On The Founding Fathers

Via:  john-russell  •  7 months ago  •  7 comments

On The Founding Fathers

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

excerpted from Encyclopedia Britannica

.....Within the broader world of popular opinion in the United States, the Founding Fathers are often accorded near mythical status as demigods who occupy privileged locations on the slopes of some American version of Mount Olympus . Within the narrower world of the academy, however, opinion is more divided. In general, scholarship at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st has focused more on ordinary and “inarticulate” Americans in the late 18th century, the periphery of the social scene rather than the centre. And much of the scholarly work focusing on the Founders has emphasized their failures more than their successes, primarily their failure to end slavery or reach a sensible accommodation with the Native Americans .

The very term Founding Fathers has also struck some scholars as inherently sexist, verbally excluding women from a prominent role in the founding. Such influential women as Abigail Adams , Dolley Madison , and Mercy Otis Warren made significant contributions that merit attention, despite the fact that the Founding Fathers label obscures their role.

As a result, the Founding Fathers label that originated in the 19th century as a quasi-religious and nearly reverential designation has become a more controversial term in the 21st. Any assessment of America’s founding generation has become a conversation about the core values embodied in the political institutions of the United States, which are alternatively celebrated as the wellspring of democracy and a triumphant liberal legacy or demonized as the source of American arrogance, racism, and imperialism.


National Archives, Washington, D.C. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

For at least two reasons, the debate over its Founders occupies a special place in America’s history that has no parallel in the history of any European nation-state. First, the United States was not founded on a common ethnicity, language, or religion that could be taken for granted as the primal source of national identity. Instead, it was founded on a set of beliefs and convictions, what Thomas Jefferson described as self-evident truths, that were proclaimed in 1776 and then embedded in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. To become an American citizen is not a matter of bloodlines or genealogy but rather a matter of endorsing and embracing the values established at the founding, which accords the men who invented these values a special significance. Second, the American system of jurisprudence links all landmark constitutional decisions to the language of the Constitution itself and often to the “original intent” of the framers. Once again, this legal tradition gives the American Founders an abiding relevance in current discussions of foreign and domestic policy that would be inconceivable in most European countries.

Finally, in part because so much always seems to be at stake whenever the Founding Fathers enter any historical conversation, the debate over their achievement and legacy tends to assume a hyperbolic shape. It is as if an electromagnetic field surrounds the discussion, driving the debate toward mutually exclusive appraisals. In much the same way that adolescents view their parents, the Founders are depicted as heroic icons or despicable villains, demigods or devils, the creators of all that is right or all that is wrong with American society. In recent years the Founder whose reputation has been tossed most dramatically across this swoonish arc is Thomas Jefferson , simultaneously the author of the most lyrical rendition of the American promise to the world and the most explicit assertion of the supposed biological inferiority of African Americans.

Since the late 1990s a surge of new books on the Founding Fathers, several of which have enjoyed surprising commercial and critical success, has begun to break free of the hyperbolic pattern and generate an adult rather than adolescent conversation in which a sense of irony and paradox replaces the old moralistic categories. This recent scholarship is heavily dependent on the massive editorial projects, ongoing since the 1960s, that have produced a level of documentation on the American Founders that is more comprehensive and detailed than the account of any political elite in recorded history.

While this enormous avalanche of historical evidence bodes well for a more nuanced and sophisticated interpretation of the founding generation, the debate is likely to retain a special edge for most Americans. As long as the United States endures as a republican government established in the late 18th century, all Americans are living the legacy of that creative moment and therefore cannot escape its grand and tragic implications. And because the American Founders were real men, not fictional legends like Romulus and Remus of Rome or King Arthur of England, they will be unable to bear the impossible burdens that Americans reflexively, perhaps inevitably, need to impose upon them.

The achievement

Given the overheated character of the debate, perhaps it is prudent to move toward less contested and more factual terrain, where it is possible to better understand what the fuss is all about. What, in the end, did the Founding Fathers manage to do? Once both the inflated and judgmental rhetorics are brushed aside, what did they achieve?

