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Learning From a Complex Tradition

Students will keep yawning at talk of the American tradition so long as it continues to be treated as a static moment in history.

Interior of the Jefferson Memorial with tourists
(Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Each year, conservative donors spend millions on high-school camps, university programs, think-tank colloquia, and summer retreats designed to stoke a love of the Founding among young right-wing cadres. If you added up such largesse over a decade or two, the total might amount to the GDP of several developing nations combined. And yet we are seemingly no closer to recovering the thread of the Founding, at least as the donor class would have it.

The regulatory state continues to grow, no matter how many intelligent young men and women are taught to closely read the Federalist. Entitlements remain overwhelmingly popular, including among GOP voters, though this runs contrary to the urgings of the Founding’s contemporary spokesmen on the right.


Meanwhile, in the wider culture, progressive racialists continue to poison minds against the national creed, using 1619 to besmirch the achievements of 1776.

The problem might be that right-wing “Founders-ists” demand too much of the Founding. In championing the Declaration, the Constitution, the Federalist, and other, less notable documents, they seek to legitimate the American regime (in some ideal sense) against progressive critiques. The trouble is that the progressive critiques dominate the actually existing regime—they are the regime. This puts contemporary Founders-ists in an unenviable spot: defending an order in theory that in practice has been left behind.

Is the current material and ideological order an outgrowth of the Founding? Or does it represent a gross distortion? Yes, the Founders-ists answer.

Then, too, some of this programming replicates the same crude ideological tendencies conservatives decry in the New York Times’s “1619 Project.” If 1619 bulldozes moral and historical complexity to present a simplistic picture in service of the contemporary racial agendas of the left, Founders-ism does the same thing for the right’s libertarian economic commitments. The “Founding” of some Founders-ists is too often a story of capitalism and democracy, “meritocracy” and republicanism, rising in harmony—rather than as opposing principles.

Finally, Founders-ism elevates these documents to the status of holy writ. It is a sin in some conservative circles to treat the Founding as the product of a given material conjuncture, reflecting the power relations of its time, even as it also reflects the high genius of some of the greatest practical statesmen who ever lived. The Founders themselves warned against treating their generation as possessed of “a wisdom more than human,” as Jefferson wrote.


The result is that precisely where the Founding and the American tradition might actually serve as a guide, it often isn’t consulted. Conservative discourse isn’t rich with textured references to Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy; to the evangelical uprising against the “money power” and commercial boom; to Hamiltonian developmentalism; to Webster, Clay, Calhoun, and Taney; to Lincoln’s promise and limitations as a political economist; to what William Jennings Bryan fought for and where he went wrong, and so on.

At its best, devotion to the Founding fosters patriotism, inoculates us against pride and present-ism, and renders legible the subsequent course of American history, in all its glory and tragedy. But what we mostly get are conservative and libertarian clichés, and equally clichéd progressive responses to the same. And it is all terribly boring. You cannot blame students for recoiling from the American tradition, when the “American tradition” is a set of hollow slogans about liberty and anachronistic projections onto the past.

Here is a better way, crying out for a donor: Teach the Founding and the American tradition as an earlier generation of historians did, not as divine revelation with definite answers for all our contemporary crises, but as a problematic, having to do with the tension between political democracy and market society—which is to say, the central problem of our time, inherited from the Founders.

As for the core texts to include in the syllabus, no doubt some of the ones beloved of the Founders-ists belong, but so do works like Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (a personal touchstone for me) and his Age of Reform; Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution; Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson; Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution; Christopher Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites; and Michael Lind’s Land of Promise.

These are all texts that, in one way or another, bring the Founding into conversation with the political-economic developments that unfolded afterward. In various ways, each makes judicious distinctions between what in the Founding represents genuine verities and what reflects the limitations of the all-too-human figures, and social classes, that made the American tradition. And it is all a lot more intellectually exciting than the old Founders-worship workshops that without a doubt would have baffled the Founders themselves.


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