The Founding Fathers, Unzipped

By Schama, Simon | Newsweek, July 11, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Founding Fathers, Unzipped


Schama, Simon, Newsweek


Byline: Simon Schama

The Constitution's framers were flawed like today's politicians, so it's high time we stop embalming them in infallibility.

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.

Jefferson was not, as his enemies in the election of 1800 claimed, an atheist. He believed in the Creator whom he invoked in the Declaration of Independence and whom he thought had brought the natural universe into being. By his own lights he thought himself a true Christian, an admirer of the moral teachings of the Nazarene. It had been, he argued, generations of the clergy who had perverted the simple humanity of Jesus the reformer, turned him into a messiah, and invented the myth that he had died to redeem mankind's sins.

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. But Jefferson's rationalist deism is not the idle makeover of liberal wishful thinking. It is incontrovertible historical fact, as is his absolute determination never to admit religion into any institutions of the public realm.

So the philosopher-president whose aversion to overbearing government makes him a Tea Party patriarch was also a man who thought the Immaculate Conception a fable. But then real history is like that--full of knotty contradictions, its cast list of heroes, especially American heroes, majestic in their complicated imperfections.

Take another of the Founders routinely canonized in the current fairy-tale version of American origins that passes muster for history by those who don't actually read very much of it: Alexander Hamilton. Outed by the Andrew Breitbart of his day, James Thomson Callender, for having had an "amorous connection" with the married Maria Reynolds, Hamilton responded by making an unapologetic preemptive confession--insisting that since on the truly serious issue of whether he had profited from the management of public finances he was innocent, the rest was nobody's business but his own. Callender retorted that Hamilton had owned up to the sexual impropriety as a cover for the more serious financial one.

True history is the enemy of reverence. We do the authors of American independence no favors by embalming them in infallibility, by treating the Constitution like a quasi-biblical revelation instead of the product of contention and cobbled-together compromise that it actually was. Even the collective noun "Founding -Fathers" planes smooth the unreconciled divisiveness of their bitter and acrimonious disputes. History is a book of chastening wisdom to which we ought to be looking to deepen our understanding of the legitimate nature of American government--including its revenue-raising power, an issue that deeply captivated the antagonized minds of that first generation. But unfortunately, there is little evidence of citizens engaging in close, critical reading of The Federalist Papers, of the debates surrounding constitutional ratification, or of the dispute that pitted Hamilton and James Madison against Patrick Henry over what was at stake in Congress's authority to make laws "necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the--Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States.

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