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Founders Chic and the Consumption of an American Myth

What would the Founding Fathers think?

Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution

Even though a number of critics have suggested moving “beyond the founders” (cf. e.g. Pasley, Robertson, and Waldstreicher’s essay collection of the same title) in the writing of (political) history, the Founding Fathers have had a comeback in the new millennium. of course, elite revisionism does not rule out the public commemoration and commodification of national history; ideology critique and revisionist projects to some degree have always co-existed with affirmative modes and rituals of commemoration, as was shown in the preceding chapters of this book. Still, we can observe that elite and popular discourses converge in an unprecedented way in the phenomenon of founders chic, and we may wonder whether the recent popularity boost that the Founding Fathers myth has experienced has implications for and connections to the multicultural rewritings of ‘new world’ beginnings resulting from the canon debates and ‘culture wars’ of the post-civil rights era.

Against the backdrop of the above-referenced revisionism, the renewed interest in the myth of the Founding Fathers seems ill-timed and awkward. But what exactly is the so-called founders chic in relation to this renewed interest? Founders chic is often said to begin in 2001 with David McCullough’s bestselling biography of John Adams and the HBO series based on it. The term itself was coined by a Newsweek journalist, Evan Thomas, in an article titled “Founders Chic: Live from Philadelphia” (July 9, 2001), and was subsequently picked up by scholars. It has been described as “an excessive fascination with the thoughts and actions of a small group of elite men at the expense of other political actors and social groups” (Cogliano, Thomas Jefferson 8). After decades of social history and multicultural and bottom-up approaches to the American Revolution, founders chic directs our attention back to the founders and to a “Founder-based beginning” (Nobles, “Historians” 141). The ‘biographical bang’ diagnosed by some historians at the beginning of the 21st century led to an upsurge in historical and fictional narratives about the founders: Adams, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton all became the subject of new biographies often written by scholars with little (or no) scholarly inclinations. Sean Wilentz in a review for instance harshly criticizes McCullough’s biography of Adams for being adulatory (“the essential goodness of John Adams is the central theme of this long book”), for its lack of intellectual rigor - implying McCullough himself may have understood little of Adams’s systematic political theory -, for its focus on domestic details, and for its lurid prose (“America Made Easy”). Wilentz furthermore sees McCullough’s John Adams as characteristic of “the current condition of popular history in America,” which he views as mere “gossip about the past” that makes history appear as a kind of “valentine” (ibid.). Wilentz is not alone in his critique of what he calls “crossover professors” who in their new biographies of the founders have left some of the standards of their profession behind; others have also severely criticized Joseph Ellis for his book Founding Brothers, H.W. Brands for his Franklin-biography The First American, which was described as “light on analysis but rich in the description of settings, personalities, and action” (Nobles, “Historians” 141), and even Edmund Morgan for his Benjamin Franklin.

Apart from new individual and collective biographies of the Founding Fathers, we encounter a whole range of founders-chic products on the postmillennial literary market that often lack historical veracity and clearly are pre?dominantly fictional: these include historical novels as well as books dealing with the private lives, families, love interests, and even the hobbies of the Founding Fathers. When we survey the phenomenon of founders chic, we cannot but concede that the Founding Fathers have become a best-selling brand: The founders are marketed as Founding Gardeners (cf. Andrea Wulf’s book of the same title), architects (as in Hugh Howard and Roger Straus’s Houses of the Founding Fathers), and anglers (as in Bill Mares’s Fishing with the Presidents). For children, there is the Jr. Graphic Founding Fathers series, whereas Thomas Fleming delves into The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, and books such as Dennis J. Pogue’s Founding Spirits: George Washington and the Beginnings of the American Whiskey Industry show that there is hardly a thing to which the founders are not linked (more or less facetiously) in founders chic literature.

Beneath all the human interest, these products revitalize the notion of individual heroism that had already largely been dismissed in critical work on the founders. Reiterating the purposefulness and telos of the founding and reinstating the Founding Fathers as authority figures and role models at the beginning of the 21st century may be considered as an indication of some sort of crisis; founders chic, then, on one level, registers and is symptomatic of that crisis, whereas, on another level, it is an attempt to overcome that crisis.