At the most general level, they created the first modern nation-state based on liberal principles. These include the democratic principle that political sovereignty in any government resides in the citizenry rather than in a divinely sanctioned monarchy; the capitalistic principle that economic productivity depends upon the release of individual energies in the marketplace rather than on state-sponsored policies; the moral principle that the individual, not the society or the state, is the sovereign unit in the political equation; and the judicial principle that all citizens are equal before the law. Moreover, this liberal formula has become the preferred political recipe for success in the modern world, vanquishing the European monarchies in the 19th century and the totalitarian regimes of Germany , Japan , and the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

More specifically, the Founding Fathers managed to defy conventional wisdom in four unprecedented achievements: first, they won a war for colonial independence against the most powerful military and economic power in the world; second, they established the first large-scale republic in the modern world; third, they invented political parties that institutionalized the concept of a legitimate opposition; and fourth, they established the principle of the legal separation of church and state , though it took several decades for that principle to be implemented in all the states. Finally, all these achievements were won without recourse to the guillotine or the firing squad, which is to say without the violent purges that accompanied subsequent revolutions in France , Russia , and China. This was the overarching accomplishment that the British philosopher Alfred Lord North Whitehead had in mind when he observed that there were only two instances in the history of Western civilization when the political elite of an emerging empire behaved as well as one could reasonably expect: the first was Rome under Augustus , and the second was the United States under the Founding Fathers.

The failure

Slavery was incompatible with the values of the American Revolution, and all the prominent members of the Revolutionary generation acknowledged that fact. In three important areas they acted on this conviction: first, by ending the slave trade in 1808; second, by passing legislation in all the states north of the Potomac River , which put slavery on the road to ultimate extinction; and third, by prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the Northwest Territory . But in all the states south of the Potomac, where some nine-tenths of the slave population resided, they failed to act. Indeed, by insisting that slavery was a matter of state rather than federal jurisdiction, the Founding Fathers implicitly removed the slavery question from the national agenda. This decision had catastrophic consequences, for it permitted the enslaved population to grow in size eightfold (from 500,000 in 1775 to 4,000,000 in 1860), mostly by natural reproduction, and to spread throughout all the southern states east of the Mississippi River . And at least in retrospect, the Founders’ failure to act decisively before the slave population swelled so dramatically rendered the slavery question insoluble by any means short of civil war.

There were at least three underlying reasons for this tragic failure. First, many of the Founders mistakenly believed that slavery would die a natural death, that decisive action was unnecessary because slavery would not be able to compete successfully with the wage labour of free individuals. They did not foresee the cotton gin and the subsequent expansion of the “Cotton Kingdom.” Second, all the early efforts to place slavery on the national agenda prompted a threat of secession by the states of the Deep South ( South Carolina and Georgia were the two states that actually threatened to secede, though Virginia might very well have chosen to join them if the matter came to a head), a threat especially potent during the fragile phase of the early American republic. While most of the Founders regarded slavery as a malignant cancer on the body politic, they also believed that any effort to remove it surgically would in all likelihood kill the young nation in the cradle. Finally, all conversations about abolishing slavery were haunted by the spectre of a free African American population, most especially in those states south of the Potomac where in some locations blacks actually outnumbered whites. None of the Founding Fathers found it possible to imagine a biracial American society, an idea that in point of fact did not achieve broad acceptance in the United States until the middle of the 20th century.

Given these prevalent convictions and attitudes, slavery was that most un-American item, an inherently intractable and insoluble problem. As Jefferson so famously put it, the Founders held “the wolfe by the ears” and could neither subdue him nor afford to let him go. Virtually all the Founding Fathers went to their graves realizing that slavery, no matter how intractable, would become the largest and most permanent stain on their legacy. And when Abraham Lincoln eventually made the decision that, at terrible cost, ended slavery forever, he did so in the name of the Founders. ( See also Sidebar: The Founding Fathers and Slavery .)

