In the past I’ve taught a lesson on the Founding Fathers comparing them to the Justice League. The students tend to love it, given that most of them at least like superhero movies, and some of them are die hard comic fans. It helps to anchor the lesson, and it’s fun for me too. As the buildup crescendos in the movies, with Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Wonderwoman, Batman is building the Justice League to defend against a looming threat to earth. For me, because of my pedagogical style, it brings to mind the Founding Fathers, and the looming threat they faced.
In beginning this series, I thought to do something a little different. Tome upon tome about the Founding Fathers has been written—a veritable endless stream of biographies have proceeded from the time of the Early Republic. I thought, what I would do, is yes—give some basic biographical information—but share some things that I have observed about the Founding Fathers over a career of teaching history and the humanities that spans 17 years, but also as a human being and citizen of the United States..
Typically, the term “Founding Fathers” is a fluid one, applying generally to those who were most active in the foundations of American politics and society. Traditionally, there have been a core seven, to which scholars have referred repeatedly in relevant literature. These are—in no particular order—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. To this list we could add any number of names of patriots during the period, including the likes of Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon, James Monroe, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, and hosts of others. You get the idea.
Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers have come under some fire over the last several decades. While most historians recognize their contributions, it has become increasingly common to relegate their pivotal accomplishments to the feats of self-interested “dead white guys.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that phrase applied to the Founders but also other important figures in Western and American history, simply because the color of the skin happened to be white, and they were fallible human beings. It is a regrettable consequence of postmodernism, I’m afraid.
Were many of them wealthy? Yes. Did some of them own slaves? Yes. Were some of them arrogant? Some, yes. However, as I have told my students for years, you cannot jettison the contributions of a historical figure who has been a force for good simply because he or she has made mistakes. In essence, you have to take them as they were—extraordinary human beings under extraordinary circumstances—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Critics of the Founders who place all manner of imperialistic and colonial sins on their shoulders are largely guilty of presentism, one of the cardinal sins of the historian’s trade. Placing current ideologies onto the socio-cultural settings of the past obscures the understanding of the events that transpired in and the persons who lived in the period under question. To those critics I would say “shame on you—you besmirch and sully an honor to which you could never aspire.”
Consider the abilities of these men. Washington, the capable military commander and largely self-made planter; Jefferson, the lawyer, philosopher, architect, musician, anthropologist; Franklin, self-made printer and renowned wit and scientist in his own day; the mental faculties of these men could be matched only by the sizes of their hearts. All of them were intensely influenced by classical Greek and Roman literature and figures. They realized the ancient regime of the old world had oppressed people for millennia and had outlived its usefulness. These men made the society they wanted: a more just version of the world. At a time when absolutist monarchs ruled the nations of Europe, a Tsarina the Russian Empire, a Sultan the Ottoman Empire, and divinely invested Emperors China and Japan, these men did something that was, in a word, “revolutionary.”
For all of their faults, I would like to draw attention to Founders’ virtues, and the feat of mind and arms that it took to build the United States. I think of these men, and I am reminded of not only their sacrifice but that of the Minute Man, and the militia, and the citizen soldier. I’m reminded of my maternal grandfather who served in the U.S. Army, my paternal grandfather who fought in WWII and spent three and half years in Japanese prison camps, my father who served in the Army in Thailand during the Vietnam War, and my late friend Matthew Cravens, who served in the National Guard and did two tours in Bosnia. I’m reminded of the commitment to an idea, to the American idea, and the gravity that such commitment engenders.
These men did not insist on apotheosis, as part of some pantheon of American gods. That came in the years and generations after them, the work of artists, painters, authors, journalists, and politicians. Any attempt to enshrine them as such, does them a disservice. They themselves would have eschewed it. However we might define their faith, they knew they were no gods, and that their place lay below the Creator, not as His equal. So to the critics, I would say, we do not honor these men as gods, we honor them as founders, as the singular individuals who thought this country into being.
We live in an age when Thomas Jefferson is being taken out of discussions of the intellectual history of America in textbooks. George Washington is written off as a slave-holding, ambitious planter. History is being subtly rewritten under our very noses, by politicians and those who would obfuscate the truth in our educational system. If it’s an act of defiance to teach the virtue of these men, then so be it. I owe them, and this nation, no less. I pray that there are enough of us who can remember and preserve the lessons and contributions of these great men, so that the present and future generations may benefit from their wisdom.
God Bless America, and indeed, the community of nations to which she is neighbor
Judd H. Burton, July 4, 2017