Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dreams From Our Fathers

Last week I spoke about the frequent re-occurence of the term and the concept of the "hot topic" in standardized essays. One of the methods through which these essay writers seek to arbitrate "hot topics" is invariably to invoke the "founding fathers" or the Constitution (specifically the First Amendment, though usually the favored term is simply "The Constitution"). Like we see in the federal courts, interpretation of the Constitution varies widely. Some argue that the nation was "founded on Christian principles," while others assert that the nation was "founded on separation of church and state." But everyone seems to agree that the founding fathers themselves are above reproach (though in death they apparently do a lot of turning over in their graves).

Still, for such a universally respected entity, these founding fathers seem to lack a concrete presence in our culture. That may seem odd to say, given that we have monuments, our capital is named after one of them (among other cities and schools), and their visages adorn our monetary units. But as a point of comparison with other notable historical figures, they suffer from lack of exposure. Of course, those who existed after the advent of film will always have a leg up on those who perished before they could be committed to celluloid. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy are safely enshrined as cultural icons.

But despite lacking stock footage, Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Queen Elizabeth I, and heroes and figures from the Bible, ancient Greece, and ancient Egypt continue to be resurrected and portrayed in pop culture. At least John Hancock has a financial services company named after him, and Paul Revere (if he even counts as a founding father) had a '60s pop band named after him (though they did have an organist who was actually named Paul Revere). And oh yeah, Ben Franklin lends his name to a discount store chain and Sam Adams is a beer. But more to the point, in the 1950s golden age of the Hollywood historical epic, the character who ended up becoming the embodiement of the Revolutionary War era was the fictional Johnny Tremain.

So why don't we have more cultural productions and portrayals of these men? Part of might be that there are so many of them. When one person emerges as the face of a movement, that person will naturally step to the forefront. And while George Washington might be the face of the founding fathers, he has enough competition that his personal Q rating is diminished. But I think it goes a little bit deeper than that. First, by refusing to concretely define the membership of this fraternity (does Paul Revere count as a founding father? John Jay? Billy Dawes?) we are left to project our own idealized abstract entity of a generic "founding father". From there, we are left to further project our own concepts of what they wanted this country to be. If we had a true understanding of who these people were and what they thought about politics, we might lose our ability to invoke them to support whatever position we seek to explicate. So they end up signifying so much to so many that they end up signifying nothing. And that probably makes them turn over in their graves.


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