I’m in the City of Brotherly Love, also known as the cradle of liberty, here over the long holiday weekend. As I walk the streets and take in the sights associated with the American Revolution, two former presidents of the United States say farewell to a fallen hero of the Republic, a warrior and a lawmaker, indicting the sitting president in the process.
The president, who quarreled often and savagely with the warrior senator, stayed away from the mourning, retreating to a golf course instead, uninvited to the somber proceedings. Before he picked up his putter, the commander-in-chief, as is his wont, tweeted bits of bile.
It all seems so petty, a long hard fall from the heights we once occupied.
But, then, the American insistence on romanticized nostalgia about our past and our origins is almost as addictive as crack – and very nearly as deadly.
We like to think of the founders as paragons, embodiments of virtue cloaked in quaint garb, more statue than human. Thomas Jefferson, he of the masterful pen, aided and abetted his perception by referring to the men who gathered to draft our Constitution as “an assembly of demigods.”
Close inspection reveals that the heroes of American creation – Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, the now ubiquitous Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Ben Franklin – were just as flawed and plagued by the itches of insecurity and envy as the rest of us.
Walking these streets again after many years, I’m reminded how close everything was, how tightly packed together our founders must have felt during the fearful and uncertain days when our nation was taking shape.
Perhaps that added to the friction.
So many of these allies and comrades-in-arms during our earliest days as a country had fallings out that ran from nasty to savage.
Jefferson and Hamilton, two precocious minds eager always to be seen as the brightest boy in the room, detested each other. Adams resented Washington. Franklin thought Adams “often quite mad.” Madison and Hamilton worked together to usher the Constitution into being and draft “The Federalist Papers,” but later came to distrust and despise each other.
Adams hated Hamilton. Jefferson and Washington, once tight, drifted into recrimination and did not speak to each other during the last years of Washington’s life. Adams and Jefferson, once bosom friends, quarreled bitterly over politics, did not speak for a decade, and then reconciled late in life.
And Hamilton, of course, engaged in gamesmanship and animosity with another brilliant and ambitious veteran of our revolution, Aaron Burr, who shot him dead during a duel on a Jersey shore.
In short, the founders of this nation spent almost as much time fighting with each other as they did battling the Brits.
We Americans like to think of our early history as a time of unified resolve, a moment when we all marched together toward greatness, an Eden from which we have been expelled.
The truth, as is always the case, is messier and more complicated than that.
Where we are now is nothing new.
Gazing at our history through a gauzy film does both our past and us a disservice. The men who made this nation, talented and brilliant though they were, had only a limited vision of where the revolution they started would take them.
They excluded Blacks, women, laborers and too many others from their promises of liberty and equality, but they also crafted the language and the impulses by which all who were excluded could indict them.
The founders’ fears, failures, rivalries and animosities – their very humanity – didn’t stop them from expanding this world’s notions of human worth and human liberty.
It shouldn’t stop us.
As I walk through the green space behind Independence Hall, a couple of re-enactors dressed in the garb of an 18th-century fife-and-drum corps walk past me. A third member rides his bicycle down Walnut Street.
I nod and smile at the pair.
They don’t notice.
They’re locked in a small quarrel, jousting over the merits of the hometown Philadelphia Phillies’ chances to make the playoffs.
They walk through the City of Brotherly Love, the cradle of liberty, arguing like friends, fellow countrymen, like brothers in arms.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.