For much of American history the founding generation, often mythologized and capitalized as the Founding Fathers, served as the gold standard against which we measured the debased currency that came after them. Ralph Waldo Emerson put this semi-sacred tradition succinctly: “They saw God face to face; we can only see Him second-hand.”
Later in the 19th century Henry Adams made the same point more mischievously, observing that any chronological list of American presidents must lead to the conclusion that Darwin got it exactly backward.
The Adams observation flashed into my mind recently while watching the media coverage of Donald Trump, whose self-absorption, megalomania and contempt for human civility make him the poster child for the sad state of our dysfunctional political culture.
More panoramically, the image of a gaggle of Republican candidates aligned onstage for a purported debate can conjure up a parallel picture of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — our first four presidents — looking down from the heavens, wondering to one another what kind of circus they are watching, and nodding in agreement that none of them would have surrendered their integrity on such a stage.
An alternative image of the founders, quite different from such conjuring, is abroad in the land these days. It is the picture of a rogues gallery of felons standing before a tribunal of righteous judges who are imposing a string of guilty verdicts. The signs hanging around the necks of the accused catalog their crimes: “slavery, racism, sexism, imperialism.”
Off to one side in this picture, a small group of women can be seen discussing the removal of Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill to make room for Sojourner Truth or Eleanor Roosevelt. At the bottom edge, Democratic Party operatives are huddling, all nodding in agreement that it is time to drop Thomas Jefferson from the letterhead of their annual Jefferson-Jackson dinners. In the middle distance, a barely visible collection of stonemasons — they are carrying sledgehammers — are whispering to one another, presumably planning the formidable task of chipping Washington’s face off Mt. Rushmore.
May I suggest that both images — the founders as secular saints or as politically incorrect sinners — tell us more about us than them. On the saintly side, all new nations seem to require mythical heroes to provide otherworldly sanction for their legitimacy. This is especially so when the heroic figures are real human beings, like the first four presidents, rather than fictional characters, like King Arthur.
Eventually, real human beings will be exposed for their imperfections. They become the fixed objects against which subsequent generations can do a political version of isometric exercises. Think of the way adolescents disavow their previously omniscient parents as idiots.
In the case of the founders, such disavowals also provide therapeutic opportunities to transform U.S. history into a morality play with a ready-made cast of villainous dead white males, thereby obviating the need to encounter history’s ironies and paradoxes or to comprehend its intractable tragedies.
There are signs we have begun to move past such childish practices. Over the last two decades, a full shelf of critically and commercially successful books on the founders has appeared, depicting men rather than monuments, their political legacy as a major triumph laced with tragedy. More recently, the Broadway sensation “Hamilton” conveys — in hip-hop lyrics delivered by a nonwhite cast — a historically sophisticated rendering of the most brilliant, dashing and fatally flawed founder.
Even among these nuanced histories, any attempt to bring the founders fully into our own time — either as demigods or clueless parents — will prove a futile exercise, like trying to plant cut flowers. It would be lovely, and great fun, to solicit Washington’s advice about how to fire Trump, but it can’t happen. We must, and surely will, dismiss Trump ourselves.
And once we get past seeing the founders as cartoon-like characters, all kinds of lights go on along the line between then and now. Is the paralysis of the current federal government a function of the political architecture the founders designed, which is now anachronistic, or more a product of our own making? Does our own failure to arrest the catastrophic consequences of climate change help us understand why the most gifted political leaders in American history could not put slavery on the road to extinction? Does our enhanced awareness of the depth and resilience of racism in our own time modify our posture toward its virulence within the founding era? At a historical moment when the term “political leadership” has become an oxymoron, how do you explain its flowering at the founding?
Such questions constitute a serious conversation across all ages that is blissfully bereft of nostalgia, condescension and utopian delusions. If the founders were not flawed, they would have nothing to teach us. And they do.
Joseph J. Ellis is the author, most recently, of “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution.”