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.

Be Sociable, Share!


  • Fucking comment posted before I even got started.

    Screw it. Got nothing to say anyway here in the land of slogans and soundbites.

  • Prairie Bear says:

    I am especially also amused by their supposed reverence for Thomas Paine. That guy basically invented the inheritance tax, for crying out loud. What the teabaggers denounce as the "death" tax.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    Americans – big-city pseudointellectuals and Real Main Street Patriots alike – are good at extending their hero-worshipping adolescence.

    Signifiers are cool because they help us put off contemplation, and contemplation is stressful and depressing.

  • Regarding Jefferson and the Constitution: I was in an argument with a Christian Dominionist who pointed out that Jefferson was in France while the Constitution was written. The point being, of course, that none of Jefferson's Deism tainted the Constitution and so, the Constitution was written by GOD dammit.

  • John M. from Ct. says:

    To Mago's comment, I'd elaborate that some McMansions do have bookshelves, but like the bookshelves in many smaller houses, they more often hold photos, artwork, or bric-a-brac than books.

    I also don't associate Fourth of July celebrations with any particular focus on the Founders or Framers or whatever they're called today. It's mostly fireworks, flags, and red white and blue bunting; for the actual history most ads or displays I see correctly focus on the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution or Bill of Rights.

    I like your point that scumbag politicians are the norm, but their education and social culture does make a difference in the quality of politics they do.

  • I was trying to promote a book in Amsterdam once and a woman told me to stop wasting my time. "Here," she said, "people had to read a book this thick–" she held her fingers about half an inch apart– "and twenty years later they still are complaining about it." Yes, of course, American Exceptionalism and all, sure we do dumb-ass better than goddamn anybody, but I think it's more a sad commonality of the human condition, what Jung called the psychic unity of mankind, that people don't read or know what the fuck they're talking about pretty much everywhere.

  • jeez, do the vibrations go out or something? This guy seems to reluctantly conclude that those with "lower human capital" [cough] do indeed get left behind by those smart and skilled enough to head for the cities.

    The Peasant Mentality

    "The combination of facts tells you that there is selection out of rural/agricultural work and into urban/non-agricultural work for people with lots of human capital.

    There is not some distortion that prevents rural people from moving to higher wage positions, apparently, its just that all the really skilled or smart people move off the farm."

  • Every so often, especially after a particularly intellectual fellow has held the office, the people of this country insist on electing his opposite. Sick of that braniac John Quincy Adams? Say hello to violent psychopath Andrew Jackson! Tired of world-building professorial Woodrow Wilson? Embrace a return to normalcy with amiably corrupt dullard Warren G. Harding. And what's the cure for Obama? Well…

    What Mencken called the booboisie simply can't abide a long stretch of smarty-pants in the leadership–we want to believe that the greatness of these men lies in their character, rather than in their education. Because most of us don't have the latter, and don't want to think that the former is dependent on it. (Cue the latest rewatching of FORREST GUMP.)

  • On PBS News as I was reading this: a poll was conducted of The Man In the Street, on this, the eve of the 4th of July. One of the questions asked: From where did America gain its independence? A majority of the people answered Great Britain, but a shocking number guessed Afghanistan and Iran. Oy….

  • Were Americans at that time really that illiterate? Many households would only have had the KJV to (potentially, I have no idea how many did) teach their kids, but that would have been a whole lot better than nothing. Would appreciate any correction.

  • We have been handed down the impression that eloquence was valued to the point that ordinary people would listen to political arguments lasting hours. Again appreciate any insight (I Am Not A(n) Historian)

  • "its just that all the really skilled or smart people move off the farm."

    Farming requires intelligence, zeal, stoicism, courage, dedication and a high degree of trust in markets that are ephemeral.

    Living in smalltown, mediumish city, urban shithole MurKKKa and thinking Trumpligulamygdala is the answer requires a suspension of disbelief coupled with adamantine indignorance.

