Archive for the ‘History’ Category

More than a Relic of the Past

On May 14th, 1787, 225 years ago, 55 of America’s finest representatives assembled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to revamp their young country’s original binding document – the Articles of Confederation.  Months later, they left Philadelphia with an entirely different tract.  These 55 men were determined not to leave Philadelphia until they formed a “more perfect union” for the benefit of posterity – the Constitution of the United States of America.  It was a scene immortalized in Howard Chandler Christy’s oil canvas masterpiece, which, after all these years, hangs in the House of Representatives section of the Capitol.  It is poignant, detailing the immensity of the moment, the serenity of the scene – destiny was at hand.  And the painting is nonsense.  In fact, it is because of misconceptions like that painting, and many of the stories we learn of the Constitution and its signers, that so few Americans know much about their country’s founding document at all.  What people need is someone from that Convention who represents us a little more, someone who doesn’t seem like some mere relic of the past.

Let’s take a look at Christy’s painting (above).  The painting shows George Washington presiding over a captive audience, holding his hand out to a signer of the document as if he were saying, “We have fulfilled our destiny, my fellow men of means.”  Or maybe he was saying to the signer, “Are you going to hurry up?  We got 54 more to go, and you’re cutting into my booze time!”  Washington was truly at the Convention, and presided over it as its president.  He didn’t say much, though.  He didn’t have to – the man was a demigod at this point.  It was Washington who defeated the British, and he did it with very little help from the Continental Congress at the war’s outset.  Despite Washington’s fascinating character, he still seems made of wood – although his teeth weren’t, as myths suggest.  It’s hard for us to connect with George.  Maybe that says more about us than it does him.  But I’m with you; this is 2012.  We need something sexier.

You want sexy?  I’ll give you sexy.  Another man had a very big part in the American victory over the British.  We can see him front and center in the painting.  Ben Franklin used his celebrity status, a sex symbol in his day (no, really!) and diplomatic acumen to secure an alliance with France, finally giving Washington what the Continental Congress never gave him – hope for victory.  When you get into his personal life, Ben can be really interesting.  Imagine Bill Gates (rich philanthropist inventor), Mark Zuckerberg (media entrepreneur) and Charlie Sheen (sex-crazed partier) rolled into one – that’s Franklin.  He was sort of a Tony Stark without the Iron Man part.  But at this point, he might have been older than Philadelphia, itself.  He was hardly the American idol he once was.  After all, this is two hundred years before Viagra (OK: sorry!)…however, I’m sure he was working on it.  Like many Founding Fathers, Franklin has devolved into a much more boring character than the mad scientist playboy media magnate he was.  The aging sage Franklin, like Washington, didn’t say much at the Convention, either, except what he thought about the final product.  “I am not sure that it is not the best,” Franklin characteristically said.  Both he and Washington seemed to be passing the proverbial torch to the next generation by just consulting and offering their approval.  So, Franklin isn’t our guy to connect with.

Thomas Jefferson was the United States’ delegate in France, which is fine because the peculiar genius kind of creeps me out, anyway (see my other history articles).  John Adams was the minister to Great Britain, so he was busy being creeped out by the notoriously, and increasingly, insane King George III.  Sam Adams and John Hancock weren’t at the Convention.  The always entertainingly cranky Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death!”) chose not to attend because he “smelled a rat.”  Although everyone can appreciate a good curmudgeon like Henry, he’s not the guy we want to necessarily relate to.  After all, in his younger years, Virginian aristocrats would invite him over to their dinner parties just to have him rant and argue as the evening’s entertainment.  However, I would love to see Patrick Henry in action with a Twitter account.

James Madison?  History is grateful for the diligent notes he took at the Convention, so that we can know how our country was founded – not just with the sword, but also with the pen.  But Madison was the classic ubergeek.  Although that character attribute made him a man for his time, he wasn’t a man for our time.  I know we’ve been guilt-tripped into rooting for nerds these days, but Madison was too antisocial for us.  Alexander Hamilton was the opposite – a bully, of sorts.  He and Madison might have been the smartest guys in the convention chambers, but only one – Hamilton –  was there to make sure everyone knew it.  Hamilton was arrogant and ambitious.  He was also brilliant.  In any sport, there’s always a guy on the opposing team who plays like a jerk all the time, making you love to hate him – with full knowledge that you’d love to have him on your team.  Hamilton was that guy.  But we can’t root for bullies.

Here’s the trick: can you name anyone else at the Constitutional Convention?  Come on, this is the bible of your country – the document that all life in the United States is governed around.  We can all probably name the four men at the Convention mentioned above, but I bet you can name more than four contestants on “American Idol” from this season.  Certainly, you can name more characters from “Game of Thrones” than Convention delegates.  (Come to think of it, I think there are many more characters in “Thrones” than there were delegates…)  What’s the matter?  Are you not a Rufus King scholar?  Not privy to the lifestyles of Gunning Bedford, Jr., Oliver Ellsworth or Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer?  How about Elbrige Gerry, whose name “gerrymandering” derives from?  Try the robust Robert Morris on for size – he was perhaps the richest man in America, its most powerful citizen.  OK, I can hear you yawning (those cookies in your computer are pretty powerful these days).  I’ll get to the point.

I have the man you’re looking for – the man who we can relate to.  And you probably never heard of him.  Gouverneur Morris is our guy, a celebrity in his day.  He was rich, famous, headline-grabbing, and eccentric.  Having lost his leg in a reported chariot accident, this peg-legged man-about-town never slowed down.  Though he came from an aristocratic family in New York (Westchester County), he didn’t inherit much of the family’s fortune because he was the son of his father’s second marriage.  But Morris took his modest inheritance and turned it into a fortune.  Of course, his closest relation to modern times is that he had no problem spending the money he made.  If he was a modern man, he’d be a club-hopper, tearing up the New York and Philadelphia night-time hot spots.  Morris’s partying was well-documented, and he was even more nefarious as a playboy and philanderer, known for his romps with just about any woman with a pulse – single or not.  In fact, rumors abounded of his leg being lost not in a chariot accident as reported, but in an escape from a vengeful, cuckolded husband.  Morris would be a favorite target of TMZ if he lived today.

Morris’s naughty side didn’t keep him from hobnobbing with the elite.  An entrepreneur with noted success, Morris became the assistant to the leading financier of the American Revolution, Robert Morris, and together the two unrelated men with identical surnames later worked out the finances of the Constitutional Convention.  Between the Revolution and Convention, according to Francis W. Hirst’s Life and Letters of Thomas Jefferson, both Robert and Gouverneur Morris suggested to Jefferson the utilization of an unprecedented decimal system and a new currency (we were still using English guineas, Spanish doubloons, French sous, etc.).  TJ liked the idea of the decimal system, but couldn’t go along with them completely.  TJ preferred the Spanish dollar and its smallest coin – the copper cent, which was equivalent to 1/100 dollar.  When it was finally approved, the monetary system we use today in the United States (with dollars and cents, rather than using fractions of foreign currencies that fluctuated in value depending on the state) was put into place.  Much to the chagrin of both Morrises, however, the credit went to Jefferson (we write with his preferred Spanish “$” and “¢”), who characteristically had no problem accepting the credit.  Robert Morris was a big name to cavort with, but you’ll better recognize his two other BFFs – George Washington and his sidekick, Alexander Hamilton.

If you’ve ever tried to read Washington’s diaries, you’d know they’re page after page of tedious recollections of what part of his farm he visited that day, or what kind of oats were growing that season.  Planting carrots seemed to enrapture Washington even more than my German-farmer grandfather, who used to tell me he could “hear the beans growing.”  However, Washington also wrote with his green thumb about his many visits with influential people.  During the Convention, Washington stayed with Robert Morris out of respect for him (or at least his money).  But he traveled with Gouverneur Morris, who was Washington’s aide-de-camp in the Revolutionary War.  Morris had originally signed up for a New York militia unit, despite a childhood arm injury that precluded him from being drafted.  Gouverneur endeared himself to his military mentor by helping him win the war – not on the battlefield, but in the Congressional chambers.

Morris was a different kind of war hero.  Not only did he turn against his mostly loyalist family (his half-brother was a British Army senior officer), but he was also the man who finally coaxed the Continental Congress to pass reforms in military finance, training, etc.  The reforms were necessary for Washington to change the tide of a – at the time – one-sided war in the British’s favor.  In the winter of 1777-78, amid the dark days of Valley Forge, the American “army” was starving, freezing, undertrained, unmotivated, and on the brink of desertion.  Morris was so appalled at the conditions that he signed up to serve as a delegate in the Continental Congress just to get Washington what he and his troops needed.  The changes he fought for at Washington’s behest led to a couple victories over the British.  The victories helped Ben Franklin form an alliance with France and their desperately needed navy, and the alliance led to more victories and the subsequent surrender of the British.  How’s that for a history of the War of American Independence in one paragraph.  Washington’s rolling over in his grave…

When they weren’t at the Constitutional Convention, Morris and Washington ventured out to fish and visit other well-to-dos.  Washington wrote in his diaries about riding in Morris’s phaeton (the ever-thrifty Washington was sure to point out that they used his horses) to visit a wealthy woman named Jane Moore.  While Morris went trout fishing, Washington waxed nostalgic at the old ruins of his Revolutionary encampments.  They embarked on another fishing trip, this time to Trenton in early August, taking advantage of a short recess taken at the Convention for the Committee of Detail to work out some particulars.   Washington complained sarcastically that his fishing was “not very successful”.  Later, Gouverneur Morris was a frequent visitor to Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon.  And when America’s new government was put in place, Washington thought so highly of Gouverneur that he sent Morris to Great Britain to “examine British intentions.”

