Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Review: "The Founding Fathers Reconsidered"

R.B. Bernstein's The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (Oxford University Press, 2009) is an accessible and useful introduction to the historiography of the "founding fathers," that nebulous group. Bernstein lays out his goals in the preface:

"I propose to take the founding fathers down from their pedestals without knocking them down. At the same time, I set their achievements and their failures within the context of their own time and place, while making clear that those achivements were not great beyond the bounds of mortal men and that those failures were not blameworthy beyond human beings' normal capacity to err. If we rework our relationship with the founding fathers so that we meet them eye to eye instead of gazing reverently upward of sneering contemptuously downward, perhaps we can form a more pragmatic sense of who they were, what they did and failed to do, and why we care" (p. xi).

Bernstein succeeds admirably in this. He examines, first, the roots of the term "founding fathers" (betcha didn't know it was Warren G. Harding in 1916 who coined the term!), and tracks the reputations of the group and several of its individual members over the course of historical memory and scholarly debate. Bernstein offers his reader a glimpse into the cultural context in America at the time of the Revolution, and how that, combined with the wide variety of background experiences held by the founding generation, shaped their minds and lives.

In the two longest chapters of the book, Bernstein discusses the achievements and challenges, as well as the legacies of the founding generation. This is the meat of the book, and these two chapters are perhaps the single best succinct synopsis of the issues I've read. Bernstein is fair-minded and writes with a clear and concise style, providing an in-depth analysis without getting bogged down in details. His lengthy and excellent footnotes will provide any interested reader with much additional reading material.

A good introductory text to the cultural context and historical memory of the men we know as founding fathers. Recommended as such.


R. B. said...

As the author, I thank you for your kind words about my book.

R. B. Bernstein

JBD said...

Thank YOU for the excellent book! I made sure to pick it up after hearing its praises sung at the JA-TJ conference in Boston (I'm at MHS), and enjoyed it very much indeed.

R. B. said...

Oh, wow -- you were there? I wish that I could have attended more of the conference, but I could only make the session at which I gave a paper.