The Founding Fathers are all things to all Americans.
“The American people having healthier life that [‘s what] our founders wanted for them,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said last month about Obamacare. Other self-described patriots sneered, “George Washington wanted Obamacare, Pelosi says.” And “No, Nancy, the Founding Fathers Would Not Have Supported Obamacare.” Senators Rand Paul and Chris Coons penned a bipartisan op/ed for Politico Magazine titled: “The Founding Fathers Would Have Protected Your Smartphone.”
Even as we continue to debate what religion meant to the people who christened the country—they now themselves have become a religion. And like all stern paternal deities, our Liberty Lords are frowning down on us because they know we can do better.
No one ever brings up Jesus’ name when the 2000-year-old prophet would disagree with them. As in: “Jesus drank wine with hookers and outcasts, but as a Christian, I find that reprehensible.” Jesus only gets used to corroborate personal conviction.
As an appeal to what we imagine to be our better selves we ask, “What would Jesus do?” And as Americans we’re expected to ponder, “What would the Founding Father’s think?”
The first thing worth pointing out: there were a lot of Founding Fathers. It wasn’t just guys with monuments in DC. Over 50 men signed the Articles of Association in 1774; another 56 men put their John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence (including John Hancock); and there were 40 signers of the Constitution. We’ve never heard of most of these venerated sages.
Pop quiz: Gunning Bedford, punk band or Founding Father?
There are more than 140 men who meet the qualifications to be called a Founding Father in an era spanning 15 years (1774-1789). The framers were not a monolith then and certainly would never have a collective opinion about health care let alone about a smart phone. Our current Congress doesn’t have a collective opinion about which day of the week it is and our Supreme Court is uneasy about the 100-year-old technology of cameras filming them at work.
The Constitutional Convention was not a utopian Garden of Eden where demigods gathered to shape a nation that would become the best in the world. They were politicians and leaders in their community (read: mortals). They lived in a different time with different mores. They were not exactly for freedom (they owned slaves). They weren’t exactly for democracy (women couldn’t vote). They weren’t exactly arbiters of human rights (Native Americans).
They also weren’t exactly against the fiendish Big Government; they were Big Government. In 1791, George Washington quashed the Nation’s first tax revolt: The Whiskey Rebellion ended with four rebels killed by government troops. He’s a hero to the modern tea party? Why?
President number two, John Adams, also a Founding Father, joined the Federalists in Congress gleefully passing the Sedition Act which criminalized speech against the federal government. What Nazis.
If we were contemporaries of these mystical Founding Freedom Priests, we’d have more complicated feelings about them. Just like we have about our modern presidents. No matter how much you like President Bill Clinton at this moment—you were kind of sick of him in 1999. Dubya said history would judge him. Turns out he’s not The Decider—it’s history. And history did wonders for Adams.
The Founding Fathers don’t reside on Mount Olympus and, no, Independence Hall isn’t in Valhalla (unless you think that’s Philly).
These Fathers were just rebellious products of their era who had no idea if this experiment at self-governing would ever last.
To summon the thought of these men to give us pause in public discourse is to subscribe to the logical fallacy known as appeal to tradition. The Founders were into dueling (look on a $10 bill; the guy on it died in a duel as Founding Fathers Richard Dobbs Spaight and Button Gwinnett did). Why not bring back dueling? The Founding Fathers would be proud. Some of them at least. The Founding Fathers didn’t believe in antibiotics! Or General Motors’ safety! Or air travel! Or Darwin’s Theory of Evolution!
Where does it stop? It really doesn’t. Canonizing the men who founded the nation doesn’t help discourse it just sanctifies history.
We’re better off humanizing than worshipping.