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Avoiding the temptation to deify or debunk the Founders

The real American patriot’s outlook on the Founding Fathers is to regard them not as demigods, but rather as ancestors in a complicated, very extended family.

Unlike the French or Polish patriot, we Americans have to deal with certain embarrassing facts about 1776 and the Founding Fathers.

Whenever he hears someone wax vitriolic about George III’s ostensible tyranny, for instance, an American Catholic is obliged by justice to remember said king’s Quebec Act, wherein “it is hereby declared: That his Majesty’s Subjects, professing the Religion of the Church of Rome of and in the said Province of Quebec, may have, hold, and enjoy, the free Exercise of the Religion of the Church of Rome.”

As Tory pamphleteer John Lind noted when retorting to complaints about the Quebec Act contained in the Declaration of Independence,

this Act was passed re-granting to the Canadians the free exercise, unchecked by any civil disqualifications, of the religion in which they had been educated; re-establishing the civil laws, by which, prior to their conquest, their persons and their properties had been protected and ordered. Do the Canadians complain of this alteration? No. It was made in consequence of their petition.

Lind’s sarcastic coup de gras made clear that he regarded colonial leaders not as honest plaintiffs but as deranged, hypocritical radicals with no respect for authority: “To disobey the mandates of New England, and to listen to the humble petitions of Canada, are equally crimes in his Majesty.”

The point in acknowledging that Lind and his fellow Tories had a case is neither to denounce the colonists as uniformly anti-Catholic nor to quixotically call for monarchy today, any more than acknowledging some merit to the notion of states’ rights is to revile General Grant or call for a revival of the plantation.

After all, opposite the Quebec Act we can surely set George Washington’s address to American Catholics, wherein he assured them that their fellow-citizens would never forget “the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government.”

Washington knew well the contributions to the independence movement made by Catholic figures such as the wealthy and powerful statesman Charles Carroll of Maryland. In a magnanimous, Francophile tone which contrasts strikingly with that of the typical “conservative” talk-radio host, the first president also recognized “the important assistance which [Americans] received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.”

To exaggerate tensions between the Faith and the Founding is therefore just as mischievous an oversimplification as it is to gloss over said tensions.

Instead we should strive for nuance, and hesitate before playing self-righteous hanging judge over the past. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that too many pretend that the enormous constellation of cultures and communities we call America can simply be boiled down to select egalitarian passages of the Declaration of Independence. Yet this would be to declare ourselves a unitary ideological state – i.e., a “people’s republic” – rather than an authentic country with a multifaceted, extensive heritage like, say, China.

Likewise, to either deify or debunk the Founders is to adopt the manners of a political commissar, and a total fixation upon 1776 as the beginning for America glosses over other important dates. Whatever happened to 1492? Leo XIII might want to know. The real American patriot’s outlook on the Founding Fathers is to regard them not as demigods, but rather as ancestors in a complicated, very extended family. This means we can celebrate the Founders’ lives and express gratitude for what remains of the patrimony they bequeathed us, even as we admit that they were quite human.


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About Jerry Salyer 46 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.

5 Comments

  1. My family fought in the American Revolution (documented). They were not wealthy, they were in fact farmers, as were over 90% of their comrades at that time. Of my 3 ancestors who fought, two were wounded in battle. I am tired of people smugly attacking the people who fought for independence by tarring all of them with accusations of slavery, or bigotry. My family were not slave owners, nor was that the reason they fought. Sadly children today learn too little about American History. Much of what they DO learn is inaccuracy or outright lies, like the 1619 project, which has been debunked by REAL historians of American history. Our history is being twisted and contorted to make it look like something with shameful motivations. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the process they denigrate those founders who actually did the heavy lifting, at considerable risk to themselves. To vilify our founders,and their very real risks in achieving independence, because some owned slaves, is short sighted and untruthful. Many of the signers of the Declaration ended up losing everything and died in poverty because of their support for the war. Yes, Catholics were not popular in the US at that time. Nor were they popular in certain nations elsewhere in Europe.Religion was the cause of many a European war. (You must remember the invasion of the Spanish Armada to England?) Nonetheless, Catholics established the successful colony of Maryland in the US. And what of declaration Signer Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland, who rose to become a US Senator? In addition, the Americans did not hate Catholics enough to refuse the help of Catholic France during the Revolution. In fact, the Catholic Lafayette was regarded almost as a son by George Washington . Lafayette received an amazing a rousing welcome in the US ( from then mostly protestant Americans) when he returned to the US for a farewell tour in 1834, last surviving general of the War.Unfortunately opinions, and change, happens slowly. To see the number of Churches being vandalized today ( here and Europe) , and statues of Catholic saints being torn down, one can say that elements of hate survive, and must be fought each day. America has no monopoly on hate by a longshot, and in my opinion, as a nation we extend fair treatment to all far better than most nations of the world. Stand up for what you believe. Freedom dies in silence.

  2. A very good piece. It is perfectly fine to admire many of the traits and ideals of the American Founders while recognizing where they fell short. Whether or not its was fully realized or acknowledged by the Framers, the US Constitution enshrined many principles consistent with Catholic doctrine. Federalism, the system of checks and balances, and the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill or Rights are only some of the most prominent examples. The Framers were men who, with their classical educations, drew their ideas on government from the Greeks and Romas, the Bible and the history of the Christian history of the West up until their time. They set up a political system that allowed the United States to flourish and rightly serve as a beacon to the world. I am extremely grateful to them for creating a nation that provided a haven for many of my forebears, who definitely benefited from the opportunities afforded to them by living in this country.

  3. Unfortunately, there is a definite tendency in parts of the U.S. polity to believe the Founders as directly Divinely inspired as Moses, and the Constitution—some of them except the Thirteen and Fourteenth Amendments for some reason—as inerrant as they view Scripture, which in practice of course means that their interpretation of it is not to be questioned….

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