03/28/2008 02:47 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Founding Celebrities

You can tell a lot about a person by the company he keeps. Similarly, you can tell a lot about a society by the company it idolizes. We Americans idolize barely-clad, barely-pubescent singers with technically-augmented voices; the names of cancer researchers are unknown to us. We idolize actors who shriek at green screens in special effects movies; we never hear of those who work for ethical reform in government. We idolize, in other words, those who amuse us, not those who sustain us.

Not so in colonial times. As I learned in writing Virtue, Valor, and Vanity: The Founding Fathers and the Pursuit of Fame, Alexander Hamilton was no less ambitious than Ryan Seacrest -- but to Hamilton and the other founders, fame was different then from what it is now, attainable only through civic benefaction, which is to say, only through taking steps to make life better for others. If the founders' names were to live on in glory, so would their philosophy and legislation, their ideas and inventions. Their entertainment value was the least of their attributes.

As a result, Benjamin Franklin became so famous that his face was painted on the bottoms of chamber pots in Paris; you could remove the lid in the middle of the night to relieve yourself and find the senior member of the Founding Fathers smiling up at you. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson lived in abodes to which citizens made daily pilgrimages to pay tribute; Mount Vernon and Monticello were the predecessors of Graceland. And John Adams did all he could to "Spread an Opinion of myself as a lawyer of distinguished Genius, Learning, and Virtue."

The founders' attitude toward renown is nicely summed up by the historian Douglass Adair, who wrote of "egotism transmuted gloriously into public service."

Today, egotism has been transmuted into designer wardrobes and guest shots on The View after a month in rehab, and there is so much press coverage of the process that journalism has been transmuted into drivel.

You can tell a lot about a society, then and now, by the company it idolizes.