The Real “Founding Fathers”

(16 January 2014)

A great many Americans tend to glorify, even deify the so-called “Founding Fathers.” “They brought us ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’!” the myth goes, a myth we’ve heard repeated incessantly, day in, day out, since infancy. “They helped us escape from the clutches of tyranny!” we’ve all been told in our school “history” classes.

The fact of the matter is they were and did nothing of the sort. The hallowed “Founding Fathers” were mostly rich slave owners—and entirely white, male landowners—interested much more in defending their own class’ economic interests than in defending the common person.

From Howard Zinn’s inestimable opus A People’s History of the United States, chapter 5, “A Kind of Revolution”:

To many Americans over the years, the Constitution drawn up in 1787 has seemed a work of genius put together by wise, humane men who created a legal framework for democracy and equality. This view is stated, a bit extravagantly, by the historian George Bancroft, writing in the early nineteenth century:

The Constitution establishes nothing that interferes with equality and individuality. It knows nothing of differences by descent, or opinions, of favored classes, or legalized religion, or the political power of property. It leaves the individual alongside of the individual. … As the sea is made up of drops, American society is composed of separate, free, and constantly moving atoms, ever in reciprocal action … so that the institutions and laws of the country rise out of the masses of individual thought which, like the waters of the ocean, are rolling evermore.

Another view of the Constitution was put forward early in the twentieth century by the historian Charles Beard (arousing anger and indignation, including a denunciatory editorial in the New York Times). He wrote in his book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution:

Inasmuch as the primary object of a government, beyond the mere repression of physical violence, is the making of the rules which determine the property relations of members of society, the dominant classes whose rights are thus to be determined must perforce obtain from the government such rules as are consonant with the larger interests necessary to the continuance of their economic processes, or they must themselves control the organs of government.

In short, Beard said, the rich must, in their own interest, either control the government directly or control the laws by which government operates.

Beard applied this general idea to the Constitution, by studying the economic backgrounds and political ideas of the fifty-five men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to draw up the Constitution. He found that a majority of them were lawyers by profession, that most of them were men of wealth, in land, slaves, manufacturing, or shipping, that half of them had money loaned out at interest, and that forty of the fifty-five held government bonds, according to the records of the Treasury Department.

Thus, Beard found that most of the makers of the Constitution had some direct economic interest in establishing a strong federal government: the manufacturers needed protective tariffs; the moneylenders wanted to stop the use of paper money to pay off debts; the land speculators wanted protection as they invaded Indian lands; slaveowners needed federal security against slave revolts and runaways; bondholders wanted a government able to raise money by nationwide taxation, to pay off those bonds.

Four groups, Beard noted, were not represented in the Constitutional Convention: slaves, indentured servants, women, men without property [i.e., that vast majority of the population]. And so the Constitution did not reflect the interests of those groups.

He wanted to make it clear that he did not think the Constitution was written merely to benefit the Founding Fathers personally, although one could not ignore the $150,000 fortune of Benjamin Franklin, the connections of Alexander Hamilton to wealthy interests through his father-in-law and brother-in-law, the great slave plantations of James Madison, the enormous landholdings of George Washington. Rather, it was to benefit the groups the Founders represented, the “economic interests they understood and felt in concrete, definite form through their own personal experience.”

Not everyone at the Philadelphia Convention fitted Beard’s scheme. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts was a holder of landed property, and yet he opposed the ratification of the Constitution. Similarly, Luther Martin of Maryland, whose ancestors had obtained large tracts of land in New Jersey, opposed ratification. But, with a few exceptions, Beard found a strong connection between wealth and support of the Constitution.

By 1787 there was not only a positive need for strong central government to protect the large economic interests, but also immediate fear of rebellion by discontented farmers. The chief event causing this fear was an uprising in the summer of 1786 in western Massachusetts, known as Shays’ Rebellion.

I’ve blogged about Zinn on Shay’s Rebellion before, about the “Founding Fathers” and how their correspondence demonstrates utmost disdain for the average citizen, about how the “Constitutional Convention is convened in the shadow of Shay’s Rebellion.”

I’ve also blogged about Zinn’s take on the “glorious” American Revolution, in what I call “a scathing indictment of the so-called ‘best’ revolution–the reactionary, status-quo-preserving American ‘Revolution.'”