Washington was hoping that Morris could reestablish good relations with their old mother country.  The implication of Britain allying with its former colonies could coerce Spain to concede some territory in the western frontier to keep up its relations with America, or so Washington hoped.  To send Morris on such an important mission exemplified Washington’s impression of him.  The two were very distant in characteristics – Morris was brilliant, albeit conceited, and garrulous, while Washington was reserved and conscious about his own vanity.  But the two opposites seemed to enjoy each other’s company.  Morris’s other intimate friend was Alexander Hamilton.  Proving how close the two were, Morris was the orator at Hamilton’s funeral.  Contrary to his opposites-attract friendship with Washington, his connection with Hamilton was more attributed to their common characteristics – both men were brilliant, and both men knew it.  And that friendship with the controversial Hamilton might have helped foster some dissenting opinions about Morris.

Morris was not loved by all.  The first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Marshall, wrote in his papers about Morris on October 16, 1793, “…his morals and manners are hateful, and his understanding and information is contemptible.”  Marshall contends that many thought of Morris as a “friend of monarchy”, which was a much worse insult in those days than saying one had “hateful manners”.  Marshall did equivocate, however, that since he had never met Morris he could not “admit or deny” the accusations against his character.  Unlike the stoic views posterity has taken of his counterparts at the Constitutional Convention, Morris appears to be the most human of the delegates.  Morris had a rare quality in politics – he never shied away from telling you what he really thought.  And his competitors took advantage, just as politicians do in modern times.  His honesty and noted sarcasm led to the loss of his political station in New York, and compelled him to relocate to Philadelphia.  It was Philadelphia, and not his native New York, that he represented at the Constitutional Convention.

Things didn’t work out that well for Morris while he was the Minister to Great Britain.  Even his intimate friend Hamilton would blame Morris for his ineffectiveness, saying that “his failure was largely the result of his…consorting with the French ambassador and…his communications with the Foreign Ministry.”  Similar tidings came when Morris was in France – he was known for consorting with the British Minister to France.  But not all of Morris’s actions warranted the rolling of eyes; some actions actually contradicted his reputation.  For instance, he tried to sneak Louis XVI out of newly republican France, and many pointed to his reputation as a monarchist.  But Morris also insisted that the U.S. debts to France be paid – no matter if it be to the crown or the republic.  That shows he wasn’t necessarily a monarchist, but rather someone who attempted to do what he thought was right at that particular time.  Morris’ character might be best summed up by author Lawrence Kaplan, who said that “Morris wrote cautiously but frequently behaved impulsively and occasionally with abandon.”  Maybe that’s why Washington wrote that he rode in Morris’s “phaeton” and not his “chariot” or “carriage” – in Greek mythology, Phaëton was the son of Helios, who was killed by Zeus for trying to drive his chariot across the sky.

For the first month, not much was accomplished at the Constitutional Convention.  For the convention to succeed there needed to be a voice of reason – someone who didn’t hold all their allegiances to the North or the South, a divide that had already begun to widen, or to big states or small, which was a point of contention even at the outset of independence.  And one of those voices turned out to be the wooden legged, love-affair ridden, ostentatious Gouverneur Morris.  Morris was quoted as saying that his intentions at the Convention were to speak as a kind of “representative of the whole human race.”  Immediately after returning to the Convention, he became its loudest voice.  In fact, he spoke 173 times at the Convention, more than anyone else despite arriving about a month late.  Better late than never, right?

Here’s the short, short version of what he fought for at the Convention.  A wealthy man, Morris argued lengthily to prevent a national Congress ruled by the rich.  Contrary to his reputation as a champion of the aristocracy, Morris was looking out for the poor.  He figured that the rich would dominate a national Congress, and the only way to prevent an aristocracy-dominated legislature was to make two branches.  The common branch would check the other branch, protecting the common people.  Among his many speeches, Morris helped establish the objectives of the Senate, including its duty to monitor the first branch, “especially against abuses of personal liberty and threats to private property.”  Those protections would be included in the subsequent Bill of Rights.  In Madison’s notes from the Convention, he creates the persona of a man in Morris who would not stand for abuse of the common man by the state.

Morris also fought for people who weren’t always considered people by colonial Americans – slaves.  Perhaps he was just looking out for the North’s representation, but he “could never agree to give…encouragement to the slave trade as would be given by allowing the [the South] representation for their Negroes.”  In a brilliant compromise, Morris proposed, “the more congressmen a state had, the more taxes it would pay.”  The South wanted three-fifths of their slaves to be counted as one person in the census (population would determine the amount of congressmen), so Morris’s proposal would make them, at least, pay for this representation of their slaves.  But his antislavery speech was, if nothing else, the most dramatic.  In it, he boldly said to his southern delegates about the slaves, “Are they men?  Then make them citizens and let them vote.”  Though abolitionist sentiment was present in Revolutionary times, these thoughts – especially voicing them publicly – were still revolutionary.

His forward thinking didn’t cease there.  Morris fought to prevent a proposed split among large and small states, saying that war would be inevitable.  Union between the states was the only answer.  He foresaw that if large and small states, and northern and southern states, didn’t share interests, bloodshed would be the inexorable solution to their quarrels.  He prophetically said the “stronger party will then make traitors of the weaker, and the gallows and halter will finish the work of the sword.”  If only Confederate President Jefferson Davis had read what Morris had said 75 years before the South seceded from the Union…

Fellow Convention delegate Roger Sherman said of Morris in 1790, “I consider him an irreligious and profane man…it is a bad example to promote such characters.”  But he also said that he hadn’t “heard that Morris has betrayed a trust, or that he lacks integrity.”  The men at the Constitutional Convention might have had the same, perhaps overly positive, attitude about the men who would become the Congress and Executive.  They thought that they could establish a quorum of wise men, a government of civic duty-minded gentlemen patriots – of philosopher kings.  Gouverneur Morris was certainly no philosopher king.  But he helped forge the document that has stood the test of time – our Constitution of the United States.  Morris put the finishing polish on the document Americans still govern their lives with today, giving it its graceful, erudite language, and even wrote its illustrious preamble.  It is because of the way he worded the Constitution that it is so revered around the globe, and that it has been mimicked so many times, as well.  These 55 delegates set out to form “a more perfect union”.  And we can’t get a more perfect example of how imperfect these men, the Founding Fathers, really were than Gouverneur Morris.  If there’s anything we can all relate to, it is imperfection.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t seek to better ourselves and our country like these imperfect men did.

I hope learning about Gouverneur Morris shows you how interesting the Constitution can be when you look at the effort that went into its conception, and the diverse cast of characters that saw it through.  To see the kind of minds present at the Convention, and what their intents were, can possibly help us better understand the elegantly worded document.  They weren’t so different from us, after all.  They had their distractions, just like us, but they still took the time to make the world around them better.  And they had not just their own interests in mind, but generations to follow.

It’s an election year, which means we’re all going to endure a litany of nonsense about the Constitution.  In our modern age of politics – dominated by the 24 hour news cycle and the advent of Twitter and Facebook – maybe we just need to get back to the basics.  Despite the colloquial and snarky tone of this article, I want you to take one thing seriously – our Constitution.  Men like Morris did, and we shouldn’t take that for granted.

We don’t all need to be Constitutional scholars, but I do encourage us to at least take a look at our founding document and the subsequent Bill of Rights.  It is important to point out that the country that piece of paper officially created became such a great country that its citizens now don’t have to know much about the Constitution.  Though they sought order, I doubt these 55 delegates would prefer consumer drones over an educated voting populace.  True, the Constitution isn’t exactly like reading a Harry Potter novel, but it’s about seven hundred pages shorter.  Come on, give it a shot.  That way when you’re hearing a politician speak, you can hold your head up high, and say in a loud, steady voice, “Bull—t!”

Even if Morris and the other Constitutional Convention delegates don’t relate to you, then maybe their words will.  Remember, it is “We the People” who are supposed to form “a more perfect union”, not the piece of paper those words are on.  Educated voters are the only hope in preserving freedom; the country’s future rests in your hands.  The philosopher Socrates once said, “You should learn more about your world before you condemn it.”  Let’s learn a bit more about the Constitution before we condemn it as a mere relic of the past.

In Honor of Black History Month and Presidents’ Day – “Equally Created”: A Study of Slavery in Early America

The Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (by English potter Josiah Wedgewood, 1787)

Equally Created

 By Joe Richter

“The Mystic Chords of Memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” – Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address, 1861 ([I], Kearns Goodwin page 326)

            In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the world’s view of slavery was changing, and the men who founded America recognized this changing perspective.  Humanism, an ethical philosophy based on the rights of all men, had immigrated with the Puritan settlers of America.  Unfortunately, the American settlers didn’t include all humans in their humanist ideology.  These American men, with their self-proclaimed desire for the rights of all men, didn’t extend the liberty they coveted to their slaves.  When those New Englanders bailed the tea into Boston harbor, did they cast their morals into the surf as well?

As we know now, A­merica and its groundbreaking republic inspired the world.  This tract will prove that though they made the mistake of allowing slavery to happen, America’s Founding Fathers made strides to eradicate the world of the terrible tradition, and were – like their republic – an example to the world.  If they knew slavery was wrong, what factors kept them from emancipating their fellow man?  If all men were created equal, why weren’t they treated equally?

Winston Churchill talked about the intellectual revolution of the 1600’s and 1700’s in the second volume of his History of the English Speaking Peoples.  Churchill wrote, “In the Middle Ages education had largely been confined to training the clergy; now it was steadily extended, and its purpose became to turn out not only priests but lay scholars and well-informed gentlemen ([II], Churchill page 4).”  Well, how did these “well-informed gentlemen” manage to undertake one of the most abominable acts in history?

Scars of a whipped slave April 2, 1863, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Overseer was discharged for brutality.

Slavery transported equally created humans from their homelands, from their families, and from their cultures.  Accounts abound about the cruelty and inhumanity of many of the slaveholders.  In Henry Wiencek’s An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, he chronicles some of the atrocious acts by supposed “gentlemen planters”.  Some of these “gentlemen” would cut off their slaves’ toes to hinder any expeditious escape, and even had legislation passed which pardoned them if the slaves didn’t survive the procedure ([III], Weincek page 46).  Most slaves’ diets were relegated to corn meal, and whatever game or vegetables they could catch or grow for themselves (if they were allowed to hunt, fish, or grow).  We have heard, thanks to the work of many historians, of the malevolence of the overseers – the men who did the “southern gentleman’s” dirty, or punitive work.  Unfortunately, the short length of this article cannot do justice to the myriad number of atrocities.

