Thursday, November 15, 2012

Founding Fathers

Today, in my classes, we began discussing local history.  I shared excerpts from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In: A History of Fullerton, a writing project I've been working on for over a year now.  We read and discussed a few sections on the founders of Fullerton, George and Edward Amerige, two grain merchants/real estate speculators from Boston.  It was based, in part, on a transcript of an interview with George, conducted in 1937 that I'd discovered in the Launer Local History Room of the Fullerton Public Library.  I'm fairly certain I'm one of a handful of living Fullertonians who've read this, or even know it exists.

The interview paints a very human portrait of the man and his motives.  He was an astute business man who founded Fullerton mainly for business reasons.  The first building he built was his real estate office.  The second was a mammoth hotel called the St. George Hotel, named after himself.  He wasn't a hero, nor was he a villain.  He was simply a man, subject to the same passions, ambitions, and prejudices as any man.  For years, George and Edward Amerige were celebrated in a annual "Founder's Day Parade" in Fullerton, which ended at Amerige Park.

George Fullerton, whom Fullerton is actually named after, had similar financial motives.  He was head of the real estate arm of the powerful Santa Fe Railroad Company, and he was promised by George and Edward a one-third interest in their real estate ventures if he would make the train pass through Fullerton.  Again, his main motive was personal wealth.  He was not a hero, just an astute business man.

I think it's natural for people to want to elevate their founders to heroic status, people like George and Edward Amerige, and even America's founders like Washington and Jefferson.  It gives people a sense of shared heritage and pride.  The problem, however, with romanticizing the founders is that it tends to gloss over or ignore the more unpleasant/complex human aspects of  them.

Washington and Jefferson, for example, owned slaves.  This is an historic fact.  Why, then, is this not emphasized in school, or at Fourth of July celebrations?  Because it goes against the heroic/romantic myth.  Teachers ought to tell students, "Yes, Washington and Jefferson were smart guys with some great ideas, but they also owned slaves."  These men were human beings, products of their time and place, subject to the same ignorance as humans throughout history.  Would it be so terrible to seriously discuss the fact that, as the founding fathers were writing that "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certian inalienable rights" that they also owned slaves?  I think telling students this would lead to a much more fruitful and nuanced picture of our real heritage.  Myths have their purpose, but they are ahistorical, and tend to promote ignorance and blind patriotism.

The same goes for Columbus.  The fact that we still celebrate that man, with all we now know about him, is astonishing to me.  Columbus was not a good guy.  He killed a lot of Arawaks and other native peoples.  He didn't discover America.  People had discovered it thousands of years prior.  He was just the first European to come with gunpowder and big boats and a shocking disregard for non-European lives and cultures.

For their next, and final, essay, my students are writing about Orange County history.  Not the romanticized version, but the real version, the largely unknown and un-lookded-for version that is tucked away in local history rooms and newspaper archives and the Center for Oral and Public History.  We are not interested in comforting myths.  We are interested in complex reality.

Thomas Jefferson offers a reward for the return of a runanway slave.

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