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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

IV American Independence and the Myth of the Founding Fathers

Why the Founding Fathers? Who Fathered America?

Tim LaHaye, Faith of Our Founding Fathers

When in doubt, in American politics, left, right, or center, deploy the Founding Fathers.

Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes

The myth of the Founding Fathers constitutes an American master narrative which has enshrined a group of statesmen and politicians of the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period as personifications of the origin of American nationhood, republicanism, and democratic culture. More so than with the previously discussed individuals and groups, the Founding Fathers epitomize a political myth of origin that is phrased in a language of kinship. The term ‘Fathers’ suggests tradition, legitimacy, and paternity and creates an allegory of family and affiliation that affirms the union and the cohesion of the new nation. When the colonists in the revolutionary decade argued that they were no longer subjects of the British King and that they could now govern themselves (cf. Declaration of Independence), they claimed not only the maturity of the colonies and its ruling elite but also their capacity to produce progenitors in their own right. The construction of ‘new world’ authority and the logic of reproduction went hand in hand.

Second, in contrast to the myths previously discussed, which date back to the era of exploration and colonization, the chronology of the Founding Fathers coincides with the actual founding of the nation, beginning (roughly) with Ben?jamin Franklin’s birth (1706) and ending with James Madison’s death (1836). As a myth, founding fatherhood would only be installed firmly much later though - arguably only in the 20th century, as we will see. The Founding Fathers denote a secular myth that in its hegemonic version claims that the US evolved from the Puritans’ Mayflower Compact to the political maturity of republicanism. It also constitutes a myth of a new beginning effected through a revolution. Even though this revolution has been interpreted in many different ways, it certainly carries that “specific [...] pathos of the absolutely new, of a beginning which would justify starting to count time in the year of the revolutionary event” (Arendt, On Revolution 29-30). In many ways, the American calendar begins with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Revolutionary War, and this new beginning is commemorated each year on the Fourth of July. The myth of the Founding Fathers is also intimately connected to the first explicit articulations of an American civil religion. In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington refers to the bonds among the US states as ‘sacred ties’ to be preserved and cherished on the basis of the Constitution and thus translates the European religious idiom of the ‘holy union’ into a civil religious framework that would be particularly influential in constructions of the American nation (cf. Spalding and Garrity, Sacred Union).

Third, the myth of the Founding Fathers (like that of the Pilgrims and Puritans) focuses on a group of historical actors; it symbolizes cooperation and interdependence by toning down internal conflicts among those actors and by erasing the contingency of their plans and actions, their local and regional (rather than national) interests, and all sorts of major and minor disagreements. Even though members of this group have been heroized individually (George Washington, above all), they still form a collectivity whose military, political, intellectual, and diplomatic talents and efforts have led it to perform what has been referred to in hegemonic versions of the myth as nothing less than “a miracle” (Schachner, Founding Fathers vii), or “almost a miracle” (cf. Ferling’s book of the same title). It also strongly personalizes the origins of American nationhood, republicanism, and democracy by presenting them as the results of the political genius, virtue, and audacity of extraordinary individuals. The myth has been affirmed by American and European writers, critics, and scholars alike, ranging from Richard Hofstadter to Clinton Rossiter and from Alexis de Tocqueville to Hannah Arendt.

Who exactly is or is not to be included among the Founding Fathers is a matter of scholarly debate, as this term has only been applied retrospectively and inconsistently. Technically, the Founding Fathers were the delegates of the Thirteen Colonies who signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and later the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Some of those “164 Patriots,” as Jack Stanfield calls them (cf. America’s Founding Fathers), are little known today, while others figure prominently in memorial discourses. Richard Brown looks at the “ninety-nine men” - the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the members of the Constitutional Convention (between whom exists some overlap) - and identifies the Founding Fathers as the “uppermost layer of the Revolutionary leadership” (“Founding Fathers” 465). Richard Bernstein even more inclusively describes the Founding Fathers as

those who, by word or deed, helped to found the United States as a nation and a political experiment. Thus, beyond the “seven who shaped our destiny” named by Richard B. Morris, the term includes those who sat in the Congress that declared American independence; it even includes a delegate such as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who opposed independence and refused to sign the Declaration but fought for the American cause in the Revolutionary War, and a polemicist such as Thomas Paine, who only briefly held political office but was an extraordinarily effective educator and mobilizer of public opinion. It also encompasses others who fought on the American side in the war, or played important roles (as framers, ratifiers, opponents, or effectuators) in the origins of the Constitution of the United States and the system of government it outlines. (Founding Fathers 7-8)

Gore Vidal in contrast singles out Washington, Adams, and Jefferson as the Founding Fathers of the American republic, even though he refers to Alexander Hamilton as often as to the three aforementioned figures, and quite frequently also to John Jay and James Madison (cf. Inventing). As Bernstein’s reference to Morris’s 1976 book Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny in the above quotation shows, the epithet ‘Founding Fathers’ often refers to seven individuals, namely Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison; it is by and around these quite iconic figures that the Founding Fathers myth of origin has been predominantly constructed (even if there are other suggestions and additions such as Harlow Giles Unger’s rather laudatory appraisal of James Monroe as The Last Founding Father [2009]). So whether there were three, seven, ninety-nine, or 164 founding fathers (and some accounts come up with still other numbers) is contentious, and has been subject to processes of canonization and revision time and again.

While we may refer to the American elite of the late 18th century as Founding Fathers (alternatively: framers, founders) and while the group later referred to as the Founding Fathers was already commemorated in early American popular print culture, the phrase ‘Founding Fathers’ as a label became a fixed expression only in the early 20th century after it was used for the first time in 1916 by War?ren G. Harding in a talk at the Republican National Convention (cf. Bernstein, Founding Fathers 3; cf. also Lepore, Whites). Harding again used this phrase in his 1921 inaugural address:

Standing in this presence, mindful of the solemnity of this occasion, feeling the emotions which no one may know until he senses the great weight of responsibility for himself, I must utter my belief in the divine inspiration of the founding fathers. Surely there must have been God’s intent in the making of this new-world Republic.

Harding’s speech may well be considered a founding moment of the Founding Fathers discourse even though group portraits and images of those American politicians and statesmen had, of course, been circulating much earlier.

My aim in this chapter is neither to provide a full-fledged discussion of the merits of American republicanism and constitutionalism as debated and created by the Founding Fathers, nor to present in-depth analyses of the foundational documents, nor to address each of the Founding Fathers as private and public figures, but rather to reconstruct the processes through which the myth of the Founding Fathers developed. In this chapter I will first revisit the historical moment of the American founding; second, trace the affirmative, i.e. foundational memorial culture surrounding the founders in the 19th century; third, consider American slavery in the context of the Founding Fathers myth and the role of Abraham Lincoln as a belated Founding Father, or, more specifically, as the Founding Father for African Americans; fourth, address the long-neglected role women played as ‘Founding Mothers’ in the metaphorical paradigm of procreation; fifth, direct our attention to the memorial practices of the 20th century, more specifically to the Founding Fathers of Mount Rushmore, a prestigious and very controversial project that, among other things, sheds light on Native American perspectives on the founders; sixth, discuss the latest revisions of the Founding Fathers myth in the context of the Tea Party movement and ‘founders chic,’ which seem to re-affirm the exclusivity of the Founding Fathers as, again in a civil religious vein, the American ‘apostles of freedom;’ seventh, and in conclusion, consider the mutable meanings of this myth in the 21st century in national as well as transnational contexts.

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