It should be mentioned again that this article is not seeking to condone this terrible part of American history.  The question is why men in quest of liberty wouldn’t bestow the same liberty on the Africans they had enslaved.  Was it truly a racist sense of ethnic superiority?  Or was there more to the reasoning about why the men who founded this country utilized the cruelest form of labor in history?

There were a number of reasons that led to the adoption of slavery in the American Colonies.  Education, economics, and religion all contributed to the decision.  Slavery wasn’t a new thing to the world when the American Colonies adopted it.  Obviously the French and Spanish were quite adept at it, enslaving many of the South and Central American natives along with African captives.  But this kind of irreparable history precedes America entirely.  Before we scrutinize early America, we should examine the world before us.

Slaves in ancient Roman Empire (courtesy of Pascal Radique)

Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, and the Arabs – all these great civilizations practiced human slavery of some form.  These civilizations are mostly remembered by posterity because of their magnificent monuments.  The pyramids and obelisks in Egypt, and the wonders and Wall of ancient China were constructed by, at least, conscripted laborers.  Although that sounds like some kind of sugar-coated term for slaves, historians believe that there was some light at the end of the tunnel for these workers; they would later be freed, but probably not until the good part of their life was already gone.

The ancient Greeks eventually offered citizenship to many of their slaves, if they performed well, but they would enslave just about anyone.  They would even enslave other Greeks, like the Spartans did with their neighboring Helots ([IV], Plutarch page 74) after they conquered them.  Imagine the parallel of Sparta’s enslaving the Helots to, say, the American Civil War: the North decides after its victory that it would enslave all of Virginia and the Carolinas.  However, Greek city-states such as Athens were appalled at the thought of enslaving anyone other than a “barbarian”.  But barbarians were just people who didn’t speak Greek, so this wasn’t some Taygetus Mountain-high moral stance.  However, the conquerors of the Greeks – the Romans – made Greek slave masters look like missionaries.

The Romans liked to take the best of the cultures they conquered by force, and make the best of these cultures even better.  Slavery was no exception.  In fact, the Romans were a little too good at it.  Slaves of many ages, races, and sizes were taken in war and were sold in the Roman markets.  Once they were in the master’s possession, they were just that – a possession ([V], Gibbon page 63).  Although the back of the hand, or the whip, was the first reaction, the master always had the option for termination – of the “for good” kind.  You want retribution?  If you killed your master, or one of his family or guests, the master family could lawfully murder all the slaves in the house for your transgression.  It might make you think twice.

The Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero once said, “The wise alone are free, and all fools are slaves ([VI], Breen page 39).”  While historians debate the true meaning behind this quote, it exemplifies the ho-hum attitudes the ancients had about slavery.  Cicero spoke often about freedom, but he never really included the slaves in that freedom for men he sought – this sounds awfully familiar to our founders.  Also akin to the founders, who sought to supplant the tyranny of King George, Cicero was speaking against a formidable tyrant of his own, Julius Caesar.  Caesar proudly proclaimed his genocide of the inhabitants of Gaul – hundreds of thousands (numbers are debated) in the lowly populated area of Northwest Europe – in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.  Caesar’s famous quote of “I came, I saw, I conquered” should have added “I murdered, and I enslaved” at the end.

Both of these men were of incredible fortitude.  Caesar was an utterly brilliant, undaunted general and innovative statesman; Cicero was just as brilliant a statesman as Caesar was a general, and he stood up to powerful generals even under the threat of death (he was eventually murdered for it).  But neither of these geniuses realized the horror of slavery; they actually did more to proliferate it.  Most of their wealth was built on that very practice.  Since the great villas, roads, aqueducts, and arenas like the Colosseum were constructed by slave (but also legionary) labor, would Rome be remembered 2000 years later if they hadn’t used slave labor?

Despite their notorious cruelty toward slaves, the Romans learned through several revolts that it was to the master’s benefit to treat his/her slaves better.  In his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Sir Edward Gibbon – a British contemporary of the American Revolution – wrote about how legislation evolved in the times of the Roman Emperors, giving slaves in Rome what African slaves in America never had – “hope”.  “Diligence and fidelity of a few years would be rewarded with the inestimable gift of freedom (63).”

Urn for the ashes of freedman Tiberius Claudius Chryseros and two females (courtesy of Kleuske)

Slavery didn’t escape the Arabic cultures, either.  According to Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, the most common form of slavery was that of the household servants – mostly women.  But those domestic occupations were also worked by free females.  Slavery in Arab culture “did not have exactly the same associations…as in the countries of North and South America discovered…from the sixteenth century onwards.  Slavery was a status recognized by Islamic law ([VII], Hourani page 116).”  The “legal category of slavery” consisted of mostly non-Muslim men taken in war, but it “was a meritorious act to liberate them (Hourani 116)”.  These “legal slaves” could have rights bestowed on them after being converted and freed – Hourani even said that some could marry their master’s daughters.  Of course, the most well-known freedmen in Arabic cultures were the Mamluks.  The intrepid Mamluks “ruled Egypt and Syria from 1250 to 1517 (Hourani 117)”, and were “self-perpetuating”; so they pretty much ruled that mini-empire on their own for over 250 years.  Not bad for a bunch of ex-slaves.

Arab slave traders

What does all this world history have to do with the founders of America (I hope you’re still with me)?  Our founders were students of history, especially ancient Rome and Greece.  The founders, like the Romans, learned from the past.  Though they took the good things from Rome, like the idea of civic duty, they took the bad things as well, like their justification of slavery.  And both these sets of men had similar educations.  Many of them studied the Greek philosophers.  Thomas Jefferson even admitted to learning more from reading the ancient Greek chronicler, Thucydides, than he did from reading the daily newspaper.  Certainly, they influenced the founders.

The men many consider the founders of education – ancient Greeks Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – tried to reason themselves out of the guilt inherited in the practice of slavery.  Although Socrates and Plato skirted the subject ([VIII], Stone page 45) – apparently Plato had no problem utilizing slavery in his Utopia – Aristotle called a slave “an instrument for the conduct of life ([IX], Ross page 249)”.  One can already surmise that Aristotle recognized a difference between master and slave, but his method of differentiating gets a bit slipperier.  His idea was that nature created this diversity (he even uses the example of men ruling women) so that one could rule the other, “…where such a difference between two things exists it is to the advantage of both that one should rule the other.  Nature seems to produce such a distinction between men – to make some strong to work and others fit for political life (Ross 249-250).”  Aristotle taught that “some men are by nature free, and others slaves (Ross 249-250).”  One can wonder what Aristotle’s slaves thought of his assessment.  Sir David Ross criticized how Aristotle was “cutting the human race in two with a hatchet (Ross 250).”  However, he defends the philosopher’s few stipulations to slavery.  Included in these, Ross states that Aristotle thought ill of “slavery by mere right of conquest (Ross 250).”  He certainly was against the notion of Greeks enslaving their fellow Greeks.  The English settlers in America seemed to ignore this lesson in their early days, but they then, eventually, transitioned to slaves of other races.  The next couple stipulations of Aristotle that Ross pointed out weren’t followed very diligently by our southern founders, either.  The philosopher felt a master should virtually treat the slaves like children – to adjust their behavior with not a whip, but with “reason”.  The other was that “all slaves should be given the hope of emancipation.”  The American founders did follow Aristotle in the major facet of slavery, on the other hand.  It seemed like Aristotle recognized the evil of slavery, but it was just a necessary institution with which he had grown up – almost a state of nature.  It wasn’t Aristotle’s best logical theorem, but the southern founders of America appeared to think it sufficed in justifying their actions.

It is not just who the early Americans studied that contributed to the social divide, and ultimately to the perpetual slavery of the Africans, but who did the studying.  Even most freed African slaves weren’t allowed the same opportunities that a freed white man had.  In his article “Origins of American Slavery: Education as an Index of Early Differentiation”, Joseph Boskin presents the thesis of Carl Degler, who says, “The introduction of Africans as slaves…unquestionably fostered a sense of superiority among Englishmen ([X], Boskin page 127)” as they exemplified by their treatment of the Irish immigrants, and the Native Americans.  Ethnic hatred was by no means new or uncommon at that time in history, so perhaps the founders of America just hated everybody equally.  But why did they choose the Africans over all others to be lifelong slaves?

James Hopkinson's Plantation- slaves planting sweet potatoes. (Unknown photographer, 1862/63)

The first owner of an African slave was actually a black man (and former indentured servant in South America, himself) – a Virginian settler named Anthony Johnson in the 1650s ([XI], Billings page 286-87).  But he sadly wouldn’t be the last.  With the dramatic influx of African workers in the ensuing decades, many of them captured and sold by rival African tribes, it might be understood that the first reaction is cultural differentiation.  Realizing these polarizing differences in culture between Africans and Englishmen might have been the beginning of the slippery slope.  As Boskin said, the “discriminatory attitudes and behavior conditioned the form slavery would eventually take (127).”  In effect, law after law was passed to further enervate the status of Africans – slaves or not – in the American Colonies, especially in Virginia.  The slippery slope was turning slimy, and there no was no getting back uphill.

If you’ll allow the understatement of the year, the English settlers weren’t known for gently caressing their predecessors, the Native Americans, either.  It should be pointed out, as Boskin reminds us in his article, “that of the two distinct cultural groups they (Englishmen) dealt with in the seventeenth century in the New World, one was marked for destruction and the other was enslaved (128).”  Noting the difference between African and Native American is important here.  As Boskin says, “unlike the Indian who would live apart from the English, the African had to be assimilated into, or accommodated by a culture (the English) which possessed definite ideas of God, family, manners, morals, male-female relations, and which further prided itself on a high degree of accomplishment (130).”  The Africans would not have the same opportunity as the Englishmen to educate himself enough to reach that high degree of accomplishment – slavers would even punish slaves for attempting to learn how to read and write.  As Boskin tells us, “from the scanty evidence that exists…it would appear that the Negro did not receive formal education in the seventeenth century in the colonies (132).”  If they could not be educated like their English neighbors, what chance did they have in the English world?  Their lack of this training certainly couldn’t have helped their status as “accomplished” men.

