Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution

Fighting over the Founders cover
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Table of Contents

Introduction

Excerpted at Salon.com

What people are saying:

“In Fighting Over the Founders, Schocket ­surveys contemporary Founders’ Chic from political battles high and low to historiography, historical museums, Hollywood productions, and historical recreations and re-enactments. Though he fails to attend to the fight for Paine’s memory, I really enjoyed this book. Schocket knows his history, did his homework, and spent time working as a “public historian” and talking to both visitors and re-enactors.

Thus, as much as he writes critically of those who deserve to be criticized, if not chastised, he appreciates his fellow citizens’ fascination for 1776 and those who made it happen.”—Harvey Kaye, The Daily Beast

“This populist study of recent speeches, films and published works reveals the many uses of America’s founding ideals… Organized, accessible history for everyone.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Schocket, a professor of history and American culture studies at Bowling Green State University (Ohio), looks into how politicians, historians, children’s literature, movies and media, museums, and the Supreme Court make use of the legacy of America’s founders. His central argument is that conservatives view the founding fathers as paragons of virtue against whom the present is judged, while liberals view them from the perspective of the present, with very different sensibilities on gender and race, and society in general. Schocket is an opinionated and sometimes cynical writer who makes his argument—which is that institutions and politicians use the founding fathers for commercial and political purposes—with direct and provocative examples. For example, he reveals his deep concern over American difficulties with race through a critique of the way in which politicians, biographers, and others ignore the founding fathers’ views on slavery (he considers these views the “greatest collective failure” of the founding fathers’ generation). An entertaining feature of Schocket’s writing is the gusto with which he takes on those he feels have misconstrued American history for political gain or profit, all of whom he happily skewers. Schocket covers a lot of ground in an accessible and entertaining style, with many provocative opinions to engage readers.”—Publishers Weekly

“Target D.C. Audience: Historians, speechwriters, museum curators, tour guides, documentarians, constitutional law experts, dog-whistle decoders, plus self-reflective tea-party activists and anyone else who might claim the mantle of the Founders.  The Big Takeaway: The American Revolution isn’t the national unifier it might seem to be—and you can learn a lot about someone’s politics by how they think and talk about it.”—Zach Cohen, The National Journal

“Fighting over the Founders, thankfully, turns the page away from the crass exploitation of the framers’ legacies, toward a new understanding.”—Alex Cacioppo, Public Books

Five Stars: “This is an interesting book because it looks at the present day while talking about people and events over two hundred years old. The author provides a clear picture, and he makes his biases plain from the start, but that should not detract from people of varying political views reading this work and getting something from it.”—Kevin Winter, San Francisco Book Review

The American Revolution gets evoked in political campaigns and car advertising campaigns, revised in books, repackaged in museums, recast on TV, referred to in courtrooms, and reenacted on weekends.  In a lively and personal style, Forever Founding shows how today’s memories of the American Revolution are a battleground for debating what the nation is about and who belongs to it. As the nation’s founding moment, the American Revolution has always served as a source of powerful myths, and remains the most accessible and most contested event in U.S. history: more than any other, it stands as a proxy for how Americans perceive the nation’s aspirations. Americans’ increased fascination with the Revolution over the past two decades represents more than interest in the past.  It’s also a site to work out the present, and the future.  What are we using the Revolution to debate?

To untangle this problem, I explore through interviews, readings, and observations how and why politicians, screenwriters, activists, biographers, jurists, museum professionals, and reenactors portray the American Revolution the ways they do.  Using an innovative framework of “essentialist” and “organicist” interpretations of the American Revolution, I demonstrate that recent representations of the American Revolution betray American’s conflicted ideas about class, about race, and about gender—as well as the nature of history itself. Fighting over the Founders plumbs our views of the past and the present, and illuminates our ideas of what United States means to its citizens in the new millennium.