The Myth of the ‘Founding Fathers’

November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

Rand Paul got in trouble recently for making up quotations he attributed to the Founding Fathers.  In other words, Paul is making a habit of lying to Americans, in attempting to get their votes, by claiming the Founding Fathers said something when, in fact, it’s his own policies he’s shilling.  Never mind the fact that Paul says “it’s idiocy” to challenge him on this, he, in fact, is the idiot here.

The term “Founding Fathers” has always made me uncomfortable.  Amongst the reasons why this is so is that the term flattens out history, into what Andrew Schocket’s calls ‘essentialism’ in his new book, Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution. (I wrote about this book last week, too).  The term “Founding Fathers” presumes there was once a group of men, great men, and they founded this country.  And they all agreed on things.

Reality is far from this.  The American Revolution was an incredibly tumultuous time, as all revolutions are.  Men and women, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, sisters, disagreed fundamentally about a multitude of issues, not the least of which was whether or not independence was a good idea or not.  Rarely taught in US history classes at the high school or university level, loyalists, at the end of the War of Independence, numbered around 15-20% of the population.  And there is also the simple fact that less than a majority actively supported independence, around 40-45%.  The remaining 35-45% of the population did its best to avoid the war or independence, for a variety of reasons.

The Constitutional Congress, then, did not speak for all the residents of the 13 Colonies, as many Americans seem to believe.  The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were fraught affairs, with many of the men involved in their drafting in staunch opposition to each other.  Aside from ego, there were deep, fundamental differences in thought.  In other words, the Constitution was a compromise.  The generation of men (and the women who influenced them, like Abigail Adams) who created the United States were very far from a unified whole, whether in terms of the larger population, or even within the band of men who favoured and/or fought for independence.

Thus, the term “Founding Fathers” is completely inadequate in describing the history of this country between c. 1765-1814.  But, then again, most Americans tend to look back on this period in time and presume a single ethnicity (British) and religion (Protestantism) amongst the majority of residents of the new country.  In fact, it is much more complicated than that, and that’s not factoring in the question of slavery.

It’s not surprising that Americans would wish a simple narrative of a complex time.  Complexity is confusing and it obfuscates even more than it shows. And clearly, for a nation looking at its founding myths, complexity (or what Schocket would call ‘organicism’) is useless.  You cannot forge myths and legends out of a complicated debate about independence, government, class, gender, and race.  It’s much simpler to create a band of men who looked the same, talked the same, and believed the same things.

But, such essentialism obscures just as much as complexity does when it comes time to examine the actual experience of the nascent US during the Revolution. The disagreements and arguments amongst the founders of the country are just as important as the agreements.  The compromises necessary to create a new country are also central.  I’m not really a big believer in historical “truths,” nor do I think facts speak for themselves, but we do ourselves a disfavour when we simplify history into neat story arcs and narratives.  Unlike Schocket, I do think there is something to be gained from studying history, that there are lessons for our own times in history, at least to a degree: the past is not directly analogous to our times.

Of course, as a public historian, this is what I love to study: how and why we re-construct history to suit our own needs.  So, perhaps I should applaud the continuing need for familiar tropes and storylines of the founding of the US.

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§ One Response to The Myth of the ‘Founding Fathers’

  • Brian Bixby says:

    The other aspect of ahistoricism that bothers me is that some treat the Founding Fathers as if they crafted a vision of government that should last essentially unchanged for all time. Skip the fact that “essentially unchanged” is somewhere between ambiguous and misleading to describe the opinions that go with this interpretation. It’s that no one can craft a vision to handle all the unanticipated future developments. And even Jefferson, for one, admitted that what the Founders did was just the best they could manage at the time, and that subsequent generations should be able to do a better job because they would have more historical experience.

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