Focus on founding figures keeps growing
From new books to a new National Constitution Center, citizens ponder past during a time of present turmoil.
RESTON, VA. — When descendants of Thomas Jefferson's alleged slave paramour Sally Hemings arrive at Monticello this weekend, they'll come once more as a family apart.
Despite DNA tests that detected Jeffersonian blood coursing through Hemings's descendants, the 25-year argument over Jefferson's heirs goes not just to science, but to Jefferson's failure to come to terms with slavery. After being refused admittance to the official Monticello family, the Hemings have gone their own way, with 150 converging for a weekend of storytelling and liturgical dancing at the Virginia plantation where America was dreamed up. "People still doubt us, but we on the black side have always known the truth," says Julia Westerinen, one of Hemings's descendants.
The rancor over Jefferson's biological legacy represents the seedier part of a broadening search for its founding essence, a history distilled not just in forefathers' trysts and heartbreaks, but in their philosophical moorings. Canonized in the 19th century, picked apart late in the 20th, they're cast, these days, in a more nuanced light: visionary figures, yes, but ultimately humans - enigmatic, inconsistent, and something short of George Washington's infallible cherry-tree virtue.
Such intense historical introspection - fueled by a flurry of books, conferences, and popular discussion - is unusual.
It's a debate that, some say, reveals a country adrift, pining for Jeffersonian wisdom and Washingtonian leadership in a new kind of war, worrying deep rips in the social fabric on affirmative action and gay marriage, even sifting through 18th-century economic buzz for discussions on corporations' global role.
"There's a great desire now, a sort of underlying patriotism, where everybody is going back to the founding fathers to figure out what the country is about," says Ronald Radosh, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington.
From Civil War reenactors to Franklin fanatics, the past has always loomed large in the American psyche. But recently, thinkers are gobbling history at a furious rate - and arguing at a rising pitch.
It's been a while since the country was at such a crossroads. "This discussion ... first happened in the 1770s and it happened last in the 1930s with the New Deal," says Thomas Hartmann, a writer and radio-show host who deals with the Founders' creeds.
Over the past decade, the founders have been topics of far-ranging books, notably on John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Gouverneur Morris, another key figure in the Constitution, is also the subject of a new book. Even Jonathan Edwards, one of the country's first "revivalists," is the topic of a new tome. David McCullough's look at John Adams in 2001 brought raves, and Walter Isaacson's "Ben Franklin" is opening eyes on the most erudite of the Founders. Many credit National Endowment for the Humanities head Bruce Cole for his "We the People" project, fomenting discussion on classics. It goes beyond books: Philadelphia boasts a new National Constitution Center.
James MacGregor Burns, Pulitzer-prize winning coauthor of the upcoming "George Washington," says Americans are finding refreshment in Jefferson's thoughts as he penned the Declaration of Independence, and in what Franklin intuited as he pored over everything from electricity to flatulence. The men's private conundrums - Jefferson's trysts and Franklin's falling out with his Loyalist son - only make their lives more real, he says, and, somehow, more American.
"There's the enigma of this little country hanging onto the Atlantic seaboard, producing not only the galaxy of leaders that we're talking about, but also the lawyers and editors and teachers.... The question people ask is: How could that happen?" Burns says.
With some critics questioning today's leadership - and the Democrats' struggle to find an inspiring candidate - Burns sees that era as a wellspring of intellectual relief.
But with interest comes revisionism and emerging parallels: Analyzing homeland security and the Patriot Act, critics point to John Adams's support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which let him jail political opponents - to protect the nation, he argued. And Jefferson gossip foreshadowed Clintonian rumors not only in trysts, but in his own version of Whitewater. Even now, some historians suggest Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase illegally. So it may come as no surprise that the forefathers weren't above popular, even risque, topics. Jefferson had thoughts on sexual behavior, supporting punishment for sodomy.
While conservatives pine for John Adams and liberals yearn for James Madison, everyone wants a piece of Jefferson. Though he forged the separation of church and state, even the Christian Right quoted him this week in confronting what many see as a left-leaning bent on the Supreme Court. "You seem to think that the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of constitutional interpretation - a very dangerous doctrine indeed," Jefferson wrote to a colleague.
"How wise Jefferson was," marveled evangelist Pat Robertson this week.
And in that war of founders' words, some say, is another trend in analysis. "With people as complex as the founders, you can pretty much use their writings to justify any kind of modern position, and that's the danger," says Mr. Hartmann, who just finished reading 6,000 of Jefferson's letters.
For example, says Hartmann, Jefferson's Democratic party is the longest surviving political party in the history of civilization - but the White House has reinvented him as a Republican in a reference on its website.
In the end, say historians, the appeal is resurgent because the country is still changing. And through the forefathers' mounds of letters, historians and laypeople find an unvarnished wisdom - early chapters of modern US history, written in the the Enlightenment's glow. "All that was in front of them was ancient Greek and Latin history, the history of Christianity and the history of Britain, and that's what they're basing their philosophy on," says Lenni Brenner, a historian and writer for the leftist CounterPunch.com website.
For the Hemings clan, at least, the lure of history goes beyond Jefferson's failure to fight slavery in his personal life, to the nuances of a man leading a country and searching for self. "We're all looking for the full picture," says Ms. Westerinen. "And we're all writing a book."