Sex we have always had with us; the Founding Fathers were not immune to the temptations of the flesh. But it was their attitudes toward government that ignited the conflicts and controversies that endure to this day. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were concerned, lest democracy without restraint become too much of a good thing, and prescribed a strong central government as that which needed restraint. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison saw democracy rooted in a society of doughty yeomen, eager to take on personal responsibility, and were reluctantly submissive to a local government of their peers and neighbors.
We're no longer so credulous as to believe doctored history, to take as true, for example, Parson Weems' fanciful story about young George Washington cutting down his father's favorite cherry tree and refusing to tell a lie about it to avoid punishment. Parson Weems, the first president's first biographer, aimed to teach a moral lesson with a small myth, and for years his "spin" survived. Our children today are more likely to consider only the flaws of the Founding Fathers, to regard them only as early Bill Clintons, Eliot Spitzers and Kwame Kilpatricks on the make. Every schoolboy knows, in that hoary cliché, several of the men who wrote in that declaration that "all men are created equal" owned slaves.
But men and women need both fact and myth: fact to feed the mind and myth to make the heart soar. The National Endowment for the Humanities has inaugurated a program to enable schoolchildren to see the nation's history through paintings. "Picturing America" is composed of 40 works by American artists, with fine reproductions for children of different ages. The program is available on the Web at www.neh.gov. It includes one of the most famous paintings of the Revolution -- "Washington Crossing the Delaware," immortalizing the surprise attack on the British and Hessian troops at Trenton, N.J. This was a stunning victory for the American army, turning the tide of the war at last to the Americans. There are portraits of Washington, Paul Revere and Abraham Lincoln. They're enough to erase that image of Ben Franklin and his friend in the bathtub.