For the moment, the would-be Presidential candidates aren’t talking a lot about the Original Intent of the Constitution or the religious persuasion of the men who articulated this nation into being. But I want to be prepared when they leave my bedroom to return to those themes.
It’s certainly no mystery what my student meant when he referred to “our four fathers.” I’m sure many a student (and many another!) has written this same phrase. What is a mystery is what goes on in a mind that can specify a group of 4 while envisioning a group of unspecified number but certainly more than 4. Yes, he’s heard the phrase many and many a time—in political speeches, in graduation speeches, at Thanksgiving perhaps, on the Fourth of July—but hasn’t he also pictured what he was hearing? If he has, he must have asked someone why there were only four fathers, or who specifically the four were, or even why he had only one father while somebody else had four.
If you had to pick four, whom would you choose, keeping in mind that they had to have lived during the early days of the nation? That means you can’t just go with Mount Rushmore, because of the peskily modern inclusion of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
Besides Washington, who as all good children know is THE Father of Our Country, the ones you choose will probably reflect both how much you know about the American Revolutionary period and what you think is important about our country. Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence; different numbers and different individuals were responsible for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights would be the relevant document for my student, given his reference to “free press” (without an “a,” as in “a free press,” he might be referring either to the freedom of the press or to free publicity). Does he think four people thought that one up?
If he chose “four fathers” rather than “forefathers,” he must not know the difference between “four” and “fore”—it’s no typo. Does that mean that he thinks horses have six legs (the rear legs plus the four legs)? Where does he imagine someone in the “fourfront” is? Why would a golfer yell “FOUR,” especially on the first or second shot at a hole?
My suspicion is that he is as linguistically impoverished or mind’s-eye-blind as so many of his peers, and he doesn’t even question the use of “four”—it’s just a word. “Our four fathers or whatever.”
Should I go on to wonder who the hell these four fathers thought they were, to “grant” us anything? “Promise” would have been a better verb there, or “established the right,” or “articulated the right,” or “guaranteed the right.” After all, the physical and intellectual soldiers of the Revolution fought to get rid of a monarch, not replace a monarch with some other autocratic creature who could “grant” various freedoms to his people. But that’s just a quibble, after the big “four fathers” gaffe.
Presidents’ Day is coming (do you miss the two school holidays for Lincoln and Washington as much as I do? Do we have to be celebrating all the Presidents, some of whom were bloody awful, or can we pick a few we want to celebrate?). Go ahead, be my guest: think about the U.S. as you conceive of it, and then celebrate the Four Fathers of your choice.