October 30

Blog #42 – Slavery disqualifier?

“All men are created equal…” Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence

“There is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach [slavery]… we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”  Thomas Jefferson’s letter to John Holmes

An argument that discredits some of the Founding Fathers, including men like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison among others is that because these men owned slaves yet fought for freedom, they are hypocrites.  The line of reasoning goes – “how could someone who so courageously advanced the cause of human freedom still be a slaveowner?  They can’t possibly be both for and against freedom.”   The next point in this line of thinking is that because of this hypocrisy, some of Founding Fathers, especially the Virginians, are racist because they neither had the courage to free their slaves or that they profited from their slaves’ labor. 

One of the most biting quotes about this dilemma is from this time period (not ours) by Englishman Samuel Johnson:

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (Ambrose 2).

But were our FFs neglectful of this slavery dilemma?   It appears not.  When Jefferson describes the perpetuation of slavery in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, he talks about how the slavemaster attitude is passed on down to his children:

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise in the most boisterous passions…The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives loose to his worst passions, and thus nursed, educated and daily exercised in tyranny…”

Here, the child of the slaveowner learns how to treat slaves like chattel, and the cycle is perpetuated.  But modern critics say, how could Jefferson recognize this contradiction in American society and not do anything about it?   Even in the same book where he criticizes slavery and its depravity, Jefferson embraces the racism of the time by asserting that slaves hadn’t produced any real literature, they smelled bad, and engage in sex constantly (Ambrose 4).  Yet, confoundingly, Jefferson also wrote a passage into the original draft of the Declaration of Independence that condemned slavery, and he also signed the bill that outlawed the international slave trade in 1808. 

“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 it [slavery].” —George Washington

Then there’s Washington.  He was the only one of the nine slaveowning president who had freed all of his slaves (neither Adams owned slaves).   He held the nation together through the force of his personality and will during some of the darkest times.  But that didn’t stop a school in New Orleans from being renamed in the 1990s from George Washington Elementary to the Charles R. Drew Elementary(Dr. Drew is the developer of hemoglobin) (Ambrose 11). 


Ben Franklin and Benjamin Rush, FFs from Pennsylvania, helped found the nation’s first anti-slavery society in Philadelphia.  Rush is quoted as saying: “Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity… It is rebellion against the authority of a common Father.”

On the other side, there’s the assertion by Michelle Bachman, former Republican presidential candidate, who said that  the FFs “know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”   Specifically, Bachman mentions John Quincy Adams as one of these tireless founders, our 6th president. 


 1. What is happening here to the Founding Fathers?  Why are some people quick to attack and blame them for allowing slavery to exist at the foundation of a freedom-loving nation?  And why do some people defend the FFs with every ounce of their being? 

2. Do you think the FFs are being judged by today’s standards or by the standards of the day in which they lived?  Have the FFs become some kind of political football that candidates use for their own purposes?  Why?

Answer both questions by Thursday, class time, November 1.  300 words total. 


Ambrose, Stephen E. To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Print

http://theweek.com/article/index/216841/did-the-founding-fathers-really-work-tirelessly-to-end-slavery  The Week.

November 2

Blog #5 – Founding Fathers distrust

Well, the more and more that I read about the Founding Fathers (a term coined by President Harding, a huge fan of alliteration), the more that I disturbed by how much that they distrust the “people” or the masses of unwashed, uneducated voters. 


 A people’s-led revolt like Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 that came on the heels of Hamilton’s call for a second look at the Articles of Confederation to be scheduled in Philly in May 1787 seemed to “confirm Thomas Jefferson’s fear of democratic despotism… An elective despotism was not the government we fought for” (Pageant 177).  Apparently, civic virtue or public responsibility to follow the rules, the textbook authors wrote, was no longer strong enough to stop people from being greedy or “self-interest[ed].”  Hmmmm… people shouldn’t follow their self-interest?  They shouldn’t pursue happiness, to paraphrase TJ? 

Haven’t we been taught from a young age that the Fathers wanted to guarantee the freedoms for which they had fought the British?  Haven’t we been taught that this was a fight for the rule of law, for civil rights, for all to be free and equal (except if you were a slave)?   As historian Bernard Bailyn stated our revolution’s main goal was “the destruction of privilege and the creation of a political system that demanded of its leaders the responsible and humane use of power” (Zinn 101). 



But here’s  James Madison, the “father of the Constitution” arguing in Federalist #10 that a strong central government will be able to keep the peace because the passions of the people will be too diffused or spread out: “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member [state] of it” (Zinn 97). 


Whose interests are the Fathers protecting?  The people?  What did the Fathers fear would happen if the people were totally in charge? 

To quote Alexander Hamilton, ”

The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact.  The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.  Give therefore to the first class [of people] a distinct permanent share in the government…“” (Zinn 96). 


To curb the excesses, the unbridled passions of the publicly elected House of Representatives, the Senate was created as that check.  In Federalist #63, a Senate was “sometimes necessary as a defence the people against their own temporary errors and delusions…[b/c] there are moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or illicit advantage, or misled by some artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn” (Zinn 98). 

alex hamilton

** The bold type is mine.  I think this could apply to both of the political parties in today’s election, or worse yet, the money behind both political parties. 


I think the Fathers’ concerns comes from several sources, but mainly from the idea that these men who made the Constitution were elitists and designed a system that protected private property from being taken away arbitrarily by a voting public.   We have heard them say time and time again that property = liberty.  With a solid system in place, founded on the traditions of English law, America has been able to prosper because property has been guaranteed for over 200 years by courts and the government.  If our private property hadn’t been guaranteed by these safeguards, then investments would probably be worthless, and our future would have been dicey.  People with money would have taken their money elsewhere or pushed for a different form of government. 


This pattern has repeated itself time and time again in many of the Latin American countries that have emulated us with their Constitutions since they overthrew the Spanish in the 19th Century, but because there isn’t a consistent turnover of power or protection of civil rights, the wealthy in those countries have gotten behind any strong man who promises order.  In America, we believe in the rules even when those rules frustrate us or look as if they are being abused b/c in the long run, we believe that it will all work out. 

For this blog, please answer the following questions:

1. Do you think the Founding Fathers were right to distrust the passions of the American people when they wrote the Constitution?  Why or why not?

2. What passions / fears are swaying the American people right now as they currently head towards the polls today?  Provide specific examples. 

250 words minimum.  Thanks.

Due Wednesday, November 3. 




July 8

Daily Show with historian Jack Rakove on the founding fathers

Author Jack Rakove talking about his book, \”Revolutionaries\” on the Daily Show.

Here’s a look at historian Jack Rakove on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart discussing the variety of ways to look at the founding fathers and how they’re not one mass group but rather a set of unique individuals with their own agendas. Duh! What a concept. So much for oversimplification (or hijacking) of history.