There are several ways to measure the length of continuous Chinese civilization, but for the sake of discussion, lets set the beginning point for China at the establishment of the first unified Chinese state. That would be the Qin Dynasty, which began in 221 BC, giving us 2,232 years of China as an evolving cultural identity and political reality.
And with that in mind, ask yourself this question:
Would anyone in China today argue that only the ideas expressed during the 15-year run of the founding Qin Dynasty should be counted as valid statements of the Chinese ideal? Would anyone in their right mind conclude that only the Qins should count as the founding fathers of China?
Of course not. That would be silly.
Here in the United States, we voted to declare our independence from Great Britain just 235 years ago (on July 2, 1776 -- today's official holiday celebrates the publication of the press release). It took another 11 years and an an utterly failed system of government before those political founders came up with a working constitution. Even then, they left out something pretty important: the rights that they'd fought the British to secure. Adding those into the rules for the new Republic took another two years, and after that the resulting Bill of Rights wasn't ratified until 1791.
So from Declaration of Independence to ratification of the Bill of Rights is a period of 15 years. That's all the basic "founding" stuff that our Founding Fathers undertook. Fifteen years. The exact duration of China's Qin Dynasty.
I bring this up because it's practically an article of faith to Americans that our Founding Fathers were uniquely wise, as if imbued by God with special grace and insight. Conservatives and liberals both tend to believe this, although today we have conservatives who declare themselves "strict constructionists" and quite openly treat the founding papers of our Republic the way Jerry Falwell treated the Bible: inerrant, complete and divinely inspired expressions of truth and wisdom. Every Republican president since Ronald Reagan has promised to appoint only strict constructionists to the federal bench.
This is, of course, outrageously silly, and the silliness begins with the absurd notion that the wisdom of our Founding Fathers was unique, or that the political battles that they fought (and sometimes lost) were unique to their age. To make a fetish of these men, or to gloss over their shortcomings with the old "product of their time" excuse, is shameless political kitsch. Yes, there were men in Philadelphia who supported universal sufferage and the abolition of slavery, but the reason our original constitution didn't include such things was that these modern concepts didn't win political arguments in the 18th century, not even in gatherings of our sainted Founding Fathers.
I bring up the Qin Dynasty and our Founding Fathers today because we're a young nation with a warped sense of time and history. If the United States of America lasts 2,232 years, will the Americans of 4008 AD look back at their history and say "the only important wisdom about our nation was expressed in its first 15 years?"Or will they look at the constitutional convention's incomplete struggles with slavery and conclude that Abraham Lincoln was also a Founding Father? Will they study the convention's anti-democratic beliefs about who should be allowed to vote in America and conclude that the Suffragetes of 1920 were also Founding Mothers? What about the men and women who sacrificed to make the Voting Rights Act of 1965 possible? And so on, down to today.
The United States of America is an idea in search of completion, and we are still arguing over questions that vexed the original founders at the birth of our Republic. Wouldn't it be better -- in fact, wouldn't we take our poltiical and philosophical positions with greater seriousness -- if we recognized that from the perspective of future historians, we are still actively engaged in the founding of this country?
Let us remember today that on July 1, 1776, only nine states voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence, and that two states -- Pennsylvannia and South Carolina -- voted against it. Let us remember that the difference between the revolutionary course of action and the conservative status quo that opposed it against all reason was razor thin, fraught with dissention and contested with bitterness that sometimes severed ties of friendship.
We are, all of us, Founding Fathers and Mothers to this wonderful country. Shouldn't we behave like we're worthy of that title?