Bellatrix and the American Revolution

Bellatrix, a star in the Orion constellation, is 240 light-years from Earth. The light emitted from Bellatrix that we currently see began its journey just prior to the American Revolution, when Paul ...

Bellatrix, a star in the Orion constellation, is 240 light-years from Earth. The light emitted from Bellatrix that we currently see began its journey just prior to the American Revolution, when Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin were flesh and blood and there was no United States. Most histories of the period do not begin with a cosmic perspective. But Thomas Jefferson was, among many other things, an amateur astronomer, so perhaps it is not so far-fetched to imagine the “Founding Fathers”—a phrase invented by President Warren G. Harding—would understand.

Assertions, like mine, of what the founders would or would not have understood are common in the contested telling, re-telling, and re-re-telling of the Revolution. Andrew Schocket, a professor of early American history and culture at Bowling Green State University, does not have his head in the clouds about this time, and in his Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution we see why. “The American Revolution is so distant from us that, in a nation of now over 315 million people, no more than a handful of our grandparents’ grandparents could have remembered it,” he writes, “and it is far enough away that we can easily bend its interpretation to meet our purposes (whether intentionally or inadvertently).”

Fighting over the Founders is divided into cross-sections, each approaching different parts of our national culture, groups which alternately revere, recreate, and research the Revolution’s legacy. There are two rival camps with respect to the Spirit of ’76: “essentialists,” for whom, Schocket says, the founders were “demigods,” whose revolution possessed “one, true, knowable, unchanging meaning for us now and forever,” and “organicists,” who believe that the United States is “ever in the process of trying to complete a Revolution that the founders left unfinished.” The essentialist/organicist divide forms a heuristic for the chapters that follow, a process that maps out where the different remembrances, in the forms of memorials, historic sites, movies, books, and television, sit on the spectrum between unquestioning veneration and strident denunciation.

For an essentialist, the essence of America is a creed—the holiness of private property, a strain of Christian thought, fear of centralized power—that has sustained it for 240 years. But those who claim in all sincerity that the US was founded as a Christian nation have little evidentiary support: “The only religious reference in the Declaration of Independence is in the preamble, with a nod to the ‘inalienable rights endowed’ by a ‘Creator,’” Schocket reminds them, referring to Article VII of the Constitution, which unambiguously prohibits the establishment of a national religion, and forbids religious tests for federal office.

For an organicist, by contrast, “the past is darker, more ambiguous, more open to interpretation, and something to improve upon.” Schocket places himself squarely in this camp. The history of the United States of America is one of “progress from a benighted world of slavery and patriarchy,” he writes, where “the founders left work for future generations.” Organicist historians value attempts to understand flawed leaders over the worship of heroes.

So, within the context of contemporary American politics, the Revolution has not really ended. Organicists attempt to humanize the founders while, at the same time, an industry of founder worship works to mask unpleasant facts. For example, while it is true that Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary, was both “incredibly innovative” and “the prime strategist and intellectual light of the Federalists,” it would be derelict not also to recall

his extremely antidemocratic views, his scheming to encourage a military coup near the end of the Revolution, his adventurism commanding an army to establish martial law in western Pennsylvania during Washington’s presidency, his efforts to increase the federal debt so as to enrich wealthy speculators, his manipulation of Adams’s cabinet, and his fermenting public desire for war against France in the 1790s.

Kenneth Davis, in his classic text Don’t Know Much About History (2003), observes that “no single factor changes the course of history. … The established traditionalist [or, in Schocket’s nomenclature, essentialist] view is that the American Revolution was fought for liberties that Americans believed they already possessed as British citizens. The more radical [or, maybe, organicist] political and economic viewpoint holds that the Revolution was simply a transfer of power from the distant British elite to a homegrown American power class that wanted to consolidate its hold over the wealth of the continent.” James Madison, the principal author of the US Constitution, argued much to this point: “Landholders ought to have a share in the government,” which as an institution, “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

Although separated by a span of at least ten generations, Americans would recognize some of the tenor of the early republic, when Jefferson and Adams were derided, respectively, as a “Francophile atheist slave-lover” and an “overambitious and obnoxious monarchist.” The mud has always been flying. In addition to invective, the founding generation was also adept with platitudes. The most versatile founder and third president, Jefferson, was masterful at weaving nebulous adages to his correspondents and, because of this, can be cited by anyone on the ideological spectrum.

