Tomorrow is Independence Day. Like millions of other Americans, I am thinking of fireworks, beer, and grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. But being what passes for a patriotic American these days, I am also thinking a lot about the Founding Fathers. In this strange age in which we live, there seems to be a paradox when it comes to these legendary men. On the one hand, biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson continue to be bestsellers on the nonfiction lists. Adams was the subject of a brilliant HBO mini-series not that long ago, and Hamilton has emerged as the subject of an astoundingly successful Broadway musical (which surely would have driven Adams insane with jealousy and rage). All of this indicates a popular desire on the part of the people to know more about the men who created our republic two-and-a-half centuries ago.
On the other hand, living as we do in an age of historical revisionism and political correctness, we are constantly swamped with vitriol against the Founding Fathers. We are told that the Founders cannot be seen as representatives of America because all of them were white males. We are told by some that they were nothing but a bunch of greedy, slave-owners who revolted against British rule entirely for their own self-serving purposes. We are told that those who crafted the Constitution did so in such a way as to ensure the dominance of America by people of their own class and rank, and not for the benefit of the country at large.
This is all rank nonsense. The Founding Fathers were heroes. They were perhaps the wisest and greatest gathering of statesman in one place and age that history has ever seen. America should be honored to have been founding by such great men and they deserve to be celebrated, especially on the Fourth of July.
In the last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that to support the cause of independence "we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." This was not idle boastfulness, for every man who signed the document knew that they were committing treason against the British Empire and could expect no mercy if they lost the war. The last time there had been a serious rebellion against British authority, when the Scottish Jacobites had risen up scarcely thirty years before, many of the defeated rebels who had not been massacred by the King's troops on the battlefield had been rounded up and executed. Those lucky enough to escape had been forced into exile, their property confiscated and their lives utterly ruined. There was no reason to think that this would not be the fact of the American rebels if they, like the Jacobites before them, failed to win.
One only has to look at the history of the American Revolution to learn of the sacrifices made by the Founding Fathers in service to their cause. Many joined the army and risked their lives in the fighting, while others sent their sons into the army to fight and possibly die. Many had their homes ransacked or destroyed by the British. Some were taken prisoner by the British and suffered brutal mistreatment at their hands of their captors. Many of the Founding Fathers freely gave of their own money to support the cause and ended the war with their prewar fortunes in tatters.
As a single example, consider Henry Laurens. A wealthy South Carolina rice planter and colonial politician when the war began, he was exactly the sort of man who benefited from the status quo and might have been expected to throw in his lot with the British. Indeed, he insisted on having his sons educated in England rather than America. Yet when the war began, he unhesitatingly joined the cause of American independence. He was elected to the Continental Congress and eventually served as President of that body. He was chosen to be sent as a diplomat to the Netherlands, but was captured by the Royal Navy while crossing the Atlantic. Charged with treason, he was brought to England and cast into the Tower of London, where the terrible conditions destroyed his health. Meanwhile, his estate in South Carolina was burned by the British and his vast prewar fortune was lost. His son, the promising young John Laurens, who had served as an aide-de-camp to Washington and formulated a plan to emancipate slaves, was killed in battle outside of Charleston. Henry Laurens died a few years after the war ended, due in no small part to the conditions he had endured during his captivity.
Does anyone think that Henry Laurens served the cause of American independence merely to further his own, selfish aims? For his story is by no means unique. Many of the men whom we rank as members of the Founding Fathers were ruined by the struggle. Those who assert that the Founders were greedy men exploiting the situation for their own ends are ignorant of history and dishonorably maligning a principled and august group of men.
What of the charges that the Founding Fathers cannot be seen as representative of America, since all of them were white males? Although women and blacks played their part in the war (a surprisingly large proportion of the soldiers in the Continental Army were African-Americans), it's undeniable that no women or people of color can be ranked among the important Founding Fathers. But to be upset by this is to fall victim to the logical fallacy of "presentism", of trying to impose modern standards onto a past era. It can't be done, any more than the very different standards which shall inevitably exist in the future can be imposed on our time. We don't know what those standards will be, so it's not our fault that we are not currently adhering to them. Had you or I been born in raised in that 18th Century, we should have shared the same values and would have seen the world the same way.
The racially charged question of slavery hangs over the Founding Fathers in our own day and age, for it is undeniable that a large number of these men did own other human beings as "a species of property" (to use Washington's shady phrase). It's true that the majority of signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves at one time or another and that nearly half of the signers of the Constitution did so as well. Again, this was the way of life into which these people were born and as unnatural and sickening as it rightfully seems to us, to them it was just the way things were. As a comparison, consider the use of automobiles in our own time. We know that cars cause pollution and contribute to global climate change, thus damaging the environment for ourselves and even more so for future generations. Yet we continue to do it anyway, because it is simply our way of life.
(And to any self-righteous PC warriors who happen to be reading this. . . no, I am not saying that owning other human beings was on the same moral level as driving cars, so don't bother going there).
The most important thing to keep in mind is it was the very values and ideals of the American Revolution, so brilliantly articulated and made into reality by the Founding Fathers, that laid the foundation for the eventual abolition of slavery and the raising up of all people - blacks, women, Native Americans, homosexuals, and every other once-marginalized groups - to the same level of equality as citizens before the law. By proclaiming that "all men are created equal" the Founding Fathers unleashed a social and political hurricane that swept away the old order and brought into being the modern world, which has been characterized by the steady expansion of freedom and equality. Today, what we call "American values" - representative democracy, individual liberty, freedom of religion and expression, and all the rest of it - are embraced by everyone, no matter what their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever else.
It is easily seen how the ideals embraced and propounded by the Founding Fathers impacted the rest of the world by seeing how frequently Thomas Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence have been used as the basis for revolutionary documents in subsequent years all over the world. One can see its influence in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen during the French Revolution, in many of the independence declarations in the Spanish colonies in Latin America in the 1810s and 1820s, and among the East European revolutionaries in 1848 and 1918. Ironically enough, even the Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, issued by Ho Chi Minh in 1945 in Hanoi, begins by directly quoting Thomas Jefferson's famous words from the Declaration of Independence. The women who launched the campaign for female suffrage at the Seneca Falls Convention based their Declaration of Sentiments on the Declaration of Independence, and Martin Luther King quoted it in the midst of his famous "I Have A Dream" speech.
Moving beyond mere ideals, the political framework the Founding Fathers set up in the aftermath of their successful Revolution has been the most successful in modern history. The concepts put into practice by the men who designed the Constitution, such as checks and balances and the separation of powers, and the insistence by the Anti-Federalists on the inclusion of a Bill of Rights, have massively impacted governments set up in other countries since the 1780s. More directly, the constitutional structure put into place by the Founding Fathers has allowed the country to ride the waves of one political crisis after another, and even a long and bloody civil war, always emerging intact in the end. And while I think our national experience has brought to light the need for some changes to our Constitution, I don't think any reasonable person can deny that it has been an extraordinarily successful governmental system.
So on July 4, fly your flag, watch the fireworks, cook out on the grill with friends and family. But take a moment to remember the courage and brilliance of America's Founding Fathers, to whom we all owe so very much.