Founded by Slaveholders!
There is a popular admonition floating around about our nation’s founding. It is intended to cause deep soul searching or inflict discomfort and shame in the American listener.
A reasonable listener could be excused, with reasonable provenance, for reaching a different conclusion about the admonition and the purveyors of it.
I would take this shallow scold less seriously if it were restricted to Facebook trolls wanting to make noise and FEEL intelligent. Sadly, it has been popular on college campuses and in otherwise respected books and publications.
In order to “shout down” a person who may seem to some as too nationalistic or patriotic, it is popular among liberals and those who think we should be more like Europe, for example, to remind us that “all but one” of the founding fathers were slave owners. A quick poison pill qualification often follows in the form of, “…and I don’t want to hear about the morals of the time. That has nothing to do with it!”
Firstly, the pronouncement is inaccurate and shows how we have come to venerate the centralization of power that the Revolution fought against. The qualification ignores the progress already being made at that time against slavery. The qualification also rings of “…don’t try to confuse me with facts. I’ve already made up my mind!”
Well, with all due respect to those who reject any thinking on the part of the listener, I will point out the following:
The Founding Fathers, we are more and more often told, consisted of seven people. Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Jay (I am surprised he survives this modern myth), Hamilton and Madison.
As a young adult, and an avid reader of history, I discovered this elementary school list was far from complete. We remember their names because, unlike many of the others who risked death and ruin, they stayed around after the founding to take the reins of the very power they had created by expelling the Crown. We remember their names because it is a short list and it is easy to teach children about them.
One of the sillier results of this simple-minded notion of our founding is the beatification of the U.S. Government. Most people at that time knew this was not what people fought and died for from 1775-1781. Local governance remained as the proper locus of power. But the Civil War and popular myths surrounding these seven “fathers” fostered the concept of “The United States” vs “These United States.” It cemented, sadly, the idea that real government exists only in DC. State and local governments are just the junior league. There really is an amazing number of people who think our system of government was set up so that the federal government could do as much as possible, and the state governments should bat cleanup and fight for federal dollars.
Who will deny that the average American sees an election as a populist federal exercise? I would contend that less than 10% of all Americans know who is on a state or local ballot until they enter the voting booth.
Enough on the peripheral effect. Let’s deal with who “founded our nation” and the revisionist moralizing aimed at these founders.
There were more than seven!
I was reading a friend’s FB post the other day. It made the same point that I am arguing against here. He said of the founding fathers, all but one owned slaves. When I called him on it he, for some reason, changed the term to the “founding framers”. An odd change, and further from the truth than the original claim.
Here’s that fact that muddies the waters. There were 56 founding fathers. 56 people pledged their property, lives and honor to US independence. 56 men traveled from all over the east to Philadelphia. 56 debated seriously, often passionately, about our allegiance to the Crown. Not all believed we should break with Britain. But they would, by 2 July 1776, agree to do so. They all took the same risks. 56 families and yes, even the slaves of those who held them, were put at risk as well.
We only know the big seven as near godlike because they would hold positions of power that long exceeded the Revolution and the creation of the US Constitution. It can be argued, and history supports this, that these seven spent those decades vying for that very power.
Of the 56 who actually did the work of creating this nation, 41 (73%) were slaveholders. Not all but one.
As for the “framers” (There is no accepted term “founding framer”. That’s a new one.), 27 (49%) of the representatives from the various states were slaveholders. So from 1776 until 1787 the trend among those who shaped the nation was drifting toward abolition already.
“…I Don’t Want To Hear About The Morals Of The Time!”
Well suck it up, buttercup. You can apply modern thinking to people of other times, but it doesn’t change what has already occurred. You can wish your own motivations into the hearts of those long dead. But criticizing the constitution because some of the framers were slaveholders is like saying Mickey Mantle knew nothing about baseball because he drank too much whiskey. To remove the morals of the time from consideration is to discount your own credibility. And it is a form of pouting.
But take heart. As it turns out, modern ideas about slavery were already taking root in some quarters during these early years. The delegates to the Continental Congress AND the Constitutional Convention who argued against slavery were not expelled from the events. In fact, the anti-slave faction was able to at least get the Three-Fifths Compromise through to blunt the voting power the slave states were claiming. Slave states were insisting slaves counted against their census. It was a small victory, but a victory.
