J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why Are Some Founders Forgotten?

At the Imaginative Conservative, Daniel L. Dreisbach shared an essay (originally published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute) on “Founders Famous and Forgotten,” exploring why we remember some politicians and military men from the Revolutionary period but not others.
Consider the political career of Roger Sherman of Connecticut (1721-1793), a largely self-taught man, devout Calvinist, and lifelong public servant. He was one of only two men who signed all three of the great documents of American organic law: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses. He was a member of the five-man committee formed to draft the Declaration of Independence and a member of the committee of thirteen formed to frame the Articles of Confederation. At the federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 he delivered more speeches than all but three delegates and was a driving force behind the Great (Connecticut) Compromise. He was a member of the first U.S. House of Representatives (1789-1791) and later of the U.S. Senate (1791-1793), where he played key roles in deliberations on the Bill of Rights and the creation of a national bank. If any man merits the mantle of “founding father,” surely it is Roger Sherman.

Yet few Americans recall, let alone mention, Sherman’s name when enumerating the founding fathers; even among those familiar with his name, most would be hard pressed to describe his role in the founding. Why is it that a man of such prodigious contributions to our country is today an all but forgotten figure? The same question could be asked about many other patriots—John Dickinson, Elbridge Gerry, John Jay, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, Charles Pinckney, Benjamin Rush, John Rutledge, James Wilson, and John Witherspoon, just to name a few—who labored diligently to establish an independent American republic.
Examining six undoubtedly famous Founders, Dreisbach notes some commonalities:

  • “strong, memorable, and (with the possible exception of Madison) colorful personalities.”
  • homes in “influential power centers in the new nation.”
  • “a voluminous paper trail of public and private documents.”

Yet some other men shared some or all of those qualities. Dreisbach suggests they’ve been forgotten because they:

  • retired or died before becoming involved in the federal government.
  • focused their energies on state and local governments.
  • were on the losing side of debates over the Declaration or Constitution.
  • left few papers about their American statesmanship.
  • developed an unsavory personal reputation by nineteenth-century standards.

Finally, being a conservative, Dreisbach claims that modern academics are uncomfortable with the piety of some Founders. Indeed, the last section of his essay is basically an argument that recent jurisprudence and legislation (not historiography) pays too little heed to most traditionally religious of the Founders. Of course, some of those men aren’t mentioned in the essay for any significance but their religiosity.

Is “devout Calvinism” really why we don’t remember Roger Sherman as well as John Adams? I doubt it. I think it was the Adams family’s massive paper trail and national offices. Plus, the limited capacity of the human brain to remember everyone and everything, even if experts in the field want them to.


Peter Fisk said...

Mr. Dreisbach's essay is interesting and thought-provoking.

One apparent contradiction I can't reconcile:

He states that:

"An abrasive, egotistical personality did little to enhance Thomas Paine’s reputation, and pious Americans from his day to the present have reviled him for his heretical views on Christianity."

and yet:

"there seems to be an inclination among modern scholars to dismiss, discount,or ignore the views of pious founders whose ideas and actions were shaped by deeply held religious convictions."

... Not to mention that John Adams had an "abrasive, egotistical personality" and it doesn't seem to have kept him out of the history books.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, that’s a contradiction, all right. Paine’s deism and anti-clericalism definitely hurt his standing in the 1800s, but by Dreisbach’s theory it should have helped him with “modern scholars.”

As I wrote last week, I don’t think Paine really belongs in the “forgotten” category.

Dreisbach lists the six big Founders as Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and Madison. Fair enough.

I think there’s a next tier of people who are also household names among Americans who know anything about history, even if people have only a limited knowledge of what they actually did: Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Paine, Henry Knox, maybe Nathanael Greene, Lafayette, John Paul Jones, Paul Revere, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Betsy Ross.

Then there are figures remembered mostly in particular regions or ethnic groups: John Jay, Israel Putnam, Daniel Morgan, Casimir Pulaski, and many more.

G. Lovely said...

Perhaps a self-effacing character, that I would posit one is more likely finds among those with "deeply held religious convictions", may have something to do with it. After all, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Paine,et al., and even a seemingly above the fray Washington, were rarely accused of hiding their light "under a bushel".

J. L. Bell said...

Roger Sherman might have been self-effacing and pious, but Benjamin Rush was self-promoting and pious, and on Dreisbach’s should-be-more-remembered list. I don’t think the Rev. John Witherspoon hid his light under a bushel, either.