    "Tired of world-building professorial Woodrow Wilson?"

    We will never agree on Wilson, I suspect. He was a racist piece-of-shit–among his numerous failings.

    "We have been handed down the impression that eloquence was valued to the point that ordinary people would listen to political arguments lasting hours. Again appreciate any insight (I Am Not A(n) Historian)"

    No entertainment other than lynchings will make people go to almost any event.

  • A Different Nate says:

    @gbbalto Literacy is notoriously hard to pin down for most of history. We can safely assume that slaves were almost entirely illiterate, and women probably less literate than men. But to quote a passage from here:

    "Historical records are incomplete so the information that has been studied on literacy in our country's past is estimated, but educational historians assert that New England in the late 18th century had the highest literacy rate in the world at the time, nearly 100% in Boston. Literacy was higher in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies than in the South. Literacy was also higher in cities than in more rural areas. In New England the literacy rate was 60% between 1650-1670, 85% between 1758- 1762, and 90% between 1787 – 1795. In Virginia it was between 54% & 60% in the late 18th century. Literacy in early New York and Pennsylvania was high, owing much to their Dutch and German immigrants."

    Note that this was white men only. What other group matters, after all?

  • Well, after reading the Seattle Times article about poli-sci prof Christopher Parker, I am no fucking way reading Hillbilly Elegy.

    His 2013 book on the tea party, “Change They Can’t Believe In,” with professor Matt Barreto (now at UCLA), used survey data to show it was not a small government movement as advertised. It was more about America being stolen from “real Americans” — a reaction triggered by the election of President Obama.

    “I’ve got three words for you: scared white people,” Parker says. “Every period of racial progress in this country is followed by a period of retrenchment. That’s what the 2016 election was about, and it was plain as it was happening.” …

    Parker and Barreto now are working on their own book, out next year, called “The Great White Hope: Donald Trump, Race and the Crisis of Democracy.” Will that get ignored, too?

    The authors probably resisted using "The Great White Nope" because the dignity of a university professor must be upheld.

  • Somehow I don't see Jefferson or the other founders as the kind of guys who would drive around in a truck with a huge American flag flying from the truck bed. Franklin might have been amused by truck nuts, though.

  • @A Different Nate; one of Ed's book recommendations was about how America was settled. I found it at my public library, and it was a fast and good read. My interpretation of the information you provided is that the Virginias, which were populated by England as an indentured-servant (and later slave) colony for the few upper class landowners to send investment returns back to England, didn't worry itself much about whether the vast slave underclass could read.

    New England, on the other hand, was founded predominantly a religious cult that didn't approve of celebrating Christmas, but did believe that education was mandatory for all children…and created the first free public schools.

  • @ Alan C:

    One of my neighbors had a party on Memorial Day Weekend and one of his guests was telling me how he keeps a gun in EVERY ROOM of his house. He also was fairly inebriated and when his girfriend (all of 125 pounds) said she was going home to get into some shorts, after drinking several beers, he told her she should be careful. His truck had two U.S. flags attached to broom handles that were stuck in the stake pockets on his pick-em-up truck.

    I remember thinking: "Half-shitfaced blond driving ginormous truck with flags snapping in the breeze distracting other motorists (and obscuring rearward vision of driver). Could be a bit of a "red flag" for the average cop. Guns in every room of the house? I wonder if there's one under the seat?".

  • "The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Liberty Bell…..It is trite to point out that the majority of Americans displaying these symbols can tell you almost nothing factual about them."

    I think you mean the majority of millennials can't tell you. The majority of my generation, the baby boomers, can absolutely tell you pretty much anything you want to know about these documents and symbols.

  • democommie, I truly feel bad for you that you have sucha pitiful existence. It must be hard to go through life with so much anger.

    But I must ask, what part of my statement is a lie?

  • Ed does consistently outstanding work, and I'm glad he's finally getting paid for some of it.

  • @demo: When Mark says what he says, he's talking about a certain slice of a demographic. It need not be true word for word, just true in his experience.

    I think this whole discussion is missing some perspective. Your average RWNJ respects historical people who read books. He knows that in order to read at all and then to gain office one had to have the backing of the "right" people. One had to come from or be a protege of one of the "best families" and be approved by the "best people."

    Said RWNJ does not believe that you or anyone like you have been so vetted so it he assumes that you are not really all that valuable as an informant or leader. What you say about the Constitution, the Bible, the dictionary or any other book is probably wrong and biased by your illegitimate background.

  • Only thing is, Demo isn't a millenial. He's a Baby Boomer. And he reads and understands. He has a brain and he has empathy–nothing so many of the sociopath rwnj's can claim.

  • @ Jestbill:

    Mark is a lying fuckbag sack-o-shit; he has consistently demonstrated that on this blog.

    When he says something as blatantly dishonest as his first comment I would be negligent if I ignored his bullshit.

    Otoneh, he's not somebody who will ever. apparently, understand that his mouthbreathing Randroid bullshit is the product of intellectual incest in the circlejerk KKKommunity of moronity that he lives in. That's his problem.

    My problem is that others might actually give some credence to his idiocy; I feel it's imcumbent on me to say somthing and since saying something nice is a waste of time…

    Marko the moron:

    My existence is only painful when I have to read the drivel that some fuckwad like you pukes out here.


  • @ Katydid:

    I have seen too many fora turn into wastelands because some piece-of-shit like Marko the Mendacious is allowed to spew their nonsense without consequence.

    I am not the person who is going to take the time to offer any reasoned, nuanced argument to a lying sack-of-shit like Mark.

  • @democommie – Oh, I didn't meant to assign any kind of moral authority to Wilson; merely to point out that he was very much of the uber-intellectual professorial mode of president–in many ways, his persona probably resembles that of Obama more than any other recent president, and isn't THAT a hoot-and-a-half to contemplate, because, yeah, horrible horrible racist.

    But Wilson was–I speak not in praise, but only in description–a high-minded idealist who was, in fact, a would-be world-builder–he very much set out to remake the world in accordance with his international ideals (mind you, the same could be said of Ernst Stavro Blofeld.) So that when his term came to an end, America, who had it up to here with such book-learnin' high-hattedness, responded by swinging HARD back the other way and elected an amiable dullard who ushered in an era of appalling corruption.

    No, I don't hold much with idealizing Wilson. I put him in the same category as Jefferson–someone who had some breathtakingly good ideas that he himself staggeringly failed to live up to–a brilliant man who loved his country but who was so compromised by an appalling moral blind-spot (or several such) that we just can't celebrate him. The ideas, yes. But not him.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    The people responsible for The Declaration of Independence, The (failed) Articles of Confederation, and then, finally, The US Constitution (with the Bill if Rights, and an amendment process), were all applying certain older ideas from Ancient Rome & Greece, and also what the Enlightenment philosophers had written in the mid/late 17th Century and the early/mid 18th one.

    Yes, they were learned men.

    So how ironic is it that we're seeing what I call "The Endarkenment" really start to mature under an immature POTUS who never reads books, and a Republican Congress whose oh-so very "Christian" members (who either just say, or actually claim, they) think the Bible is what we should use to govern this nation full people of all faiths and colors – and even then, these dumb-ass MFers leave out or horribly twist Christ's messages of peace, love, acceptance,
    foregiveness, and charity.

    I think they never read The New Testament, because they prefer jerkin'-their-tiny-gherkin's to the sex and begetting, murders and smiting, and cruelty and vengeance in The Old Testament!

    Actually, I don't the GOP pol's ever read the Old one either.
    It's just that if they HAVE TO go to church for the sake of appearance, all of that bullshit about peace, love, acceptance, foregiveness, and, charity is WAAAAAAY TOO "libtardish" for them!
    Sex, murder, and screw-unto-others before they screw you, are more their style.

  • @ J Dryden:

    Yes, Wilson was a very smart guy and he had some great ideas. Unfortunately he was a racist and his disdain of lesser mortals did incalculable damage to the prospects of black Americans for decades after his presidency.

    You are not someone who I dismiss, either intellectually or morally but I just had somebody else tell me what a great man Wilson was and there was, I'm sure, some carryover.

    I always appreciate your insights even when I don't agree with your take.

  • Jefferson was certainly a very inventive guy, and many of his innovations remain in general use, but it's my understanding that Lincoln was the only president to obtain a patent.

  • Endarkenment–I like that phrase, Gulag. Mind if I use it? I think it describes exatly what we're going through right now.

    I felt as if I could understand Obama. He grew up in Hawaii, I lived in Hawaii as a child/teen. He lived in Indonesia, I lived nearby-ish in Japan and the Phillippines. We both understand that there's more than one language spoken on the planet, know that there are many American cultures beside Rill Murkkkun, more religions than Fundagelical Christian. He's way smarter than I am, but I want that in a leader. He also works way harder than I do, but again, how is this a bad thing in a leader?

    I was astounded at how many people were deeply, deeply afraid of Obama, and how many were deeply offended that there are people out there that don't think exactly as they do. Then there were the batshit racists.

    Who knew how absolutely

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Please feel free to use it, or any other truffle that this blind pig finds. ;-)

  • Since we're on the subject of using new terms for new times.

    Howzabout, when referring to Trumpligulamydala and his TripleM's* rise to power–we refer to it as, "Dumbing Up"?

    * Minions of moronic mendacity

  • @ Alan C:
    There's a local around here (upstate NY) who has for a long time flown a pretty sizable flag from the bed of his pickup. His TOYOTA pickup…

  • You guys are making me laugh so hard. American flag from Toyota pickup, neighbor afraid to walk home without an AK-47 in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other…yup, that's Murkkkuns, all right.

  • "There's a local around here (upstate NY)"

    Shit, there's a fair number of them around Oswego. I run into one of them almost everywhere I go.

    @ Major Kong:

    Yes, Wilson was smart.

  • "these dumb-ass MFers leave out or horribly twist Christ's messages of peace, love, acceptance,
    foregiveness, and charity.

    I think they never read The New Testament, because they prefer jerkin'-their-tiny-gherkin's to the sex and begetting, murders and smiting, and cruelty and vengeance in The Old Testament! "

    Pet peeve of mine, but you are doing the same thing fundies do: Cherry picking.

    The very concept of "born into sin" and eternal damnation because one cannot live up to the demands of a failed and rageful creator negates the occasional nice words to a prostitute.

    Jesus (if he existed) was a wandering cult leader who threatened his enemies with an eternity of torture and suffering. The Sermon on the Mount was probably a forgery added in to make Jesus look a little less Koresh-like.

    Paul, the real source of "Christ"ianity was also a narrow minded wandering cult leader who loved the concepts of eternal punishment. Already, the Christian church was divided into squabbling sects that couldn't agree on the fundamentals. Happily, Constantine saw them as useful, and here we are.

    Christianity is nice when used by nice people in nice institutions. I am not convinced the core doctrines are very nice at all.

  • @BrianM: you forgot when Jesus blighted a fig tree because it didn't have ripe figs (out of season).

    Generally speaking, however, the Old Testament is vengeful, petty God stolen from various previous religions, and the New Testament is the born-in-a-cave-from-a-young-woman, died-and-resurrected deity stolen from a variety of religions floating around that area around that time.

  • democommie says:

    I would posit that the GOD that is supposedly worshipped by the KKKristianists is the original Frankenstein's monster–a creation cobbled together from the stolen bits of various other deities; and badly botched, at that.

  • Steve in the ATL says:

    "Thomas Jefferson … founded the University of Virginia"

    Hey, he did some good things, too

Comments are closed.