The other tragic failure of the Founders, almost as odious as the failure to end slavery, was the inability to implement a just policy toward the indigenous inhabitants of the North American continent. In 1783, the year the British surrendered control of the eastern third of North America in the Peace of Paris , there were approximately 100,000 American Indians living between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi. The first census (1790) revealed that there were also 100,000 white settlers living west of the Alleghenies, swelling in size every year (by 1800 they would number 500,000) and moving relentlessly westward. The inevitable collision between these two peoples posed the strategic and ultimately moral question: How could the legitimate rights of the Indian population be reconciled with the demographic tidal wave building to the east?

In the end, they could not. Although the official policy of Indian removal east of the Mississippi was not formally announced and implemented until 1830, the seeds of that policy—what one historian has called “the seeds of extinction”—were planted during the founding era, most especially during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1801–09).

One genuine effort to avoid that outcome was made in 1790 during the presidency of George Washington . The Treaty of New York with the Creek tribes of the early southwest proposed a new model for American policy toward the Indians, declaring that they should be regarded not as a conquered people with no legal rights but rather as a collection of sovereign nations. Indian policy was therefore a branch of foreign policy, and all treaties were solemn commitments by the federal government not subject to challenge by any state or private corporation. Washington envisioned a series of American Indian enclaves or homelands east of the Mississippi whose borders would be guaranteed under federal law, protected by federal troops, and bypassed by the flood of white settlers. But, as it soon became clear, the federal government lacked the resources in money and manpower to make Washington’s vision a reality. And the very act of claiming executive power to create an Indian protectorate prompted charges of monarchy, the most potent political epithet of the age. Washington, who was accustomed to getting his way, observed caustically that nothing short of “a Chinese Wall” could protect the Native American tribes from the relentless expansion of white settlements. Given the surging size of the white population, it is difficult to imagine how the story could have turned out differently.


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1  seeder  JohnRussell    7 months ago

The topic is the seeded article and its relation to the Betsy Ross flag controversy. 

All other comments will be deleted. 

2  Texan1211    7 months ago

The only real "controversy" over a more-than-200-year-old flag is that a few folks are disgruntled about it and have decided it is something that magically NOW offends them in some way. Of course, a few years ago, they thought nothing of that particular flag.

3  Nerm_L    7 months ago

The Betsy Ross flag controversy has been driven by opportunists attempting to obtain public notoriety through a fabricated controversy that has required a highly selective reading of history to feed the controversy.  The selected history may be factual but is not being presented completely or honestly.

The founders of the United States were all British subjects.  And not all colonial British subjects wanted independence from Great Britain.  The American Revolution was as much a civil war within the colonies as it was a war of independence against Great Britain.  The founders of the United States had to grapple with entrenched British loyalists who desired the failure of the American experiment and a return to British rule.  Independence was not accepted unanimously.

The first six Presidents of the United States were concerned with the politics of establishing the government of the United States.  The politics of the time were dominated by the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party; the primary political contention was over the issue of states rights and national sovereignty.  The United States fought a second war with Great Britain during the period of the founding of the United States.

Government protection of the institution of slavery became entrenched with the election of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President.  Jackson was affiliated with the newly established Democratic Party; the same Democratic Party we have today.  Andrew Jackson was owner of a large plantation in Tennessee with as many as 150 slaves and, perhaps, as many as 300. Andrew Jackson was also responsible for an aggressive policy of Indian removal.  Jackson's involvement in the Creek War and appropriation of Creek lands in Georgia and Alabama during 1813-1815 helped pave the way for Jackson's political career.

The founders of the United States did struggle with the political issues of slavery and relations with American Indians.  However, it was the emergence of the Democratic Party that ended the political struggles over those issues and firmly cemented slavery and Indian removal in government policy.  All Democratic Presidents after Jackson supported and protected the institution of slavery and aggressively continued the policy of Indian removal.

Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and, finally, Andrew Johnson were the Democratic Presidents elected as President before the Civil War (Andrew Johnson was elected Vice President and acceded to the Presidency following Lincoln's assassination.)  All these Democratic Presidents either owned slaves or supported and protected the institution of slavery.

The story of the Democratic Party is the story of slavery and Indian removal.  The founders may have struggled with these issues but the Democratic Party endorsed, embraced, and protected slavery and displacement of Indians from its inception.  The Democratic Party was established as the party of slavery.