Dreisbach does touch on that aspect a little, noting that all the best-remembered Founders did a good job of saving their papers. Jefferson was a poor public speaker, and Madison not much better, but they left wonderful records that present them as among the most articulate political thinkers of their time.

Patrick Henry, in contrast, was known for his oratory and left a much smaller paper record; his public memory was saved because William Wirt’s biography in the early 1800s turned him into a legend.

J. L. Bell said...

About Roger Sherman, I also have to say that anyone who’s a singing part in 1776 can't really be completely forgotten.

Mr Punch said...

The late Richard B. Morris devoted a considerable part of his distinguished career to an effort to make John Jay a seventh member of the top tier of Founders, and he is surely the most obvious contender; there have long been charges that Jay's Christian orthodoxy worked against his historical reputation.

Jay apart, opposing the Constitution, and not holding important federal office after its adoption, seems to be a bigger negative than religious views.

Josiah Coffey said...

Going back to the first comment I don't believe there is a contradiction in what Dreisbach said. He is comparing how "pious Americans" view piety how "modern scholars" view heresy. Dreisbach’s theory stated that piety hurt founder’s standing with modern scholars and not that heresy or anticlericalism helped it with the same group. I suspect he counts pious Americans and modern scholars as coming from two separate camps and therefore representing different views from different perspectives, eradicating any potential contradiction.

I feel Dreisbach does discount the fluidity of when we chose to restore forgotten founders to the status of ‘remembered’. Certainly the modern landscape dictates who we chose to recall and perhaps, as scholarly pursuits continue to uncover hidden gems, a forgotten founder may one day make something of himself. Longfellow did as much for Paul Revere. And, it could be argued, the Boston Beer Co. is doing the same for Sam Adams, at least to a broader audience than just the historically minded.

Might there be a figurative cutoff point at which a historical figure's usefullness, if not already discovered in the modern landscape, is lost forever?

J. L. Bell said...

John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the United States, so I think he did hold an important federal office. However, he was greatly overshadowed by one of his successors, John Marshall, who might qualify as the last of the Founders since he established the role of the U.S. judiciary.

Daud said...

I find the overall discussion of "why we remember who we remember" quite fascinating. And the writer brings up some significant factors.

I do think his ideas have some basis inasmuch as contemporary people sometimes don't relate to how central religion was to 18th century culture.

However, to suggest that people are being intentionally discarded because of their piety is hard for me to buy. If that were the case we should see examples of people who were prominent into the early 20th century when piety was a good thing, but were later discarded because they were too religious. I cannot think of a single example of this.

Frankly, I think he gives historians too much credit! There are a lot of figures who historians love to talk about today who are still unknown to the public. Working at a public history site, I can be the first to testify that the only Bostonians the public can name are Hancock, Revere, and an Adams or two.

EJWitek said...

John Jay was certainly not opposed to the Constitution and, in fact, wrote several of the Federalist papers in defense of it. His attendance at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was only prevented by New York State politics and the refusal of the always unreliable Alexander Hamilton to fight for his inclusion as a member of the delegation.
Washington offered the position of Secretary of State in his first cabinet to Jay, who refused it and it was only then that he turned to Jefferson. Jay had been effectively Secretary of State under the Articles of Confederation. Only after this refusal did Washington nominate him as Chief Justice.
Jay fell from grace after negotiating the so-called "Jay Treaty" with Great Britain in 1794 and it was only then that his stature declined. He, for a number of reasons to include his long advocacy for the abolition of slavery, became a bete-noire of the Democrat-Republicans.
Historians have through the years, almost unanimously, panned the Jay Treaty and I feel that they lost some respect for him and thus his dimunition in stature.
Professor Morris's brief for him as a "founder" is quite persuasive.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that many Americans don't fully understand religion's place in eighteenth-century culture (and many people project their own understanding of religion onto that culture). But nobody does more to repair that gap than professional historians.

A few days back I mentioned John Dickinson as a truly forgotten Founder. Of the two books published about him in the last decade, one, from an academic historian, put his Quaker faith right up front. (The other is from the I.S.I., original publisher of Dreisbach's article.)

Dickinson’s reputation fell not because he was pious, but because John Adams took him as a rival, and Adams's letters and memoirs colored the historiography of the Revolution in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Thus, most people's only exposure to Dickinson is as the intransigent antagonist in 1776 (which did even more damage to the public memory of James Wilson).

At least Dickinson College preserves his memory.

Charles Bahne said...

To Daud's list of "the only Bostonians the public can name" I would add Benjamin Franklin, who was born a Bostonian. But of course he was a Philadelphian in all of his adult life.