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The Oversimplification of the American Founding

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“Devotion to reading non-politicized history and putting it into context is necessary and something to which we should diligently commit.”

With vast amounts of historical documentation, one would think that when it comes to the Founding of the United States of America and the Founders themselves, there would be considerable shared beliefs. Yet this is not the case. Sometimes conversations or teachings about the Founders result in controversy—but why? A large reason for this concerns the great nuance and complexity surrounding America’s Founding Fathers, which is not conducive to soundbites, social media posts, or political quips. Therefore, answers to questions such as who was responsible for the Revolution, what was the reason for the colonists’ revolt, or what were the Founders’ beliefs about slavery tend to get oversimplified.

Examples of common quips are that a small group of men were responsible for the Revolution or that they started a war so they would not have to pay taxes. Questions about why we celebrate slaveholders arise, and the assertion that slavery was baked into the Constitution becomes a common thought. The New York Times’ 1619 Project asserts that The Revolutionary War began because the colonists wanted to protect the institution of slavery. At best, these arguments lack nuance and context; at worst, they are misleading and wrong.

To understand what the colonists and Founders believed, why they fought for independence, and how they approached the issue of slavery in the Constitution, we must first understand their ideology. Harvard historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Bailyn wrote what many consider the authority on the beliefs of the colonists and the Founders in his 1992 book titled The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, to which I will be alluding.

The American Revolution did not start with the war or with the Founders. The Revolution started with the colonists themselves and their exposure to new Enlightenment ideas from thinkers like John Locke. These new ideas began to take hold in the colonies around 1760, 15 years before the Revolution, and were communicated through letters, sermons, records, newspapers, pamphlets, and handbills that colonists, whose names almost no American would recognize, wrote, printed, and distributed. Bailyn quotes former President John Adams:

“But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations…This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”

The Founders were not the initiators or the only organizers behind the Revolution; they were the mouthpieces of it. The Revolution started with the people in the American colonies.

What were these ideas that revolutionized the minds of the colonists? In his book America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It, C. Bradley Thompson proposes that the Revolution stood on four principles: equality, rights, consent, and revolution. To the modern American mind, these ideas are old, but to the colonists these ideas were new and revolutionary. Historically, one’s bloodline and wealth determined his standing in society; there was no such thing as “rights.” To suggest that a commoner and the king were equal would have seemed absurd, as would the idea that every individual is sovereign over himself and possessed rights simply because he existed. Only the crown was sovereign.

In real time, the colonists recognized what the practice of these ideas of equality, rights, consent, and revolution would mean. Declaring independence in a written document, which stated that the colonists had rights and the right to equality and consent, would mean the loss of all wealth and even death. Going to war to form a new nation, which for the first time would be built on ideas and principles and not just laws, would also mean almost certain death. Furthermore, winning a war against Great Britain was highly improbable. Yet many of the colonists considered this task to be given by God, and so they took it seriously as illustrated by President Adams when he wrote, “America was designed by Providence for the theatre on which man was to make his true figure, on which science, virtue, liberty, happiness, and glory were to exist in peace.” The colonists would be sacrificing everything for these principles that they had so deeply come to value over the last 15 years.

The act of declaring independence was about much more than paying taxes or any other overly simplistic reason given in a political soundbite. At this time in England, there were three social orders: royalty, nobility, and the commons. The exploitation of the commons (the community) in the colonies by the nobility and the royalty led the colonists to consider England’s government as becoming more and more corrupt. The crown was spending money to influence elections which, according to some, would lead to the destruction of the English Constitution, which led many to make the literal equivalency to the fall of Rome.

Other issues that contributed to the corruption included the colonial judiciary being denied the tenure that judges in England were entitled to by law. England denied the election of a colonist sympathizer to Parliament. England was keeping a standing army in the colonies, which was against the law in times of peace. The colonists were scared that the standing army would be used for tyranny and to control the colonists. Why else have a standing army in the colonies in a time of peace? Their concerns were not unfounded as many colonists cited the examples of standing armies being used against the people in Venice, Sweden, France, Russia, Poland, Spain, India, Turkey, and Denmark. The Boston Massacre was proof of this threat.

The Tea Act was more evidence of the creeping tyranny to which the colonists responded by destroying the tea in Boston harbor during the Boston Tea Party. England then responded by imposing some liberty crushing acts as revenge. England passed the Boston Port Act in which colonists could not use the ports for commerce until the damages of the tea party were repaid. The Administration of Justice Act destroyed the judicial process by moving trials to England for offenses committed in the colonies. The Quartering Act legalized the seizure and occupation of private land and homes by English troops. Moreover, all the colonists’ taxes went to England to be spent, and thus the colonists saw no benefit or investment by the crown for issues within the colonies.

Stricter enforcement of the Navigation Acts allowed tax men to enter and search any premise for smuggled goods and resulted in ransacked businesses and homes. The Stamp Act was a tax on commercial documents, almanacs, newspapers, college diplomas, playing cards, and the like. The Declaratory Act allowed Parliament to legislate for the colonies, and this violated ideas in the colonies of representation and consent. These acts, along with the Townshend Acts, devastated local economies and provided further evidence of creeping tyranny which, according to the colonists, could result in situations like in the above-mentioned countries.

With liberties eroding, these acts are just some of the examples to explain why the colonists considered the English government corrupt and tyrannical. The idea that the revolution was fought because colonists did not want to pay taxes is a contextually flawed conclusion to hold, and the premise that the Revolution was fought over slavery is flatly wrong.

