In 1787, the Founding Fathers met at the Constitutional Convention and crafted the U.S. Constitution. It was a watershed moment, and to many today, the creation of this abstract ideal government turned the founders into living gods. These uniquely American gods are apparently omnipresent and may be invoked in any political argument as a means to win the debate. To invoke them is to imply that one's opponent is literally "un-American."
In modern political discourse, it is extremely common to hear all political parties (but especially Republicans and libertarians) seek to tie their modern beliefs to the words of the Founding Fathers or appeal to a supposed time in the country when the founders' words were more respected.
Debate on gun regulations? The founders said in the Second Amendment that there shall be no regulation. Civil-rights legislation that codifies anti-discrimination rules and protects disenfranchised classes of people? The founders didn't want government interference in private freedom of association. Should religion and government ever lay together? If one listened to the political talking heads, it seems the founders argued both sides without reservation on this topic. People pore over the personal notes and writings of the founders for insights and debate material. A stray comment regarding the Christian religion leading to good morals is extrapolated to justify government-sponsored Christian-only favoritism, while "separation of church and state" must clearly mean people must deny their personal views and morals.
In a certain way, the idea that the country was founded by gods who created an infallible guide for politics is comforting. When problems arise, just look to the gods. Surely the answer will be there.
The problem is, like most supremely dogmatic political religions, that the Founding Fathers were flawed products of their time. They did not, contrary to popular belief, share a common faith in Protestant Christianity. Benjamin Franklin was a deist with an affinity for prostitutes. Thomas Jefferson, he of "all men are created equal" fame, raped his slaves.
Speaking of slavery, the Founding Fathers determined at the convention by majority vote that a slave was only 3/5 of a person. Almost half of those present at Constitutional Convention (25 of 55) were slave owners. The convention protected the slave trade, a shameful dark stain on American history.
Before the convention was convened, the founders took part directly in or indirectly approved of the crushing of Shays Rebellion, an organized protest by former continental soldiers and farmers who merely wanted economic equality and due process of law. Property was more important to the founders—not people. To vote, one had to be a property owner, thereby placing political power in the hands of the few rather than the many. The rights the Founders enumerated did not apply to all equally, as the poor, minorities, women, etc. were all left out.
Now this is not a "be edgy and trash the founders" piece. The founders were flawed people, but they were people. What else can be expected of them? The Constitution they produced is not worthless. On the contrary, the ideal it put into action was ahead of its time. The ideals within its framework have provided structure for social progress, as the open-ended nature of the Constitution allows for interpretations and resulting amendments. The world has changed since America's founding, and it will continue to.
The founders offered ideas in their time, but they do not belong to our time. At best, they provide a political ideal of freedom to be adapted to the modern day. At worst, they provide justification for chattel slavery, political repression of the poor and capitalistic wage slavery.
Either way, what the founders do not and cannot do is provide pure truth, absolute justification or political vindication. Today's problems require the people to unite and confront them. The founders' religion is a stone idol; it cannot grapple with the economic inequality, systemic racism, war, poverty and strife that confront America today. Only a living spirit of democracy and freedom within the people can face the future and overcome it.
The founders were intelligent, thoughtful, diplomatic, slave-owning, systemically sexist and ultimately flawed people. Thank God for that. No one deserves perfection. Smash the idols of these old gods. The spirit is among the people, and there is much work to be done.
Criminal defense attorney Andrew J. Williams, Esq., lives and practices in his adopted home of Mississippi.