Who’s Your Daddy?

November 21st, 2011   Submitted by Greg Gauthier

If you have the stomach to follow political debate at all in the United States, you cannot avoid the constant references to the government’s “Founding Fathers” — the small group of political heroes who make up the grand pantheon of antique moral authorities invoked to justify almost every form of political action today.

Fundamentalist Christians insist that the Founding Fathers were all devout, Jesus-loving, churchgoing believers who wanted nothing more than to perfect the world in preparation for their Lord’s imminent return. The faithful invoke the sainted spirit of the founders constantly, in breathless adulation, and refer to snippets from the framers’ writings as though they were revealed scripture proclaiming the United States to be a “Christian nation.”

Secularists respond in pained, tedious lectures insisting that the fundamentalists have gotten it all wrong, that the founders were really deists, atheists, or otherwise ambivalent, as expressed in the way they “separated” church and state. Secularists place enormous importance on the precise wording and attribution of quotes and judicial rulings, and the motives those writings reveal.

Leftists and Marxists, too, get into this game — especially the academics. An enormous amount of energy is spent researching the lives and histories of the Founding Fathers, to discover what they really wanted, who they really were, and how they really lived, in an effort to use them as antiheroes. The Chomskys and Parentis of the world are fond of reminding us that the founders were of landed-gentry status, that most of them owned slaves, and that they were deeply entrenched in the upper class, all in an effort to demystify the founders “actual intentions” and undermine confidence in them.

Political libertarians (especially Ron Paul supporters these days) are by far the most energetic at invoking the bygone glory of the framers, and work especially hard to associate — even to equate — Paul with the mythical titans of 18th-century Philadelphia.

They’re especially fond of including Paul within the hallowed inner circle of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington (occasionally tossing in John Adams and Benjamin Franklin for good measure). Like the fundamentalists, they are also consummate quote miners. Amusingly, mainstream neocons have attempted to engage Ron Paul supporters on this level as well. Forbes magazine’s Richard Miniter, for example, made a special effort to tell them exactly what George Washington really intended.

My intent here is not to dispute any of these specific claims. Rather, I would like to pose one simple question: Why?

Why does practically everyone engaged in the political game today need these men to be on their side? Why do the long-stale opinions of 200-year-dead politicians matter so much to the minds of the living in 2011? Why do we care that Washington might have been a closet atheist, or that Madison may have been secretly antiwar? What did these men possess that reason and evidence cannot provide us now?

It’s Not About Reason

The only fact I can state with any real certainty about “human nature” is that everyone — no matter how good or evil — wants to believe that his or her actions are righteous. Whether or not our actions actually are righteous is far less important to us than that we believe they are; and we will seek out the most emotionally potent support available for that belief. Most often, this does not include reason or evidence.

I don’t think it’s an accident or a mere convenience that the analogy we apply to the politicians who created the constitutional republic under which we all now suffer is that of “fathers.” States throughout history have employed this analogy frequently and enthusiastically to refer to the powers imposing their will on the population: The Fatherland; the Holy Father; the Father of the People. Surely, this is because it works.

When I was a little boy, there was no feeling more gratifying to me than the feeling I got when my father agreed with something I said. No logical proof, no preponderance of evidence, and no revelation of insight was more emotionally satisfying to me than to have my father look at me approvingly and declare, “that’s right, son!”

My father was much more than just a source of descriptive certainty. He represented the center of the physical universe, the polestar of social navigation, and the standard of moral truth. I deeply feared his judgment, and I lusted for the power to judge others with the certainty that he appeared to possess. How much he valued me was all that mattered; and when I judged the world around me, I thought of what he would think of my judgment.

As I grew older, I naturally relied less and less on him for my own survival. And my gradual material independence increasingly distanced me from his explicit authority. But in childhood, I had not been equipped with any of the tools to replace it. When the day inevitably arrived that required such tools, I was unable to escape the underlying need for the hierarchical relationships inherent in that early state of dependency.

Without an unassailable authority that I trusted and believed in, how could I be certain that my beliefs were righteous? How could I be justified in my actions?

I needed that approving look, that reassuring countenance, those words of validation. But the more the pressures of growing older pulled me away from my father’s watchful eye, the less and less I could look to him to confirm that my choices were good and true. I had to find a substitute, for the sake of my own sanity.

The Power And The Glory

For many, that substitute comes in the form of an absolute projection. They look to gods and holy books, and to the men who actually sometimes even call themselves “father,” for an absolute authority to whom they can appeal for reassurance of their righteousness. For them, the edicts of Leviticus, or the parables of Christ, or the allegories of the Koran, or the myriad rules of the Talmud as privileged to them by their holy men, are enough.

They are comforted by the reassurances of their holy men and remain in awe of their judgment. The framework of hierarchy is preserved, and the anxiety of self-justification is avoided.

