The Founding Fathers: Demigods or scoundrels?

tags: The Founding Fathers

Joseph J. Ellis is the author, most recently, of "The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution."

For much of American history the founding generation, often mythologized and capitalized as the Founding Fathers, served as the gold standard against which we measured the debased currency that came after them. Ralph Waldo Emerson put this semi-sacred tradition succinctly: "They saw God face to face; we can only see Him second-hand."

Later in the 19th century Henry Adams made the same point more mischievously, observing that any chronological list of American presidents must lead to the conclusion that Darwin got it exactly backward.

The Adams observation flashed into my mind recently while watching the media coverage of Donald Trump, whose self-absorption, megalomania and contempt for human civility make him the poster child for the sad state of our dysfunctional political culture.

More panoramically, the image of a gaggle of Republican candidates aligned onstage for a purported debate can conjure up a parallel picture of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — our first four presidents — looking down from the heavens, wondering to one another what kind of circus they are watching, and nodding in agreement that none of them would have surrendered their integrity on such a stage.

An alternative image of the founders, quite different from such conjuring, is abroad in the land these days. It is the picture of a rogues gallery of felons standing before a tribunal of righteous judges who are imposing a string of guilty verdicts. The signs hanging around the necks of the accused catalog their crimes: "slavery, racism, sexism, imperialism."

Off to one side in this picture, a small group of women can be seen discussing the removal of Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill to make room for Sojourner Truth or Eleanor Roosevelt. At the bottom edge, Democratic Party operatives are huddling, all nodding in agreement that it is time to drop Thomas Jefferson from the letterhead of their annual Jefferson-Jackson dinners. In the middle distance, a barely visible collection of stonemasons — they are carrying sledgehammers — are whispering to one another, presumably planning the formidable task of chipping Washington's face off Mt. Rushmore.

May I suggest that both images — the founders as secular saints or as politically incorrect sinners — tell us more about us than them. On the saintly side, all new nations seem to require mythical heroes to provide otherworldly sanction for their legitimacy. This is especially so when the heroic figures are real human beings, like the first four presidents, rather than fictional characters, like King Arthur. ...

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