The economics of it all
Another canard criticized along with the “morals” dodge is the economics. I have heard it said that the economics argument for not charging ahead with abolition PROVES the founders were immoral. And again, the claim is at a minimum, naïve. At any rate, it is false.
This was at the heart of the matter for people like Gouvernuer Morris and George Mason. They both expressed, quite eloquently, a fear of eternal damnation (if you go in for that sort of thing) at their holding of slaves. But they like everyone in both bodies, Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, knew that you don’t simply declare the undoing of a massive institution, even one as onerous as slavery, at one go.
Let me give you a modern example.
There are many, I am among them, who see the Social Security system as a corrupt Ponzi scheme. It is also horribly administered and of precious little value overall. It, like Obamacare was a system destined to fail from the very start. Many of you, at or near retirement count on this program to be your lifeline in your old age. It isn’t. You will find yourself in poverty. You have no one but yourselves to blame.
It isn’t all of your own doing. The federal government has repeatedly told you it is intact and that to keep it going in the future will require only minimum adjustments. They have not stated emphatically enough that it will not provide you with the retirement income you will need to live well. They have not admitted that with each month they wait to actually fix it, there is a greater chance that those already dependent on the system will suffer. Your fault lies in having believed any of it.
All the said, you can’t take something as vast as Social Security and simply declare today that it won’t exist tomorrow. You can’t even repair it in that fashion. It takes time. The economic and social impact must be attenuated to absorb the impact. After a long hard slog of un-brainwashing people as to its value, the system must be gradually replaced by a more effective and sustainable free-market program.
Slavery was seen in the same light. Slaveholders like Jefferson and Mason knew two things. Slavery was immoral, and contract or employee work was far less expensive. They also knew that in order for the American economy to survive the end of slavery other slaveholders, at least a strong plurality, would have to see the logic of this. For an individual to simply give up his slaves in a market dominated by slaveholders would leave him at an insurmountable disadvantage. By the time everyone else might have caught on, that business may lay in ruin.
The result would be to reaffirm the need for slaves in the minds of those who were holding out.
If the government simply mandated an abrupt end to slavery across the board the economic and legal chaos would have ended the American experiment before it got started. Yes, in order for there to be an America in which we would one day end slavery, there had to be an early time in which slave state and free state would exist side-by-side.
Now, even though I am writing this paragraph, there will be people shrieking at my comparing slavery to Social Security. There is no comparison, they’ll cry. Morally, the comparison is one of degree. Certainly holding generations of Americans in forced labor, and beating them in some cases, is a far greater offense than taking their money under false pretense. But both concepts are wrong.
And I stand by the economic comparison without apology.
But Why The Silly Admonition To Begin With?
The complaint about the “Founding Fathers” holding slaves is a red herring tossed into many conversations when respect for the Constitution comes up. The fact is, if your original argument for an issue is strong enough, you can change the Constitution to reflect that.
But as I heard on Glenn Beck’s radio show a few weeks back, no one WANTS to wait that long for anything. On that particular day, Beck’s issue was tax reform. And the truth is, to have permanent and effective tax REFORM, you must REFORM tax law. Reducing taxes does very little. The government can jack taxes right back up on a whim.
The reform must take place in the way we collect taxes and how much the government is limited to collect. Beck mentioned changing the Constitution and he and the entire cast all agreed that we shouldn’t have to wait that long to get something done.
Beck is not alone. We have several generations in this country that think every notion and difficulty they have should be acted on and solved by the government NOW! And if you tell them to form an argument and see if it will pass muster and then change the constitution…
…That’s when it comes out. Having no argument or lacking the skill to make one, they simply say they shouldn’t have to follow the Constitution because it was written a long time ago by white men, or rich men, or old men, or slaveholders, or NOT WOMEN,…
The invalid arguments are endless. And they have been in play in our government since FDR. That is why we have lost so many rights and so much of our personal wealth over the last 70 years.
Through our ignorance about our Constitution the government has not only been able to whittle away what you need to succeed and protect yourself, but YOU have fallen prey to moronic arguments about the foibles and sins of the “founding fathers”, as if they invalidate our governing documents.
This, and the “poison pill” I referred to earlier, are called a fallacious argument. Look it up and learn something.
When I started to post regularly in 2012 I lamented the lack of political and social maturity in the United States. I now despair that thanks to the echo chambers of social media, things have gotten much worse.
I’d love to be proven wrong about that.
Matt Jordan is the author of Street Politics: It Ain’t Your Daddy’s GOP Anymore! Grab your copy here.
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