The New Founding Hagiography and Its Enemies
by Tom Cutterham
In 2002, David McCullough’s life of John Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The year before, Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers had won it for History. Books on Adams were nothing new, but never before had he and his “founding brothers” experienced quite such wide and uncritical admiration in the mainstream of American popular culture. John Adams carried the flag for a resurgent public and publishing interest in the Founding Fathers.
It’s no coincidence that it did so in the same year that neoconservative and neoliberal ideologies coalesced in the presidency of George W. Bush. The new Founding hagiography, which McCullough perfected, performs a particular function within that ideological matrix. In its celebration of exceptional genius and leadership, the like of which can never be found again, mainstream literature on the Founding Fathers alienates its readers from the possibility of creative political action. The compromises and strategic decisions of eighteenth-century politicians, and the rhetoric in which they couched them, become the definitive articles of a popular faith, the Founders themselves its unassailable prophets and scribes.
If neoliberalism demands that democratic governance over domestic communities, in the form of the state, should diminish in favour of market and corporate organisation; and if neoconservatism demands that the non-democratic, military and security apparatus of the state should expand to the point of possessing total potential control; then this kind of historical writing, perhaps better than any other discourse, can fulfil both aims simultaneously within the bounds of their distinct aesthetics.