Family on Smith's Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862.

Two things should be mentioned before moving on.  First, although people of African descent weren’t allowed education in most areas, “the education of the Indian was specifically encouraged and provided for in legislative articles in many instances (Boskin 132).”  Englishmen deemed that the Native American needed to be “civilized” for cohabitation to be successful.  Secondly, the most prevalent education system of the time, apprenticeship, wasn’t open to Africans.  As Boskin said of colonial apprenticeship, “A perusal in the statutes of colonies…reveals no mention of either bond (sic) or free Negroes and/or slaves (132).”  Even mulatto children were exempt until 1765.  Boskin concludes very succinctly, “it may well be assumed that the Negro was regarded as uneducable.  Certainly…the unaltered direction was toward total rejection (133).”  Or maybe it was just undesirable – an educated slave is a rebellious one.

The majority of the southern colonists saw their slaves as below them, and that the existence of their slaves was just a price of being part of the southern gentry.  But was slavery really profitable?  In his article, “The Profitability of Slavery: A Historical Perennial”, Harold Woodman proved that, at least by the Civil War, it wasn’t.  According to the 1850 census, “…The value of agricultural products in the free states exceeded that of the slave states (when the value of the slaves was excluded [[XII], Woodman page 305]).”  However, a century before, it was a money-maker, whether or not tobacco sales were booming.  Wiencek mentions how George Washington was one of many Southerners who would send one or two slaves to “hold” land that he hadn’t officially settled (Wiencek 27).  Apparently, laws were passed to prohibit plantation owners from holding land on speculation, and Washington had found a loophole – if it appeared that you were working the land, then you weren’t just “holding it” for its future value.  It is necessary to mention, however, that land speculation was not a definite boon.

Although the profitability of slavery has been proven to be inflated, the founders thought otherwise.  If it wasn’t about economics, it was about the southern gentry’s lifestyle.  Somehow, owning slaves was a status symbol – as if owning another human being and forcing him/her to do labor was something to be proud of.  But let’s not just point the finger at the southern colonies.

The institution was tolerated by northern colonies, but suspicions progressively arose.  Just having so many black slaves in the south, almost half their population, made the Northern Colonies worry.  According to Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier, “the North had to assume that the South would soon become the dominant section of the country in both numbers and wealth (though that could be debated).  This assumption proved later incorrect, but in 1787, northerners were nervous about the possibility of a government dominated by the south ([XIII], Collier and Collier, page 185).”  These issues would be prominent in the debates at the Constitutional Conventions, but that is for another tract.

Noting that the North was obviously nervous about the South’s nefarious institution for both financial and population reasons, the South might have realized the North’s trepidations.  Perhaps they saw the attempts by the North for Abolition as means to supplant the South in dominance of the new country.  Either way, the North and South believed that slavery was profitable enough to allow it to persist.

Slave auction block at Green Hill Plantation, Pannill family plantation, located Campbell County, Virginia

Since we are examining why the founders kept a half-blind eye to the horror of slavery, we shouldn’t let religion get away so easily.  Where was the church while all this death and cruelty was taking place?  As sad as it sounds, the Catholic Church actually encouraged slavery.  In her article, “The Philosophes and Black Slavery: 1748-1765”, Claudine Hunting explained how “King Louis XIII of France had agreed, however reluctantly, to authorize slave trade in the French colonies, on the express urging of the Catholic Church and its missionaries, for the alleged purpose of saving their souls, more than a century after Portugal and Spain had adopted that policy in their own colonies ([XIV], Hunting page 408).”  Apparently, the mostly Protestant colonists didn’t have the same disdain of this Catholic more as they did with their Papacy.

There are two things to remember about The Church and Slavery.  First, not all Catholics were proslavery.  Many friars spoke out against the inhumanity of some slave owners, and spoke for the humanity of the slaves.  Second, of our Founding Fathers, very few were Catholic.  As we know, many Englishmen came to America to practice their own brand of religion (or to practice a brand of religious intolerance of their own).  This was a new world with a new way of thinking.

Thanks to the brilliant minds of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Descartes, and others, a new world was being discovered – not just the American continents.  As Winston Churchill wrote, “The urge to inquire, to debate, and seek new explanations spread from the field of classical learning (4).”  Everything was being learned anew, and everything had to be examined – not even The Church was safe anymore.  Churchill pointed out that this academic drive even set its examining eye “into that of religious studies (4).”  Of course, the Protestant Reformation ran its course, and England was never the same.  The New World would be a perfect setting for this new way of thinking.

The 18th century historian, and contemporary of the American Revolution, Sir Edward Gibbon wrote, “Whatever may be the changes in their political situation, they (America) must preserve the manners of Europe; and we may reflect with some pleasure that the English language will probably be diffused over an immense and populous continent (Gibbon 376n).”  But though the new Americans kept much of British culture, and its language, they would fall way behind the English in regard to slavery.

In 1807, James Clarke Fox’s term as Prime Minister did what Churchill said, “ranked among the greatest of British achievements ([XV], 311).”  Fox abolished the slave trade in England and its provinces – except for some islands where it was still deemed imperative.  But holding slaves was legal until 1833.  Something else to be considered was that Napoleon Bonaparte had recently legalized French slavery, so Britain could just have been taking the proverbial “high moral ground” over France.  Whatever the case, Britain had to be influenced by the Abolitionist factions which were prevalent in America.

As mentioned earlier, the consensus about our Founding Fathers was that they had some (but very few) problems with the South’s intransigence in the slavery issue.  Research shows, however, that most of our well-known founders were seeing the changing of the guard in the rest of the world.  Even the men who owned slaves seemed to see, and desire, the practice’s ensuing death, and they were ready to welcome its passing.

One cannot scrutinize the founders without mentioning our first president, George Washington.  Washington had a somewhat benevolent aura when it came to his slaves, proof of which can be found in his relationship with his favorite servant, Billy Lee ([XVI], McCullough page 42).  Billy Lee wouldn’t be outdone in proving his own sporty prowess, as historian David McCullough said, the “body servant ‘rode like the wind by all accounts, and no less fearlessly than his master (48)’”.  Master, however, is the important word there.  In fact, as McCullough alludes to on his following page, even Washington had to see the irony of these American rebels – many of them slave owners – seeking independence.  One would like to hear what Billy Lee had to say about all this.  Did he enjoy all that horsing around as much as Washington?

Washington and Billy Lee, c. 1780

Washington was a man who knew the value of posterity’s view of him.  He would be glad to know that the story of his relationship with Billy Lee came to light, along with some of the other pleasant stories about how well, compared to many slaveholders, Washington treated his slaves.  However, that is an insult to the families who actually were his slaves, and their hardships.  Washington was no angel, but he was the perfect example of the American Revolution’s ultimate paradox – slaveholders crusading for liberty.  According to Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington, Washington made a not so excellent decision after the battle of Yorktown.  “He (Washington) insisted on the return of all escaped slaves in British custody to their respective owners. (Four of his own slaves were included in the contingent of about three thousand carried from New York to freedom by the British navy [[XVII], Ellis page 163].)”  According to Henry Wiencek’s aforementioned book, Washington – someone who seemed to be antislavery –had no problem separating the slave families on his plantation, and threatened troublesome slaves to virtual damnation on the brutally laborious Caribbean islands if their behavior didn’t improve – and it wasn’t an empty threat.

However, contemplative of posterity’s view of Washington, his views were changing.  Something had to be done.  Ellis offered the account Washington composed in April 1786, where Ellis quoted Washington as saying to his colleague Robert Morris, “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of (slavery) – but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority: and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting (163).”

Washington not only thought that emancipation needed to be accomplished legally, but he knew there needed to be some plan for what to do with the emancipated slaves before they set this immense portion of the southern population free.  To his credit, what Washington couldn’t do for all the black slaves in America, he at least took care of his own.  According to Ron Chernow, “Washington emancipated his slaves in his will and even set aside money to assist the freed slaves and their children ([XVIII], Chernow page 212).”  However, one of Chernow’s biographical subjects, Alexander Hamilton, was far more hopeful of emancipation than Washington – and far more fervent in his actions.

If one doesn’t examine the career of Alexander Hamilton fully, then he can be easily written off by some as just a whiz-kid orphan from the Caribbean who liked to dabble with other men’s wives until Aaron Burr shot him for it.  On the contrary, Hamilton was much more complex than that kind of harsh preconception.  In Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, Chernow proves his subject founder to be a man of the new world; a man of the new way of thinking. “He had expressed an unwavering belief in the genetic equality of blacks and whites – unlike (Thomas) Jefferson, for instance, who regarded blacks as innately inferior – that was enlightened for his day (Chernow 211).”  Chernow said that, “Few, if any, other founding fathers opposed slavery more consistently or toiled harder to eradicate it than Hamilton (212).”  Hamilton’s loss in the duel to Burr prevented him from completing his task.

Other Founding Fathers were unsuccessful in transitioning their disdain of slavery into action.  Chernow explained how “John Adams never owned a slave…yet he did not always translate his beliefs into practice.”  Chernow said, “Adams opposed plans to emancipate slaves joining the Continental Army, contested the use of black soldiers, and opposed a bill in the Massachusetts legislature to abolish slavery (212).”  Adams had bent over backwards, however, to placate the southern colonists – these could be examples of such appeasement.  The issue of independence from Great Britain might have taken precedence from his perspective.

The Father of the Constitution, James Madison, was vulnerable to Chernow’s criticism, as well.  Although “Madison never tried to defend the morality of slavery…neither did he distinguish himself in trying to eliminate it (213).”  Chernow said, “Madison’s political survival in Virginia and national politics required endless prevarication on the slavery issue.”

