They created a republic, but they also set in motion the celebrity machine that rages out of control in our own era.
Emmy-winning journalist Burns examines the fame of a number of the Founding Fathers: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton and Henry most prominently, though James Wilson, Benjamin Rush, John Hancock, Samuel Adams and a few others also pop up. (Thomas Paine is among the missing.) After some glances back to the Roman Republic and Gabriel Archer’s 1602 voyage to the New World, the author asks various questions about the Founders. What was their attitude about fame? How did they feel about ambition? Vanity? Modesty? Who was the most jealous among them? (Bitter John Adams wins this prize.) To what extent was each concerned about his image? Who created the myths—and how? How did each man die? How was his death received? What (in some cases, anyway) were his religious beliefs? What was his epitaph? Burns sometimes veers predictably into the obvious—fame then was not the same as fame now; many celebrities today have not done much of real consequence—and his text occasionally stumbles rather than flows from topic to topic. Nonetheless, his answers to these salient questions are frequently intriguing and often useful. He notes for example that, while Henry wasn’t particularly eager to pose for posterity, many of the Founders sat for countless portraits—Washington probably the most—because they knew that “lasting fame required lasting images.” Parson Weems’s famous addition of a fabricated tale about Washington chopping down a cherry tree to the 1806 edition of his biography, in Burns’s view, was simply another way to buttress the parson’s claim that the first president’s extraordinary celebrity was “due to his Great Virtues.”
As he did in Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism (2006), Burns finds a fresh way to tilt history’s looking glass to reveal additional facets of these compelling men.