Myth: The Founders should be revered as secular saints.
Fact: The Founders were human.
The Founders, although brilliant, were also corrupt, inept, scandalous,
prejudiced and slave-owners. To deify them is unwarranted.
There can be no doubt that the Founding Fathers were among the
elite of the young nation, and were exceptional intellects by any standard.
Thomas Jefferson was considered so brilliant that when John F. Kennedy
invited all the Nobel Prize winners to dine at the White House, he told
them: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent,
of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House -- with
the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined here alone."
However brilliant they were, the Founders do not deserve to
be historically recast as secular saints. They were not gods -- they were
quite fallible human beings. They owned slaves, denied women the right
to vote, committed atrocities against Native Americans, and made clearly
anti-Semitic statements. The government they created was not really of
the people; it was of rich, white, male landowners. Although they created
a Bill of Rights guaranteeing individual freedoms, this document was not
seriously enforced for 130 years afterwards. For example, the press was
frequently censored for "seditious" material, and it was not
until the early 20th century that the Supreme Court actually
heard its first case on free speech!
The Founders first attempt to build a nation -- the Confederation of
States -- was a dismal failure. Even our current constitution passed by
sheer luck. The federalists were in the minority, but the anti-federalist
majority was divided, overconfident and badly organized. Had they not been,
our nation would look very different today. Furthermore, judicial review
-- the process by which the Supreme Court reviews federal laws for their
constitutionality -- wasn't even included in the constitution. Its authors
simply trusted Congress to pass laws that obeyed it.
Not surprisingly, the Founders' personal lives were filled with all
the same foibles that plague our current politicians -- and then some.
Vice President Aaron Burr, for example, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton
in a duel. Even our first president is more remembered by his mythology
than his actual life. Every American school child learns the legend of
young George Washington cutting down the cherry tree and then admitting
to his father, "I cannot tell a lie." The story itself is a lie,
but what is true is that Washington bought his first election. Historian
George Thayer writes:
"When [George Washington] ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses
from Fairfax County in 1757, he provided his friends with the 'customary
means of winning votes'; namely, 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch,
34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and 2 gallons of cider royal. Even
in those days this was considered a large campaign expenditure, because
there were only 391 voters in his district, for an average outlay of more
than a quart and half per person." (1)
Should we praise the Founders for their revolutionary new approach
to democratic government? Of course. But to turn them into secular saints,
incapable of error, atrocity, immorality or faulty judgment, is clearly
Return to Overview
1. George Thayer, Who Shakes the Money Tree? American Campaign
Financing Practices from 1789 to the Present (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1973), p. 25.