In this case, the spectrum runs from essentialist to organicist. Each, Schocket writes, have their dangers: the former “often romanticizes the famous founding fathers,” while the latter “risks romanticizing everyone else.” Organicist historians like Ray Raphael, for example, “call attention to both the role of common people and the leveling effect of the ‘Revolution within the Revolution’ on American society,” as the political scientist Ryan Petersen comments1. Both camps seem content to pat themselves on the back for their understanding of what happened in late 18th-century colonial America, despite premises that collapse when examined at even a shallow depth.

Schocket cites a shared view among historians, that Americans dislike being confronted with dark corners of national history. It’s the reason museums and historic sites focus on the broadest-possible audience, cater to the lowest common denominator of attention spans, and minimize the possibility of alienation. Any given bias notwithstanding, no one wants to cause a controversy that might threaten the almighty dollar. “Making an exhibit that offends no one is a deeply conservative project,” he explains. “‘Conservative’ in the sense that it reinforces the status quo. We are all free, but only the people and corporations that gave a ton of money get their names on the wall and perhaps a say in how the museum was designed.” George Washington, the Father of the Nation, “lying in state” ever since his death, is housed in a mausoleum “flanked by flags,” outside of which people are told not to speak. This is out of balance. “We must show the founders both signing heroic documents and signing bills of sale for human children,” Schocket writes, “beating the British army on the field of battle as well as beating human beings on their own plantations, as unpleasant as that may sound.”


With respect to how the Revolution has been shown on TV and the big screen, “people quickly interpret what they see in political terms,” because “historical films are exercises in ideological narratives rather than pure windows into the past.” He reviews recent movies. Watching the National Treasure franchise, starring Nicholas Cage, he finds films that “invoke [the] founding fathers as nearly oracular figures, [portray] founding documents as relics, and [present] the past as a something that can be known definitively, containing an absolute truth, if only we uncover the full set of facts.” They portray history as a set of obvious truths, not a complex lattice-work of varying perspectives. And in The Patriot (2000), starring Mel Gibson, he sees “a story suggesting that the Americans were good, freedom-loving people who won the war against an evil British military by using guerrilla tactics … [an] often good and occasionally great movie about the American Revolution,” albeit “wrapped in the forced dramatic mediocrity that marks the Hollywood blockbuster formula.”

The greatest example of what a series on the topic can be is the animated show Liberty’s Kids, which aired on PBS from 2002 to 2004 and “deals sympathetically with whigs and loyalists, masters and slaves, men and women, French and English, and European Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans.” A show intended for children, Liberty’s Kids sanitized the bloodiness war requires, which had an unintended effect. “The irony is that by limiting on-screen violence but chronicling many Revolutionary War battles, Liberty’s Kids implicitly reinforces an impression of the ennobling passions of war while minimizing the brutal consequences to people fighting for king or country.” The depiction of the institution of slavery is one of the show’s shortcomings; one of the characters is a free Black man, a rarity. As Schocket explains,

Roughly 450,000 Americans were enslaved as of 1770, and over 694,000 according to the 1790 federal census (with maybe 60,000 free blacks). The feel-good stories of Liberty’s Kids, when presented as the only stories, are both better and worse than nothing. They can inspire African American children — or for that matter, any children — showing that everyone has a place in American society. But shown without context, such stories are also damaging. … Liberty’s Kids and other film treatments of the Revolution offer up the same twin delusions at the center of American politics and culture: that everyone wants more than anything else to be free, and that everyone can be. … [The show] at its core reinforces the essentialist tenet of a free society of individuals for whom there are no structural racial, cultural, or economic constraints.

