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America’s Founding Fathers: Full of Wisdom? Or Something Else?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
August 29, 2022

Well, here you find yourselves again having to confront a peculiar dilemma—choose to lambast and condemn the Founding Fathers for their continuance of the “peculiar institution” of slavery? Or—would you rather focus on their extraordinary achievements of establishing a fledging nation on the terra firma that it still resides on today? Read on, and then make your decision. Constitution Day is September 17th and there will be numerous conversations about the men who started it all.

The term “Founding Fathers” was popularized by President Warren G. Harding who used it in many of his speeches. Who were these men? Although historians may differ, my Founding Father (FF) list includes these great men: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. One could always add to that the following FFs who played slightly smaller roles: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Marshall, George Mason. Regardless, Mr. Washington is generally considered the most dominant and significant FF of the group.

I realize that some people today are ready to condemn these FF because of their dichotomy concerning slavery. Half of these white, land-owning gentlemen were slave owners, while all of them benefited from the practice and products of slavery. They were Christian-professing religious people who inserted the terms, “God” and “Creator” in our founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It would seem a great opportunity that befell them to end slavery with the brilliant documents they created. How does that square with their ownership of other human beings? While it doesn’t square at all, if we were to cancel all the FFs because of their human sins, we would have to enlarge the scope of cancellation to cover every leader since then who has committed some transgression that our current culture disapproves of.

History reveals that the FF greatly debated the issue of slavery but decided against it for the following reasons. John Jay offered that although the practice was reprehensible and horrible, it was so ingrained in the colonies that to eliminate it with a stroke of the pen would cause chaos and economic strife—many depended on slavery for their livelihoods. They feared that such elimination could also engender a large uprising, this in a time when they were already feeling the effects of a very taxing war. They also feared slave uprisings and retaliations. Thomas Jefferson compared this no-win situation to holding a wolf by its ears: “We can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” The FF also wanted to ensure unity—slavery proponents in Georgia and South Carolina would have split off if the slaves were freed. Finally, the FF counted on passing subsequent legislation that would contain the spread of slavery that would eventually eliminate it altogether.

Is it therefore, possible to consider the good things that they did while simultaneously considering the bad? My answer is yes.

The Bad.

  • About half of the FFs were slave owners.
  • The FF group was only white, land-owning men—no women allowed and no other races.
  • They failed to end slavery with their governmental establishment documents.
  • They failed to make a livable agreement with the Native Americans.

The Good.

  • They published the Declaration of Independence.
  • They published the Constitution—the oldest written Constitution in use today throughout the world. The United States is by far the oldest Constitutional Republic; it has stood the test of time.

The FFs were unique in that they were able to consider the tenets of Enlightenment theory such as God-given rights and ruling by the consent of the governed and meticulously craft a document that sported all these new ways of thinking at that time. They went “all in”, pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. These were some very smart young men. It was not smooth sailing for the FF group, as they differed greatly and engaged in vehement arguments about slavery, the size and power of the central government and the scope of the American Revolution.

We might do better to acknowledge that, in the case of FFs, that they were human, and like us, falling short of perfection. But they did achieve an historically wonderful thing—the inception of a way of government that is so durable that it stands today as an exemplar of how we should organize ourselves in society.

Conclusion.

It would be wise to consider the FFs not as demi-gods or some mythically enlightened creatures of the late 18th century, incapable of slightest sin or transgression. Rather, we should look upon them for what they were: hard-working, educated men of the world who were bound and determined to create something special—a government that would last. They knew that successive generations would encounter all kinds of challenges and problems with the governmental organization and process they created. They knew that Americans who would come after them would be required to solve the failures they allowed to continue. Asked at the end of the Constitutional convention what kind of government we would have, Benjamin Franklin responded, “A Republic—if you can keep it!”


Author: Dr. Robert Brescia respects the wisdom of generations, promotes the love of learning, teaches ethics to university students, government & politics to AP seniors, and leadership to organizations. He is a candidate for National Board for Certification of Teachers (NBCT) at Stanford University. The Governor of Texas appointed him to the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Robert_Brescia.

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