Orbital Matters

Saturn Smith
Editor’s Pick
JULY 2, 2011 1:57AM

I'm all for unzipping the Founding Fathers, but...

Rate: 12 Flag

One of the most popular stories on the Newsweek/Daily Beast site right now is the debut column of Simon Schama, a professor of history at Columbia University. Part of the column's popularity no doubt comes from its title, "The Founding Fathers, Unzipped," and part comes from the promise of controversial religious revelation offered in the first paragraph:

He may have written the Declaration of Independence, but were he around today Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have a prayer of winning the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. It wouldn’t be his liaison with the teenage daughter of one of his slaves nor the love children she bore him that would be the stumbling block. Nor would it be Jefferson’s suspicious possession of an English translation of the Quran that might doom him to fail the Newt Gingrich loyalty test. No, it would be the Jesus problem that would do him in. For Thomas Jefferson denied that Jesus was the son of God. Worse, he refused to believe that Jesus ever made any claim that he was. While he was at it, Jefferson also rejected as self-evidently absurd the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection.

C37C4988-C097-4111-8267-F1ECD0456FF2.jpgBrutal campaigning genius Thomas Jefferson

OK, actually, I'm pretty sure it would be his liaison with a teenaged girl that would doom him. It's hard to imagine that it wouldn't have, not after the recent Weiner meltdown. (And, well, if he were running today and had slaves... yeah, some bigger issues become a problem). Beyond this, though, the religious question to which Schama refers is one that Jefferson faced even within his own time; it's why he wrote an essay about how much he loved Jesus and leaked it to Republican doubters when he was running for president (see, please: American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis).

Yet according to Schama, it's this problem of personal belief that would have ended Jefferson's claim on our modern attentions. "All of which would surely mean that, notwithstanding his passion for minimal government, the Sage of Monticello would have no chance at all beside True Believers like Michele Bachmann."

No. No. No! I am absolutely sympathetic to Schama's argument -- "We do the authors of American independence no favors by embalming them in infallibility," he writes -- but we also do them, and ourselves, no favors by imagining that now is a harsher time when these men would not have survived our political system. Thomas Jefferson was a political genius who would have set Karl Rove's brain on fire with his brilliant ability to pivot strategically on critical issues, use power to render his enemies incapable, hide his own personal shortcomings behind a self-sculpted facade of heart-stopping charm and grandeur, and remain both an intellectual hero and a simple farmer's best friend. Were he alive today, Jefferson would be the standard bearer of whatever party he chose to front -- Tea Party, Democratic Party, Jeffersonian Awesomeness Party. He would master television and Twitter. Heck, he probably would have invented Facebook.

We do a disservice to two central American qualities -- self-aware hypocrisy and bone-deep cynicism -- when we re-tell the story of the Revolution as though it couldn't have happened today. Of course it could have! Jefferson, and Hamilton, and Adams and Madison and a hundred others spent all of their Continental Congress and Constitutional meetings cutting back room deals, spreading scandalous rumors about each other, and then putting on their wigs and smiling across the argument tables. These were not simpler times and they were not, by any means, kinder. The public that Jefferson faced was not more tolerant of difference; Congress didn't work more smoothly together because they all understood the need to neatly compromise; these gentlemen-scholars were often neither.

So, would John Adams "be horrified by the regularity with which American history is mangled in the interests of confirming prejudices"? Yes, certainly, he would be, but he wouldn't be surprised by it. He was horrified pretty much all the time back in his own day (and particularly when Alexander Hamilton published a pamphlet -- the modern equivalent might be "sent a mass text" -- to his closest Federalist followers questioning Adams's mental state). Not all of our leaders then were great scholars -- George Washington fairly lucked into his job -- and not all of those who lead us today are devoid of all historical knowledge. This has been the way of the world for many, many years. Manipulation of an ignorant audience is nothing new in American politics.

Schama worries that "those who dare to read history for its chastening wisdom will be fatuously accused of 'declinism.'" Well, perhaps, yes, if they insist upon making our past sound like a time when wisdom ruled and when differences of opinion were easily overlooked because everyone was busy being earnest, if flawed. It has never been easy to be a ruler or a fighter or even much of a thinker in this country, and that is the lesson that taking a hard look at our Founding Fathers should give us. 

If Professor Schama wants to educate people about the realities of history, I'm all for it! I look forward to his column at the redone Newsweek. I hope, however, that it will take into account that right now, Americans need history lessons as much as ever, not more. The history of an intellectually tolerant America is one that hasn't been written because it hasn't yet happened.

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not going to happen, either, if the politicians have any control.
Your best piece so far, in my opinion. Anyone can recite facts. Great job.
If the conservatives of Jefferson’s day had gotten their way…he would have been hung. He, along with the other people the conservatives back then called traitors…you know, Washington, Adams, Paine, Madison, Hamilton, and the others.

The conservatives back then claimed our allegiances was due to George III…who was, in their opinion, our liege lord and who could do what he wished with us.

The conservatives of Civil War America wanted each state to decide whether slavery could, or could not, exist.

