From America’s founding moments, convenient omissions and factual manipulation have acted in tandem to produce the ‘American story’. This story, that of America striving ever-closer to a liberal promised-land while mimicking the virtues of the ‘founding fathers’, is written into the hearts and minds of many Americans. It has been told and retold so consistently that the cunning machinations that constructed it are long-forgotten. Today, America’s ‘exceptionalism’ is assumed rather than investigated; America’s past is approached, in Carl Becker’s immortal phrase, ‘without fear and without research’. That the slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’, can power a presidential candidate to victory underlines this. For conservatives, the American past remains a dependable ally in the face of societal trauma and, as we see in the ‘MAGA’ slogan, a model for building utopian futures. For many, however, a reexamination of America’s ‘greatness’ is long overdue. At the heart of America’s current identity crisis exists the debate over what America’s past means today. So, who is/was America? We begin in 1799.
Throughout American history, image-makers have crafted certain figures to symbolise the nation and shape its character. America’s first President, George Washington, was certainly subject to these practices and it was his death in 1799 that served as a catalyst. Every society seizes upon the death of a revered leader to express its greatest visions, and it was in Washington’s eulogies that America crafted her ‘representative man’. ‘When Washington lived’, exclaimed the Pennsylvania Gazette, ‘we had one common mind—one common head—we were united—we were safe’. ‘He had no child – but you’, another eulogist wrote, ‘HE WAS ALL YOUR OWN’. In this way, George Washington was created, transmitted and understood; as a model for Americans, this ‘Washington’ still reigns supreme. Rather than an ‘exemplification of the American character’, as his Vice-President John Adams described him, American society would construct itself in Washington’s image, an image more mythical than actual.
Like Washington, the revolutionary age as a whole assumed a sacred character; God was said to have exempted the United States from history itself. ‘If such is the youth of the Republic, what will be its old age?’, asked a French statesman, Senator Lewis Cass answered, ‘Sir, it will have no old age’. Likewise, the phrase ‘Novo Ordo Seclorum’, ‘a new order of the ages’, still features on the American dollar bill. Americans of old depicted their destiny in ahistorical terms and many Americans today believe themselves secured against time by divine covenant.
This understanding of a shared destiny provided a cohesive discourse for a young United States, rife with regional interests. This false unity was then reinforced by the political myth of shared origin centered around the ‘founding fathers’. The ‘founding fathers’—like the best myths—were real people, a community of those who signed the Declaration of Independence 1776 and/or were members of the Constitutional Convention 1787. Their significance moves far beyond their role as historical actors, however. The ‘founding fathers’ constitute an American master-narrative which has enshrined 99 statesmen as the architects of everything American. Using the allegory of family, the term ‘fathers’ implies tradition, legitimacy and, crucially, community. Under their undivided fathers, Americans, too, would form an illusory collectivity. Obsessed with the future and what it might bring, America’s founding generation told stories about itself so that future generations might preserve their memory and their nation. In his autobiography, leading founder Benjamin Franklin fashioned himself as a ‘good parent’ who ‘treats all Americans as his offspring’, and paternal language fills Washington’s eulogies. In this way, Americans made themselves one, and these myths of a shared origin and destiny are still very attractive today.
These myths, however, have come at the cost of two dual ideals, truth and justice. As Edmund Morgan relates, ‘George Washington led Americans in battle against British oppression. Thomas Jefferson led them in declaring independence. Virginians drafted not only the Declaration, but the Constitution and its first ten amendments as well. They were all slaveholders’. Jefferson, the man who penned the phrase, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’, also argued that black people were ‘inferior to . . . whites in the endowments both of body and mind’. Indeed, despite the apparent anti-slavery imperative of the Declaration of Independence, the founding documents not only do not abolish slavery, but in fact the Constitution ultimately affirms it. For this reason, one leading abolitionist of the time labelled the Constitution ‘a pact with the devil’. Undoubtedly, the simultaneous development of slavery and ‘freedom’ is the central paradox of American history.
Despite the philosophical inconsistency of the ‘fathers’, it is no accident that 41 of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence held slaves, nor is it surprising that Presidents Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor were all slaveholders. The great wealth that slavery produced allowed slaveholders to secure a central role in government and mould it in their image. More pertinently, America’s slave-owning ‘fathers’ understood ‘freedom’ because they denied it to others. The fathers considered society as a composition of free and unfree individuals; indeed, they frequently fashioned themselves as slaves to British tyranny. Slave-holder Thomas Jefferson was qualified to write the Declaration of Independence, in part, because it was he who understood ‘freedom’ and its denial best.
Perhaps it is tempting to defend Jefferson, who one historian describes as the ‘the foremost racist of his era’, as a ‘man of his time’, Jefferson’s philosophical inconsistency was known in his age. Slave descendant David Walker took Thomas Jefferson to task in 1829, ‘Do you understand your own language? … Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us’. Likewise, former slave Frederick Douglass in 1841 famously exposed the myth of American independence. ‘What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?… a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim’. Walker and Douglass dared America to live up to its self-proclaimed ideals and exposed the hollowness of America’s ‘exceptionalism’. Despite these powerful expositions of America’s founding myths, however, they were consolidated for generations to come.
All societies operate on the basis of myths, what is aberrant in the United States is that their working myths are intrinsically linked to racism and exclusionary politics. If we understand that slavery was crucial to America’s economic, social and political development, the United States ceases to be the ‘free society’ it is so often imagined to be. No one has put this better than Langston Hughes:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free”.