For the better part of this decade, Americans have been falling all over themselves for books on the Founders. The New York Times took note of the best-selling trend in the summer of '04. They quoted historian H. W. Brands as saying, ''When the country is divided along cultural, economic and partisan grounds, people look for a time when we were all together.'' Brands had previously warned Americans about 'Founders Chic' -- that this array of books was a form of national idol worship. He argued that Americans were casting an infallibility cloak onto the leaders of America's formative years, producing "a new orthodoxy" that renders us incapable of addressing the problems of our own time.
Brands chronicles their rollercoaster popularity well and makes some good points, but he should have taken into account that A) these days, tabloid culture saturates everything and B) the breadth of information available to today's readers is unprecedented. It's pretty easy to figure out who was doing what and where when he wasn't supposed to. A lot of it is news as old as the Founders themselves.
I would argue that Americans today are less capable of Founders-idol-worship because they have a better understanding of their country than any before them. In the middle of the twentieth century, Americans needed a great deal of self-awareness to mentally protect themselves from the Soviets, in a war ultimately won by wits, not weapons. They emerged victorious, slept for a decade (lulled by our sense of security) and awoke amid a new war in which some seemingly minor details of our history have come back to spawn massive attacks and carnage. It's no wonder why they're interested in the minor details of the Founders' lives and times.
More than 60 major works on the Founders and the period were released in 2006. Earlier this week, a panel of distinguished historians selected the three very best. In May, one will be selected as the winner of the third annual George Washington Book Prize -- a $50,000 award co-sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Historic Mount Vernon.
The finalists are:
- A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor
- In the Name of the Father: Washington's Legacy, Slavery and the Making of a Nation by François Furstenberg
- Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution by Charles Rappleye