Isaac Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's blacksmith slave at Monticello (taken c. 1847)

Speaking of prevarication, Thomas Jefferson was no stranger to it.  In his “Report on Government for Western Territory; March 1, 1784”, Jefferson claimed that “after the year 1800 of the Christian aera (sic), there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states.”  In his autobiography, Jefferson admitted having put off the slavery issue to gain the South’s allegiance in independence from Britain.  He said, “the clause…reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was 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.”  He later said, “It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly.”  In the end, Chernow said Jefferson “freed only a handful of his slaves, including the brothers of his apparent mistress, Sally Hemings (213).”  Perhaps Jefferson hoped that future generations would have higher morals than his own, a sentiment that appears to be quite common among the founders.

Union Colonel John Wayles Jefferson, grandson of TJ and his slave and lover Sally Hemings

Thomas Jefferson - one can see the resemblance between John Wayles and Thomas

Maybe the most enigmatic founder is Benjamin Franklin.  In Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson describes how Franklin, who owned a few slaves over his lifetime, defended charges of hypocrisy in his 1770 publication, “Conversation on Slavery”.  Franklin made erroneous defenses about how few slaves there actually were in America, and made light of the treatment of slaves.  He did, however, cleverly compare the “working poor” in England to slaves.  Isaacson mentions, “At one point, the speaker’s (Franklin’s) argument even lapses into racism ([XIX], Isaacson page 268).”  In other works, however, Franklin shows his slowly diverging perspective.

Isaacson said, “In ‘Observations on the Increase of Mankind,’ he (Franklin) attacked slavery on economic grounds.  Comparing the costs and benefits of owning a slave, he concluded that it made no sense.”  Economics aside, the moral issue was more important, even a question of an owner’s work ethic.  In the same tract, Isaacson points out that Franklin believed owning a slave made whites lazy.  Isaacson quoted Franklin as saying, “Slaves perjorate (sic) the families that use them; white children become proud, disgusted with labor (152).”  It is important to point out that Franklin seemed more worried about the effects of slavery on the master, rather than its effects on the slave.  Isaacson called the article, “quite prejudiced in places.”  He said Franklin “urged that America be settled mainly by whites of English descent.”  Isaacson quotes Franklin, “Why increase the sons of Africa by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys (sic), of increasing the lovely white and red (152)?”  It should be noted that Franklin was known for his sarcasm, and might have been trying to be ironic.  His later actions imply that.

Franklin came to understand the importance of abolition very well in his later life.  Isaacson said, “Franklin presented a formal abolition petition to Congress in February 1790 (Isaacson 465).”  As Isaacson quotes Franklin, he says that it was the duty of Congress to ensure “the blessings of liberty to the People of the United States…without distinction of color (465).”  Can a man not change?

Ben Franklin's "An Address to the Public", 1789

In order to really understand their reasons, one must step into the founders’ buckled shoes (silk stockings and powdered wigs are optional).  In one’s search to comprehend why these noble men chose to stand by arguably the worst form of slavery in the history of man, nothing can be found to exonerate them for their behavior.  Sometimes history can be a painful thing.  While learning about this subject is hard to do because of its horror, it is not something we can just forget about.

A lot is still left to learn about slavery, but what stands out is that these poor Africans – and even their descendants – never were given a chance.  Because their culture was considered centuries behind the ethnocentric Europeans, the Englishmen found the Africans to be what we learned Aristotle called, “instruments for the conduct of life”.  It was as if God Himself had given white men the right to be another man’s master – and it was good for both of them.

In an attempt to defend them, however, it can be said that America’s founders planted the seed for emancipation.  Whether their motives were based on ethics or not, they knew it was only a matter of time before the South would concede their dreadful practice.  Franklin was quoted many times as saying, “In time.”  Although our country was slow to actually pass the legislation that many in America were trumpeting, the world took notice of this infant republic.  Yes, America wasn’t the first government to emancipate all their slaves; but after the American Revolution, as many states outlawed slavery, countries around the world began the alleviation of the slavery scourge, as well.

Slavery is illegal throughout the modern world.  Sadly, slavery still lives in parts of Africa (such as Sudan and Mauritania) and elsewhere (parts of China and South America) in an unofficial capacity.  We can hope, however, if we learn why we made this appalling mistake (and continue to do so), that we will learn the folly of it and abolish slavery once and for all.  Look at how far we have come as Americans.  Whether or not we agree with President Barack Obama politically, to see an African-American elected President of the United States of America in 2008 has to make one proud to be an American – even though it took over 140 years.

Our Founding Fathers had their reasons for allowing slavery to persist.  After finding that there were influences like education, economy and religion, one can better understand their flawed logic.  What we cannot condone are the results of their logic, or their harsh methods in the implementation of slavery.  It is hard to be proud of the founders’ steady blind eye to the suffering of their fellow man.  But it is easy to be proud of the great country they created.  Some say our founders allowed slavery to persist when they signed the Constitution with the belief that the dying institution was coughing up its final bad breaths.  Tragically, they thought too highly of the sensibilities of men.  Again it should be said that there was some good out of their foolish assumption – they created this country.  And just because we Americans must live with our cloudy history doesn’t mean we can’t be proud that these founders created a country where we are free to question that history, and criticize those flawed creators.

Were men equally created?  Despite the obvious affirmative answer, man was slow to accept his brethren as being created equal throughout all of history.  By learning how fallible our founders were we will see that it does not take demigods, like history has made of Ben Franklin, George Washington and others, to make a country great.  Times are changing, and so are people.  History has plenty of pages left to write.


(This article is not to be copied without consent of administrator.  Copyright 2012, Joe Richter Media)

[I] Doris Kearns Goodwin. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005.

[II]  Winston S. Churchill. A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The New World. vol. 2 New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, Inc., by arrangement with Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc., 1993.

[III] Henry Wiencek. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

[IV] Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives: Volume I.  Trans. John Dryden.  Ed. Arthur Hugh Clough.  New York: The Modern Library, 2001.

[V] Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. vol. 1 The Turn of the Tide. ed. Betty Radice.  London: The Folio Society, 2003.

[VI] Quirinus Breen. “The Antiparadoxon of Marcantonius Majoragius, or A Humanist Becomes a Critic of Cicero As a Philosopher”. Studies in the Renaissance, vol. 5, (1958), pp 37-48. Published by: Renaissance Society of America.

[VII] Albert Hourani. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991.

[VIII] I.F. Stone. The Trial of Socrates. New York, NY: First Anchor Books, 1989.

[IX] Sir David Ross. Aristotle. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.

[X] Joseph Boskin. The Origins of American Slavery: Education As an Early Index of Differentiation”. The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 35, no. 2 (Spring 1966), page 125-133.

[XI] Billings, Warren (2009). The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia, 1606-1700. Pg 286-287.

[XII] Harold Woodman. “Profitability of Slavery: A Historical Perennial”. The Journal of Southern History, vol. 29, no. 3 (Aug 1963), pp. 303-325.

[XIII] Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier. Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1986.

[XIV] Claudine Hunting. “The Philosophes and Black Slavery: 1748-1765”. Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 39, no. 3.  (July – Sept. 1978), page 405-418.

[XV] Winston Churchill. A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Age of Revolution. vol. 3 New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, Inc., by arrangement with Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc., 1993.

[XVI] David McCullough. 1776. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005.

[XVII] Joseph Ellis. His Excellency: George Washington. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

[XVIII] Ron Chernow. Alexander Hamilton. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2004.

[XIX] Walter Isaacson. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2003.


Non-cited references:

1) William J. Bennett. America: the Best Last Hope: Volume I. Nashville, TN: Nelson Current, 2006.

2) Plato. The Essential Plato. New York, NY: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1999.  int: Alain De Botton. tr: Benjamin Jowett, with M.J. Knight.
3) Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: the Early American Republic, 1788-1800. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.
4) Carl Van Doren. The Great Rehearsal: the story of the making and ratifying of the Constitution of the United States. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1948.

“Don’t Forget the Little Guy” – A Study of Aristocracy in America

It’s Constitution Day, September 17th (observed on the 16th) in the United States of America.  So let’s celebrate with a look at what this country was founded on.  I saw a movie the other day, called “Jefferson in Paris”.  I was quickly sad to find out Sherman Hemsley wasn’t in it.  But Nick Nolte was – starring as Thomas Jefferson.  Now, to me, that casting sounds as bad as Flava Flav starring as Ghandi.  Their backgrounds, and, obviously, life habits, had nothing to do with each other…but I digress.  Sorry about that; back to the point.  I’ve been rough on Jefferson in my writing, and especially on “Political Reason” (for the handful of you who have seen the show), but this article is about the Founders who were self-made men.  The Founding Fathers knew there would be an aristocracy in the country they were founding – many of them were the aristocracy.  But it was a new kind, more of a meritocracy.  And they sought to protect those who weren’t part of the elite.  I ask you what you think, after reading this, the Founders would say about their successors, the men who run this country.  Are they looking out for the little guy?  Thanks for reading, and please leave your comments.  And catch the Constitution Day episode of “Political Reason”on this link:

Show Times are: FRI (9/16) 5:00pm, 8:30pm, 11:00pm; SAT (9/17) 2:00am, 10:00am, 4:00pm, 11:00pm; SUN (9/18) 1:00pm, 5:00pm.

Don’t Forget the Little Guy:

A Study of Aristocracy in America

By Joe Richter

For the founders of the Constitution of the United States of America, the fear of the establishment of an aristocracy was not prevalent; some even found it a necessary component to a successful government.  Though many of the prominent men who created the United States of America sprang from, or married into, the moneyed aristocracy in America, many of them also rose from humble backgrounds – many of them sought ways to check aristocratic power.  Our Constitution was founded in contradictions and compromise.  The one thing that the majority of them seemed to never forget while framing our government – don’t forget the little guy, the average American.

