Monday, July 4, 2011

Deifying the Founders

Episode 2 of the "History of Rome" podcast -- which I can't recommend often enough -- concludes with a comparison of George Washington and Romulus, the fabled founder of Rome. Over 2,500 years after his death (assuming he ever actually lived), the author notes, Romulus has a mythic status and is the answer to all questions about the founding of Rome. He further speculates that George Washington may come to inhabit such status in the centuries to come, and that our descendants will learn that Washington was born of a cherry tree, as evidenced by his wooden teeth.

I find it entirely fitting to think about America's Founders in a critical and human light as a way to celebrate July 4th. (This is sort of an answer to Jon Bernstein's July 4th question about political heroes.) And I can find no better post along these lines today than the one written by Mark Byrnes in response to Michele Bachmann's recent claim that the Founders, including eight-year old John Quincy Adams, all worked tirelessly to end slavery. Byrnes notes, among other things, that the Founders held a wide array of views on many subjects, that some worked hard to end slavery because others were working hard to protect it, and that the Founders were skilled compromisers who, for the most part, prioritized statecraft over equality.

None of this is to disparage their work. Had they been less skilled at statecraft, July 4th of 2011 might be an ordinary workday in some very different nation or nations occupying the middle of North America. We might have Queen Elizabeth II on our $20 bills, like some other countries I could name. But even while we revere the Founders, it is silly to regard them as gods or simplistic cartoons. Their history is complex, and we do them no honor by treating it otherwise. As Byrnes concludes,
The Declaration, whose adoption we celebrate today, is not only a gift to future generations. It is a burden. "The Founders" did not give us all the answers. They showed us the important questions, and challenged us to work out the answers for ourselves.
 (h/t Matt Yglesias)

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