Who Stole Patriotism?

by Janis Cortese

No, the Founding Fathers Weren't Right-Wing Assholes --

You know who I mean here.

I'm talking about ultra conservatives. People who feel that they personally own the men who created this nation for no reason other than the fact that they are white, straight, and sniff down their noses at gay people publicly. (They only hate Jews when nobody's looking.) I actually ran into a website by one deluded little twit who tried to convince the reader -- without actually saying it of course -- that Alexander Hamilton himself would have wanted to impeach Bill Clinton, yessiree bob, he would have, I knew him personally. And by the way, Al Gore is a communist.

This nonsense would be comical if it weren't for the effect it has on political thought in this country. Ultra-conservatives treat the historical territory of the Founding Fathers the same way that European Americans treated the land west of the Mississippi in the early 1800's. Move the hell over, this is my territory, I don't care if you have as much right to it as me, screw you.

They also, ironically enough, end up enshrining themselves and the Founding Fathers as perfect pure souls -- in defiance of the doctrine of popular government, which holds that everyone has a voice, and everyone is created equal. Everyone, it seems, except straight white male conservatives and the defenseless dead men who made this country, colonized and given a new coat of paint as toadies for the right wing.

And what's the reaction of most of us on the other side of the landscape? You know, the queers, the feminists, the 'commies?' We slide right over and let these jackasses take ownership of the creators of this nation! We sign over our share in the lives and opinions of these great, profoundly flawed men, and let the hateful and the small minded claim them as their own. How many of them have tried to convince us that the Founding Fathers were all Christian, and not only that, but that they were all just the same brand of Protestant as the interlocutor? How many of them have tried to paint the Founding Fathers as 'moral' by insinuating that they had sex only with their lawful wives in the missionary position and moreover didn't enjoy it? How many of them have acted as if George Washington himself stoned faggots?

And how long as we going to let them get away with it?

-- And You, as a Liberal-Bashing, Feminist-Bashing White Male, Are Not Made In Their Image.

I always avoided learning about the Founding Fathers aside from what they taught us in school, which wasn't much. They were All Great Men of whom we were unworthy and could never question -- particularly liberals, queers, women, or blacks. We were specially removed from them, and had to defer to the opinions of the white male conservatives who had appropriated them as their own. The womanhating engineering nerds in college who got drunk every weekend and went to strip joints loved the Founding Fathers -- what could the dead white males who appealed to those assholes possibly have to offer me?

I was stunned and fascinated to discover otherwise when I began to learn more about these men. About the real men, the human beings, and not the cardboard cutouts that Rush Limbaugh pushes around.

It's time to break away from the garbage we learned about these men in school and via the conservative windbag-pundits -- the propaganda, the cartoons -- and see them for what they truly were: brilliant, prickly, flawed humans. Men who made mistakes -- both politically and personally. Men who didn't get along all that well, many of whom were no longer on speaking terms by the times of their deaths. Men with weaknesses and poor judgement in many instance that hung them out to dry. Men who nonetheless cooperated to create a government that has proved to be the only republic with any real longevity, at least so far.

Read up about them. Don't let the pencilnecks claim ownership of them simply because they are straight white male engineering sophomores and hence know more about them than any mere dyke, fag, colored, or woman. Learn about their lives.

Learn about George Washington's bad judgement in giving command to Horatio Gates, a man who tried to take credit for the patriot victory at the battle of Saratoga -- a battle that brought France into the war on our side and insured our victory. Learn who he tried to take credit from, a military genius named Benedict Arnold who would later become the Revolution's most infamous traitor.

Learn about Washington's complete lack of hesitation in resigning his commission after the war -- and think of all those little two-bit dictator-generals you see all the time on CNN, who win a few battles for their country, and have to get pried out of the throne with a crowbar. Think of Napoleon -- who grabbed the crown the second he could get a chance, and then of Washington, who was offered a crown, and refused it.

Learn about Thomas Jefferson's tendency to fall in love only with women that he could never legally have, from his 38 year long affair with Sally Hemings to his short, torrid, and untimately tragic affair with a married woman named Maria Cosway. Contrary to the belief engendered by supposed 'scholars,' he did not spend the last forty years of his life staring into space and toying with a lock of his dead wife's hair. Learn about his abysmal handling of money -- you remember that time you saw that cashier at the Gap cutting up a customer's credit card? That would have been Thomas Jefferson's Visa going into the shredder.

