In Defense of the Founders
Updated: Jan 21
The “Founding Fathers” of the United States of America have been the targets of considerable public criticism as the nation struggles for stability and survival in the midst of economic disruption and growing social and political turmoil. For example, the founders are blamed for not abolishing slavery and granting women the right to vote in the process of establishing the nation. Those “original sins” of omission are often cited as root causes of more than 200 years of continuing racial and gender discrimination. The founders most certainly were fallible human beings rather than “political super heroes.” With 200 years of foresight, they perhaps would have given political morality priority over their more modest commitment to establish a “more perfect union.” However, they still laid out a clear agenda for future generations to continue their mission. The recent failures to continue doing so are ours, not theirs.
The political agenda for the nation was clearly laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America—which I have quoted frequently in past posts and presentations and will continue to quote as long as I am able. These documents obviously were not meant to reflect the state of the American Colonies or the United States at the time they were written. They were political ideals “toward” which the founders and future generations of Americans were to aspire and strive to achieve. We should not blame the founders for the failure of future generations to live up to their ideals.
From the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
This statement was not an acceptance of slavery, denial of women’s right to vote, or sanction of any other form or discrimination. Instead it was a commitment to securing the God given rights of all people, equally, without regard to race, gender, or any other basis for discrimination. At the time, the term “men” was commonly used to refer to “mankind” or humanity—not just to distinguish male from female. However, the founders recognized that the “just power of government” was derived from the “consent of the governed,” and they simply did not have the consent of the people of the colonies to abolish slavery or grant women the right to vote at that time. They stated clearly that when any form of government failed to secure the unalienable and equal right of all, it is the rights of the people to alter or abolish it and establish a new government that they deem most likely to secure their “safety and happiness.” They made sure the government could be altered in the future by amending the constitution.
The U.S. Constitution also lays out an aspirational agenda for future generations of Americans. It clearly identifies the basic functions and organizational structure of the U.S. government and its responsibility for continual self-reflection, -renewal, and -regeneration. The preamble states the basic functions of the U.S. government are to be carried out by those with responsibility for the processes of governance: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
It begins with an admission that the original document is not perfect but instead a step “toward greater perfection.” The first function mentioned is “to establish justice”—meaning to carry through with the mission of securing the God given, equal, and unalienable rights of all. “Ensuring domestic tranquility” refers to providing a means of avoiding hostilities among the various states. “Providing for the common defense” made clear that the military forces of the United States were to be used for national defense and not political or economic conquests. “Promoting the general welfare” meant that the government was to function for the “common good” of the people, not to promote individual or corporate political or economic interests. Finally, “to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity” means that the liberty to participate fully in society and governance is to be ensured for all Americans, including those of future generations.
The multiple crises confronting the United States of America on this 4th of July are all consequences of failures of our government to carry through with its constitutional responsibilities. The disproportionate negative impacts on racial minorities of the coronavirus pandemic and persistent police brutality have revealed the continuing failure of the government to “establish justice” for all. The growing strife between “red states'' and “blue states” is being aggravated, not moderated, by political rhetoric. The nation is made less secure by “offensive” strategies for political domination and economic expansion carried out by over-sized U.S. military forces. The U.S. government consistently prioritizes the preferences of the “1%”, who control nearly half of the nation’s wealth, over the “general welfare” of the people in common. All of the looming crisis of global climate change threatens the freedom and “liberty” of both present and future generations. None of these problems are the fault of the founders of the nation.
We are at another time in American history when the survival of this “nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” is at risk. Abraham Lincoln returned frequently to such words from the founding documents in making his case for the abolition of slavery. The Women's Suffrage movement added the words “and women” of the Declaration of Independence in declaring their equal right to vote. Theodore Roosevelt called the Constitution “a nearly perfect instrument” in breaking up the corporate trusts and paving the way for the progressive social movement of the early 1900s. Martin Luther King frequently quoted from the founding documents during the 1960s in proclaiming that all Americans, regardless of race, must be afforded equal rights to participate fully in all aspects of American society. Paraphrasing Lincoln, we are once again engaged in a great political struggle to determine whether this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall perish from the earth.