What we get wrong about the Founders — and what they might tell us today
July 4 is a most festive holiday: parades, flags, fireworks, baseball games, odes to “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
It is occasion to look back at those days in Philadelphia 245 years ago and what it means today. Periodically I talk to my favorite historian of the Founders, Joseph Ellis, author of 13 books, biographies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John and Abigail Adams — and a new book coming out this fall: “The Cause, The American Revolution and its discontents, 1773 to 1783.”
Ellis believes those 65 men who met in Philadelphia — no women, Blacks or the press — and those who 11 years later drafted the Constitution were “the greatest collection of political talent ever assembled.”
The Declaration of Independence, breaking with Great Britain, laid out the principles and values that the Constitution turned into a governing system that has endured for centuries. All the future presidents involved considered this their high mark. For them, Ellis notes, the presidency “was an epilogue.”
The Mount Holyoke history professor reminds me that the colonists declared independence from Britain on July 2 and that some of the signatures drifted in a month or so later. July 4 was the date on the printing document.
Jefferson and Adams, he adds, “unconsciously” sealed that date 50 years later by dying on July 4. James Monroe, the fifth president, died exactly five years later.
Ellis believes that contemporary critics — on both the left and right — get much wrong about those extraordinary times.
Some conservatives romanticize the supposed perfection of the Founders. Ellis says that for all the genius of what they did and wrote, “they made a couple tragic mistakes: not addressing slavery or Indian removal.”
“They could imagine defeating the world’s greatest power; they could imagine creating a new country and political system; they could imagine separation of church and state. But they could not imagine a biracial society.”
In that sense, the oft-criticized “critical race theory” is correct that racism was systemically ingrained into the system and the society.
Ellis also notes, by the way, that the right’s defense today of the Senate filibuster requiring a super majority has no basis in those late 18th century deliberations. The Constitution lays out only three requirements for a super majority in the Senate: to override a presidential veto, to approve treaties and to pass a Constitutional amendment. All other matters were presumed to be decided by majority vote.
But the left, he says, gets it wrong in charging slavery was the driving force behind those actions. In Philadelphia, Jefferson offered a draft to abolish the slave trading. It was, Ellis says, “almost incoherent” — especially from the usually eloquent Virginian. “He tried to blame the slave trade on George III.” This, no doubt, reflected the discomfort felt over the issue.
“They knew that slavery was incompatible with the Declaration,” Ellis says. But success, unity, wasn’t possible without concession. In South Carolina, for example, over half the population were Black slaves.
Neither Jefferson nor most of the others thought Blacks and whites were equal. Ellis points out that even some abolitionists wanted to emancipate the slaves and then send them somewhere else. That’s a dreadful proposition, but context is important, he reminds us: “We didn’t make a commitment to a biracial society until the mid-20th century.”
But these courageous and visionary Founders —Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Hamilton and Franklin — are the models of American mythology. While other nations have their mythologies — Romulus and Remus in Rome, England’s King Arthur — Ellis cites the difference: “Our guys aren’t fictional characters.”
And our guys would be surprised that their work has endured so long.
Jefferson thought America might have to rework the Constitution every few decades, Ellis says, and Madison thought it might last a century.
Years ago, Ted Kennedy once reminisced he could envision two of his contemporaries in Philadelphia with that assemblage of political and intellectual giants: Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Mike Mansfield.
I would add Sen. Howard Baker.
Anyone today, I ask Ellis? Nobody comes to mind … and then he acknowledges, gender aside, maybe House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
What would the Founders think of politics and governing today?
“They worried about excessive partisanship (even though they engaged in some). But they really worried about demagogues who would come and divide us, mobilizing our worst instincts.”
What advice might they offer?
“Don’t blame us. You’re on your own.”
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.