In the 1960s, author E. Digby Baltzell wrote, “no nation can long endure without both the liberal democratic and the authoritative aristocratic processes ([I], page 7)”.  But this was not some revelation from the heavens.  The idea actually goes back to ancient Greece, and Aristotle ([II], page 19).  Socrates, however, talked about the caveat in that idea – “And the great blessings of riches, I do not say to every man, but to a good man, is, that he has had no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, either intentionally or unintentionally; and when he departs to the world below he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debt which he owes to men ([III], page 6)”.  Our Boys (the Founders) took their classical history and philosophy to heart.  They figured that, like in England, if they could mix all three, the expected corruption of each type of government would check each other.  However, unlike in England, Our Boys could trust each other to be “gentlemen”, and put the “noble” back into the noble elite.

After all, aristocrats can get a bad rep; but they don’t always deserve it.  Let’s go back to ancient Greece – stories Our Boys would have been well versed in.  A low-level aristocrat named Pisistratus conned the masses into letting him take control over the small city-state (more of a village, actually) called Athens in the 6th century BCE.  Although he could be called a dictator by modern terms, he catapulted Athens to an international economic power with his reforms.  Unfortunately, hereditary titles proved their worst side.  His son, Hippias, became a tyrant (by modern or any time’s terms), and one aristocrat, Cleisthenes, took up his sword and led the commoners in a revolt to take their city back.  You see both the good and the bad in aristocracy in that story – how an aristocrat can help foster a great society, but his son (whose virtues don’t equal his social standing) ruins what the father created.  Then another kind of aristocrat comes back to topple the tyrant, and gives the power to the people.

In history, we find many revolts of this kind, where an aristocrat (or a group of aristocrats) dethrones a tyrant.  You might say it happened here in the United States.  But Cleisthenes came from a rich background.  He proved his worth after he already had status.  This author believes that what sets the founding of America apart is that though the country was founded by aristocrats, they weren’t given all before they could prove their worth.  It’s important to understand that there was a new kind of aristocracy created in America – the kind of self-made man who makes his merits propel him through the ranks of society, not his name.  I’ll explain its importance as we go.

Benjamin Franklin was one of these self-made men.  “During the Middle Ages, a new class emerged…men who possessed property and wealth but were not members of the titled aristocracy ([IV], page 5).  Perhaps the most famous founder at the time of the American Revolution was “the youngest son of the youngest sons for five generations (page 7)”.   That was Ben Franklin.  Franklin said at the Convention that they should not forget the “virtue and public spirit of our common people, of which they displayed a great deal during the war…The sons of a substantial farmer, nor being themselves freeholders, would not be pleased at being disenfranchised ([V], page 110)…”  Franklin’s many public works showed his interest in the betterment of the common man, including his decision to never patent his brilliant and useful inventions, such as the Franklin Stove.  We could talk about Franklin’s civic accomplishments for days, but there are many other founders, Our Boys, who need to be addressed.

The next founder I’ll mention is probably the next best known of Our Boys (maybe the best known), George Washington.  Although Washington’s father rose to the “lower ranks of the aristocracy ([VI], page 48)”, he wasn’t given the type of inheritance that was given to his older brothers, nor did he receive education abroad like them.   But he realized that much of the world was about “who you know” and “what you know”.  He hung out with everyone that would let him, certainly going to great lengths to entertain some of the most influential people in the Colonies.  And he listened and learned all he could from them.  One thing that his fellow founders always said about him, it was that he knew how to surround himself with greatness, and, most importantly, wasn’t too self-absorbed to listen.  It was interesting that Washington was “destined to lead a revolution that eventually toppled this whole constellation of aristocratic beliefs and presumptions, he was initially a beneficiary of its powers and patronage ([VII], page 10)”.  But it was through his own diligence and skill that he transformed himself into one the most respected men in Virginia, and across the Colonies – part of the new aristocracy.  And he realized the foolishness of the “aristocratic matrix” once it didn’t recognize merit over patronage – like when he wasn’t granted a regular commission as a younger man in the British Army (page 38) because he wasn’t part of the British aristocracy.  Washington knew, or at least wanted to believe, that “legitimate power derived from the consent of the public… (and) saw himself as a mere steward…in a representative government…in which all leaders, no matter how indispensable, were disposable (page 143).”

No one was worried about the incoming executive (the President later) and his abuse of power at the Constitutional Convention.  Everyone knew the best fit to lead the country would be George Washington.  His only other competition, Franklin, was too old.  Besides, Washington won the war to save the country, and then put down his sword and picked up his plow.  They figured the modern Cincinattus wouldn’t become a Caesar (if you don’t get it, pick up a history book).  But after Washington was done, who knew?  John Adams had to know it he would be he.  He was arguably the most important – certainly the least appreciated – of Our Boys in breaking from England.  And he might be the best example of a man of standing who rose from no moneyed patriarchal background.

John Adams is one of the forgotten founders, being the man who defended the British soldiers from the “Boston Massacre” out of respect for justice, and despite being the man who was the most important gadfly of the Philadelphia Convention where Our Boys signed the Declaration of Independence.  And he was a pain in the backside, always wanting his opinion to be respected, rather than liked.  Adams “enjoyed no social standing.  There was no money in his background, no Adams fortune or elegant Adams homestead like the Boston mansion of John Hancock ([VIII], page 19).”  He feared the power of money and hereditary title.  He once wrote, “If the executive power, or any considerable part of it, is left in the hands of an aristocratical or democratical (sic) assembly, it will corrupt the legislature as necessarily as rust corrupts iron, or as arsenic poisons the human body; and when the legislature is corrupted, the people are done (page 375).”  This man was above partisanship and corruption, and fought only for the good of the country.  He would never survive in today’s political arena.

Corruption must have been thought to be inevitable.  Perhaps that’s why the founders decided on the two separate Houses – representation was by far the most contested factor at the Constitutional Convention.  The Senate was supposed to keep an eye on the first branch; their job was to prevent exploitation of the people by the executive.  But who would keep an eye on the Senate?  Another branch was needed to keep the two others honest – or as honest as a government official could be.

The people needed someone in the delegation at the Constitutional Convention to stand up for them, to prevent their seemingly inevitable exploitation.  Surely, one of the poorest men in the delegation would stand up for them.  Certainly, it would be a man of modest means and of even more modest persona that would stand up to these prominently wealthy delegates at the Convention, and prevent the government that was steadily looking more like an aristocracy with every day they met.  It wasn’t.  The man who stood up against this was what Roger Sherman called an “irreligious and a profane man ([IX], page 148)” and a man who “never pretended to have any religion”.  Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Marshall, once said about this man, “his morals and manners are hateful ([X], 224)”.  He was rich, extravagant, and was even what Marshall called, a “friend of monarchy”.  He was Gouverneur Morris.

Gouverneur came from the Morris family that owned 1,900 acres in New York and 3,500 acres in New Jersey in the seventeenth century.  The family was highly involved in the politics of both states.  His father’s sons from his first marriage were political, Lewis in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and Robert Hunter in Pennsylvania ([XI], page 3-5).  Although Gouverneur came from an important family, his inheritance wasn’t as large as his brothers (he would get none of the land his family owned), and it was delayed until his mother passed (page 8).  He would have to make his own way for a while – and he did.  His law profession and business enterprises grew his personal wealth considerably in a short time.  And he was asked to represent Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention.

After missing a month, Morris spoke often and loudly – 173 times, more than anyone else.  The debate of the day was representation.  When Morris started his speech, he dwelt on his wish that the Senate be the largest property owners and have “aristocratical spirit ([XII], 149)”.  The rich shall rule, as long as they rule with morals, is what that sounds like.  Morris then broke into an unexpected turn, according to James Madison’s notes from the Convention, “The Senate ‘will then do no wrong, it will be said.  He believed so; he hoped so.  The rich will strive to establish their dominion and enslave the rest.  They always did.  They always will.  The proper security against them is to form them into a separate interest.  The two forces will then control the other.”  On the other hand, too much democracy could be bad: “Give the votes to people who have no property, and they will sell them to the rich who will be able to buy them ([XIII], page 84).”  A man of the establishment, someone who could be easily considered an aristocrat, himself, Gouverneur Morris fought to prevent the rich from being empowered over the poor.

It should be mentioned how different life was in 1787 America.  Many colonies were “a deferential society…in which the populace granted certain people offices and power by right of birth.  In most communities…a small group of men who made the basic decisions for the village or town…were more or less automatically elected…(which) included large landowners, like Washington and Jefferson ([XIV], page 21).”  It seemed like the common people expected this kind of oligarchy.  They had more important things to do besides keeping up with politics, such as feeding their fifteen children.

Let’s get back to the essence of our government.  Throughout history there has been three pure forms of government, “monarchy, rule of one; aristocracy, rule of the few; and democracy, the rule of many or of all…(of which) in the course of history had degenerated repeatedly into their evil counterparts: tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy or mob rule, which led ultimately to dictatorship and tyranny ([XV], page 20).  Bernard Bailyn wrote, “Some success…could be achieved by mixing elements of these pure forms within a single constitution so that the…” three would check each other (page 20).  In England’s House of Lords, the aristocracy “participated…but was constrained by the other orders to which it was yoked from capturing the whole of government (page 22).  Bailyn equivocated, though, mentioning that the nobility stuck their Vandyke Beards into each of the other branches whenever they could – whatever it took to preserve their power or aggrandize them to higher positions (page 23).  In America, however, great men rose from the dregs of society.  And Bailyn agrees, “One could scarcely say that there was a traditional aristocracy in social (author’s note: or economical) terms, and further, that there was no demarcation in legal status between those who were officially members of the middle order and those who were not (page 131-2).

