- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Since David McCullough’s best-selling book “John Adams” hit shelves in spring 2001,American readers have been awash in works about the Founding Fathers.

The resurrection of the Revolutionary era in the public consciousness can be attributed to myriad factors, say the historians whose books have fueled the fires.

The simple ways, good character, traditional values and religious involvement of the Founders is a reflection of America’s moral mandate, some authors say.

“In the ‘90s, we lost track of our basic values as a society,” says Walter Isaacson, author of “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.” “People are yearning for the ability to rise above partisanship and have simple American values that we can all embrace.”

A few of the popular books about the Founders published since 2000:

• “Founding Brothers; Revolutionary Generation” by Joseph Ellis (2000).

• “John Adams,” by Mr. McCullough.

• “America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918” by Richard Brookhiser (2002).

• “Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson,” by Gore Vidal (2003).

• “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow (2004).

• “His Excellency, George Washington,” by Joseph Ellis (2004).

• “Revolutionary Mothers” by Carol Berkin (2005).

• “John Adams, Party of One” by James Grant (2005).

• “Jefferson’s Vendetta” by Joseph Wheelan (2005).

Franklin, who embraced French society in all its promiscuity, was not the ideal picture of decency and morality, Mr. Isaacson says, but the Founder’s historical presence reflects a more roots-driven era.

“In the ‘90s, there was such an abandonment of our traditional values that people began to yearn for a simpler time,” Mr. Isaacson says. “When we are trying to re-establish the basic values we have as a nation, people are more interested in the Founders.”

Other scholars of 18th-century figures disagree with Mr. Isaacson’s theory.

“You’d be hard-pressed to show that the nation lost its way morally or intellectually in the ‘90s more than any other period,” Mr. Grant says.

There have been plenty of times in the past century when morality wasn’t a mandate, he says, but those eras didn’t inspire an onslaught of information about the Founders.

“I’m not sure why the Truman administration didn’t give rise to Founders books; I’m not sure why the second Eisenhower administration, lacking in moral compass, didn’t inspire a spate of Founders books.”

Instead, Mr. Wheelan says, the rise in interest in the Founders can be attributed to America’s aging population, “especially the baby boomers.”

Boomers are now “middle aged, and that is a time of life when a lot of people become interested in history. The baby boomer generation is generally well-educated,” Mr. Wheelan says, so the interest in the Revolutionary era is “a natural progression.”

Up until now, “being able to understand these people as vastly different from us is maybe a chore that pop culture doesn’t want to deal with,” says Ms. Berkin. “We revere the Founding Fathers so deeply. There’s some sense that we smirch independence if we make them seem like human beings. But they are so much more interesting when you talk about them as real people.”

The contemporary trend toward novel-style writing helps make the Founders seem more like real people, Mr. Wheeler says. That is yet another reason why books on the subject grace the best-seller lists.

“History is being written in a more interesting way than it was in the past,” he says. “Comparative history is written using techniques novelists use, where the writer will set a scene and then kind of back up from the scene. People are comfortable with that, and people who have read novels much of their lives and then switch to reading history like that a lot.”

In keeping with the idea that the current fascination is part of the population’s intellectual growth, Mr. Grant suggests that history of America’s founding is an idea “whose time has come.”

Knowledge, he says, may very well operate like the U.S. financial market; no matter how cheap stocks are, if people are afraid, they will not invest.

But then, Mr. Grant says, “the market turns and, lo and behold, stocks gain levels of acceptance. I would suppose that something like that is at work in the world of ideas as well.”



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