“The History of our Revolution,” wrote John Adams in 1790, “will be one continued lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. Then Franklin electrified him, and thence forward those two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislations, and War.”
It’s a brilliant quip — full of cynicism and prescience. Forgive me for assuming, but I think Adams would have been horrified to accompany me on my recent visit to the new American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and not merely because of the #firstworldproblems-worthy incident involving my skirt and a halal cart gyro. Inside the museum’s doors, the fetishization of the Founding Fathers assumes an iconographic form, filling walls with a manipulation of historical memory Adams would no doubt find egregious.
The Met’s replica of Gilbert Stuart’s famed Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, for instance, stands over eight feet tall. That’s over one and a half times my height.
Similarly, Emanuel Leutze’s iconic image of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” takes up an entire wall. The painting frames the entire collection and serves as a kind of representation of the American Wing as a whole. It’s hard-work can-do American sensibilities swathed in a golden frame. By manipulating light and appropriating classical imagery, images like Leutze’s cement George Washington’s place in historical memory, casting him as a demigod of literally larger-than-life proportions.
From the symbolic spire of the Washington Monument to the faces carved into Mount Rushmore, Americans crave deification. Our desire to turn our historical heroes into gods neither begins nor ends with George Washington. We turn to history to find Zodiac-style symbols of the Good and the True; Kennedy was Youth and Roosevelt was Power and Obama was Hope. By collecting them all in our popular consciousness, we craft a kind of morality play meant to inform the present as much as it defines the past.
This kind of veneration neither begins nor ends with artistic expression. As debates over the meaning and implementation of the Constitution occupy the Supreme Court, they trickle down into the blogs and soapboxes of American public discourse.
We ask ourselves: What would the Founding Fathers say about this or that? Would they approve of the individual mandate? Of contraceptive coverage? Would Benjamin Franklin have made pizza a vegetable?
On several grounds, the question really can’t be adjudicated. First, it’s difficult retroactively to determine what these men would have done about anything not immediately within the scope of their times; how Washington might perceive environmentally based regulations, for instance, seems difficult to extract from his writings, and therefore easy to manipulate along partisan lines.
Second, the Founders disagreed with each other. A lot. Coming from wildly different geographic locations, cultural backgrounds and ideological perspectives, they disputed everything from the specific policy positions a nascent nation ought take to the meaning of the revolution that they had just fought.
Yes, the Founders held certain core ideological principles in common: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and all that jazz. But they certainly weren’t the unmarred demigods their portraitists made them out to be. I don’t want to dispute the semantics of all “men” being created equal, but I have my doubts that the Founders would have been A-okay replacing that word with “people.” Though the lens of presentism has its flaws, the existence of Colonial-era abolitionists precludes us from vindicating our Founders as ignorant or following the times. They knew better, and they made a conscious choice to do otherwise.
As Constitutional questions bubble and brew in Washington, consider this: While imagining what specific Founding Fathers might do to resolve certain Constitutional predicaments is certainly a fun exercise in historical fantasy football, how we, as present-day Americans, ought interpret and relate to our founding document presents far more pressing a concern. Yet with André the Giant-sized portraits of the Founding Fathers in our museums, on our mountains and in our popular imagination, it seems history has made the choice for us. Our popular culture demands we venerate the Founders.
I might actually be misrepresenting myself, because I love romanticized Americana. I’m all about the amber waves of grain, the Norman Rockwell, the crossing of the Delaware. But although those these images and icons may inspire us, we cannot let them dictate our politics. And the next time someone asks, “But what would George Washington do?” ask yourself, in turn, why that matters. You might be surprised at what you discover.
Marissa Medansky is a freshman in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .