The Myth of the Admirable Founders, Part 1

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”–Samuel Johnson

As my longtime target for criticism, the Boy Scouts of America, is forced to confront its homophobia, I thought now would be a good time to go after another beloved American entity: the Founding Fathers. Every year, around this time, we get inundated with tributes for the Founding Fathers and their deeds in the Revolutionary War, or, as many of our Canadian friends to the North call it, the War of Rebellion. After all, July 4, 1776 was the day on which the Declaration of Independence was ratified by the Continental Congress. (Interestingly, the signing took place on August 2.) The Founding Fathers are a sacred cow in America. You could probably damage your political career more by bashing the Founding Fathers than by telling black people to be grateful for slavery. For many years after emancipation, the fact that so many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves and that many who did not allowed a proslavery Constitution to be drafted, was not even discussed. Interesting, during the days of slavery, both Southern slave masters and anti-Constitution abolitionists had pointed out these very facts. But as even old school white Southerners admitted that abolition (although not the abolitionists) had been for the best, this aspect of history was swept under the rug. Then, on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, the skeletons of individuals like Thomas Jefferson began to come out of the closet. Textbooks were rewritten to include Founding Fathers’ slave ownership, opposition to women’s suffrage, and support for Native American removal. What happened next is mind boggling. Having just experienced essentially a revolution that successfully ended Jim Crow in the United States and at least tacitly repudiated white supremacy, one would have expected to see American historians and political scientists, as well as the general public, rush to discard most of the Founding Fathers as heroes. One would have also expected them to replace these Founding Fathers with a cast of white anti-racist heroes—Lydia Maria Child, Wendell Phillips, John Brown, Joel Spingarn, Mary Ovington, among others—to stand alongside popular black heroes like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and MLK. Instead, what we saw was a lot of rationalization and turd polishing. As I debunked pro-Confederate myths back in April, so will I now do a series of blog posts attempting to shatter the idealized reputation of our Founding Fathers, with the possible exception of Thomas Paine. But before I begin dragging their names through the mud, there is something I must address. It is of no consequence that one’s viewpoint is correct if one’s argument is faulty. You see, in their worthy and valiant attempts to criticize the Founding Fathers, some people have turned to the 3/5ths Clause in the U.S. Constitution. The 3/5ths Clause, for those who are unaware, stipulated that, when determining population in a state or locale, each slave would count for the equivalent of 3/5ths of a free person. This looks racist, but the truth is more complicated. First of all, it must be understood that each congressional district gets more people in the House of Representatives and more electors in the Electoral College the greater its population is. In the South, slaves counted for a large portion of the population. So ironically, it was politicians from the South who wanted slaves to be fully counted in censuses. Why? Firstly, in order to get more congressional representation so that, among other things, antislavery legislation could be defeated and proslavery legislation could be passed. Secondly, to get more representation in the Electoral College so that more politicians sympathetic to Southern interests, including slavery, could be elected. In fact, when the Confederacy was formed, and a new constitution was drafted that included the 3/5ths Clause, South Carolina protested. And South Carolina was one of the Confederate states with the highest number of slaves! The way in which counting slaves at all in censuses benefited proslavery interests was demonstrated in the U.S. Presidential Election of 1800. Thomas Jefferson, a slave master, defeated John Adams, a man who had never bought or sold a slave in his life. If slaves had not been counted in the population, Adams would have won the Electoral College, and a slave master would not have been in the White House. None of this exonerates the Founding Fathers. As a group, they favored slavery and protected it. In my next blog post, I will show why this is the case. But I ask everyone who shares my disdain for the Founding Fathers: please, do not use the 3/5ths Clause to support your opinion. You will play right into the hands of the Founding Fathers’ defenders.

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