Then learn about his scientific brilliance, his attempts to have slavery outlawed, his writing ability that turned a simple declaration of political intent into poetry for the ages.

Learn about the night that John Adams and Ben Franklin spent in Europe rooming together, wasting the entire night arguing thunderously over whether to keep the room's window open (to allow in the fresh air) or closed (to keep out the noise of the street). Then learn about their dedication, their ambition, their refusal to allow the fragile cooperation between what were then thirteen separate nations to fall by the wayside.

Learn about Alexander Hamilton's inability to think and breathe heavy at the same time, and how it stopped his political career cold. Learn about how he and Thomas Jefferson could barely stand to be in the same room together, and how Washington's pleas that they at least try to get along for five seconds fell on deaf ears.

Learn about Hamilton's unassailable brilliance, and how his economic vision yanked this nation from cramped and oppressive penury to self-sufficiency in very little time.

And they weren't always right, or honorable. Did you know that John Adams was very much in favor of the Sedition Act, a bit of legislation that trampled the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and jailed many editors and journalists for printing things about him that he didn't like? Did you know that Alexander Hamilton thought that the president should be in office for life? Did you know that when news of his stupendously stupid affair with Maria Reynolds broke that James Madison somehow got his hands on their love letters and sent copies of them to his arch-rival, Thomas Jefferson? And that Jefferson decided that the time was ripe to use the weakness to pounce on Hamilton for embezzling -- a charge that was never proved?

Forget Jerry Springer. This is the real deal, here.

No, I'm not trying to drag them through the muck. I'm not saying that they were not great men -- they were. But they were human. Like us. They were not gods, and the way that we have historically treated them does neither them nor us any good. We commit two biographical crimes against them -- we elevate them to godhood, and we consign them to the fumbling ignorance of people who, had they been alive during the Revolution, would all have been Tories.

Godhood fails them, and us. By elevating them to gods, we forbid ourselves from disagreeing with them -- and thus short-circuit the very process of popular government, which requires scrupulous checking on the part of the people to insure that those in power don't overstep their bounds. It also fails us by convincing us that, as mere flawed mortals, we cannot possibly accomplish anything near to what they did with our lives. It is reassuring to note that even men who showed appalling political judgement from time to time and could barely manage their personal lives could still achieve so much. They were just like us -- and we can be like them as well.

Consigning them to the poltroons also fails us. No, George Will doesn't know any more about Jefferson and Washington than I do -- a queer feminist woman. No, Alexander Hamilton probably wouldn't give a damn about Bill Clinton's pecadillos, and even if he did, it's not like he couldn't be wrong; he thought the Bill of Rights to be a laughable joke. The mouth-breathing fools who act like they play pinochle every Tuesday night with the Founding Fathers treat these men as they treat the Bible -- not to be questioned, not to be thought upon in any real depth, but merely thumped. And just like a fundamentalist's view of the Bible, the contradictions inherent in their (and anyone else's) lives are tailor-made to justify any nonsensical political claim that the poltroon in question wants to make.

Learn about these men. Find out about how they were human. It makes them infinitely more interesting, as well as the history in which they were embedded. No, they weren't conservative Bible-thumping faggot-haters, no matter what the conservative Bible-thumping faggot-haters of today try to get you to believe. And no, the straight white males of this world do not own these men, nor do they get to act as the priesthood for the rest of us, interpreting the Holy Writ of Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison and telling the rest of the lesser types (women, blacks, queers, Jews, and any other undesireables) what the Founding Fathers would have wanted while we stare up at them waiting for the pearls of wisdom to fall from their lips. The Founding Fathers are not gods, and the conservatives straight white males of this world are not the ordained intermediaries between them and the inferior peoples -- us. They don't get to stand on the mountain and commune with God, then tell us what God said. We can read The Federalist Papers, too -- and our opinion is every scrap as valid.

You don't have to let someone else tell you what they thought. Their ideas and opinions are as accessible to you as they are to anyone else -- and given the impact that they have on our lives, you'd better go learn about them.

And no, it's not boring. You aren't going to read about statues but real honest-to-God human beings. You'll lose patience with them, shake your head at them, weep at their dedication and brilliance, and wonder how the hell they managed to stay in office.

And you'll love and admire them all the more.

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Copyright © 2000 by Janis Cortese

06/03/07 at 14:25