Americans love to talk about our Founding Fathers, with many of us believing they were infallible geniuses. We can tell this isn’t true just by reading this letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776:
The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.
Whoops! Adams thought this because the Second Continental Congress had passed the Lee Resolution on July 2, the day before. The Lee Resolution was actually the first declaration of independence, proclaiming that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.” But July 4 became the date we celebrate because Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence had more zing.
The Founding Fathers were mindlessly venerated for hundreds of years, until Americans who weren’t rich white men gained some input on this subject. They remain mindlessly venerated on the U.S. right, which loves them in the same way the U.S. right loves Jesus: i.e., without bothering to pay attention to what they actually said. This doesn’t mean the Founding Fathers were like Jesus, and indeed, many of them were standard-issue grotesques. But some of them did make startlingly progressive and even radical statements that later became inconvenient and hence have largely dropped out of history.
It’s true that words are cheap, and these edicts generally were at odds with the actions of their speakers, especially when any of them held formal power. Still, it’s worth remembering what they said, because 1) it illustrates how complicated humans and history are, and 2) it’s fruitful to pull these things out during political arguments.
The founders were wordy guys, and their writing contains lots of what we today would call “bad spelling.” The following quotes also just scratch the surface of their radical statements. If I’ve left any of your favorites out, please let me know, and maybe I can write a sequel next July 4.
Wealth and Property
In 1783, Benjamin Franklin, who was then the U.S. minister to France, described his perspective on property. This would today place him far to the left of the Democratic Party and would probably cause prominent Republicans to call for his execution:
… the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents & all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity & the Uses of it. All the Property that is necessary to a Man for the Conservation of the Individual & the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who by their Laws have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms … can have no right to the Benefits of Society who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.
Earlier in his life, Franklin made the case for universal health care, paid for with public money, based on the precepts of Christianity:
The great Author of our Faith, whose Life should be the constant Object of our Imitation, as far as it is not inimitable, always shew’d the greatest Compassion and Regard for the Sick …
This Branch of Charity seems essential to the true Spirit of Christianity; and should be extended to all in general, whether Deserving or Undeserving, as far as our Power reaches. … the great Physician in sending forth his Disciples, always gave them a particular Charge, that into whatsoever City they entered, they should heal All the Sick, without Distinction. …
We are in this World mutual Hosts to each other … how careful should we be not to harden our Hearts against the Distresses of our Fellow Creatures, lest He who owns and governs all, should punish our Inhumanity.
In 1776, Adams endorsed the concept of false consciousness, i.e., that lower economic classes adopt the perspective of those at the top. Friedrich Engels later made that same argument, and it’s now considered a Marxist idea, but as the words of Adams show, it’s as American as you can get:
Such is the Frailty of the human Heart, that very few Men, who have no Property, have any Judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by Some Man of Property, who has attached their Minds to his Interest.
At the same time, Adams also proposed a solution — the redistribution of property:
[P]ower always follows property. This I believe to be as infallible a maxim in politics, as that action and reaction are equal is in mechanics. Nay, I believe we may advance one step farther, and affirm that the balance of power in a society accompanies the balance of property in land. The only possible way, then, of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtue is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society; to make a division of the land into small quantities, so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates. If the multitude is possessed of the balance of real estate, the multitude will have the balance of power, and in that case the multitude will take care of the liberty, virtue, and interest of the multitude in all acts of government.
Gouverneur Morris, a less-famous founder, wrote the preamble to the Constitution, was one of its signatories, and later became a senator from New York. At the Constitutional Convention, he said this about the danger the U.S. would face from the wealthy:
The Executive Magistrate should be the guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, [against] Legislative tyranny, against the Great & the wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily compose the Legislative body. Wealth tends to corrupt the mind & to nourish its love of power, and to stimulate it to oppression. History proves this to be the spirit of the opulent.
America’s children would definitely be more interested in history if they knew this, and also that Morris died when he experienced a urinary blockage and stuck a whalebone up his penis.
Of the first 12 presidents of the U.S., 10 enslaved other human beings. (The exceptions were Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams.) In private, they occasionally decried the practice. Near the end of George Washington’s life, he purportedly said that “[t]he unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labor in part I employed, has been [my] only unavoidable subject of regret.”
Most significantly, Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence indicted King George III for the presence of slavery in the colonies:
[H]e has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
It’s bizarre that Jefferson, who himself owned 600 people over the course of his life, blamed someone else for the existence of slavery. Morally and intellectually, power does not bring out the best in people, as Jefferson himself expressed in one of the greatest veiled self-indictments in history. But the strength of his condemnation demonstrates that everyone understood at the time that what they were doing was pure evil.
