Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays of Douglass Adair.
With a Personal Memoir by Caroline Robbins and a Bibliographical Essay by
Robert Shalhope. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1998. xliv + 451 pp.
Preface, introduction, bibliographical essay, select bibliography, and
index. $20.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-86597-193-5 ISBN 0-86597-192-7; $9.50 (paper),
R. B. Bernstein , New York Law School.
Lost Classic's Return
republication of this book by Liberty Fund restores to print, in handsome
and durable form, one of the most valuable essay collections in the field of
early American history. Douglass G. Adair (1913-1968) revolutionized the
study of American history in the Revolutionary and early national
periods--and yet, except for those who worked with him and learned from his
writings, nobody has heard of him. His 1943 Ph.D. dissertation in history at
Yale--"The Intellectual Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy: Republicanism,
Class Struggle, and the Virtuous Farmer"--has influenced at least three
generations of American historians and is a cornerstone of the famed
"republican synthesis." In 1944, Adair became the editor of the third series
of the William and Mary Quarterly and transformed that musty journal
into the leading scholarly journal on early American history and culture.
His essays, mostly published there but also in other widely scattered
venues, turned the writing of the history of the Founding upside down, as
shown by Robert Shalhope in his fine study of Adair's historiographical
significance (pp. xxix-xliv) and Caroline Robbins in her affectionate and
incisive memoir (pp. xix-xxviii).
did not embrace either stale economic determinism or patriotic hero-worship.
Rather, he took ideas seriously; in particular, he took seriously the idea
that human beings shape and are shaped by the ideas that capture their
imaginations and move them to action. Adair grasped the insight offered by
Carl L. Becker in his 1922 study The Declaration of Independence: "[M]en
are influenced by books which clarify their own thought, which express their
own notions well, or which suggest to them ideas which their minds are
already predisposed to accept."
one of the great tragic figures in the history of the American historical
profession, took his own life on 2 May 1968. His friends and colleagues
gathered his best essays and in 1974 published them in Fame and the
Founding Fathers as a memorial to him. The volume's editor, Trevor
Colbourn, notes in his eloquent preface his own intellectual debts to
Adair--in particular, the influence of Adair's work on his own.
essays collected in this volume are dazzling explorations in the history of
ideas and politics. "Fame and the Founding Fathers" (pp. 3-36), from which
the book gets its title, is a dazzling meditation on the desire for enduring
fame as a previously-unappreciated influence on the thought, words, and
deeds of the Revolutionary generation. In the now-classic "The Authorship of
the Disputed Federalist Papers" (pp. 37-105), Adair not only solved a
historical puzzle that had perplexed generations of Americans, he provided a
model of deft historical detective work. Twenty years after this two-part
essay's original appearance in the William and Mary Quarterly, Adair
could report (p. 367) that Frederick Mosteller and David L. Wallace had used
the techniques of computer analysis to confirm his findings as to which
essays of Publius were the handiwork of James Madison or of Alexander
Hamilton. Similarly, Adair's two essays on The Federalist No. 10--the
often-anthologized "The Tenth Federalist Revisited" (pp. 106-31) and "'That
Politics May Be Reduced to a Science': David Hume, James Madison, and the
Tenth Federalist" (pp. 132-51)--are indispensable to anyone who would
understand The Federalist or Madison.
the other important essays collected here are Adair's superb brief biography
of Madison (176-99), his essay "Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian
Statesman?" (cowritten with Marvin Harvey, pp. 200-26), and his trio of
essays exploring knotty puzzles in Hamilton's life and career of Alexander
pathbreaking review essays presented here illustrate Adair's mastery of the
genre. In its exploration of the uses to which different generations of
Americans have put Thomas Jefferson's life and thought, "The New Thomas
Jefferson" (pp. 335-49) presages Merrill Peterson's classic The Jefferson
Image in the American Mind. In "The Catalogue of the Library of
Thomas Jefferson (pp. 350-56), Adair voiced a still-useful caution to
Jefferson scholars about not assuming too much about Jefferson's
intellectual originality and creativity. Finally, "The Federalist Papers"
(pp. 357-67) is an illuminating reflection on the strengths and weaknesses
of various editions of The Federalist and a guide to the
considerations that should shape editions of major eighteenth-century texts.
