The Adulation of the Founding Fathers

Depiction of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

Gordon Wood began his 2006 book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by stating that “[n]o other major nation honors its past historical characters, especially characters who existed two centuries ago, in quite the manner we Americans do.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 3.

He continued, stating that Americans “want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq.” Id.

Scholars apparently have varying views as to why modern Americans revere the Founding Fathers, over two centuries after they first acquired their fame. Id. at 4.

Some scholars believe that it is because Americans are concerned “with constitutional jurisprudence and original intent” forming the basis for the Constitution. Id.

Other scholars posit that analyzing the Founding Fathers allows modern Americans to “recover what was wise and valuable in America’s past.” Id.

Another set of scholars explain that Americans look to the Founding Fathers to define the American identity. Id.

As Gordon Wood explained, this was not always the case. Toward the late 1800s and early 1900s, some Americans questioned the wisdom, accomplishments, and place of the Founding Fathers. Id. at 5. Nonetheless, for a significant portion of the 1900s and continuing into the 2000s, Americans look to the Founding Fathers for guidance.

While scholars may disagree as to the underlying purpose for modern Americans to honor the Founding Fathers, it can likely be explained by two points: (1) the Founding Fathers rigorously worked to create the best form of government possible and (2) the Founding Fathers knew adversity, difficulty, and hardship and yet held the country together.

As to the first point, the Founding Fathers engaged in one of the most substantial debates in history as to how a country should be best governed by its people to best ensure their happiness and prosperity. The resulting government was not only revolutionary and coherent, it has facilitated America’s success for two centuries with only 27 amendments to the Constitution being necessary.

The second point weighs a little heavier. The United States has endured many wars, tragedies, and difficulties. Few rival the tumultuous, uncertain times of the Revolution. Regardless, in both stable times and otherwise, America and its leaders have looked to the Founding Fathers for guidance. The logic underlying that goes “If the Founding Fathers could lead a revolution and fight a war against a mighty empire successfully, how would they deal with this scenario?”

All of the scholars’ views as to why Americans honor the Founding Fathers feeds into this point. When Americans ask these questions, like “What would the Founding Fathers do?”, they do so out of a wishful curiosity that leads to no clear answer.

This is a result that would likely please the Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers did not have a secret to making the right decisions or coming to the right conclusions. They only did so through vigorous debate with each other and unyielding optimism about America’s future. That contentious debate spawned the system, institutions, beliefs, and ideals that define America.

Those debates should rage on with vigor. It is the least that modern Americans can do to repay the Founding Fathers.

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