When I was little, my elementary school teachers, as part of their mandate to mold me into a patriotic citizen, taught me the national legends. One was that George Washington, confronted by his father, admitted that he chopped down a cherry tree "with my little hatchet." This patriotic postcard depicts Papa Augustine pointing an accusing finger at little George, who is bravely taking the hit for ruining the landscaping.
I bought the story, hook, line and sinker. But it left me intimidated. I could never be that honest. So I just gave up. Learned to lie like a politician.
At the unpatriotic University of California, as an assignment in History 17A—American History, I read Charles A. Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. That right smartly put paid to any belief in the altruism of our Founding Fathers. Gee, they're ordinary, flawed people, just like me.
Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla is regarded as the Father of Mexican Independence, having called for insurrection against Spain on September 16, 1810 from his parish in the town of Delores. Another founding legend.
The Catholic Church at the time didn't see his utterances as patriotic; not as we do today. Father Hidalgo was excommunicated a few days after issuing El Grito, the cry for independence.
He didn't live to see Mexican Independence. Captured by Spanish forces, he was executed by firing squad on July 30, 1811.
And herein lies a problem. Because everyone assumed for all this time that he died unshriven and not a part of the Church. You'd think that Church leaders in Mexico would be disturbed by this—their national hero not being a Catholic in good standing.
We're only a few years away from the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the independence movement, and some Mexican legislators thought that Hidalgo's status was a little awkward. So they spoke to Church officials: Might something be done about it?
What they're looking for is another cherry tree.
Well, in politics, anything is possible. In this week's news, we hear that careful investigation has turned up evidence that Miguel Hidalgo made confession just prior to his execution, thus voiding the order of excommunication. Great news indeed! Now we can all go into the bicentennial celebrations with this ugly stain removed from a Founding Father's reputation.
I never cease to be amazed at the power of modern historical investigations. Presumably the Church and the Mexican Government have spent the last 200 years trying to lift this blot on Hidalgo's character, frustrated in all their attempts to uncover evidence everyone knew must be there—that he died a holy man. And now, just in time for the bicentennial, no doubt as a result of an ingenious application of some technology breakthrough, that essential evidence has been uncovered!
Just what the evidence is has not been disclosed. Neither the Church or the Mexican Government can be called a paragon of transparency. But in a matter of this importance, I think we can all place our faith in the integrity of the investigators, their sponsors, and the evidence itself (whatever it may be).
Another defrocked priest, José María Morelos, led the independence struggle after Hidalgo's execution and is another Father of our country.
Also excommunicated, he presents similar difficulties. But an investigation is underway here as well, and my money says they're going to find that he died within the Church, too.
Once the officials and the academics get history revised, it gets packaged and fed it to our kids.
So, is Father Hidalgo's rehabilitation factual? Or is it no more than mutual back-scratching between the Church and the Government? "Hey. Forgive our guy and we'll rename some Mexican City after a saint."
(Not as far-fetched as you might think: A Church-sponsored attempt to rename Celaya after a saint was recently beaten back by secularists.)
Finally, does any of this matter? Are legends good for society? Do they do any harm?