Most of the manifestations of the founders chic phenomenon are utterly nostalgic; they pretend to return us to “an earlier era of genuine statesmen” in both private and political life (Thomas, “Founders Chic 48). Thus, they have been read as reinforcing moral standards (for instance, McCullough’s comparison of John and Abigail Adams’s marital union with Bill Clinton’s “extramarital exploits” (Nobles, “Historians” 139). In another commentary we find references to a “post 9/11 crisis” that would endear Americans to the founders once again (ibid.). Founders chic writer Edith Gelles finds comfort in these texts herself: “Perhaps because our times are so complex and out of control it is nice to recall as well that there were dangerous times in our past, more dangerous probably, where great people were needed and rose to the occasion” (qtd. in Nobles, “Historians” 139). Gelles’s wording clearly returns us to the 19th-century Ban- croftian romantic-historicist approach and does away with 150 years of critical reinterpretation.

Illustration 6: Founding Father Cuisine

Cover of Thomas Jefferson’s Creme BrUlee (2012) by T. Craughwell.

One realm in which the branding of the Founding Fathers has recently flourished particularly is the cookbook market, which in and of itself is one of the largest segments of the US publishing industry, with annual revenues of $780 million. Recent culinary publications on the Founding Fathers include Dave DeWitt’s 2010 The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine (note the somewhat unconventional usage of ‘revolution’); Pelton W. Pelton’s 2004 Baking Recipes of Our Founding Fathers; and Thomas J. Craughwell’s 2012 Thomas Jefferson’s Creme BrUlee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America. Not only are there a plethora of new cookbooks such as these, but also reprints of older ones, for instance of the famed cookbook by Martha Washing?ton, and of early American recipe collections which also invoke the Founding Fathers as a frame of reference. The list of examples is sheer endless.

For a closer inspection of cookbook founders chic I will exemplarily look at DeWitt’s The Founding Foodies. This book offers historical trivia and recipes of dishes such as terrapin soup and salted cod; it falsely suggests that Benjamin Franklin was the inventor of popcorn, then referred to as parched corn (DeWitt fails to mention its indigenous source), and that we find the first description of grits and polenta in Franklin’s papers. We learn about Paul Revere’s rum punch and rum flip, Philadelphia pepper pot soup, and Thomas Jefferson’s French connection; in the subchapter titled “America’s First French Chef: The Culinary Education of the Slave James Hemings” (104-26), we learn that apparently “Jefferson was charged twelve francs a day” for Hemings’s culinary education and lodging in Paris “in extravagant circumstances with a member of the French royal family” (ibid. 106). DeWitt suggests that “[i]ndeed, Hemings lived a charmed life,” while Jefferson was apparently doing all the hard work (ibid.). We also learn that Jefferson was obsessed with maple sugar, imported waffle irons from Amsterdam to Virginia, introduced deep-fried potatoes (French fries) to America, and wrote recipes himself (one for ice cream, for example; cf. ibid. 123). Similarly edifying information is provided on George Washington, whose culinary culture according to DeWitt owed much to his slave Hercules, who made “presidential fruitcake” and lots of meat dishes before disappearing from sight when Washington relocated to Mount Vernon after his presidency. Even though many of the recipes in DeWitt’s book are in fact taken from Mary Randolph’s 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife (reissued in 1984 by Karen Hess), the alleged link to the Founding Fathers is always affirmed. And the author also distances himself from the so-called “fakelore” (cf. Smith, “False Memories”) by which the heritage of certain dishes is falsely attributed - after all, Jefferson did not introduce vanilla and macaroni to the US (cf. DeWitt, Founding Foodies 121).

The Founding Foodies is mostly anecdotal and provides a mixed bag of insights into the Founding Fathers’ culinary inventiveness, yet the author opens his collection on a pseudo-conceptual note which is worth quoting at length:

In their never-ending attempts to fully understand American history, historians began using the phrase “Founding Fathers” to designate the men and women, mostly early politicians, who founded the United States or were influential in its founding. At first, the phrase referred to three superstar fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. That list was later expanded to include James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay. Eventually, the list of the Founding Fathers was expand?ed further to include many of the lesser-known signers of the Declaration of Independence, members of the Constitutional Convention, and others.