For others, the ghosts of ancient history are not enough. The abstract desert-wanderer figures of Abraham and Isaac are too vague, too irrelevant. More recent specters are needed — some latter-day saints whose experiences are close enough to our own to allow us to identify with them, yet far enough away to make them untouchable.

This is where the “Founding Fathers” come in. In many cases, the allusion is appallingly explicit.

One Nation Under God, by Jon McNaughton

The Romans did this too — elevating their political leaders to the pantheon of worshiped gods.

With the aid of powerful emotional icons safely ensconced in the past, whose words, deeds, and intentions they safely receive from special experts, modern people don’t really need to make much of an argument for the necessity of the state, or for its particular constitution or character, do they?

“Why, of course we need this, that, and the other! After all, James Madison said this, and Thomas Jefferson said that, and if that’s not enough, George Washington agrees with the other! Well, if Jefferson said so, it must be correct.”

Freedom From Fear

In an ideal world, my childhood reverence for my father would have come from his capacity to help me become an individual — to teach me to help myself. This was not the case. It derived from his power over me. Not just his power to deprive me of life or liberty, but mainly his power to judge me. And he used this power enthusiastically to exact that reverence early on. He taught me to fear him.

But more importantly, he taught me to fear my own freedom. By depriving me of the intellectual and emotional tools I’d need in my development to know the world, and to make judgments about it confidently, he left me with one alternative: find another authority to whom I could surrender myself, because thinking and acting for yourself will only lead to the chaos of disapproval and abandonment.

This is why the “Founding Fathers” have so much power over our hearts and minds. They are absolute authorities, judging us unconditionally from the past. But imagine, if you will, a world in which each individual is raised in the confidence of his own capacity to reason and to judge — a world in which rational self-interest is the basis for social exchange, and negotiation is the means.

Such a world could exist, if we wanted it. In it, the question of who said a thing would seem an almost irrelevant fact in judging whether the statement was true or false. But until we equip ourselves and our children with the intellectual and emotional tools needed to escape the trap of obligate hierarchy in our personal relationships, we will be forever appealing to empty authorities like the “Founding Fathers”; and the voluntary society we yearn for will never come.

19 Responses to “Who’s Your Daddy?”

  1. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    Brilliant! Amazing command of the english language coupled with excellent references!

    One of the great things about having converted to anarchism is that I no longer feel a compulsion to evoke the Founding Father defense or exclaim that some government action is “unconstitutional.”

  2. KathyNo Gravatar says:

    A point of view I had not previously considered. A child should seek his parent’s opinion at times because he respects his parent’s judgment. (If the parent’s opinion is worth having, that is). But the child shouldn’t feel compelled because he fears reprisal if he acts contrary to his parent’s ideas. The child, however, regardless of the path he chooses should always be willing to suffer, or celebrate, the consequences of his actions.

  3. HReardenNo Gravatar says:

    That is an interesting post. I wounder when the “Founding Fathers” became the FF’s. That is when did Americans start calling them the founders? I doubt that they were called that during their own lifetime. Perhaps it stems from Washington being called the father of the country. Amoung the so called founders he was exhaulted the most but even in his day he did receive some criticism when he was the POTUS. Perhaps the generation those men were members of and the ones that came immediately after their deaths did not revere them as much as later generations have. Perhaps had the CSA won the War of Yankee agression people in what would be the CSA today would be calling Lee, Jackson, Stuart, Davis etc… the Founding Fathers of the CSA and say the same things about them. Perhaps even States Rights Gist would be considered a FF of te CSA. I think perhaps the FF’s would not have thought that 200 years after their deaths Americans would revere them the way they do. The fact is that other than Ron Paul I really don’t know of anyone elected official that comes close to the views of the FF’s. George Mason is often forgotten but he is perhaps my favorite of the so called founders. Perhaps because he dislike politics and very seldom held an elected office. Mason was respected much by the other founders.


    Spooneresque http://youtu.be/QcWaCsvpikQ

  4. augustNo Gravatar says:

    Well said Greg.

    It’s also interesting how the Founding Fathers are so conflated into one concept. But those who instigated the revolution such as Patrick Henry were very different from those who hijacked the “slight amendment” to the articles (Hamilton) and rammed the Constitution down our throats. The only state to vote on it was Rhode Island who voted 90% against. Henry knew it was a scam from the beginning, and boy was he right.

    It seems like what influences a person to become a Democrat or Republican was the stronger influence in their home as children. If the father was more of an authoritarian the kid is more likely to go to the right, and if the mother is more nurturing they are more likely to go to the left. The left seems to want a state that is more nurturing, while the right wants more of a dictator/daddy type state.

