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Sam Haselby

The legend of the ‘Founding Fathers’

Honoring the vision of the patriarchs

By Sam Haselby
July 4, 2010

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LONG BEFORE Americans embraced the tradition of the Founding Fathers, New Englanders honored their ancestors as pioneers of democracy and freedom and as the nation’s patriarchs. John Adams claimed that the “wisdom and benevolence of our forefathers’’ were unmatched, and “at the expense of their blood’’ they made an original contribution to world history: self-government. Town leaders in Plymouth inaugurated a holiday, Forefather’s Day, to commemorate Myles Standish, Isaac Allerton, William Brewster and other 17th-century Pilgrims, for making America the world’s “asylum of liberty.’’

Plymouth first celebrated Forefather’s Day in 1769, and still observes it every Dec. 21. Following the American Revolution, Massachusetts elites tried to make Forefather’s Day a national celebration and to make the pilgrims the national founders. The 1819 Forefather’s Day unfolded with a grandeur befitting the bicentennial of the pilgrims’ 1620 landing. Harvard President John Thornton Kirkland opened the commemoration with a prayer. It lasted 18 minutes. Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, the great orator of his generation, gave the keynote address. Webster spoke — for more than two hours — on the unique role of New England in national history: “no portion of the country did more than the states of New England, to bring the revolutionary struggle to a successful issue,’’ he said.

Webster’s speech also captured the exclusivity that New England leaders often preferred to popularity. He spoke about classical political science and recited Cicero, in Latin, without translating. His coverage of popular themes began, and ended, with “popular violence,’’ which, he explained, was best prevented by the “natural influence belonging to property.’’ New England elites’ ambivalence about popularity has rarely endeared them to the rest of America and it did not help the cause of Forefather’s Day. Even in Massachusetts, the holiday was never popular.

While efforts to take Forefather’s Day national stalled, George Washington’s stature and popularity continued to grow. Washington was helped by his biographer Parson Weems, who had no qualms about popularity. Equal parts patriot propagandist, frontier preacher, and American Virgil, Parson Weems gave an idiosyncratic portrait of the first president, however. He depicted the genial, card-playing, fox-hunting Virginia planter as a walking Sunday school lesson. Nonetheless, his “Life of Washington’’ became one of the most widely read books in 19th century America.

In Weems’s account, it was the British who forced the Revolution on the colonists, because, as he put it, when King George III’s ministers wanted “stakes for their gaming tables, or diamond necklaces for their mistresses, they will have it.’’ The contest between British decadence and corruption, opposed to American courage and virtue, personified in George Washington, gave the book its shape.

Democracy was not its concern. In fact, Weems never mentioned democracy or the Founding Fathers. The phrase would not be coined until the 20th century, by Warren G. Harding. Accepting the 1920 nomination for the presidency, the Ohio Republican said, “It was the intent of the founding fathers to give to this Republic a dependable and enduring popular government.’’

The Red Scare was still weighing on American hearts and minds. Fathers founding sounded better than revolutionaries, who might be overthrowing. Harding, who liked alliteration, had unleashed one of the great acts of phrasemaking in US history.

During World War II, Kenneth G. Umbreit helped the phrase find its place in the national imagination. In 1941, Umbreit, a New York lawyer and historian with a flair for popularization, published “Founding Fathers: Men Who Shaped Our Tradition.’’ It was the first time the phrase appeared in a book title. Harding had characterized the founders’ defining accomplishment as stable, enduring government. Writing during World War II, under the shadow of fascism and in the light of America’s greatest moment in world history, Umbreit gave the leaders of the American Revolution a more heroic role. Without Washington, he wrote, “there would never have been a United States.’’

In helping to reinvent the American revolutionaries, Umbreit added the courage and virtue celebrated by Parson Weems to the story that New Englanders had first set forth in Forefather’s Day. Since then, the Founding Fathers’ stature, though occasionally embattled, has been on the rise.

No single reason accounts for the durability of the Founding Fathers. Imagining a past golden age seems to be a part of human nature. The late 18th century was the last moment in the history of complex societies when political, intellectual, and literary leaders could be the same men. The legend of the Founding Fathers also allows Americans to see themselves in a compelling, if long expired, role: that of the underdog.

Sam Haselby, a historian at Harvard University, will be a visiting faculty member this year at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut.

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