Standard patriotic celebrations of the 4th of July must, as if guided by some unseen law, involve the worship of the people and icons that represent Freedom. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Liberty Bell, and of course The Founders – Washington and Jefferson are the standards, Madison makes the occasional appearance, Hamilton is Cool now, and honestly I wonder how many people know Lincoln was not a contemporary of any of them.
It is trite to point out that the majority of Americans displaying these symbols can tell you almost nothing factual about them. Everyone loves the Constitution but nobody has read it. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are effectively the same thing to many adults. Details of the lives of The Holy Founders are scant; you can drop jaws easily by pointing out that Jefferson didn't write the Constitution. Americans are bad at history. Nothing about this is new or interesting.
That was as true during the founding days of this country as it is today. Your "average man" in 1776 was barely literate or worse. But in the past, we've been less open about embracing ignorance, stupidity, and lack of intellectual curiosity as desired attributes in our leaders than we do at present. A nation that embraces the current president not in spite of but because of the fact that he has never read a book and does not know basic facts about American history is about to wave around the names and images of people like Jefferson without realizing the irony of the mixed messages.
Thomas Jefferson was a self-taught architect who owned the largest private library of books in the world at one point in his life. He founded the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress. He described his idols as Newton, Locke, and Bacon. He chaired the American Philosophical Society for a time. He spoke and wrote in five languages including English. He invented several gadgets for which he received patents.
The point is not that Jefferson was a Good Person. There is considerable room for criticism of his views (on slavery, most obviously). The point is that, in addition to being kind of a hypocrite and a d-bag with a sketchy private life like all elected officials before or since, he was smart. He was interested in things. What allowed him to achieve the things for which dullards wave around his picture and scream WOOO AMERICA! today was that he, in the common parlance, read books and stuff.
In addition to T-Jeff, the "Committee of Five" that drafted the Declaration of Independence included:
-John Adams, a lawyer who studied religion at Harvard and throughout his life.
-Benjamin Franklin, the inventor, linguist, philosopher, and Man of Earthly Delights whose accomplishments are so extensive and well known that they need not be repeated here but seriously this guy's idea of a good time was writing a new alphabet. And orgies. He also liked orgies.
-Roger Sherman, a major founder of Yale University, lawyer, career public servant, probably the most "all business" of this fivesome.
-Robert Livingston, speaker of six languages, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, amassed his own near-Jeffersonian private library, self-taught engineer, enthusiast of education in The Classics
Maybe in their private lives they were all scumbags. But our system of government is designed to function under the leadership of scumbags; idiots, however, present a much more serious challenge. Today we glorify people the nation's founding men – giving them more credit than any small group of people deserves, of course, for shaping the institutions of such a large country – while missing the point completely on what made them "Great" as the average modern Patriot would so define it.
They were "Great" and they accomplished things because they were not stupid. They were not Great because they "believed in small government" or "were for individual rights" or whatever spittle you might get by posing this question to random Patriots over the holiday. They were children of the Enlightenment, and they were interested in learning things. It is a deep irony that the people most likely to hold them up as examples of all that is right in American history are the least likely to follow their example and pick up a goddamn book at some point.