the founding fathers

Life, liberty & the pursuit of tastiness: "Declaration of Independence" (John Trumbull, 1819)

This is not a “Fourth of July” post.  We do not celebrate the fourth day of the seventh month any more than we would celebrate any of the other 364 days of the year that roll around on schedule.  But this post is indeed inspired by Independence Day, the day that memorializes the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which is definitely something worth celebrating—year-round rather than just this one day that is too often seen as little more than National BBQ and Fireworks Day.  We are not above the parades, bottle rockets, sparklers and picnics that tend to accompany the holiday, but we take greater interest in this season of remembrance, to consider the work that a small group of radicals did to invent a whole country.  The Founders are a fascinating lot, people “we cannot learn too much about”—that’s what David McCullough says.  And we do not argue with David McCullough, whose books should be required reading for anyone who maintains US citizenship.

The Founders, the Framers, the Guys Who Were There: they were, all of them, über-accomplished men, most of them in a staggering number of disparate fields.  They were lawyers, bankers, merchants, farmers, philosophers, authors and inventors.  All at once.  They could tune a violin, read Aristotle in the original Greek, hybridize grain and negotiate peace treaties all before lunchtime.  Without the benefit of espresso.  And while rocking lace cravats and embroidered waistcoats.

They were gifted, talented, brilliant, inventive and brave, as history has shown. But MoT dares to raise the question: were they tasty? Among the dozens of Revolutionary-era protagonists who have been variously included on lists of “Founding Fathers,” the canonical seven are listed here with an assessment of the level and sort of taste displayed by each.  This is not a scientific survey because Taste, like patriotism, cannot really be measured (and indeed, both virtues can look different in different people). They illustrate very individualized approaches to the concept of Taste, and we celebrate their independence in this arena.  Behold them here, in no particular order:

Benjamin Franklin (engraving by C. N. Cochin, 1777)

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Franklin is perhaps the most diversely tasty of the Founders.  Setting aside his many contributions to science, since they are not tasteful (science cannot be tasteful; it just is), Franklin’s extra-curricular writings are pretty interesting and impossible to pigeonhole.  The thirteen virtues listed in his autobiography (including temperance, order, resolution, sincerity, moderation and tranquility) might have roots in Puritan values but they also describe the best collections that ever came out of Coco Chanel’s atelier.  At the same time, Franklin was an unabashed nut, scamping about Paris in a crazy rustique fur hat and dropping great one-liners (“Fish and visitors stink in three days”).  You can just tell that if he was alive today, he would collect all of Will Ferrell’s movies on dvd.  It does not take much imagination to picture Franklin, brandy sniffer in hand, hollering, “Cannonball!” and jumping into the Grand Canal at Versailles.

John Adams (as recently caught by paparazzi)

John Adams (1735-1826)

Taste does not rank high among Adams’ many gifts.  Brilliant writer, keen political theorist, effectual lawyer and full-time squabbler, Adams had the good sense to surround himself with more likeable people.  His colleague Washington was a better military man; his friend Jefferson was more posh and popular; his cousin Sam was a superior brewer.  While Adams was content to live in a crummy, dark house built by Loyalists who fled during the Revolution, it was his fantastically energetic and whip-smart wife Abigail who managed the farm and directed the addition of a gracious Georgian wing (and probably came up with the estate’s lovely name, Peacefield).  Meanwhile, as other Founders represented the nascent nation in Paris and London; Adams went to Amsterdam. Amsterdam! We have the sense that Adams was too busy with Important Things to bother with the niceties of life and things of taste, both high and low, good and bad.  As second president, Adams whined about trying to keep up with the lavish presidential style instituted by Washington; we get the sense that Adam is the kind of guy who would complain about splitting the restaurant check if he didn’t have any of the appetizer.

Thomas Jefferson (detail of portrait bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1789)

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

We really don’t even want to begin with Jefferson, since it’s impossible to know how to stop.  In addition to his mad skills in science and politics, he was a writer, musician, gourmet, book collector, gardener, art adviser and architect.  While his friend Adams was holed up in some crummy damp Amsterdam canal house, Jefferson was entertaining in an hôtel on the Champs-Élysées.  And although he certainly enjoyed his artsy life, he saw its political end, writing in 1785 “I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and procure them its praise.”  If we had a taste-o-meter, the units of measure would have to be Jeffersons.

John Jay (Gilbert Stuart, 1794)

John Jay (1745-1829)

John Jay just barely sneaks onto the Founders’ list.  Maybe we should call him a Foundrette.  As far as we can tell, he pretty much flew under the radar and ended up on a weirdo ambassadorial mission to the Spanish government, which did not yet recognize the United States as an independent nation.  Even so, Jay was able to shake a cool $170K out of them to aid the Revolutionary War effort.  We assume it was during his downtime in Spain, amidst the flamenco and the paella, that dour Mr. Jay absorbed the verve evident in his later portrait. Props for the fly gear, Mr. Chief Justice!

James Madison (immortalized in posthumous portrait, to right)

James Madison (1751-1836)

Madison may be even more boring than Jay.  He had a decent 1760s house, Montpelier, but didn’t do much to make it more than decent.  Surprisingly, his vivacious wife Dolley, who brought so much zazz to Washington, didn’t help her husband’s tastiness all that much (research shows she was saving her best efforts for the snack-cake empire she would found some 150 years after her husband left office).  We can credit Madison with the (begrudging) establishment of the Second Bank of the US, which was built in Philadelphia and designed in very good Greek taste.  Taste by association?  That’s the best we can do.

Alexander Hamilton (photographed in peppier, poppier, pre-emo days)

Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

Secretary of the Treasury, economist, banker: Hamilton spent his life dealing with the stuff that pays for the material of taste, but really didn’t do much with it himself in life beyond the regular kind of aristocratic trappings of his social class.  But his death was a different thing.  Interpretations of his infamous duel with Aaron Burr abound, but it does seem pretty clear that Hamilton shot first: a throwaway, I-am-a-gentleman-of-courage-and-honor-but-geez-I-really-don’t-intend-to-kill-the-sitting-Vice-President kind of shot (that, as you know, was standard procedure in the code duello).  Unfortunately, Hamilton communicated his intentions only in his diary (preserved in the National Archives, it is a black Mead spiral-bound notebook with band stickers on the front), rather than to Burr, who understood the bullet whizzing by his head as anything but a gentlemanly gesture and thus unloaded into Hamilton.  So it is here in his final act that Hamilton finally expresses a taste: unfortunately he was way ahead of the curve in his non-communicative, romantic-violent/apathetic not violent behavior.  Hamilton is the Emo Founder.

"George Washington at the Battle of Princeton" (Charles Willson Peale, 1779)

George Washington (1732-1799)

Maybe it has something to do with all the ladies swooning for a man in a uniform, but Washington learned early on that a military man can be tasty.  He enjoyed all manner of imported luxuries, paid for by tobacco money.  He could have been addressed as “your majesty” but preferred “Mr. President.”  He married well, and into a great estate that he improved into the striking house we know as Mt. Vernon.  Now, this is no Monticello: some of its interior paint colors are pretty trippy, and some of its ornament looks like it was designed by an 18th-century Robert Venturi.  There’s definitely a taste going on there; you be the judge as to what to call it.  We remain a little on the fence about Washington, although the mythical story he inspired about the cherry tree is unfortunate, as it has condemned Americans to untold numbers of fruit pies in lieu of more celebration-worthy treats when national holidays roll around.  If the story was about young George chopping down a cocoa tree, that would be a different story altogether.


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