Some perspective on our flawed Founding Fathers
Michelle Bachman, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, recently caused a stir when she said publicly that the Founding Fathers had worked tirelessly to end slavery.
We often hear about our Founding Fathers in a way that implies purity and virtue, inviting the vision of an angelic choir for background music. But we don’t often hear about the messy process, the infighting, factions, jealousies, suspicions, one group plotting against the other, or compromised principles like setting aside objections to slavery.
Far too seldom do we look past the romanticized version to recognize the reality of that period, an important part of appreciating the system our Founding Fathers left to us, warts and all.
For example, civil rights activists decry the Constitution’s original treatment of slaves as 3/5 of a person. The system of slavery was America’s shame, to be sure, but we should at least get the history right.
When the colonies met in the Continental Congress and eventually discussed independence, slavery was the elephant in the room. The issue was so divisive between northern and southern states, it ultimately had to be set aside and even ignored if the colonies were to do anything at all together.
Thus began the public pretense that slavery did not exist, a subject to be discussed behind closed doors, whispered about in dark corners instead of open, public arguments. And so it was throughout the Revolutionary War and in the early years of our country, even until the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The infamous Constitutional clause (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) counting slaves as three-fifths of a person was a negotiated deal on enumeration to determine how many representatives a state would have, how many votes they would have in Congress.
Northern states obviously didn’t want slaves counted at all, while southern slave states wanted each slave counted. Three-fifths of a person was the compromise, the best deal either side could strike, a good example of the sordid business of making sausage, or deals in Congress.
Meanwhile, northern states struck a bargain with southern states to extend the slave trade for 20 years in exchange for making federal regulation of commerce a mere majority vote in Congress instead of requiring a 2/3 majority. So much for morality.
Decades later, the two closely related issues that had been swept under the rug from the outset, southern states’ rejection of interference into their own affairs and northern states’ objection to slavery, finally brought civil war to America.
Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who now promote themselves by pointing the finger of blame at southern states for dehumanizing blacks with the 3/5 clause, get it wrong but either don’t understand this history or they think their constituents are too dimwitted to uncover the facts.
Sometimes we hear criticism of our founding fathers who were slave-owners. Some of them were. It was the way of the world in which they lived, but they had many other imperfections as well.
The men and women whose work brought about our independence were not one-dimensional people of either virtue or evil; they were a mix of strengths and weaknesses just like you and me. I think it is a good thing to remember that, and how our system is designed to keep the natural weaknesses of our leaders in check.
The founding fathers generally disdained the idea of political parties, since such “factions” were thought to work against the public interest. Maybe they were right, but they didn’t take long after independence to separate themselves into factions, following the course of human nature.
During George Washington’s first term, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, a man of humble beginnings but savvy on economic matters, advocated a strong federal government and monetary system. He built support from bankers and businessmen, eventually forming the Federalist party, from which John Adams became the first president after Washington stepped aside.
Opposing the Federalists was Adams’ formerly dear friend, Thomas Jefferson, who came to hate Hamilton. Jefferson believed the federal government should be strong on foreign policy but largely hands-off and restrained on domestic matters, leaving the states to manage their own affairs.
While Jefferson was a deep thinker and eloquent writer who rarely spoke more than a sentence or two in public, James Madison, Jefferson’s protégé, was a diminutive man but strong public speaker.
Commentator George Will said in a Sunday talk show that Madison, who became the architect of the Constitution, pointed out in Federalist 45 that the enumerated powers of the federal government in the Constitution were “few and defined,” just one example of many of the Founders’ belief the federal government was both necessary and dangerous.
Supporters of Jefferson and Madison formed the Democratic-Republicans, a party that denounced the centralization pushed by Hamilton.
Leaving aside the long list of other names on the front lines of the fray, these players collected in like-minded groups, disagreed, suspected each other, despised each other, plotted against each other, used intrigue and chicanery against each other and ... gee, sounds like today, doesn’t it?
Which leads me to my belief that the system of checks and balances embodied in the Constitution was a result of these factions despising and mistrusting each other, fearing the worst if the other side prevailed in a system that gave them too much power.
It seems to me that even though the Federalist party faded away by around 1815, the creeping power-grabs in Washington, especially in recent years, argues in strong favor of Jefferson’s suspicions. I believe the Founding Fathers would be appalled at the exponential expansion of federal power over a long time, creating unwarranted expense, oppressive regulation and intrusion into our private lives.
If the Founding Fathers could somehow come back for a conversation, their comments would likely have to wait until spring-loaded dummies lectured them on the 3/5 of a person clause, and until they were soundly lectured by nearly everyone on limiting the vote to white male landowners.
Maybe they were on to something by limiting the vote, considering the uneducated and uninformed rabble of the American public back in those days. I wonder how much progress we have made as I observe the pathologically sensitive crowd that howls about rights and scowls about responsibilities, the same people who insist that requiring a photo ID to prove identity at the voting place amounts to suppressing the vote of minorities.
While the rest of you are consumed with making voting easier, I question whether everyone should even be allowed to vote.
I would argue there is much ground to be regained on the Founders’ intent in the Constitution if we made just one change today – limit the vote to those citizens who actually pay taxes. I’ll bet the squabbling and divided Founding Fathers might even be able to come together in agreement on that one.
Was Michelle Bachman wrong about the Founding Fathers working tirelessly to end slavery? Of course she was wrong. She should admit her error and move on.
Were the Founding Fathers paragons of virtue? Hardly. Perhaps the background music to the founding of our country should be recrimination, squabbles, accusations, arguments, mistrust and suspicion instead of angelic hosts.
And maybe that isn’t a bad thing if you agree with me that our system was intended to withstand the frailties of human nature, to protect me from you and you from me.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City writes columns occasionally for The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]