The acts imposed by Great Britain were contrary to the new Enlightenment ideas promoted by Locke which the colonists valued. Many in the colonies believed that the relationship between the people and the government should not be adversarial but rather that the government should represent the common will of the people equally, even the commoners. British government was largely based on wealth and birth. God gave kings authority, and authority was handed down from the monarchy. The colonists came to believe that authority should be based on merit and character, that it should be questioned before it is obeyed, and that sovereignty extended to every individual in one’s pursuit of happiness. These ideas are based on the principles of equality, rights, and consent which were principles on which no other country was built.

Slavery was not a pressing issue in the call for revolution, but as the revolutionary mind progressed (and because of the revolutionary principles at play), slavery became an issue especially after the Revolution in the debates over the Constitution. Keep in mind that before the ideas and principles in the colonies took hold in 1760, slavery was a global norm; it was seen as natural and was the state of how the world worked. When debating the Constitution in 1787, the colonies had only been wrestling with the principles of equality, that all men were created equal, for around 27 years. In the span of human history, that is not even a dot in time. Yet, as we will see, the progress made in 27 years was substantial compared to most of the rest of the world.

Some Founders fell on the side of anti-slavery such as President Adams, and some Founders kept slaves at one point, before reforming their slaveholding ways. Others knew that the idea of equality for all was morally and philosophically correct yet struggled to practice this in reality like Presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. All the while, another group only accepted the idea of “all men as equal” to apply to free men but not slaves. Founders such as Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton are tougher to pin down and had complicated views on the issue of slavery. The Founders were not monolith in their beliefs about slavery. Many of them ended up on the wrong side of history, yet we must resist the urge to use 21st century morals to judge others from the past. We must instead demarcate the path of moral progress so as to judge others using the context of the time.

The primary goal of the Founders was to create a united union of states subject to a constitution. However the Southern States would not agree to join the Union bound by a constitution if slavery were federally outlawed, as Sean Wilentz points out in his book No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding. When quoting Charles Pinckney at the convention, Wilentz writes, “it [slavery] is justified by the example of the whole world.” Therefore, slavery became a creation of state law—not federal law. Consequently, within a decade, five states—including Vermont—abolished slavery or began the process of abolition. Wilentz points out that this was the first instance in Christendom of an authorized abolition of slavery.

Despite this, the Southern States wanted a provision in the Constitution upholding slavery, which was rejected overwhelmingly by the other states. In response, the lower slave states argued emphatically for a fugitive slave clause by which any fugitive slave from any slave state must be returned if caught, even in free states. To the slave states, establishing such a clause would give slavery legality under the Constitution. By writing such a clause in the Constitution, people have asserted what the slave states wanted: that slavery was sanctioned by the Constitution or that “slavery is in the Constitution.”

However, the devil is in the details. The proposed language by the lower slave states to define a slave was a “person legally held to service or labor.” The term “legally” was eventually stricken from the language, which therefore implied—according to the anti-slavery Founders—that there was no justice in slavery, making it impossible to assert that the Constitution legally sanctioned slavery. In addition, the word “person” was used instead of “slave” or “property,” which allowed the court to verify that the Constitution considers slaves persons, not property. This language was a tripwire against legal slavery giving the Constitution authority federally to abolish slavery through the courts later on, while still persuading the slave states to unite under the Constitution. The slave states appeared to get what they wanted but the antislavery Founders thought they had paved a direct path for abolition and validated no property in man. Wilentz cites Dwight Weld who summed up the Framers’ arguments at the convention:

“The constitution of the United States does not recognize slaves as ‘PROPERTY’ any where, and it does not recognize them in any sense in the District of Columbia. All allusions to them in the constitution recognize them as ‘persons.’ Every reference to them points solely to the element of personability; and thus, by the strongest implication, declares that the constitution knows them only as ‘persons’ and will not recognize them in any other light. If they escape into free States, the constitution authorizes their being taken back. But how? Not as the property of an ‘owner’ but as ‘persons;’ and the peculiarity of the expression is marked recognition of their personality—a refusal to recognize them as chattels—’persons held to service.’ Are oxen ‘held to service?’ ”

The anti-slavery Founders considered the fugitive slave clause benign. Later, the Fugitive Slave Act was created but the same language was used that was used in the fugitive slave clause, and thus it was seen just as legally inconsequential. Nowhere in the Constitution or the Fugitive Slave Act do the words “slave” or “slavery” appear. This was intentional so as not to federally sanction slavery in the Constitution.

Some say the 3/5ths clause in the Constitution, which counts each slave as 3/5ths of a person, is proof that slavery was “baked” into our founding. Again, the devil is in the details. Slave states wanted each slave to count as one person, so their representation in the House could be stronger, giving them more power. The anti-slavery Founders were in a delicate position. They did not want the slave states having more power, but they wanted all language in the Constitution to refer to slaves as “persons.” The agreement was that the slaves would count as 3/5ths of a person, which would limit the power of slave states and still refer to slaves as persons and also kept the slave states at the table to consent to be governed by a constitution as a United States. In many Founders’ personal journals and letters, there was the thought that with all the groundwork being laid through the language of the Constitution, slavery would be abolished within their lifetimes. Through their point of view, slavery was left out of the Constitution—not baked in—to be decided in the courts later, after the Union was formed.

Wilentz quotes Frederick Douglass, who goes so far as to say, “Now take the constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it…On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostel to the existence of slavery.”

The Founders’ ideology, beliefs about slavery, and their reasons for revolution are highly nuanced and require context, which is why simplistic notions about these issues are common. Devotion to reading non-politicized history and putting it into context is necessary and something to which we should diligently commit.

Adam Smeester is a writer and high school literature teacher.

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