Not much has changed with conservative thinking.

Good piece, Saturn.
I liked Schama's essay for its debunking of the deification of our Founding Fathers by a large segment of the public. That being said, you are absolutely correct that Jefferson et. al. were frequently pilloried by their opponents, often in very salacious and dubious ways. And sometimes, Jefferson et. al. assisted in the pilloring of their own opponents, too. They were not above the mayhem. Politics back then was every bit as dirty and mean-spirited as it is now.

I think there is one big difference, though. Today's mass media and 24 hour news cycle magnifies everything. Perhaps Jefferson could withstand the charges against him in 1800 because the American public was not bombarded with the salacious claims 24 x 7 on TV and radio.
excellent piece, saturn, and i agree with your analysis. i do, however, see what procopius mentions: that the citizenry is perhaps involved in ways that weren't possible then because of the technology/news media we have and they didn't. that may not change the fundamental points you make, but it certainly adds a lot of ordinary folks to the fighting and smearing, many of whom aren't students of history, economics, public policy or, really, much else.
What you're saying is true, Procopius, absolutely. We do have a wider variety of available media now and constant access should we want it, which they didn't have in Jefferson's day, and that may have made it easier for flaws/scandals to fade sometimes. Sometimes, though, I think it made them stick longer. The hunger for news in the 1800s was greater because there was so much less access to it. Politics were counted on as entertainment during that time, while now we manage to shunt political discussion into its own realm, as though it's somehow more high-minded than reality TV. I would guess that the number of truly involved, truly studious people has remained (percentage-wise) very similar -- though this is actually just a guess. Wouldn't it be fascinating to read research on this!
Saturn, definitely food for thought. I also think Candace Mann's implication is insightful -- today's media allows a lot of uninformed people to be very active, if somewhat passive, partisans. Perhaps that was true in the past, too, although I suspect not so much. Back then a big part of the masses were too involved in simply trying to survive than to spend too much time getting their ire up from reading some political tract, or listening to some political partisan on the town square.

Too bad we don't have a time machine!
procopius made the point i was trying to and said it well. i wonder if it's possible there is research *or* a time machine that would give that answer.
"we do a disservice to two central American qualities -- self-aware hypocrisy and bone-deep cynicism -- when we re-tell the story of the Revolution as though it couldn't have happened today. "

true in a thousand ways, saturn.

the worst sins are
2/ war of sex
3.sex without a bit of fun, warwise.
4. not feeling attracted to young tender bits over 21

(content questionable)

10. not acknowledging stark raving sexed up or not
damn genius like the ol tom cat himself,
he who wrote something called
the declaring of independent living for the (next to_)
modern nihilist.

um. u know i mean independence.

didnt springsteen do a song called ""independence day"
"the river"?
I hope the dear readers who stumble upon your post will click on the Schama link and read the article. Not only does it represent an accurate lens on the day, the men and what they actually did and believed, it is beautifully written.

There's is much to admire in his article, it's not long, but filled with bludgeoning beauty, if only we would behold. Take this pithy paragraph as another example:

Instead of knowledge, we have tricorn hats. Staring at a copy of the Constitution in the National Archives and making promotional pilgrimages to revolutionary New England didn’t prevent Sarah Palin from butchering the truth of Paul Revere’s ride, turning it into some sort of NRA advisory to the British to keep their gosh-darned hands off American firearms.

It's a truly beautiful piece. As is yours here, which I would expect nothing less from one of my still favorite OS authors. It's so nice to see you here, but more so, getting your thoughts.
By all means, freeze the Founding Fathers in concrete, and airbrush their flaws out. Do the same with the Constitution, and declare it eternal and unchangeable.

And while we're at it, why don't we just outlaw science and institute Christian sharia law?
Dear Saturn,

Your piece just flowed. Loved it. Each year I try to let my students know how divided our nation has been- from the very beginning. Of course, I water down my analysis. But, a great line that I use is, "Have you ever seen someone walking with a cane? Now, tell me what this word means: canning. Discussion. Now, who is the person or type of persons to cane? Discussion and black folk are mentioned. No, a whip was used for them. Further astonishment. It was white man- elected leader canning another white man- elected leader.

Often I think America founded terrorist strike patterns of "blending into the environment" with G.W. tactics.

Great work. Thank you for the references.

Annie Shay
Actually, I haven't done "canning" discussions in...um...since I taught in Oki, 1995, and only in adjunct to reading aloud The Whipping Boy. When I wanted to make a point that violence, discrimination are not just one period of time, but actually peppered through time and throughout the world. I don't want to scare anyone by my other comment. There aren't seven year olds quaking as I talk about the probable use of a cane by Constitutional Congress Members. This isn't brought up outside of literature and its brief- not the whole point of the discussions.

Also, I still like this piece.

Still not a writer. Still working on finding how to be Mango Sherbert and not be just shrill. Working on this persona. Needs lots of time. I'm only nine days into writing after...last Masters class in 1993.

Still love reading good writing.