[For this year’s post-Valentine’s non-favorites series, I wanted to continue exploding some foundational American myths. Leading up to my favorite crowd-sourced post of the year, so please share your own non-favorites—in every category—for that collective airing of grievances!]
On two interconnected problems with the mythic category, and one way to move past them.
In one of those non-favorites posts from last year’s series, I focused on a few different myths about George Washington to which we frustratingly still cling. The deeper truth, of course, is that the entire concept of “Founding Fathers” is itself a myth, and one that operates in similar ways to those specifically Washingtonian myths: flattening any and all biographical and historical complexities in service of simplified and larger-than-life images of heroic icons. That means that when historians and other folks try to remind us of some of those complexities—such as Washington’s dogged pursuit of escaped enslaved people, undertaken while he was President of the United States no less, as I discuss in that post and as Erica Dunbar has done such a phenomenal job tracing—it seems to far too many Americans not like an addition to our collective memories, but a fundamental threat to those originating and defining myths, a seditious attack that must be resisted at all costs.
That’s one problem with the Founding Fathers category, and it’s a significant one. But there’s another, distinct but interconnected and to my mind even more serious problem with the concept: it at least implies, and often states outright, that these individuals represent starting points for American identity. There’s no doubt that many of these folks helped start and lead the Revolution, which originated the United States as a nation; and, more importantly, that many of them later took part in the Constitutional Convention, which constructed that nation’s enduring set of governmental and legal ideas. Those are important influences, and certainly make these individuals and this community worth remembering (if in those more three-dimensional and nuanced ways for which I argued above). But I don’t believe very many of us would say that American identity is equated with our government and laws, or even with our nation’s existence as a distinct political entity. So the idea that because someone contributed to the origins of those elements they comprise a “founding” American is quite simply putting undue weight and pressure on their lives and stories, and leads directly to that mythic lionizing.
Challenging that longstanding trend will take more than just complicating the simplified vision of these figures and this community, I’d say. Instead, I would argue for a more comprehensive and overarching shift, one that I first articulated in this Twitter thread late last year: defining this group as Framers (a term that is used at times, but in my experience not nearly as consistently; note that that hyperlink still defines them as “founding fathers” in the URL) rather than Founders. That would not only help us focus on their role in framing those key governmental and legal elements, but also and more importantly achieve two other effects: lessening the need to view them as iconic heroes (and thus to see attacks on them as attacks on America itself); and, as I traced in that thread, opening up space to consider other Revolutionary figures and communities as “founders.” Like my friend Christina Proenza-Coles, I would call African Americans like Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker particularly great candidates for this revised vision of “American Founders”—but in any case, creating room for many different Revolutionary Americans to be considered Founders would be a long-overdue and important change.
Next non-favorite myth tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites, myths and everything else, you’d share?
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