Desktop version

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

Conclusion: The Founding Fathers as National Fantasy in Transnational Contexts

When I first saw a painting of George Washington framed by a toilet seat, hanging on the walls of a local junior college, I realized that the history revisionists had gone too far.

Tim LaHaye, Faith of Our Founding Fathers

At a resonant 1,776 feet tall, the Freedom Tower — in my master plan, second in importance only to the 9/11 memorial itself — will rise above its predecessors, reasserting the preeminence of freedom and beauty, restoring the spiritual peak to the city and proclaiming America’s resilience even in the face of profound danger, of our optimism even in the aftermath of tragedy. Life, victorious.

Daniel Libeskind, “Ground Zero Master Plan”

The Liberty Tower at Ground Zero symbolizes a national fantasy that refers, by way of its height of 1,776 feet, to the year of the Declaration of Independence. This new architectural symbol also reinforces and re-invigorates the myth of the founding and the Founding Fathers. Particularly in the wake of 9/11, we can observe a political climate in which many Americans were protective of the Founding Fathers again. Thus, we may relate the comeback of the founders in founders chic to other political developments and movements which affirm their role for the national founding; as Jill Lepore has pointed out, the new historical revisionism initiated by the Tea Party movement and religious groups alike presents a confused discursive conglomerate that is “conflating originalism, evangelicalism, and heritage tourism” and which “amounts to fundamentalism” (Whites 16). In this fundamentalist discourse, the Founding Fathers serve as the historical authority for neoconservative and evangelical agendas; this imagined alliance highlights the activists’ lack of historical knowledge or their willingness to purposefully misrepresent history to further their own ends. It is well-known that, in an interview with Glenn Beck on January 13, 2010, former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin (R) invoked the “sincerity of the Founding Fathers” and yet was at first unable to name even one of them (cf. “Sarah Palin”). Similarly, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Min) falsely claimed that “the very founders that wrote those [founding] documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States [...],” and went on to say that John Quincy Adams “would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country” (Amira, “Michele Bachmann; cf. McCarthy, “John Quincy Adams”). Adams, who died in 1848, did rest before slavery was abolished. This skewed and counterfactual version of history shows that the Founding Fathers are used here as a projection screen for the present which enables a fantasy of the nation through a retrospectively imagined original, primary moment.

The Tea Party movement has been considered by many commentators and scholars to advocate an extremist political agenda based on anti-elitism and anti- statism, even as it lacks a consistent common ideology (cf. Greven, “Die Tea- Party-Bewegung” 147). Thomas Greven refers to a “tea party-brand” (ibid. 145) that includes ‘Don’t tread on me’ merchandize and a rhetoric of ‘re-founding’ and ‘taking back’ the country that seems as regressively nostalgic as founders chic memorabilia.

In the context of evangelical popular culture, Tim LaHaye, co-author of the phenomenally successful Left Behind series of books, is one of the most prominent evangelical Christian ministers and speakers to have contributed to the debates around the Founding Fathers. In Faith of Our Founding Fathers, he champions the evangelical origins of the US, which he is able to do only by offering an alternative set of Founding Fathers: James Madison, Robert Morris, Roger Sherman, Alexander Hamilton, and George Mason. Argumentatively, LaHaye employs a revisionist rhetoric when he refers to the “untold story” of the Christian origin of the country and to the “debt owed to the Founding Fathers;” he bemoans “the distortion of history in the state-approved textbooks” and “the total absence of the Christian religion in them,” whereby in his view “a whole generation of schoolchildren is robbed of its country’s religious heritage” (1). Much can be said about LaHaye’s claim regarding the foundational quality of Christianity as opposed to secularism (he hardly ever takes into account the American Enlightenment). According to him, “secular humanists” in the US have produced a “moral holocaust” (note the metaphor) by blindly attacking “Christianity and its moral values” (ibid. 4) and by engaging in a “deliberate rape of history” (ibid. 5). LaHaye suggests in his culture war on US-American paternity that “evangelical Protestants who founded this nation” (qtd. in Lepore, Whites 121) should be reinstalled whereas both Jefferson (who “had nothing to do with the founding of our nation” [ibid]) and Franklin (who in LaHaye’s view was not a Christian) should be discounted. LaHaye’s hagiographic fashioning of the Christian Founding Fathers explains historical events through individual achievement and character rather than through systemic forces and contingency (cf. ibid. 36). In many ways, LaHaye offers a counter-narrative to secularization and the Enlightenment by (mis)reading a civil religious discourse as religious (more specifically, Christian) and thus by projecting religion back onto the newly emergent revolutionary civil religion.

