The Myth of the Admirable Founders, Part 4

“I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever ‘fixed’ at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.”–Thurgood Marshall

Today’s portion of my blog will be the final one. It will also be the most controversial. Today, on “Independence Day,” I decided to wear my Wendell Phillips t-shirt so that people could see a real American hero. Yet in spite of the incontrovertible evidence of the Founding Fathers’ misdeeds, despite the absence of any compelling excuses or mitigating circumstances, many people believe that we should consider the Founding Fathers heroes for their achievements. This mistaken belief comes largely from the poisonous doctrine of moral relativism. According to moral relativism, there is no such thing as absolute morality. Right and wrong depend on the time and place. It was moral relativism that fed the argument that gay marriage should be illegal in California because the majority of Californians voted against it. Inalienable rights do not matter in this worldview. It is likewise moral relativism which teaches that slavery in other cultures and time periods should not be condemned, because, well, we shouldn’t judge others from our 21st century Western perspective. Slavery is bad for today, but it was not morally wrong in the 1700s. Conservatives have embraced the doctrine of moral relativism in order to keep their slaveholding heroes from being disgraced in the public eye. But because the idea of moral relativism is also popular among people on the Left, it is not at all unusual to find liberals standing up for the founders and warning against judging from the lens of the present. How far, I wonder, would people be willing to take this thought process? What if the majority of Mississippians wanted to bring back slavery? According to moral relativists, would this be wrong? After all, moral relativism teaches that morality is not set in stone. If slavery was justified in 1787 because the majority supported it, could it be justified under similar circumstances in 2012? The most frightening thing about moral relativism is that it can be used to justify anything: slavery, genocide, rape. Some people will argue that we cannot determine morality. In the case of civil rights, however, it is easy. No person wants their civil rights denied, so no person should deny another their civil rights. Do the achievements of the founders really outweigh their monstrous crime of condoning slavery? Enslavement entails the rape of another human being’s dignity. Nothing—no strides on behalf of representative government or checks and balances, no Bill of Rights that does not even cover slavery—can balance out this atrocity. A frequent argument is that the Constitution would not have been ratified if a clause banning slavery had been included. That is probably true. However, this argument obscures the bigger issue. The truth of the matter is that a country that cannot survive without slavery deserves to die. And we must face the fact that whatever noble experiment of liberty and republicanism the framers devised was a failure as long as slavery continued. Equally as important, if people have an inalienable right not to be enslaved, they must be given this right immediately, regardless of the consequences. However, for the sake of argument, let us examine some alternative routes that those founders who did not own slaves could have taken. First of all, they could have chosen to go to war against the slaveholders for control of the government. This would have certainly been a more worthwhile cause than that of the Revolutionary War, which often consisted of slave masters whining about their rights supposedly being violated. Keeping another person in chains? Not such a big deal. Taxation without representation? Unconscionable. Another alternative would have been to form two separate countries, one of free states, the other of slave states. This would have prevented fugitive slaves from being returned to their masters if they escaped to the North and deprived the South of Northern military aid in the event of a slave rebellion. Perhaps these alternatives would have failed to abolish slavery. But it would have allowed the more enlightened founders to avoid perpetuating the system of human bondage. Interestingly, the United States’ system of “representative government” was not as unique as we have been led to believe. At the time of the Revolutionary War, Britain already had a Parliament with lawmaking power. British suffrage was restricted to a few wealthy men. Yet the United States initially did not allow women or slaves to vote. And at first, property qualifications were in place for voting. As these property qualifications were repealed, they were frequently replaced with laws that restricted suffrage to white men. The United States government began as an oligarchy, not a republic. Additionally, I believe that the crimes of the Founding Fathers have a special significance for gay Americans. A country that starts off with a proslavery Constitution will be slow to grant gay people equal rights. It was the abolitionist movement, not the American Revolution and the Constitution, that was the spiritual grandfather of the Gay Rights Movement, rejecting the legacy of the Founding Fathers and standing up for real equality. So where do we go from here? Those of us who accept the truth about the Founding Fathers must pick our battles. Focusing too much of our attention on founders like John Adams who did not own slaves but acquiesced to the system will be too controversial and hamper the rest of our aims. It will be better to focus mostly on those founders like Washington and Jefferson who were actually slave masters. A goal should be to remove every slave master from our currency. Monuments to slave masters should be taken down. Buildings, schools, etc. named after slave masters should be renamed. Do we abolish the Fourth of July? I’m open to it. But it would be a shame to end such a fun, festive holiday and not replace it with something. A wonderful category for replacement exists. June 19, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, is recognized in most states. June 19, 1865 was the day on which the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in Texas, as Galveston had only been captured by Union forces the previous day. It therefore marks the abolition of slavery in Texas. It would work much better as the day for a holiday than December 6, 1865, the day when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. A holiday on December 6 would be uncomfortably jammed between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And while the weather might be decent in the South, it’s hard to imagine people in Maine being able to enjoy parades, cookouts, pool parties, and fireworks in the snow. June 19, by contrast, falls conveniently in the summer and allows for lots of fun celebration across the country. I realize that my recent posts will not earn me many friends. But the truth hurts.

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