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Column: Remember, Founding Fathers were real people


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I have always liked Batman more than Superman. Superman can fly, bend iron and is quite handsome. He is just a little too perfect. On the other hand, Batman is damaged.

Sure, Batman is rich and knows karate, but he also has anger issues and relationship problems. Batman is human, and that makes him a lot more interesting. In my opinion, it also makes him more heroic.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, I hope you had time to go to a barbecue or enjoy some fireworks. We use that time to relax and celebrate the founding of our nation. Unfortunately, our knowledge of this nation’s founders is tainted by inaccuracies and unrealistic depictions.

Politicians and television pundits portray them as superheroes rather than flesh-and-blood humans who had problems and limitations. They are figures carved into statues or printed on money. We verge on the edge of thinking of the founders as perfect and divine rather than complex and flawed.

Like many places throughout the United States, our community features the names of founders with streets like Washington, Franklin and Lafayette. Other local place names, such as neighboring Decatur and Jackson counties, are from figures of the early republic. Decatur County was named for Commodore Stephen Decatur, while Jackson County takes it name from the seventh president. Bartholomew County is named for Gen. Joseph Bartholomew, a politician and military figure who fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

Many of us know the famous story about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then confessing, “I cannot tell a lie.” The story is a complete fabrication. Biographer Parson Weems concocted this tale the year after Washington died. Many of us are also familiar with the famous painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” The painting is filled with inaccuracies, including the landscape, which is based on the Rhine River, not the Delaware.

Far from a physical specimen, Washington had only one tooth by the time he was president. He suffered from a variety of diseases, including a life-threatening bout with smallpox. Washington had other issues. His early military campaigns during the French and Indian War were a disaster. During the Revolutionary War, he executed deserters but thought that officers deserved more leniency than enlisted men. And like many of the founders, Washington owned slaves.

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Patrick Henry also owned slaves. Many historians consider Madison the brains behind our Constitution. Yet Madison and the other founders could not reconcile the rhetoric of freedom and liberty with the fact that they owned other humans. Their failure to deal with slavery left a time bomb that exploded into the Civil War and cost the lives of more than 620,000 Americans.

The founders suffered from other problems. Several struggled financially. They did not always get along with each other. They warred with American Indians. The founders did not extend voting rights to women, the poor or frontier people.

Today, we know about Thomas Jefferson’s extramarital affair with his slave, Sally Hemings. The founders were not superheroes.

Sometimes we focus too much on a core of founders, overlooking the contributions of controversial figures like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine. By paying too much attention to a few founders, we also ignore the contributions of average men and women during the Revolutionary War era. We also forget that a large percentage of colonists remained loyal to Britain.

Today’s modern world would bewilder the founders. In terms of technology, they had more in common with the Romans than with us. Many of them did not trust average Americans to run the country; they preferred an aristocracy to popular rule.

To get a better picture of the past, this might be a good summer to read a modern biography of one of the founders. Or better yet, it might be an opportunity to read some of their own words. Then instead of the idealized version, we can embrace the “warts and all” depictions of the founders.

We should temper our admiration with a dose of realism. That takes nothing away from their accomplishments. Instead, it provides us with a more accurate, and more interesting, portrayal of the past.

Aaron Miller has a doctorate in history and is an assistant professor of history at Ivy Tech Community College – Columbus.

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