Given the number of Founding Fathers, it should not come as any surprise that some of them had a very profound interest in food and drink. Some might think that by calling these people, some of the most famous and talented people in American history, foodies I am trivializing them. I don’t think so. To the contrary, I am elevating them into a new dimension of humanity, one that transcends politics. Today, the Founding Fathers would be superstars of sustainable farming and ranching, exotic imported foods, brewing, distilling, and wine appreciation. In other words, they would be foodies. (ibid. xv)

Never mind that it was not historians who coined the term ‘Founding Fathers,’ that the women somehow disappear after the first lines of this passage, and that it contains several non sequiturs; the relevant part comes at the end, where DeWitt elevates the Founding Fathers in a way that transcends politics. How to transcend politics, one may ask, but DeWitt’s logic can be succinctly analyzed with reference to Lauren Berlant’s critical assessment of the sentimental nation: sentimentalism of the kind we see at work here “develops within political thought [or within what should be primarily a political discourse] a discourse of ethics that, paradoxically, denigrates the political and claims superiority to it” (Female Complaint 34); at the same time it camouflages “the fundamental terms that organize power,” which remain unaddressed (ibid). The function of the cookbook in the discourse of founders chic more clearly than many other texts and practices turns the political into the domestic and the revolutionary kitchen into a “post-public public sphere” (ibid. 223) with a “displacement of politics to the realm of feeling” (ibid. xii). DeWitt and others enact a culinary white reconstruction on the backs of blacks and other nonwhites in an essentially nostalgic mode and thus re-install an image of a predominantly white nation. The “sentimental cultural politics” (Berlant, Queen 4) of DeWitt in particular, and of founders chic in general, separate the political from politics. Berlant argues that the political public sphere thus has become an intimate public sphere which produces a “new nostalgia-based fantasy nation” (ibid. 5), and it is in this sense that we may talk about the consumption of American democracy.

What is striking about this “fantasy nation” envisioned in The Founding Foodies and similar founders chic publications in which the Founding Fathers once more reign supreme, is that (1) it re-inscribes social hierarchies; (2) it reerects and legitimates discursive systems of oppression and exclusion (it definitely flirts with past injustices such as slavery, etc.); (3) it re-establishes a European genealogy of American national culture by way of French cuisine (obviously the black slave would not be able to cook if he had not been trained to do so in France); (4) it romanticizes consumption and obscures the conditions of production, i.e. slave labor - after all, it is slaves who put into practice all of the glorious ideas about composting, fermenting, wine-growing etc.; (5) it (re)sacral- izes the Founding Fathers by giving them celebrity status - visiting Monticello or Mount Vernon in person or through the consumption of founders chic products may qualify as a kind of civil religious ‘pilgrimage’ as much as visiting Washington, D.C.; (6) it operates in a discourse of ‘cultivating’ and ‘civilizing’ the ‘new world’ palate, adding culinary refinement to statesmanship and republicanism; (7) it condones an “utterly privatized model of citizenship and the good life” (Giroux, Public Spheres 56) with the Founding Fathers as exemplary entrepreneurs and private agents in a public sphere (in fact, they would have thrived in any neoliberal market economy); and (8) it re-organizes a national memorial culture and re-installs the myth of a ‘domestic’ nation in a double sense (cf. Ber- lant, Queen). At the same time, the sentimental discourse of the “intimate public sphere” in which we find “nostalgic images of a normal, familial America” (ibid. 3-4) infantilizes and trivializes this displacement of political critique: from the perspective of a nostalgic cookbook, the Founding Fathers hardly seem controversial. Who would argue over old recipes? In getting into the kitchen with Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin, we follow and condone their immunization from political critique as well as the immunization of those who so often use them for their own political ends.

Founders chic thus clearly is part of a broader marketing of nostalgic images of a “normal,” “familial” America: “Sentimental politics are being performed whenever putatively suprapolitical affects or affect-saturated institutions (like the nation and the family) are proposed as universal solutions to structural [...] antagonism” (Berlant, Female Complaint 294). This is also reflected in the way that the Founding Fathers mythology is used for instance by the activists and advocates of the Tea Party movement.

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