Was Lincoln a Founder?

How we view the bones of American history may be a product of our own demographics. 

John Quincy Adams would be my test-answer delineation for where the “founding fathers” ended and the list of presidents-I memorized-once-but-know-little-else-about begins. The former I view as a group of problematic faves, where some of their ideas and accomplishments were awesome and inspiring and others, mostly having to do with their treatment of women, people of color, and the poor, were shocking and awful.  The latter is a group that kept the basic status quo of the founders chugging along, the same vices as before but none of the transformative evolution of society.

Then came Lincoln.  He stumbles into our history, with a war and tales of heroism and brutality that changed our country, and he does brave things that make us substantially better.  He frees the slaves. He saves the union. He acquires that mythos, that same granite veneer that makes him the face on the five, while history majors grumble about his impure motives.  

I’ve always thought of Lincoln as an anomalous figure in history.  The founding fathers came as a group, not as one individual dominating everyone around them.  The generals of the Civil War are pretty well-known, but that’s mostly because wars are interesting and people like writing about them.  They weren’t transforming the country, at least in a lasting way, the way Lincoln was. He had no peers, and even his vaunted “rivals” are of the sort where, if you hear their names, you say “oh yeah…sounds familiar.”  

So why isn’t he considered a parent of our nation?  This came up in a political speech I was watching a few weeks ago- this mild-mannered Colorado senator said, in a rhetorical valley during an otherwise fiery speech, that he considered Lincoln a founding father.  The idea struck me, so I started to think about it.

My initial instinct is “no,” because there’s something different about establishing the country and our system and making big changes to it later.  For twenty minutes, give or take, I was pretty solid on the idea that there’s a meaningful distinction to be drawn, and that Lincoln is plainly on the other side of the line.  We had been a country since 1776; you can’t found something that started four score and seven years before your contribution.

One idea was nagging at me, though.  The way I’m perceiving the country and its history is through a lens of demographically relating to the founders in very specific ways: I’m white, male, and educated.  For folks like that, the country really was founded in 1776. So when I ran the “privilege check” part of my totally-not-neurotic process for forming opinions about things, some red lights were going off.  

Hilariously, I realized- as I have on several other occasions, but just can’t seem to correct- that this group of founders I supposedly relate to have no actual kinship with me.  I’m a Jew, a descendent of early-20th-century imports. My only relationship to them is through a modern demographic lens, and I think that’s telling in the “defaults” we learn growing up.  I like to joke that as a Jew, I’m white in a bull economy.

But I would not have had an invitation to the convention in Philadelphia.

I think that the Ante-Quincy Adams crowd founded the country for white men.  I think Lincoln founded it for people of color, and so did King. I think Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott got royally cheated by our history books, since I never learned enough about them to even correctly spell their names without the aid of Google.  As someone who sought out history in school, drank it up and kept refilling the glass time and again, even to today, it’s only in the last three years or so that I’ve really learned anything about them.

And they founded the country, too.  

If we persist in claiming that our country is exceptional because it is an idea, or even an ideal, then we can’t let the tyranny of chronology dictate the bounds of who is considered a founder.  Designing systems of democracy is no more important than opening up those systems to more people.

As I read, daily it seems, about the travesty happening at our southern border, the menacing over-imprisonment of our citizenry, and the creeping racism and xenophobia of our nominal leadership, I realize that our grand experiment in democracy hasn’t really gotten underway; there are still empty seats at the table.  Perhaps our youngest founding fathers- even the term smacks of patriarchy- are yet to be born.


Published in: on March 12, 2019 at 7:32 am  Leave a Comment  

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