Decades later, Jefferson recalled that this passage had been “struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” I.e., the South employed slavery to a far greater degree than the North, but the North profited enormously from the slave trade.
The Power and Promise of Education
At the time of the American Revolution, elites across the world believed that they were inherently intellectually superior to the lower classes and had to be in charge for the good of everybody. But some Founding Fathers adopted the then-radical position that all people could learn how the world works and participate in their own governance. In 1822, James Madison, who’d been president until 1817, wrote this letter to William T. Barry, then the lieutenant governor of Kentucky:
The liberal appropriations made by the Legislature of Kentucky for a general system of Education cannot be too much applauded. A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. …
Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.
I wish I could force you to read the whole thing because it’s an inspiring manifesto about the liberatory power of education, as well as uncannily relevant given the current loathing of education and universities on the right. On the other hand, both Madison and Barry enslaved other human beings, so I don’t know what to tell you.
A year later, in 1823, Jefferson wrote a letter to Adams. I find Jefferson’s faith in the upside of new information technology to be touching, especially here in the early days of the internet. I’m not sure he was right, but I’d like to believe he was:
The light which has been shed on mankind by the art of printing has eminently changed the condition of the world. as yet that light has dawned on the midling classes only of the men of Europe. The kings and the rabble of equal ignorance, have not yet recieved it’s rays; but it continues to spread. And, while printing is preserved, it can no more recede than the sun return on his course. … all will attain representative government … to attain all this however rivers of blood must yet flow, & years of desolation pass over, yet the object is worth rivers of blood, and years of desolation. For what inheritance, so valuable, can man leave to his posterity?… You and I shall look down from another world on these glorious atchievements to man, which will add to the joys even of heaven.
The Electoral College
Today it’s somehow become conventional wisdom on the right that the electoral college was put into the Constitution to give rural states a greater weight in presidential elections. But at the Constitutional Convention, Madison explained why the electoral college was an unfortunate necessity. It would be best for the president to be elected by popular vote, he said, but the South would never allow it, both because they allowed fewer white people to vote and because they had enslaved so much of their population:
The people at large was in his opinion the fittest [choice to elect the president] in itself. It would be as likely as any that could be devised to produce an Executive Magistrate of distinguished Character. … There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.
Smallpox was once a terrifying scourge across the world, with a death rate among those infected of 30 percent. By 1720, the practice of inoculation, a predecessor to vaccination, had been introduced in the British colonies. However, one of Franklin’s sons died of smallpox in 1736. Soon afterward, Franklin wrote in the Pennsylvania Gazette about cruel rumors that his child had died not because he wasn’t inoculated against smallpox, but from the inoculation itself:
Understanding ’tis a current Report, that my Son Francis, who died lately of the Small Pox, had it by Inoculation; and being desired to satisfy the Publick in that Particular; inasmuch as some People are, by that Report (join’d with others of the like kind, and perhaps equally groundless) deter’d from having that Operation perform’d on their Children, I do hereby sincerely declare, that he was not inoculated, but receiv’d the Distemper in the common Way of Infection: And I suppose the Report could only arise from its being my known Opinion, that Inoculation was a safe and beneficial Practice.
At the end of his life, Franklin was still desperate to tell parents in his autobiography that they should use human knowledge to prevent disease.
In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret, that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the stake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it.
In America’s early days, as now, there were many people at the top of society who simply didn’t believe that regular human beings could govern themselves, and hence they had to be controlled by their betters. Such people nonetheless felt compelled by political necessity — then as now — to deliver constant rhetoric about the wisdom of common folk. In 1824, two years before Jefferson’s death, he wrote to a correspondent about the reality behind these disingenuous homilies:
Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties. 1. those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2dly those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them cherish and consider them as the most honest & safe, altho’ not the most wise depository of the public interests. in every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. call them therefore liberals and serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, whigs and tories, republicans and federalists, aristocrats and democrats or by whatever name you please; they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. the last appellation of artistocrats and democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.
It’s unquestionable that both of the main political parties in the U.S. now are controlled by people who are, in Jefferson’s formulation, aristocrats.
Again, the Founding Fathers did not know everything. In addition to that embarrassing mistake about July 2, Adams supposedly whispered, “Jefferson still lives,” as he died on July 4, 1826. In fact, Jefferson had expired several hours previously.
But you have to admit it’s cool they both died 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence. The founders weren’t saints or heroes, but the fact some of them could think such radical thoughts 250 years ago should teach us not to fear thinking and debating such radical things today.