I’ve been watching the rise of the Tea Party Movement with a great deal of amusement over the last year. Protesting doesn’t come naturally to these people, and why would it? What have they had to be really angry about for the last 234 years? However, there is one particular habit of this fledgling force on the American experiment that does irritate me to no end. These people love the founding fathers. They love to carry pictures of them, hold signs with quotes by them, and generally worship them in every way possible. They think it is impossible to run a country without adhering to the strictly defined vision these “great” men had of America. Here’s my problem with this theory: The founders weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson were way ahead of their time by the standards of the eighteenth century world. They did some truly amazing things and gave us ideas about freedom and liberty that echo through the ages. But what about the other things (slavery, the electoral college, Syphilis) they passed down? These men never saw a train, much less imagined a world where China was less than a day away by air travel. Why then, do so many Americans think men from the age where healthcare consisted of bleeding and leeches could offer any meaningful advice?
The America of the founding fathers’ dreams is not a place you or I would want to live in. It is place absent of all but the most basic of government protections or services, where honor is defended to the point of needless death, and more than half the people lack any political rights whatsoever. To think the Founders would like anything about modern America is to ignore the very nature of the men. In their angry little minds, I think the Tea Party members see the Founding Fathers as a composite of Atticus Finch, John the Baptist, and Ronald Reagan. I doubt they know or believe anything beyond the grade school versions of these very human individuals. In the moral arithmetic of those who think our society is on the brink of collapsing, there is only good and evil. Either the people leading us now are all good, or they are all evil, just as the men who came before were either all good, or all evil. Anyone living who is held up to this unyielding standard is bound to fall short, leaving only the sainted dead to show us the way forward.
Nothing makes me happier than to think of the nation’s founders, rolling over in their graves at knowing what their country has become. We live in a world beyond the understanding of those of the last half-century, much less the end of the eighteenth century. The word progress has become, like liberal before it, a slur on the name of anyone attached to it. Those who oppose progress on the basis that it is any change that goes against the wishes of our nation’s saints, are ignorant of all the great achievements our people have managed by doing just that. We destroyed slavery, expanded basic human rights, and relegated racism to the darkest dungeons of our national life by ignoring the very men who gave us a country where such things were possible. The Founders and their ideas must never be forgotten, but as a nation, we must accept that the time has come to accept the mortality of some of their beliefs, and move forward towards our own vision.