Did you know that Warren Harding coined the term “Founding Fathers” in 1916 while he was serving as a U.S. Senator from Ohio? (About four years before he became President of the United States).
Wheaton College’s Robert Tracy McKenzie explains at his blog “Faith and History.” In the process, he asks us to think about the relationship between “history” and “memory.”
But if this story shouldn’t affect what we think about the Founding Fathers, it should inform how we think about them. To begin with, it reminds us that what we call “history” is not the past itself but rather the remembered past. History is a form of memory that exists not in the past but in the present. Historical memory, like memory generally, is always influenced to some degree by our current vantage point. In the self-satisfied 1920s, praise of the Founders was simply good politics, but it has not always been that way.
While the Founders were still living, Americans regularly denounced one or more of them (while the Founders themselves were regularly denouncing each other). Republican newspapers condemned Washington as “the scourge and misfortune” of the country while they mocked and ridiculed “the blind, bald, toothless Adams.” Federalists fired back in kind, condemning Jefferson for his infidelity, hypocrisy, and radicalism. They repeatedly predicted (and perhaps hoped for?) the “just vengeance of heaven” should he be elected president.
By the 1820s the Founders’ stock had begun to rise, however. The country was approaching its fiftieth birthday, and the generation that had led the way to independence was passing from the scene. Like a youngster now old enough to have memories, Americans became more interested in their collective past. (They were also more willing to ascribe sainthood to the dead than to the living.) More or less continuously since then, Americans have imputed great significance to the Founders, although they have defined the Founders’ legacy in numerous and often contradictory ways.
Before “Founding Fathers,” people commonly, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, referred to “our Fathers.” New Englanders also often spoke of the Pilgrim Fathers.
Founding Fathers is still somewhat vague. Do we mean only members of the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention? Some politicians have been derided for citing as Founding Fathers figures such as John Quincy Adams, who was mostly of the following generation. The current language of “the Founders” opens up the category not just in race, class, and gender, but also perhaps chronologically to include figures like Quincy Adams, Jackson, abolitionists, suffragists, and other antebellum reformers.
Tom Van Dyke says
Historical memory, like memory generally, is always influenced to some degree by our current vantage point.
That's true, but not as small-minded and provincial as it appears. We need to know how we got to where we are today, and in the case of the Founders, how we might have lost something important along the way.
In the self-satisfied 1920s, praise of the Founders was simply good politics, but it has not always been that way.
Yes, said in the supercilious 21st century, which enjoys a moral superiority to every other generation that have ever lived.