Jefferson’s attempt, when he was a representative to the Virginia House of Burgesses, to put forward a bill to eliminate slavery in that state. The violently negative reaction of his fellow Burgesses and citizens of Virginia was a rejection of both him personally (for a time) and his anti-slavery bill.
The defeat of Jefferson’s anti-slavery legislation and its consequences to him personally could explain his later refusal to help Edward Coles, later governor of Illinois, who would leave Virginia to liberate his slaves. Coles had asked Jefferson to help him bring anti-slavery issues to the national stage; Jefferson politely refused.
It is unfair to so summarily dismiss and diminish Jefferson for his obvious and complex hypocrisy about equality, liberty, and slavery by ignoring the times and environment in which he lived. An historian ought to weigh each person within the environs of his/her own world and experience and not judge historical figures against a 21st-century analytical framework.
As their friendship and correspondence was renewed in 1811, John Adams told a friend, “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.”
The foundation of historiography is context. The mutual love and respect that Adams and Jefferson had for one another, opposites in politics and personality yet intellectual titans of their time, are a central explanatory and illustrative context of the Revolutionary era. To suggest that Jefferson was unworthy and Adams mistaken is an unfortunate misreading of context. Mr. Bernstein has forgotten Adams’ love for Jefferson, at least in the pages of this otherwise respectable book.
[This review appears in the current issue of Patriots of the American Revolution magazine.]