People tell us that the Founding Fathers of the United States were horrible, terrible men. And because they were horrible, terrible men we should dismiss everything they said and everything they did because it was all “tainted” with their being horrible, terrible men.
Were they such horrible, terrible men? Well, by modern standards to a large extent, they were. Many of them were slave owners, and if there was a black mark on the history of the United States, slave owning was it. Some of them were culpable in driving natives from their lands and in the near extermination if not outright extermination of some native peoples. Most of the rest were virulently racist and sexist by modern standards.
Of course, they did not live by modern standards. They did not have the advantage of further centuries of development in philosophical thought. They were near the beginning when people were just starting to grope their way into the idea of equal rights that “all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and that the role of government was to secure and protect those rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
They were making fumbling first steps toward that end and having to deal with a great many folk who did not so believe. And the realities of their situation often provided serious impediments even to those who had managed to crawl a bit further along that road. Patrick Henry could be personally opposed to slavery but also concerned (thanks to his having seen some vicious slave revolts) that wholesale freeing of the slaves would lead to violent reprisals against the white population. Sure, it’s easy from our side of history to say “they would have deserved it for being such horrible people as to every condone slavery”. Well, maybe, but it’s a lot easier to say that when it’s not you and your friends, family, and loved ones that are on the line in a situation that was created before you were even born.
One could argue, with some justice, that even within the constraints that they faced they should have been more aggressive in stamping out slavery, in stamping out racism, in stamping out every other kind of “ism.” And perhaps they should have. But they were flawed, mortal men. And perhaps, deep down, they didn’t want to end those things, whatever their pretty words. Perhaps they really did see themselves as a new aristocracy, a cut above the “common people” and so naturally saw that certain groups were also superior to others. Perhaps “all men are created equal” was nothing more than a phrase to drum up popular support.
And perhaps not. In the end, we cannot know what was in their minds, what was in their hearts. Their surviving letters and their other writings can give us a hint but a hint is all it is. It can be hard to tell when they were lying to others, and nearly impossible to tell when they were lying to themselves.
I, however, am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt not because of what they said and wrote, but because of what they accomplished. And what they accomplished was no less than the greatest birth of Liberty that the world has ever known.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” may have been simple wartime propaganda, but they then backed that concept into the Constitution when they formed their new government. Popular vote for legislators. A House of proportional representation of the people given key powers such as the absolute power of the purse–all bills for raising revenue must start there. They included language to undercut the power of the large, slaveholding states with the Senate, giving each State, big or small, equal power and voice; the Electoral College, ensuring those seeking the Presidency must appeal to a broad spectrum of Americans and not just a few high-population areas; and the oft-maligned 3/5 compromise, which reduced the representation of the big slave-owning states in the House, and thereby their power and influence over the Federal government.
Compromises they needed to get the agreement of those who were not fully on board with “all men are created equal” but the stage was set, a starting point, a seed, if you will from which the concept of equal rights and equal protection under the law could grow.
So these flawed men, for all their flaws, accomplished something amazing, something wonderous, something incredible. Their flaws don’t take away from that. If anything, they make it more remarkable. Even with all those flaws, they were able to accomplish so much of good.
But there are those who want to tear that down, pointing not to the marvelous achievement but to the flaws alone, claiming that the whole structure is tainted because of their flaws. This is like tearing down a sturdy, snug house because the contractor cheated on his wife.
I choose instead to marvel at their creation and hope that something, anything I ever do can be even a tiny fraction of that legacy.