Something else that Gouverneur Morris said at the Convention was perhaps the most poignant of his prophesies.  He said, “The time is not distant when this country will abound with mechanics and manufacturer (industrial workers), who will receive their bread from their employers.  Will such men be the secure and faithful guardians of liberty?  Will they be the impregnable barrier against aristocracy ([XVI], page 109)?”  Well, are they?  Obviously, Morris was voted down.  This author will leave it up to the reader to decide whether your employer guards your liberty…

Do we have an aristocracy in America?  The answer is subjective to how one might perceive an aristocracy is defined.  The Oxford Compact English Dictionary of 2000 defined it as, “a class comprising people of noble birth with hereditary titles.”  In a century of the Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Bush families, it is hard to argue that we don’t.  But must we blame them for their name?  It is hard to say that these powerful families didn’t rise through their own merit, as well as their name?  Does that not indict the public for allowing these seemingly hereditary titles?  Maybe we are still used to being governed by the same old names – and most of the time, the same old ideas.  Maybe the middle and lower classes are still empowering the rich.  Maybe we are stuck with an aristocracy of sorts; and it is necessary.  But maybe they should take a look at what our self-made founders, Our Boys, did when they worked their way to the top – and not forget the little guy.



[I] Baltzell, E. Digby.  The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy & Caste in America.  New York: Random House, 1964.

[II] Bailyn, Bernard.  The Origins of American Politics.  New York: Random House, 1967, 1968.

[III] Plato.  The Essential Plato.  Translated by Benjamin Jowett with M.J. Knight, Introduction by Alain de Botton.  United States: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1999.

[IV] Isaacson, Walter.  Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

[V] Larson, Edward J. and Winship, Michael P.  The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison.  New York: Random House, 2005.

[VI] Collier, Christopher and Collier, James Lincoln.  Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.

[VII] Ellis, Joseph.  His Excellency: George Washington.  New York:

[VIII] McCullough, David.  John Adams.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

[IX]Collier, Christopher and Collier, James Lincoln.  Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.

[X] Cullen, Charles T. and Johnson, Herbert A.  The Papers of John Marshall: Volume II.  as.ed. Wood, Joanne M. and Elias, Susan H.  Charlotte, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

[XI] Brookhiser, Richard.  Gentleman Revolutionary, Gouverneur Morris: The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution.  New York: Free Press, 2003.

[XII]  Collier, Christopher and Collier, James Lincoln.  Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.

[XIII] Brookhiser, Richard.  Gentleman Revolutionary, Gouverneur Morris: The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution.  New York: Free Press, 2003.

[XIV] Collier, Christopher and Collier, James Lincoln.  Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.

[XV] Bailyn, Bernard.  The Origins of American Politics.  New York: Random House, 1967, 1968.

[XVI] Larson, Edward J. and Winship, Michael P.  The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison.  New York: Random House, 2005.

Axelrad, Jacob.  Patrick Henry: The Voice of Freedom.  New York: Random House, 1947.

Formisano, Ronald P.  For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s.  North Carolina: The University of North


In Honor of Independence Day: “What Happened?”.

The Constitution of the United States

“WHAT HAPPENED?  Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Adams, Hamilton.  Things were going well.  Then Ford, Quayle, Mondale, Agnew, Nixon, Clinton, Dole, Bush I, Bush II.  What happened[I]?”  – George Carlin

If one is to determine whether the United States Constitution is an undemocratic or democratic document, they must first ask themselves a millennia-old question that began with Socrates and the ancient Greeks: is our society what we like to think we are – a free society – or are we merely, as the philosopher would have called us, “the herd”?  Without the answer to the latter question, we cannot truly answer the former.  Of what use is a fully democratic constitution if “the herd” does not think for itself?  Arguments come easily with such a controversial issue.  There are supposed faults in the Constitution, but is the parchment the problem, or is the public?  Whether or not the problem lies in the regionalism that has developed in the country, or lies with the professional politicians (pun unintended), or lies in the media, a full democracy will only work if the public pushes more civic education.  So, perhaps, we should not rewrite the Constitution, but rewrite our definition of civic education.

Time Magazine’s recent cover depicting the Constitution of the United States being put through a paper shredder riled many, but it isn’t the first tract calling for reform.  Author Sanford Levinson believes the only way out of this mess is to completely overhaul the Constitution.  His book, Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct it), calls for the redrafting of the “sacred document” written by our founders in 1787.  It took this author over a week to get through the first fifty pages, as myriad arguments were born from every paragraph.  But it wasn’t all contentious.  Levinson used a quote from Thomas Jefferson to explain his mission.  “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors[II],” Jefferson once wrote.  Well, TJ, I would definitely call you founders effete, maybe even a bit dandy, before I called you barbarous.  But that doesn’t mean the Constitution was brought down from a stormy mountaintop, etched into stone by the fiery hand of god itself.

There were faults in the Constitution written in 1787; the founders knew it full well.  Benjamin Franklin said it best, but in his trademark ironic way, at the last day of the Constitutional Convention, “Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best[III].”  Faults are included, but another problem persists, and Levinson mentioned it.  He wrote that “People are happy as long as they get their pork[IV].”  We may not be the most politically-motivated country.  But why is that the case?  Why don’t Americans take more responsibility in a government that is supposedly for the people and by the people?  Perhaps it should be called a government for the people, but you can buy the people, instead.  Like the ancient Romans with their gladiatorial games and other spectacles, our society seems to keep the people distracted with entertainment and consumerism.  The running of the country is someone else’s problem.  But who’s to blame for such inertia?

The easiest area of society to blame for distracting the populace is the media.  The media has the uncanny power of manipulating the public, and it has since the inception of our government.  In 1796, when TJ was up against John Adams for the presidency, newspapers rehashed TJ’s lack of action against the invasion of Virginia by Benedict Arnold during the Revolutionary War.  The papers said that TJ, the governor at the time, supposedly, “left the state in the lurch when he fled to avoid capture by the enemy raiding party that appeared at Monticello in June 1781[V].”  Adams’ media handlers basically called TJ a coward – and Adams and Jefferson had one of the most chronicled “bromances” in American history.  Adams won by a couple votes, though we’ll never know for sure if the media drubbing was the cause.  Many other instances followed, where the media used emotional logic to sway the people’s sentiment to correlate with theirs, like the famous newspaper reporting of the U.S.S. Maine sinking in 1898, supposedly by Spain, with the headline “Remember the Maine!” that fomented public sentiment toward enacting the Spanish-American War[VI].  But the most recent example is the way the media compounded the economic downturn in 2008 – without consumer confidence, the market was slow to rebound.  If the media had continued its protocol of falsely inflating the market’s problems to inflate their ratings, consumer confidence would never have risen.  And neither would have our economy.

Is there something we can do about the media?  All we can do is hope they value their ethics as much as we tend to value their opinion.  But before you think that the press is the root of all of democracy’s evils, we should mention the importance of the press’ freedom.  Obviously, the First Amendment is one of the paramount stipulations set down by the writers of the Constitution.  However, I would bet that most Americans can name more members of “The Simpsons” family, or “American Idol” contestants, than they can name of the five freedoms mentioned in the First Amendment – or even five Founding Fathers.  The point is that James Madison and the other framers knew that power is tempting and hard to let go of.  And power is even easier to abuse.  Our founders knew that the press would be the ally of the people in keeping politicians honest.  (You’re right; I should change that to “as honest as a politician can be”.)  So is the press the enemy, as many call it?  If the press’s job is to keep politicians in check for the people’s benefit, then the press is the people’s ally.  And if the press is the people’s ally, but an enemy of politics, then who’s the bad guy?  Did you say, “The politicians”?  You’re on the right track; but let’s take a closer look at them before we grab our torches and pitchforks, and ready the gallows.

Speaking of the media, the engineering of the legislative branch of our government would have made great reality television, as our deified founders quarreled like little devils.  Just deciding on the representation qualifications/stipulations was like deciding who was going to clean the outhouse.  In Levinson’s book, he mentioned how he believes that the two-representatives-per-state ratio in the Senate to be unfair[VII].  Why would the founders make two houses, and make the determining factor in their respective representations completely different?

Levinson mentioned author David Hendrickson, who poignantly called the Constitution a “peace pact” between the states[VIII].  Equal representation was essential in at least one house.  One might say that the need for equal representation in the Senate is no longer necessary because back when the Constitution was written, they were acting as “Sovereign Countries (or States)” – something was needed to keep these competitors from each taking their ball and going home.  This isn’t some unprecedented phenomenon; regionalism (state-ism, if you prefer) started immediately; it was especially noticeable as Westward Expansion began.  When Daniel Boone slaughtered every Native American he could find west of the admitted states…OK, that’s unfair.  When Boone and other settlers like him displaced many Indians from their territories, the divergent needs and desires of the expanding American Empire proliferated rivalries and factions.  As Winston Churchill put it, “The East feared the approaching political dominance of the democratic West.  The West resented the financial and economic bias of the Eastern moneyed classes.  The forces of divergence grew strong, and only the elasticity of the federal system around the core of state rights prevented the conflict between a mother country and its sturdy children[IX].”  (And, in all fairness, go see the Daniel Boone home in Defiance, MO.  It’s a great piece of American history.)

Animosity between states in modern times is exponentially minute compared to the days of the thirteen “Sovereign Countries” of 1787.  But if we force ourselves to let the differences of our times get in the way of what is right, then we lose the point of equal representation altogether.  While it is easy to understand why equal representation might seem unfair to the bigger states, it is easier for the smaller states to imagine a country run completely by the bigger states – and how fair is that?  One House of Congress is already represented by population, so why must both houses?  If we have two Houses represented by population, then why not just have the bigger states absorb the smaller states.  Or if its representation must be determined by population like the House of Representatives, then why have the Senate at all?

TJ asked George Washington what need there was for a Senate?  Washington asked him why one would pour his coffee into his saucer, to which TJ replied, “To cool it.”  Washington explained that they should “pour legislation into the Senatorial saucer to cool it.”  Authors Christopher and James Lincoln Collier said this meant that “most of the men at the Convention were at least hopeful that a way could be found to create a Senate of wise men[X].”  Was this just some corncob pipe dream?  As we look at our current Senate, how many of us can name more than ten Senators we would call wise?  How about five?  More than one?  Can you name even one?  Regardless of whether or not any of them are wise, the representation in the Senate is not on top of this author’s list of things that must change.