The so-called “teavangelicals,” as David Brody calls them appreciatively (cf. his book of the same title), even as they present two distinct groups (i.e., Tea Party movement activists and evangelical Christians), can be considered aligned on a variety of issues. For one thing, both converge in a new embrace of the myth of the Founding Fathers under political and religious considerations, respectively, and share a unilateral, patriotic discourse that identifies outside, ‘foreign’ influences and US international involvement as harmful to the US. These anxieties come to the fore in discussions of Obama’s birth certificate (revolving around the question of whether he is a foreigner, i.e. ‘un-American’), in blaming foreign (European) influence for the secularization of the US, as well as in post-9/11 discussions of the ‘terrorist threat.’ LaHaye is forcefully antiFrench and anti-European in general, complaining in his book that at the revolutionary moment, ‘old world’ forces already attempted to secularize and corrupt the American Founding Fathers. Thus, the discussion of the Founding Fathers continues to be deeply polarized, and the founders’ original intent is time and again debated in political arguments that are still often quite divisive. In order to describe the social, cultural, and political chasm within American society that these debates seem to reveal, John Sperling and Suzanne Wiggins Helburn have used the framework of a conservative “retro America” vs. a liberal “metro America” (cf. Great Divide), and Stanley B. Greenberg similarly identifies “two Americas” (cf. his 2004 book) divided along the lines of religion and politics.

In stark contrast to the reinvigoration of the Founding Fathers myth as a national fantasy, we find much historical evidence corroborating the transnational dimension of the political experiences of men like Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Jay, Hamilton, and Madison. From a transnational perspective, the Founding Fathers, of course, were retrospectively contained in a national paradigm that was nonexistent at the time of the American Revolution and has more recently become an anachronism. A number of recent studies have addressed this conundrum: Gordon S. Wood in his The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (2004) reopens a discussion of the founders outside the nationalist paradigm by looking at Franklin as “the principal American abroad” (Americanization 201), who enjoyed life in France. At a time when “[c]ultural nationalism had not yet developed enough to disrupt the cosmopolitan republic of letters that made learned men like Franklin ‘citizens of the world’” (Bender, Nation 89), many of the Founding Fathers would have defined themselves as part of a broader international culture. Similarly, Francis Cogliano has pointed out that for Jefferson “the spread of liberty was, and must be, an international movement” (Thomas Jefferson 264) that may have begun in the Thirteen Colonies yet should expand to other parts of the world. It was a “global republicanism” (ibid. 265) that he had in mind: reading him as an American statesman misses “the international outlook at the heart of Jefferson’s beliefs” (ibid). Similarly reading back a cosmopolitan internationalism into the founding phase of the republic, Thomas Bender has elaborated on the many ways in which the American past is not “a linear story of progress or a self-contained history” (Nation 60). He considers the American Revolution as, among other things, part of “a global war between European great powers” (France and England more specifically) in which the colonies in North America were caught up and in which they constituted one actor among many (ibid. 61). Any account of the American Revolution should thus also consider the French Revolution as well as the Haitian Revolution, which for Bender clearly was the most radical in the Americas in the 18th century. Regarding Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, Gore Vidal notes that “[i]t is a triple irony that three of the principal inventors of the United States should have been abroad in Europe during the Constitution-making period” (Inventing 62). Heroizing the Founding Fathers has always been an attempt at keeping contingency at bay, as “[t]here is very little about the events of 1776 that, on close examination, suggests inevitability” (ibid. 33). And Thomas Bender further notes that

[t]he new nation was independent, but very limited in its freedom of action. Far from being isolated, it was perhaps more deeply entangled in world affairs, more clearly a participant in histories larger than itself, than at any other time in its history. (Nation 103)

Thus, scrutinizing the complexity of the Founding Fathers myth may necessitate looking beyond the national context. The American Revolution also bespeaks a transnational moment, and recent scholarship has begun to reconstruct just that.

While the Founding Fathers as a collective myth have come into being relatively late, their symbolic capital in American public life and political culture today clearly exceeds that of Columbus, Pocahontas, and perhaps even that of the Pilgrims and Puritans; in fact, the status of the Founding Fathers is quite elevated among the foundational mythological personnel. It is therefore important to note the various processes in which the making, remaking and (partial) unmaking of this myth has unfolded.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >