Patriotism is thriving in America today, and its many symbols abound—flags, stars-and-stripes bumper stickers, and freedom fries are all going strong, and so are the reputations of the Founding Fathers. As global insecurity and economic uncertainty become ways of life and leaders appear increasingly tarnished by the compromises of politics, it's comforting to think about the successes of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and their compatriots, and encouraging to know that we are continuing their experiment. Confidence in the genius of the Founders and the conviction that their blueprint for our nation is infallible can lend a patriot a rare sense of security, even in troubled times.
And yet this security can be dangerous. In "Founders Chic" (September Atlantic), the historian H. W. Brands offers a reality check to a Founders-obsessed nation. From the newspapers of the Founders' own time, Brands points to some typically hostile opinions on the part of their contemporaries: Washington is said to have a "cold hermaphrodite faculty" that is responsible for his false reputation as a man of "prudence, moderation and impartiality"; John Adams is mocked for his "sesquipedality of belly"; and Thomas Jefferson is called "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." Not only were the Founders anything but deified in their own time, they were also held responsible by later generations for some of the young nation's most severe problems—and the questions they left unresolved did have serious ramifications, most notably the contradictions over slavery that eventually led to the Civil War. Through all this, the Founders have emerged as heroes, particularly in times demanding national unity; they have served as symbolic anchors of nationhood during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, the World Wars, and again today.