Founding Fathers: A July 4th Reflection

COVID-19 continues to rage across wide swathes of America. Necessary social distancing prevents traditional picnics and cookouts. Meanwhile, a national wave of protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd has initiated a discussion of our history, specifically our country’s legacy of racism and slavery. This Independence Day will be very different.

On the Fourth of July, we celebrate the birth of the United States. The Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence on this day in 1776. Founding Father and future President Thomas Jefferson drafted the document.

Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment. He spoke multiple languages, read widely in philosophy and science, practiced architecture and horticulture, and could discuss almost any topic with enthusiasm and intelligence. He was also a slave holder.

Jefferson Memorial
The Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Joe Ravi)

How might we honor this contradictory figure or other national heroes with similarly complex, messy, or uncomfortable beliefs or personal lives?

Conservative voices offer a reactionary response by continuing to deify our Founding Fathers and even Confederate generals (i.e., traitors), subscribing to a candyland version of history, and claiming that anyone believing otherwise simply hates America. On the other end of the spectrum, certain progressives–especially those making no distinction between monuments respectively dedicated to J.E.B. Stuart and Ulysses S. Grant–seem to place no value on our Founding Fathers or our history. Anyone and anything not embodying 2020 mores should be cancelled.

The above stances do little to encourage appreciation or re-evaluation of our national history. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington were revolutionaries. They certainly did not view history as immutable and static. Yet, they relied upon history–often looking as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome–for lessons, examples, and possibilities.

Writing about the ongoing monuments debate, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens offered a simple, yet elegant answer to the question of which American historic figures should we honor. Stephens asks: Did the individual strive to create a more perfect union?

Can we say that about Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers? Stephens wrote:

An unbroken moral thread connects the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. An unbroken political thread connects the first president to the 16th to the 44th. It’s impossible to imagine any union, much less the possibility of a more perfect one, without them.

Bret Stephens, “After the Statues Fall,” New York Times, June 26, 2020

Although deeply invested in the barbarous system of slavery, America’s original sin, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers dedicated their entire public lives to fashioning a more perfect union. They deserve a place in our history.

On this July 4th, as we mark the founding of our country, we should celebrate its democratic ideals and acknowledge our falling short of them. We can do both.

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