Our Forefathers

Here’s an important historical document:

The genius of the film, of course, isn’t that the two Wyld Stallions go off to meet royal ugly dudes using their phone booth time machine– similar time travel jokes had been done many times before- but that they bring those “personages of historical significance” back to late 1980s San Dimas, California, and the more-or-less seriousness with which the movie takes Bill and Ted as recipients of the thread of Western culture, which they in turn will pass on to the ideal Be Excellent to Each Other society their gnarly playing will inaugurate in centuries to come.

Of course, Bill and Ted’s final guest lecturer was, like them, in real life, quite absorbed in learning from the example of “our forefathers,” well before the Gettysburg Address:

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In his speech on Dred Scott, Lincoln claims the Declaration of Independence was “was held sacred by all, and thought to include all” in its guarantee that All Men were Created Equal, in the early days of the Republic. This is almost certainly not true, and Lincoln, no dummy, probably didn’t believe it to be true. But as with the example of George Washington, Lincoln clearly thought that believing in the moral goodness of the Founders of the country was critical in giving the country the strength to endure much greater stresses and strains.

Donald Trump has made some scattershot and sometimes incoherent attempts to rehabilitate Andrew Jackson in recent weeks, clearly seeing himself in Jackson’s populist image and wanting to counteract Jackson’s portrayal by liberals as brutal slavemaster and genocidal author of the Trail of Tears.  Like Bill and Ted bringing Napoleon and Genghis Khan to the San Dimas mall, where they cause havoc in the food court, grabbing historical figures into our own time and putting them to work on behalf of our contemporary politics doesn’t always go the way we hope. But it’s hard to know who is next on the chopping block once Andrew Jackson has been exiled from the currency- there have been some fitful attacks on statues of Thomas Jefferson and uses of his name at University of Virginia (which he founded), as well as a New York Times article about George Washington last year that appeared to be testing the waters for a broader excoriation of the Father of the Country for slaveholding.

But Honest Abe wasn’t the only one who thought Washington and Jefferson’s slaveholding didn’t preclude them from being symbols of emancipation and freedom. There’s a reason why “Washington” and “Jefferson” are, even now, the most disproportionately black surnames- thousands of slaves and freedmen chose those names, as symbols of freedom and the hope for equality. It’s something we should bear in mind before we send one or another Founding Father into the scrap heap as not worth our esteem. As Edmund Morgan wrote in Inventing the People (h/t Dimitri Halikias):

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As Bill and Ted discovered, there’s good stuff to be learned in the past, at least the names of those two royal princess babes. But mostly you hope the example of the past (the good parts more than the bad) will help you to Party On, dudes.

5 thoughts on “Our Forefathers

  1. Interesting tibit, Trump was not the first modern Jackson fan. FDR styled himself a Jacksonian populist, proclaiming his praise for the Jackson and how he saw himself emulating the way Jackson broke traditions and crossed boundaries in order to accomplish policy goals, according to the quotes pulled together by Skowronek in his book Presidential Leadership in Political Time.

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    1. I thought FDR’s appearance at the end of Ken Burns’s Civil War series, to preside over the commemoration of 75 years after Gettysburg, was interesting, and perhaps symbolic of FDR seeing himself as more of a South/North uniter than we’re used to seeing him as. His political base was certainly more Southern than Northeastern

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  2. It’s not often addressed how Jackson was a symbol of Southern Unionism to the Upland South. The thousands of East Tenneesseeans who walked a couple of hundred miles through the mountains to join up with the Union army considered themselves Jackson’s sons. Of course, there’s those who claim that Jackson’s famous standdown with John C Calhoun is irrelevent because it was two decades before the war, but we know how his right hand man Sam Houston acted when the war came. He as governor of Texas refused to sign the articles of secession and he was removed from office.

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  3. Nations are founded on myth, and will always be. Myths which are the most universally accessible to the population for the longest time will be the basis for the nation states which are the most durable. When the myths fade away (as they always do…) so will the nation. A new (or recycled, perhaps) mythology will grow to replace the one gone by, and a new nation will emerge.

    We Americans (and most of the West, but NOT the Chinese or the Indians, interestingly) are in the midst of casting off the myths which have served as our civil foundation for the past few centuries. The currently popular replacements do not )to me) seem like the sort of myth that is very durable. In another hundred years or so, our progeny will have settled on whatever those replacement myths might be, and a new era will be upon them. Until then, it is twilight, then a bit of darkness. Good luck to them.

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