Did you know that the phrase “founding fathers” wasn’t coined until 1916? It was then that Warren Harding used that wording in a speech to the Republican National Convention. Somehow, I always find this a surprising fact. Have Americans only thought about the revolutionary generations as father figures for a century?
Americans before 1916 certainly put these leaders on a pedestal even if they didn’t think of them as figurative fathers of the nation. Washington’s birthday was widely celebrated and democrats had Jefferson-Jackson balls, for example. But, there is something deeply powerful about thinking about the American nation as a family with Washington et. al as pleasantly paternal figureheads.
I’m teaching an upper-level class on the American Revolution this term and we spend a lot of time thinking about how we Americans today talk about the Revolution. I invite you to join us, too. What do we gain by seeing these people as “fathers?” What do we lose?