Fabricating a controversy using the Betsy Ross flag to denigrate the founding of the United States is consistent with the Democratic political demagoguery of Andrew Jackson.  The first Democrats won using controversy over opponent's character and an emotional populist appeal.  But look what the country got by electing the first Democratic President.  

So, it wasn't the founding fathers who are responsible for the dark stain of slavery and Indian removal.  The true culprit has been the Democratic Party.  Today's Democratic Party is attempting to return to the dark legacy of its beginning.

3.1  Nerm_L  replied to  Nerm_L @3    7 months ago

Martin Van Buren was the first natural born US citizen to become President.  Martin Van Buren was a founder of the Democratic Party that we have today.  Van Buren was the second Democratic politician elected to the Presidency, as the 8th President of the United States.  Van Buren was also a slave owner.

President Martin Van Buren's comments concerning slavery in 1837 represented the Democratic Party's political stance on the issue.

"The last, perhaps the greatest, of the prominent sources of discord and disaster supposed to lurk in our political condition was the institution of domestic slavery. Our  forefathers were deeply impressed with the delicacy of this subject, and they treated it with a  forbearance so evidently wise that in spite of every  sinister  foreboding it never until the present period disturbed the tranquility of our common country. Such a  result is sufficient evidence of the justice and the patriotism of their course; it is evidence not to be  mistaken that an adherence to it can prevent all embarrassment from this as well as from every other anticipated cause of difficulty or danger. Have not recent events made it obvious to the slightest reflection that the least deviation from this spirit of forbearance is injurious to every interest, that of humanity included?  [Before the election I declared that:] ‘I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and  uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally  decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists.’"

During his tenure, President Van Buren ordered the return of the La Amistad slaves to their Spanish owners following the uprising and taking of the slave ship.  Fortunately, the courts intervened and overturned Van Buren's order.

3.1.1  seeder  JohnRussell  replied to  Nerm_L @3.1    7 months ago

Your comments have nothing to do with anything. 

The protest against the Betsy Ross flag are related to the founding fathers. Martin Van Buren is not a founding father and neither is Andrew Jackson and everyone else you refer to. 

3.1.2  Nerm_L  replied to  JohnRussell @3.1.1    7 months ago
Your comments have nothing to do with anything. 

Ah, but my comments have everything to do with the history of the founding of United States.  The first political leaders, the founders, of the United States struggled with how to end slavery in a peaceful manner and were adopting progressive policies toward that end.

The founders may not have foreseen the invention of the cotton gin but they also failed to foresee how a pro-slavery Democratic Party would dominate American politics.

The protest against the Betsy Ross flag are related to the founding fathers. Martin Van Buren is not a founding father and neither is Andrew Jackson and everyone else you refer to. 

That is correct, Martin Van Buren was not a founding father.  However, Martin Van Buren played an oversize role in thwarting the founder's progressive efforts to end slavery.  

If absolute abolition is the requirement then celebrate the establishment of the progressive Republican Party.  The Republican Party accomplished what the founding fathers could not.  Republicans ended slavery using the most violent methods as, apparently, the current controversy desired.

4  Tacos!    7 months ago

I won't give everyone a lecture on the history of social justice warriors, virtue signaling, and being "woke." I think by now everyone understands these tactics that come from the fringe of the Democratic Party. That's all this Betsy Ross stuff is: more posturing for effect. 

It's a shame, too, because while the traditional story of Betsy Ross is somewhat sketchy, she is still one of the first women we learn about who was considered an important participant in the struggle to make the United States free and independent from England. It's an easy thing to get to in the most basic study of the period. You see the distinctive flag and can't help but talk about the story behind it.

It would be easy to read about the "Founding Fathers," read the signatures on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and think that women had no part in any of this. Generations, though, have learned about Betsy Ross, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Mercy Warren, Dolly Madison and others, and understood that women played prominent roles. To their credit, schools have been teaching about - even glamorizing - these women for many years, and it didn't even take progressive legislation to make it happen.

The good news is we see some people in the party pushing back on this nonsense.


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