David Lefer, the author of the newly released volume The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution, Director of the Innovation and Technology Forum and an industry professor at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) sits down for a chat about his latest publication.
Q: We all saw your interview with Lou Dobbs and loved how he mentioned Poly right in his introduction. How is the book tour going?
A: It’s great to be out there talking about the book, and many of my interviewers are mentioning Poly, so I’m happy about that. It’s exciting and exhausting at the same time. I was in Washington this week, and I was interviewed at the National Archives and by the Washington Post.
Q: How did you get the idea for the book?
A: Before I came to Poly, I was teaching history to high school students. As a teacher, you always worry about a student asking you a question that you’re not equipped to answer, and one day, a girl asked me about John Dickinson. I knew he had written Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania in 1767, but she knew that already too; she wanted to learn more.
After a lot of research I found only one book written about him in the 20th century. It was called John Dickinson: Conservative Revolutionary and I became fascinated by that concept. How could anyone be both a conservative and a revolutionary?
I learned from my reading that he was among the most famous men of his day. He was responsible for delaying independence for a year, because he felt that America wasn’t fully prepared for what was sure to be a long, hard battle, and he prepared the first draft of the Articles of Confederation. Yet he and his allies are mentioned only in passing in most modern history books.
Q: Why is that?
A: During the Cold War a group of historians made the ideological decision to present the Founding Fathers as though they were a cohesive, unified group. That wasn’t always the case. Before the Consensus School, as the movement was called, historians acknowledged that the Founders could be a contentious, fragmented group. In fact, there was a battle in Philadelphia between American radicals and conservatives that left five people dead and fourteen wounded. All serious students of history have heard about this incident, but it’s not something that’s covered in high-school or freshman-level college courses.
Q: So would you say this period marks the birth of Conservatism?
A: It’s interesting that most sources trace the beginnings of Conservatism to a British statesman named Edmund Burke, who lived from 1729 to 1797. But some of the ideas attributed to him were expressed by Dickinson and his cohorts at least 15 years before Burke did.
Q: Do you feel modern Conservatives could learn any lessons from the Founding Conservatives?
A: These were men who put patriotism and the good of the nation before politics. There is a lesson in that. They also had to craft a message that appealed to the common man and not just the elites.
Q: What is in store for your Poly students next year?
A: As always, there will be many interesting speakers at the Innovation and Technology Forum. Also, I’m interrupting the book tour briefly to attend a program at the Stanford Business School next week. That’s thanks to a grant from Frank Rimalovski of the NYU Innovation Venture Fund. It should result in my teaching a new course in entrepreneurship at Poly in the fall, which I’m looking forward to.