The Founders Are Actually Perfect Symbols for Our National History
But only if we share their full lives and their glorious messiness
This week I read an article in TIME titled “The Split in How Americans Think About Our Collective Past is Real—But There’s a Way Out of the ‘History Wars’.” The article explores how the culture wars have extended to history curriculum, causing people of different religions, races, political orientations, and gender to respond to history in different ways. This war is fought in many arenas, not least of which is the battle over monuments and statues.
TIME suggests that the way out of these “history wars” is by emphasizing an inquiry-based approach rather than a facts-based curriculum. Basically, rather than memorizing dates, names, and events, explore history by asking questions. That’s well and fine, and definitely the best teaching pedagogy (and what I try and employ in the classroom whenever possible).
But I’d also advocate another approach that invites all learners and incorporates all people in our history. We can and should teach the Founding Generation in all of its glorious complexity. Done correctly, this history is actually remarkably inclusive and helpful. Allow me to explain:
The Founding Generation has received a lot of heat during the last year, and rightly so. Previous approaches often glorified the Founders in ways that are incompatible with the flawed humanity we all experience. By focusing only on the rhetoric, military exploits, or political ideals of the Founders, these histories obscured the lives of women, people of color, and men in the lower economic classes.
But the Founders lived colorful, messy lives and they left records of those lives, in ways that others weren’t able to do or their records weren’t preserved because they weren’t the first president. George Washington didn’t just fight a war or serve as president. He loved to munch on nuts, spent hours foxhunting and cared little about actually catching a fox, he just wanted to be outside, and enjoyed the theater with more enthusiasm than many of his contemporaries thought appropriate. He both included provisions in his will to emancipate the enslaved individuals he owned and spent years trying to track down self-emancipated enslaved individuals that ran away from the President’s House in Philadelphia in the 1790s. By using Washington’s records as an entry point to history, we have access to all of these stories.
Approached holistically, the Founders are very powerful symbols and offer an incredible opportunity to open conversations. Think about the life I just described. Of course, we can use Washington’s experiences to examine the military battles and strategy of the Revolutionary War. But Washington’s war experience also includes interactions with ardent abolitionist voices and Black soldiers for the first time; which played a pivotal role in forcing Washington to rethink his stance on slavery. As commander-in-chief, Washington regularly hosted congressional delegations, visiting dignitaries, and foreign diplomats. So, his war service also tells us a lot about diplomacy, social customs, and dining practices. And of course, women were regular participants at these events, especially during the winter when officers’ wives joined them at headquarters. Just the war, therefore, offers an excellent window through which to examine American society more broadly.
The same is true with Washington’s presidency. To be sure the President’s House was the site of countless important political precedents, diplomatic negotiations, and power brokering. But Martha Washington also hosted weekly “drawing rooms” attended by the leading men and women in Philadelphia. The house was cleaned, the food cooked, and the residents attended by both free and enslaved men and women of all races. Their lives introduce Americans of all classes and races to the narrative, as well as food history and material culture if we include their labor sewing, cooking, cleaning, and tending to the horses in the stables.
And that’s just a few examples that come to mind when I think of one founder. Imagine the stories we can tell if we discuss the full lives of all of the founders? But here’s a key distinction. Notice I’m not saying we erase Washington from the narrative or deny his contributions? I’m putting them in a broader context that paints a tapestry as vibrant and problematic as his lived experience. However, nor am I saying that we can focus on his moments of valor without acknowledging his failures.
That’s a much more useful story to tell and here’s why. As twenty-first-century humans, we don’t live one-dimensional lives either. I’m not just a historian. I’m an obsessed dog mom, an enthusiastic hiker, a lover of mountains, an ardent San Francisco sports fan, a sister, a wife, a daughter, a collector of blazers, an amateur gardener, a podcast junky, an opinionated voter, and a consumer of too many desserts. Reducing historic figures to the first line on their gravestone is boring compared to all of those nuances. It doesn’t tell the full story and it obscures their real challenges and struggles.
If a more exciting history isn’t reason enough to tell the full story, perhaps utility is more compelling? Learning about the founding of the nation is critical, but painting it as a glorious moment of resolution or a perfect creation sets unrealistic standards we can never meet again. If the Founders were demigods then their accomplishments are the products of people with unparalleled gifts and intelligence. However, if they were real people that achieve great things despite their flaws, we can learn something from that experience to apply to our modern day. Also, if thinking about Washington’s flaws makes you uncomfortable, I’d challenge you to think about why? He knew he was flawed and he’s long dead. He won’t mind if you admit it as well.
Telling the complex story also welcomes more people into the conversation. As you likely know, I regularly give talks on Washington, the cabinet, and the presidency. You’d be amazed how many people are willing to ask me about slavery, women, Native Americans, and other “tricky” subjects once it’s clear I’m not trying to “cancel” Washington. And I think I can actually reach some new people because I come from an honest place of appreciating his contributions while not hiding from his flaws, cruelty, and mistakes. At least that’s my sense.
Long story short, I actually think the Founders are pretty good symbols of the American story—if, and only if, we share their entire lives and all of the people they met along the way, the places they traveled, and the culture they consumed. Otherwise, we aren’t doing their lives, and the lives of those obscured in the archives, justice.
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“Political Spouses Have Evolved Since Martha Washington,” Governing, May 5, 2021.
“The President’s Assembling a Cabinet,” Divided We Fall, May 3, 2021.
“100 days is a ridiculous way to judge a presidency,” The Hill, April 23, 2021.
Exciting podcast news! I’ve been invited to return to The Thomas Jefferson Hour as a regular contributor. Look for the first episode on Tuesday, May 18!
“Harris takes a traditional approach to start her historic vice presidency,” The Washington Post.”
May 25: The Mid Hudson Social Studies Council, Presidential Cabinet Chat with Dr. Lindsay Chervinsky
July 16: American Battlefield Trust, The Cabinet: George Washington, Councils of War, and the Creation of an American Institution (Keynote Session of the Virtual Teacher Institute)