In the eye of the beholder

Schocket book dissects views on American Revolution 

Over the last 200-plus years, the founders of the American Revolution have attained iconic status. But, like most icons, what they and the Revolution are used to symbolize depends perhaps more on who is vaunting them than on any objective reality.

In his new book, “Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution,” Dr. Andrew Schocket, history and director of BGSU’s American Culture Studies Program, looks at the ways in which the founders have been put to use by politicians and the judiciary, schools, the media and popular culture to promote, even unconsciously, their particular agendas. The Revolution has become a “battleground for debating what the nation is about and who belongs to it,” Schocket said.

His examination of citations of the founders over the last 15 years has led him to categorize users into two camps: the “essentialists,” or those who see the “founding myth as unchanging, true and knowable,” as Kirkus Review described them, and the “organicists,” or those who view the Revolution through the lens of the present and see the Revolution as an unfolding development.

The essentialists tend to be conservative and Republican, and since 1968 have cited the term “founding fathers” four times more often than the organicists, who tend to be liberal and Democrat, and are much more likely to use “a more perfect union” and “created equal” in their rhetoric.

Published in late January by New York University Press, “Fighting over the Founders” has received much attention in the media. It was excerpted on the front page of Salon on Presidents' Day and reviewed in such publications as Public Books, Publishers Weekly and the National Journal. Schocket has been interviewed on WAMC’s “The Roundtable,” Sirius Radio’s “Signorile Show,” and on KERA’s “Think.”

Publisher’s Weekly said, “Schocket is an opinionated and sometimes cynical writer who makes his argument—which is that institutions and politicians use the founding fathers for commercial and political purposes—with direct and provocative examples,” citing in particular his deep concern over the way all have tended to ignore the founders’ views on race and slavery, which he considers the “greatest collective failure” of that generation.

Schocket has explored the contradictions in early American history and how they have contributed to our conflicted and conflicting perceptions before. His 2007 “Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia,” winner of the 2008 Ohio Academy of History Outstanding Publication Award, revealed the origins and mixed legacy of the corporation in shaping America as we know it today.

He is currently at work on a book about the actual scale of violence during the American Revolution, which he said has been downplayed, and how it was that people began to recognize the new government as legitimate and become “law-abiding citizens” — insight which he hopes could shed light on the potential for countries now in chaos.

Schocket has taught at BGSU since 2001. He received his Ph.D. in history from the College of William and Mary.