Meanwhile, the HBO miniseries John Adams, based on the David McCullough biography, “presents a fascinating amalgam of essentialism and organicism.” The series depicts “slavery on-screen, most notably in the Adams’s arrival in Washington, DC, where they encounter slaves building one of the nation’s great symbols, the White House. … ‘Half-fed slaves building our nation’s capital,’ Abigail observes to her husband. ‘What possible good can come from such a place?’” John Adams pays lip service to essentialist doctrine, showing a sagacious statesman and his wife who put country ahead of careerism. The series portrays Adams (Paul Giamiatti), as a short-tempered, somewhat absurd genius. Left unmentioned is the time when Adams, defending the British in court after the Boston Massacre, derided “the people the soldiers fired upon as ‘a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tars.’” The “trick” for the author is how to

portray persevering generals and heroic slaves, lone tribunes of liberty and boisterous tavern politicians, cruel patriots and suffering loyalists, wise framers and blundering bureaucrats, strident partisans and fearful disaffected, a glorious cause and bone-breaking devastation. And on top of that, to convey that we have different ways of seeing the past.

Finally, we deal with the modern Tea Party, which took for its namesake that massive act of anti-corporate vandalism in 1775. People only call it by that name because, Schocket writes, a half-century after it took place “wealthy Bostonians began celebrating a hitherto-forgotten event by calling it a ‘tea party’ so as to downplay the radicalism of the mass destruction of private property.” The roots of the recent reactionary movement to invoke the tri-cornered hat and the colonial fife go back to the 1980s, as more and more Americans began reading literally into the Revolutionary era, believing they could derive solutions to contemporary political issues. Their “vision of the founders” is made up of a divine and monolithic band of brothers whose words and deeds exist outside of space and time. Tea Party rage, Schocket concludes, parallels “in eerie ways that of many white, yeoman farmers in the Revolution: alienation from a political process that they feel does not represent them, suspicion of metropolitan and colonial elites that disdain them, fear of people that don’t look like them, and a religious faith in their own righteousness.” Beyond the Tea Party, the ideology of “originalism” has made a heavy mark on the courts, a doctrine that Schocket demolishes. For originalist legal thinkers, the Constitution contains a single meaning, an idea obviated by the fact that the framers of the document itself were not of one mind. The documentary record he consults “indicates that originalists are far more committed to preconceived notions of their desired [policy] outcomes than to any real interest in the past.” One area where “originalists” have won the debate is with gun rights. Schocket points to the refashioning of the Second Amendment, which is very plain in meaning, to sanction, according to the Heller case in 2008, an individual right to bear arms. Another example is the notion that corporations are legal persons, which anyone really devoted to the “original intent” of the founders would know is preposterous.

<i>Tea Party rally</i>. Photograph by Donna Lasater / Flickr

Tea Party rally. Photograph by Donna Lasater / Flickr

With the Supreme Court all but worshipping at the altar of major corporations, it is instructive to know that “the founding generation was deeply ambivalent about corporations and their potential for economic and political power.” Another difference between what The Founders intended and the system we have established since is the founders’ widespread suspicion of military power, “leading to a clause in the Constitution forbidding any military appropriation for longer than two years.” Lest people think the nation rallied as one around the cause of severing all links with Great Britain, it is worth recounting that perhaps one in five free Americans, out of a coastal population near 2.5 million, “opposed the revolution, and up to another two-fifths were what people then called ‘disaffected,’ meaning that they took neither side”—the country was divided even then, at the beginning.

In a letter to George Washington in 1787, Hamilton mentioned his concern about the future. “I own to you Sir that I am seriously and deeply distressed at the aspect of the Councils which prevailed when I left Philadelphia … I fear that we shall let slip the golden opportunity of rescuing the American empire from disunion anarchy and misery.”2.” Founders Online, National Archives. ] Adams was more confident. “The territories of the American states, from the Atlantic ocean to the Mississippi, contain an inexhaustible source of riches, industry, and future power,” he wrote in 1812. “These will be the foundations of great events in the new page of life.”3 Fighting over the Founders, thankfully, turns the page away from the crass exploitation of the framers’ legacies, toward a new understanding. icon

  1. Petersen, reviewing Raphael’s Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation (New York: The New Press, 2009), in Journal of the Early Republic (Spring 2010), vol. 30, no. 1, p. 151.
  2. See “From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, [3 July 1787
  3. See “From John Adams to Boston Patriot, 2 January 1812.” Ibid.
Featured image: Junius Brutus Stearns, Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon (1851). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.