So why do politicians do the things they do?  It seems that most of the time, politicians do what is best for their political party.  Washington was as sure of the rise of partisan battles as he was that it was time to retire (and the two probably had a lot to do with each other).  Author Joseph Ellis wrote about Washington’s departure from the presidency – how Washington wasn’t press-proof (even Common Sense author Tom Paine criticized his presidency, saying he “prayed for his imminent death”), and how his Farewell Address showed his desire for succeeding presidents and Congressmen to stick to his policy of “neutrality abroad and unity at home.”  And the “partisan bickering” that was developing only soured Washington’s taste for politics even more[XI].  One can easily get the feeling that Washington was growing less and less popular in his waning days, but he fought back.  The hero of the Revolution wouldn’t let a bunch of sneaky politicians, and the manipulative press, extinguish his star for posterity.  Washington blasted James Monroe after the latter accused the former of treason for removing him as foreign minister, and TJ for his lack of integrity in hatching a plot to lure Washington into writing inflammatory letters that they would publish to ruin his reputation (not TJ’s brightest moment).  Washington went on in his letters that TJ and the “French Party” – as he dubbed TJ’s party – were “determined…to subvert the Constitution”; “to turn the clock back to 1787, thereby repudiating the hard-won constitutional settlement.”  He felt that this was motivated by nothing but a desire for power[XII].

Ellis explained that TJ and Madison could have thought this was just a sign of the great man’s natural decline into age.  But Washington was right.  Ellis wrote,

“They had in fact been orchestrating a concerted and often covert

campaign against the Federalists since 1791.  They had played politics with

foreign policy during the debate over the Jay Treaty.  They had paid

scandalmongers to libel [Alexander] Hamilton and Washington.  And they had on several

occasions (as in the Genet affair, endorsing Monroe’s conduct in Paris)

engaged in skullduggery that would have been regarded as treasonable in

any modern court of law[XIII].”

Not that Hamilton and the Federalists were innocent of political maneuvering.  In fact, it was Hamilton’s political ambition, and his inability to compromise his aims, that helped inspire the forming of political parties.  Author Ron Chernow agrees, “The rift between Hamilton and Madison precipitated the start of the two-party system in America.”  Hamilton was so either hated or loved that early on, “the political spectrum in America was defined by whether people endorsed or opposed Alexander Hamilton’s programs[XIV].”  But the development of the party system in America wasn’t as damaging as the commencement of the age of the “professionals”.

Author Morris P. Fiorina wrote about how American politics is chock full of seemingly tenured “professionals” who are merely “preoccupied with winning and losing.”  Men such as Eugene, and his son Herman, Talmadge in Georgia seemingly ran their counties/states through political bullying, or outright corruption.  These men gerrymandered and reapportioned their territories to influence their desired political outcomes (mostly white supremacy in the Talmadge cases)[XV].  Fiorina explains that they are men driven only for more power, “not at producing the good society, but at gaining power and place for one’s self and one’s party.”  Capriciousness is a politician’s hallmark, but they aren’t the only chameleons.  Consider how the Republican and Democratic Parties have almost done a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn in ideology since their respective inceptions.  The reason that Fiorina gives is what you might expect – money, or as he more eloquently calls it “material incentive”[XVI].  Ben Franklin saw compromise as “not only a practical approach but a moral one…On almost every issue for more than two centuries, this supposed fault has served the Constitution, and the nation it formed, quite well[XVII].”  The Constitution was born in an age of Enlightenment – The men at the Constitutional Convention strived to meet the middle road on many issues, making sacrifices to make their country better.  How things have changed…

No, it's not grandma's bridge club; it's the Founders signing the Constitution of the United States

Can there be a downside to a full democracy?  Just ask Socrates.  Socrates asked one of his notorious “yes-men” in Plato’s dialogues, “Do you not admire…the coolness and dexterity of these ready ministers of political corruption[XVIII]?”  Those who know how Socrates’ life ended won’t have to ask what that statement meant.  Socrates was always chiding politicians, and his rebuke of the establishment – even Athens’ democracy – eventually got him put to death.  It should be noted that Athens had the most interactive government for most of recorded history.  The people (well…freeborn males) actually did the voting on all issues put to vote.  Not even America had this type of suffrage until the “Jacksonian Revolution” in the 1820s and 1830s[XIX].  Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth by teaching them to question everything – from religion to (various gods forbid) politics.  But in this democracy where anyone could speak in the assembly, “nowhere in the many dialogues that touch on the trial of Socrates does Plato have any of his characters make the obvious point that Athens was untrue to its own principles in condemning Socrates[XX].”  Although the “gadfly of the state” was nefarious for criticizing his hometown’s establishment, the people had him killed for it – for living freely in a self-proclaimed home of freedom.  That must have been what Levinson meant when he mentioned the “tyranny of the majority[XXI].”

Levinson asked his readers if they thought it would betray the founders to rewrite the Constitution.  Just knowing that we have the freedom to rewrite our Sacred Document proves that, at least, the government born from the parchment still gives some power to “we the people.”  TJ once said, “Happily for us, that when we find our constitutions defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers, and set it to rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms to amend or restore their constitutions[XXII].”  So maybe it’s not the actual document that is undemocratic, but the people.   Prior to the Constitutional Convention, Franklin wrote to TJ about his concerns, “If it does not do good it will do harm, as it will show that we have not the wisdom enough among us to govern ourselves[XXIII].”  But if we don’t rewrite the Constitution, how can we do better?

Civics is a lost subject in the classroom, rapidly being found less and less important to math and science as the forgotten art of music in the classroom.  Yet this subject is what this author believes is the way to prove our society worthy of a more democratic Constitution.  Civics – and democratic classrooms where dissent is allowed (and even encouraged) – must be utilized to create the society of well-informed free men the founders intended.  Author D.L. Martinson wrote that administrators tend to shy away from “hiring social studies teachers who will facilitate a classroom experience where genuine learning about active citizenship in a democratic society becomes part of the socialization process[XXIV].”  Instead, we see more tyrannical classrooms, what some see as the necessary component of societal order.  This would be perfect if we were ancient Sparta, but with one difference – classrooms that churn out consumer-bees (instead of Spartan warrior-bees) swarming around our hives.

Only if the people take more responsibility in their proposed new legislative powers derived from a new Constitution will they truly form a “more perfect union”.  But it is up to this generation of Americans to set things right for generations to come by investing in civics in education.  Our old friend, Socrates, said it best, “Good nurture and education implant good constitutions, and these good constitutions taking root in a good education improve more and more, and this improvement affects the breed in man as in other animals[XXV].”  For right now, however, the political animal we have chosen is merely “the herd”.  We can do better; we must do better.


• Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

• Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship.  The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History fro the Notes of James Madison.  (New York: Random House, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2005).

• John Ferling.  Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)

• H.W. Brands.  TR: The Last Romantic.  (New York: BasicBooks, 1997).

• Winston Churchill.  A History of the English Speaking Peoples: Vol. 4, The Great Democracies.  (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993).

• Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier.  Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787.  (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986).

• Joseph Ellis.  His Excellency: George Washington.  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

• Ron Chernow.  Alexander Hamilton.  (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

• Jimmy Carter.  Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age. (New York: Random House, Times Books, 1992).

• Morris P. Fiorina with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope.  Culture War?  The Myth of a Polarized America.  (United States:  Pearson Education, Inc., 2006).

• Walter Isaacson.  Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003).

• Plato.  The Essential Plato.  The Republic.  Translated by Benjamin Jowett with M.J. Knight.  Introduction by Alain de Botton.  (New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1999).

• I.F. Stone.  The Trial of Socrates.  (New York: Random House, First Anchor Books Edition, 1989).

• D.L. Martinson.  “Defeating the ‘Hidden Curriculum’: Teaching Political Participation in the Social Studies Classroom.  Clearing House, 76(3).

[I] Geoge Carlin.  When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?  (New York: Hyperion, Comedy Concepts, Inc., 2004), 52.

[II] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), ix.

[III] Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship.  The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History fro the Notes of James Madison.  (New York: Random House, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2005), 154.

[IV] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 8.

[V] John Ferling.  Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 89.

[VI] H.W. Brands.  TR: The Last Romantic.  (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), 324.

[VII] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 6.

[VIII] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 14

[IX] Winston Churchill.  A History of the English Speaking Peoples: Vol. 4, The Great Democracies.  (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993), 135.

[X] Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier.  Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787.  (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986), 150.

[XI] Joseph Ellis.  His Excellency: George Washington.  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 245.

[XII] Joseph Ellis.  His Excellency: George Washington.  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 246.

[XIII] Joseph Ellis.  His Excellency: George Washingotn.  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 247?

[XIV] Ron Chernow.  Alexander Hamilton.  (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 306.

[XV] Jimmy Carter.  Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age. (New York: Random House, Times Books, 1992), 6-9.

[XVI] Morris P. Fiorina with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope.  Culture War?  The Myth of a Polarized America.  (United States:  Pearson Education, Inc., 2006), 188-190.

[XVII] Walter Isaacson.  Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 460.

[XVIII] Plato.  The Essential Plato.  The Republic.  Translated by Benjamin Jowett with M.J. Knight.  Introduction by Alain de Botton.  (New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1999), 143.

[XIX] I.F. Stone.  The Trial of Socrates.  (New York: Random House, First Anchor Books Edition, 1989), 47.

[XX] I.F. Stone.  The Trial of Socrates.  (New York: Random House, First Anchor Books Edition, 1989), 230.

[XXI] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 204

[XXII] Sanford Levinson.  Our Undemocratic Constitution:  Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 12.

[XXIII] Walter Isaacson.  Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 444.

[XXIV] D.L. Martinson.  “Defeating the ‘Hidden Curriculum’: Teaching Political Participation in the Social Studies Classroom.  Clearing House, 76(3), 134.

[XXV] Plato.  The Essential Plato.  The Republic.  Translated by Benjamin Jowett with M.J. Knight.

Introduction by Alain de Botton.  (New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1999), 139.

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