My “favorite” “founding father”

This post at the American Catholic spurred some debate.  Since I’d like to at least attempt to keep this blog relatively non-partisan, I’d simply like to analyze the question for what it is rather than Sarah Palin’s response to it.

If I were asked this, I’d probably give a response that would also have most viewers rolling their eyes, but for different reasons.  First of all, I object to the term “Founding Father.”  Now this is a pet peeve of mine that has diminished over the years.  I understand the arguments in favor of the phrase, but to me it is still a misnomer.  The American Nation was not created out of whole cloth on July 4, 1776.  A nation of sorts already existed, though it was nominally ruled by the British Empire.  But the American colonial experience certainly had an impact on those that would form the initial American government.  Now, I don’t want to go too far in the extreme direction of dismissing the achievements and significance of the American Revolution as it was indeed more than a simple regime change.  But America already existed; the great achievement of the men that we call the Founding Fathers was to mold it into a Nation strengthened by a Constitution and set of laws.

But this is mere quibbling.  Whatever term one may want to use (I prefer “Framers”), which of these great men was the greatest?  Initially I suggested that correct answer is James Madison.  And I do think that Madison was the greatest thinker of this generation, and it was his philosophy more than any other that shaped the early American republic.  But then I got to thinking -what is greatness?  What standard are we using?

So then I turned to John Adams, who I believe was actually much closer to Madison than Jefferson was (and in turn I believe Madison was closer to Adams than was Hamilton).  Not only was Adams a titan of an intellect, he arguably did more than any other colonial figure to spur the Americans to revolution.  Donald has already written a couple of posts that demonstrate Adams’s fair-mindedness, and he was – despite a quick temper and degree of vanity spurred by personal insecurity – a man capable of giving full hearing to his opponents.

But then I began to wonder if I was over-valuing intellect and political philosophy.  How can I dismiss George Washington’s accomplishments?  He arguably saved the American republic not once, but twice – first by leading the army to victory, and then by guiding the Nation as its first president.

And what of the lesser known figures, the ones who shaped public opinions in their states and fought for independence?

And so the more I thought about it, the more I began to think – maybe Sarah Palin’s answer wasn’t so bad after all.

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One Comment

  1. “he was – despite a quick temper and degree of vanity spurred by personal insecurity – a man capable of giving full hearing to his opponents.”

    I’m really glad you made this point. When I was a schoolboy back before fire was invented, the one thing that everybody learned about John Adams was that he was the only lawyer willing to defend the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial – and that he got them found not guilty. He didn’t do that because he supported the British cause, nor did he do it to make a name for himself – in fact, he feared it would ruin his popularity. He did it because he believed strongly in the idea of fairness. Adams’ partnership with Jefferson worked so well in the early years because Adams was capable of seeing the merits of Jefferson’s ideas even when they clashed with his own.


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