Most nations emerged slowly from the mists of time, perhaps with some legendary figure like King Arthur to mark when their history might as well begin. Others have a hero like Fr. Hidalgo, who stood up and said it was time for a new nation. Ireland had two heroes, de Valera and Collins, destined to become rivals. Many nations like Canada formed gradually as their parent nation slowly watched them grow up.
Not the USofA. We are a nation that, nearly uniquely, has a collection of “Founding Fathers” who had their own roles, intellects, and egos. That makes their lesson more difficult than other nations but even more critical. They only can be spoken of as a group to the extent that they learned to put their differences aside and force themselves to be something greater than they were as individuals. When that message is forgotten something deep at the heart of our nation is lost as well.
The Founding Fathers were landowners and merchants, old and young, north and south, slave owners and abolitionists. Their first meetings were marked with suspicion and at times open hatred. The only reason that it worked is because there was no alternative once they had all committed themselves to treason. As Franklin noted, “We must all hang together or we shall all surely hang separately.” They put aside their differences and, over the course of many bitter years, created a new nation.
Their achievement was so breathtaking that it is easy and natural to feel a supernatural hand guiding them. It was so unusual in world history that it is very hard to understand any other way, in fact. As they come up constantly through election cycles we can expect their lesson to be muddled.
Michelle Bachmann has rightfully gotten a lot of flak for asserting that “Founding Father” John Quincy Adams worked tirelessly to end slavery. He wasn’t a Founding Father (but his Dad was) and you can’t say he worked “tirelessly” to end slavery unless you took the movie “Amistad” far too seriously. But more than its obvious inaccuracy the statement is clearly ignorant about the actual achievement of our Founding Fathers and what was most important about them. They were not deities speaking as one – they were mere mortals who learned how to put their petty differences aside and do something great.
Today is the anniversary of the day that the Founding Fathers stood up and defied a King at the sure risk of their own lives. They did it carefully, listing out all of the grievances that caused them to take this action. More importantly, they agreed on some basic principles that guided them. We honor those men by honoring their principles – and by putting aside our own differences.
When we try to turn their experiences into a single voice and a single action we lose what was the most important about them. We cannot honor them and forget their most critical lesson at the same time.