1974, most readers of Fame and the Founding Fathers singled out as
its most valuable piece Adair's essay, left unfinished and unpublished at
his death, on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. In "The Jefferson
Scandals" (pp. 227-73), Adair sought to refute the recurring claim (in his
view, a charge--a fact significant to understanding the posture he took in
writing about it) that Thomas Jefferson had a longstanding relationship with
Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, during which she bore him several
children. Many historians have repeatedly invoked Adair's essay as the
ultimate refutation of the Hemings controversy, due in large part to Adair's
stature as a historian and also to its fortuitous appearance on the heels
(and from the publisher) of Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate
History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), to which it seemed a definitive
refutation. In 1997, however, Annette Gordon-Reed's Thomas Jefferson and
Sally Hemings: An American Controversy_ (Charlottesville: University Press
of Virginia, 1997) presented a carefully researched and strongly argued
reconsideration of the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. Gordon-Reed's book has
helped to cause a volte-face among most historians on the Jefferson-Hemings
issue (including the present writer); her sensitive and thoughtful
consideration of Adair's essay should be read immediately after reading the
Famne and the Founding Fathers
presents two stronger examples of Adair's historical detective work
alongside "The Jefferson Scandals": "Rumbold's Dying Speech, 1685, and
Jefferson's Last Words on Democracy, 1826" (pp. 274-88), and "The Mystery of
the Horn Papers" (cowritten with Arthur Pierce Middleton, pp. 289-332). The
latter, in particular, is a methodological model for assessing disputed
historical claims in its exposure of what most historians think of as the
Horn Papers Hoax.
Besides the Jefferson-Hemings essay, which now has value as a primary source
rather than a historical investigation, readers will naturally ask how much
of Fame and the Founding Fathers remains worth reading. This book
meets the test of a true historical classic: it merits thoughtful and
appreciative rereading long after its content has been assimilated into the
profession's conventional wisdom. Adair always wrote with grace, modesty,
and accessibility, and yet also with formidable erudition and analytic
skill. That he could blend these often antithetical virtues makes his essays
enduring models of writing history for scholars and general readers alike.
key respect, the essays presented in this volume offer insights as yet
unmined. In particular, "'That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science': David
Hume, James Madison, and the Tenth Federalist" (pp. 132-151) and his
consideration of history and the making of the Constitution--"'Experience
Must Be Our Only Guide': History, Democratic Theory, and the United States
Constitution" (pp. 152-75)--suggest that historians of the Constitution and
its origins have neglected one perspective from which to examine their
seemingly well-worn subject. Adair was profoundly interested in the ways in
which the members of the Revolutionary generation were intellectual citizens
of the Age of the Enlightenment, and the ways that they mined history and
political theory for information and insights into the tasks of
constitution-making and governance. These two essays suggest something
more--that in their efforts to derive from the amassed historical experience
of the Western world general principles of human nature, society, politics,
and governance, James Madison and his contemporaries were indeed seeking a
new science of politics on the model of the great scientific advances
associated with the name of Isaac Newton. History, to them, was a great
record of past experiments in government of all sorts, a record of
achievement and error that could be combed for guidance and synthesized into
general principles. Further exploration of the centrality of this "idea of
experiment" may well lay bare unsuspected connections linking the
Revolutionary generation's interest in science and technology with their
enduring achievements in which the philosopher and historian of ideas Morton
White has called "political technology."
conclude on a personal note: In 1974, when this book first appeared, I had
just completed my freshman year of college. I read it eagerly, and it opened
my eyes to the value of writing about difficult historical issues in an
elegant and accessible way. Anyone who is interested in American history
between the 1770s and the 1830s must read this fine book. Anyone who cares
about writing about history for a wide general audience will find Fame
and the Founding Fathers to be a treasured model. I owe Douglass Adair,
who died when I was 12, a debt that I can never repay. I hope that others
will read this book and contract similar debts.
H. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the
Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, N.C.:
University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American
History and Culture, 1965). In 1998, Liberty Fund reissued this fine book
with an illuminating new foreword.
Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1960; reissued, with new foreword,
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998).
Full disclosure requires me to note that Professor Gordon-Reed is my
colleague at New York Law School and a valued friend. She tells me that a
new edition of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is in the works,
with a new foreword that will address the developments in the controversy
since the book's first appearance in 1997.
For the term "political technology," see Morton White, Philosophy, 'The
Federalist,' and the Constitution (New York: Oxford University Press,
1988). For a first attempt to assess the linkages among scientific ideas,
technological change, and constitutional arrangements in American history,
see I. Bernard Cohen, Science and the Founding Gathers: Science in the
Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison (New York:
W. W. Norton, 1995; rev. ed., 1997), and see also Shalom Doron and R. B.
Bernstein, "Review of I. Bernard Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers:
Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison,"
H-Law, H-Net Reviews, June, 1998. URL:http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=29373898094919.
Call Number: JK155.A32 1998
constitutional history -- United States
Citation: R. B. Bernstein . "Review of Trevor Colbourn, ed, Fame and the
Founding Fathers: Essays of Douglass Adair," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, April,
“The convenience of having some of Adair’s finest work
collected and easily accessible is obvious. Of still greater value is the
opportunity afforded for rediscovery and examination of the characteristic
elements of Adair’s scholarship, previously apparent in the separate essays
and now seen to be sustained, with rare exceptions, throughout the corpus as
Cecelia M. Kenyon, review of Fame and the Founding
Fathers: Essays of Douglass Adair, by Trevor Colbourn, ed., The
William and Mary Quarterly 32 (July 1975): 500-504.