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      For a long time it seems that like religion (some say politics is a form of religion) many people supported the politics of their father/mother. I don’t think that that is as true today as it ws in the past however. Politics in terms of party support has gone through changes. When Black men were granted the right to vote in the 19th century most of them supported the Republican Party and until FDR Blacks overwhelmingly were Republican. Since FDR Blacks have been overwhelmingly Democrats. In the South prior to 1968 most Southerners were Democrats and today the Republican Party has majority support in the South.

      Richard Henry Lee was also amoung the Anti-Federalist. It is theorized that either Richard Henry Lee or Melancton Smith or Mercy Otis Warren authored papers under the name Federal Farmer. Patrick Henry btw was the 1st elected governor in America. He was the first elected governor of VA and was first elected in 1776.


      ” i smelt a rat.”

      – Patrick Henry (comment about the US Constitution)

    • EddyKNo Gravatar says:

      That is slightly sexist, but probably correct when viewing classical gender roles. I personally think left or right is much more a factor of how children are raised. If the parents are left then the child is more likely to be left and vice versa. Of course theres the exceptions when people resist the indoctrination by their environment and take on a completly different perspective.

      Personally my parents didn’t try to force me into a political idealogy. They did teach me solidarity, which is what initially pushed me to the left. Back when I thought it was okay to force solidarity and charity on other people.

      • The articled isn’t really about which ideology your parents forced you into, or which you’re likely to associate with because of them. It’s about why the politically motivated – regardless of ideology – look to the Founding Fathers as unquestionable and absolute authority figures.

        • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

          When do you believe Americans began looking to the “founders” in that way? The constitution wasn’t immediately revered as the holy grail. It was debated in each state for a time prior to being ratified by the states.A Bill of Rights was added a couple years after the document was drafted. At the time of the creation of the federal gov’t Americans didn’t say, ” wow the men who drafted the constitution are the smartest men in the world and they are about a perfect in their political views as is possible”. Btw, isn’t the phrase- ” a more perfect union” gramatically incorrect? How can anything be more perfect? If something is the state of perfection doesn’t that mean it can not be improved upon? Anyways was there some planned indoctrination beginning at some point to indoctrinate children into revering the “founders” as having created the best gov’t and constitution ever?

        • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

          Deification of so called political leaders is not limited to the ff’s. One of the most worshiped politician is imo the worst in American history. At least most of the ff’s supported liberty to a large degree or so but this one guy who came later in history has a lot to do with why things are the way they are today.

          See: http://youtu.be/uPRc1pDPPSg

  5. bwNo Gravatar says:

    Just wanted to say bravo.

  6. PericlesNo Gravatar says:

    Stop thinking rationally and just follow and obey the authority-seeking/steal-me-some-stuff-for-free Retarded Democracy Parasites(TM). It is very difficult to cultivate human livestock when they start thinking thoughts of self-ownership….

  7. KontrarianNo Gravatar says:

    Good article.
    It raises great questions.
    It would have been better if you attempted to give some answers.
    The personal perspective of the article was a bit distracting for me.
    I spent more time feeling sorry for you, your up bringing, and your biases than focusing on the big question you proposed.
    I prefer a more journalistic angle.
    Articles written from a personal perspective tend to attempt to persuade people through emotional charges, kind of cultist like.
    The Religion of Reason I guess.
    Otherwise, keep up the good work!

    I like what Seth said about the liberating feeling of being an anarchist and not having to evoke the “Founding Fathers” or regard the constitution as holy writ.
    I couldn’t agree more!

  8. Although we are aware that the social contract is a flawed method of governance – since only the marketplace can govern efficiently and equitably in any realistic sense – for the US to move in the direction of reducing the size and scope of the role of Washington is an improvement. When discussing the Constitution with Republicans – who claim to be in greater support of the document than their opponents – a door is opened to a discourse over whether or not their pet issues are among the authorized powers. Starving the beast begins with giving it smaller helpings. Read “Instead of Politics (Civilization 101).”

  9. Tom BlantonNo Gravatar says:

    Great article. I often refer “our 900 foot founding fathers” and many people react strongly as if I had denounced their favorite deity.

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      My favorite is Franklin. I think he was the coolest. He would probably have the least problem fitting into today’s culture. Probably because he was a man of man firsts( 1st lending library, fiest public hospital that was not a mental hospital that is etc…) and had a great inluence thus on the future culture. Franklin raised monies for public works via lotteries. Jefferson was also a fan of lotteries for public works. Franklin is why Paine and Joseph Priestly came to America. Priestley is the guy who invented soda water and discoverd oxygen.


      Lincon issued an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice of the US. He did end up recinding the order but the was the type of bad man Lincoln was.

  10. RJNo Gravatar says:

    Spot on analysis! Great work Greg. I definitely see evidence of this in my own childhood.

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