This is a day later than I intended to post this, but stuff happens, and you’re getting it today. Yesterday was Presidents’ Day, and I, not surprisingly if you know me, spend several hours watching “The Presidents” on the History Channel. I was furious when they jumped from Arthur to Carter. I want my Roosevelts, damn it! Still, I was thinking a lot about the Presidents yesterday, and that got me on a track back to the Founding Fathers, because I am, in fact, an enormous dork, and thinking about history is fun!
I love those who strive to live up to high philosophical goals, fail, and keep on trying. That’s why I love the Founding Fathers so very much.
There is this tendency to think of the Founding Fathers as gods. This does such a disservice to history and to the complexity of our founders as people. It removes our agency, too, if we’re just sort of historical after thoughts, living out their ideals, without room for change or growth. When we gloss over mistakes they made– not inconsequential mistakes, for the record, but things like the perpetuation of slavery– we lose something great about America, which is that we are always striving to be better.
John Adams, my favorite grumpy Continental Congressman, wrote in 1790
“The history of our revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod — and henceforward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war.”
As is often the case in retrospect, Adams was sort of right.
When we do that, when we just mythologize our beginnings, it paints a safer, neater picture, but it also robs us of something great. It’s good to remember sometimes, that the American Revolution was long and messy. People died, and the Continental Congress was full of in-fighting and incredible, vast disagreements about where we should go as a group (not even yet a nation). And even when we won our independence, it took us until 1787, and a long, hot summer in Philadelphia, to come up with a functioning Constitution. This is why it’s important to remember the bad things we have done; it’s not to perpetuate some sense of self-loathing or to ignore the importance of the ideals and contributions of the Founding Fathers. It’s because when we take a realistic look at our Founders, when we appreciate them as imperfect men, then they don’t feel so far from us. Living up to their ideals, and expanding on them, doesn’t seem quite so impossible a task.
So, I’ll celebrate Presidents’ Day (a little late, I know) by remembering the enormous strides we’ve made as a people, and by looking to the future, and hoping.
And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.