Reviewed by Mark Rush, Department of Politics, Washington and Lee University. Email: rushm [at] wlu.edu.
R.B. Bernstein’s THE FOUNDING FATHERS RECONSIDERED is a brief, highly accessible and thoughtful analysis of the thought, impact and lives of the Founding Fathers. As he notes in the introduction, he seeks to “brush aside caricatures” that “oversimplify” the Founding Fathers and what that “remarkable, fractious group of statesmen, politicians, journalists, farmers and soldiers tried to do” (p.x).
In the passage that perhaps best summarizes the spirit of this book, Bernstein says:
At a distance of more than two centuries, it remains difficult to disentangle the founding fathers from their principal achievements – the creation of an independent nation, with a vigorous and adaptable form of government and a body of liberties that, they hoped, would be a model for the world. Because these achievements were the product of collective deliberation, we remember the founding fathers as a group: many historians, politicians and jurists have praised them as the most creative and learned gathering of statesmen in American history; among the greatest such gatherings the world has ever seen. At the same time, especially beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, we have come to recognize the founding fathers’ limitations and failings, and we have struggled to balance gratitude with recrimination in assessing them. (p.116)Bernstein reminds us that the constitution is the result of compromise among heroic, but human characters. Despite its success, the constitution they produced has its flaws. Given the current constitutional crisis in California and the outbreak of shock and public hand-wringing over the special deal cut in the Senate to win the support of Nebraska Sen. Nelson for the health care bill, a book such as Bernstein’s could not be a more timely reminder that the founders’ constitution was designed to control, not perfect politics.
In Chapter 1 (“Words, Images and Meanings”), Bernstein establishes his point of departure. Acknowledging a 1916 speech by Warren Harding as the first recorded reference to the “founding fathers,” Bernstein notes that the reference is protean and includes many characters in addition to the seven key leaders noted by Richard Morris (Franklin, Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Jay, Madison and Hamilton). Nonetheless, Bernstein uses Morris’ roster as his guide throughout this monograph.
In Chapter 2 (“Contexts: The History that Made the Founding Fathers”), Bernstein discusses a colonial political milieu characterized by a “cautious, transforming egalitarianism” (p.26). He emphasizes the diversity of thought and intellectual traditions that informed the [*64] American enlightenment. Laying the groundwork for a key theme of the book, Bernstein maintains that this diversity and the differences of opinion that it caused among the colonists belie any attempt to suggest that the Founding Fathers adhered to any one, discrete intellectual framework (pp.34-38).
This, I believe, is the most important aspect of THE FOUNDING FATHERS RECONSIDERED. Bernstein eloquently discusses the contributions, struggles, flaws and virtues of the seven key founders throughout the book. However, if there is a constant theme, it is that they were divided over many issues. While they were unified in the common cause of rebellion, they divided (not surprisingly) about the minutiae of constitution making and the philosophical details and interpretations that gave meaning to the new nation’s form of government. Accordingly, at various points in the book, Bernstein takes pains to dismiss notions of a clearly defined, coherent “original intent” of the Founding Fathers.
In Chapter 3 (“Achievements and Challenges: The History the Founding Fathers Made”), the longest of the book, Bernstein elaborates on this theme. He discusses the differences of opinions that arose among the founding generation. Fortunately, the nation was able to overcome them in order to draft the new constitutional order in the wake of the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Bernstein attributes this to the ongoing experiments in constitutional design in the states that informed the discussion that took place among the delegates in Philadelphia (p.50ff). As well, the inclusion of a mechanism to amend the new constitution helped to assuage fears about its allocation of power between the federal and state governments.
Bernstein emphasizes the importance of the shared sense that the constitution was indeed a popular creation. Despite the ongoing tensions and debates about restricting and empowering governments, the necessity of bills of rights, the relationship between church and state and fears about popular rule, the clear sense and evidence of popular input into state and later federal constitution-making ensured that the process leading to the new constitution would enjoy a popular legitimacy that was lacking in legal codes set forth by great lawgivers such as Solon (p.58ff.).
The differences of opinion about the new constitution’s interpretation and application rendered it an “exploding cigar” (p.109). From the outset, Bernstein says, what the founding fathers meant or desired was an ongoing topic of debate and controversy. Beginning with debates between Jefferson and Madison on one side and Hamilton on the other concerning the scope and powers of the federal government and continuing mid- to late twentieth century debates about presidential powers, the conduct of foreign affairs, and the role of religion in public life, Bernstein notes in Chapter 4 (“Legacies”) the folly of trying to divine clearly what the Founding Fathers meant. He concludes Chapter 4 with a final rejection of the notion that we can divine the original intentions of the framers. Citing John Jay, Bernstein says that “attempts to seek guidance from the making of the Constitution are unavailing – because we seek to apply the ideas of framers or ratifiers to questions they could not have foreseen . . . or [*65] because we take them out of context” (p.167).
Insofar as one of Bernstein’s goals is to take the Framers down from their pedestals without knocking them down (p.xi), his discussion of the divisions among them and his resulting assertion that we really cannot discover their one, clear original intent hits his mark. Nonetheless, I found that the book leaves the reader hanging.
He notes in the epilogue that a gap continues to exist between the ideals and the reality of the American experiment. The ends of the experiment are, he notes, to perfect the union (p.176). In achieving his goal of “de-mythifying” the framers, Bernstein leaves the reader wondering how to bridge that gap and what a perfected union would look like. In making a quiet, thoughtful case against the notion of original intent, Bernstein also removes one of the touchstones of American constitutional debate. Without an understanding (or at least, an inkling) of what the framers had in mind in terms of a perfect union, the nation’s constitutional debates that Bernstein describes have no clear direction and the participants in them have no compass.
In fairness, Bernstein does not set out to resolve this problem. Still, it leaves the reader wondering at the end of the book. Overall, THE FOUNDING FATHERS RECONSIDERED is a thoughtful, accessible read that will appeal to broad audiences looking for an introduction to the founding era, the role of the key figures upon whom Bernstein focuses, and the basis for the enduring debates that shape our understanding of the founding era and constitutional controversy.
Morris, Richard B. 1976. SEVEN WHO SHAPED OUR DESTINY: THE FOUNDING FATHERS AS REVOLUTIONARIES. New York: Harpercollins.
© Copyright 2010 by the author, Mark Rush.