Monday, October 29, 2012

Frame This, Buddy

            So, guys. First of all, how are you? I feel like sometimes this site is too much about me and history’s other greatest monsters, and I don’t give you time to get your two cents in! There are two ways we can do that- You could follow me on Twitter and then PM me all your dirty thoughts gushing reviews of my posts, or you can just say your words at the computer screen. How’s that lady at work you don’t like?


            What, no way. That’s probably against some rule, right?

            Yeah, I guess. Anyway, I called you here today because I have an issue brewing inside my heart. My therapist said that writing my internal conflicts out will help me focus on self-realization, and I have no therapist but that sounds like something one would say. But the great conflict raging inside my heart and loins is this:

What do we do with the Founding Fathers?

            As a future history teacher and overall-Rufus-King-enthusiast, this is a question I need to answer soon. Countless people have already accosted me on the street to find out my opinion on the issue, and I can’t imagine what will happen when I’m a recognized and respected teacher. NOTE: I don’t really have a very firm idea of what life is like for teachers.
            My heart is divided into two camps, much like the Founding Fathers themselves. On one hand, the Founding Fathers (James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and the like), fought the world’s first democratic revolution, inspired generations of Americans, and put forth one of the greatest written documents in political science, our Constitution. On the other, they were racist, slaveholding rich men whose biggest beef with England was the fact that they paid too much in taxes. Plus they capitalized words in a different fashion.
            Which Founding Fathers do we subscribe to? Should we even subscribe to any Founding Fathers at all? Is it right to eliminate the bad parts of the FF’s part of history as just “the culture of their time”? Are there any horse socks? Let’s take this on a two-party basis.

Virginia Plan: The Founding Fathers are great and we should love them
            The Founding Fathers are great. When the Declaration of Independence was written, they signed their real names to it, in direct defiance of Great Britain and risking their lives in the process. The sheer ballsiness of this act is not to be undersold, even if high schools typically frown on the word “ballsiness.”
            After they beat the strongest army in the world with little more than a cause, The Founding Fathers got right to business of drafting a system of government to replace the monarchy they had been subjected to. They promptly screwed the pooch. But it’s all part of the drama of American history that the Articles were pitched out within a few years. It takes a lot of moxie to throw away a system of government you had fought to win that quickly.
            Then they set up a system of government that, although not as original as we’d like to think, influenced and profoundly changed the entire world. The Constitutional Convention was hot, both in the meteorological and metaphorical sense. Opposing viewpoints were thrown into the mix genially and peacefully. At the end, the Framers settled with compromise because they knew it was better to get half a loaf of bread than starve waiting for the whole thing.
            The Constitution they wrote has handed power off peacefully with only one failure, and for almost 250 years that’s a pretty good success rate. No other country has survived so long with the same written Constitution. It’s because the Framers knew that they were not smart enough to see into the future. Vague language left holes and wiggle room for their offspring to make the Constitution whatever it was needed to be. Even now, issues brewing from technology the Framers couldn't have dreamed of can be solved using the Constitution.
            In essence, the Founding Fathers represent everything that is great about America and should be looked up to by every citizen.

These men made the world what it is today! Awesome!
New Jersey Plan: The Founding Fathers were kinda evil by today’s terms and not to be idolized.
            The Alien and Sedition Acts. That’s about the crux of this argument. I suppose you can argue John Adams was an ambassador to France at the writing of the First Amendment but that hardly exempts him from blame. The Alien and Sedition Acts spit straight into the First Amendment’s face by restricting speech critical of Adams’ administration and the American government at large. Two presidents in, and the generation who wrote the Amendments had begun to attack them in legislation. The Founding Fathers were two-sided at best and at worst, hypocrites.
            Thomas Jefferson, writer “that all Men are created equal,” owned several human beings as property. John Adams, as we discussed, silenced dissidents in his term as president. George Washington actually had a losing record in battles during the Revolutionary war.
            Speaking of the Revolutionary war, the colonies only pulled off a win because Britain was not making that much profit off of America anyway, and busy fighting France for whatever reason. Without the involvement of France, the colonies likely lose the Revolutionary War, although to be honest, another would have surfaced eventually.
            The Articles of Confederation were an abject failure, proving several republican and States’ Rights ideals false. Numerous rebellions cropped up during the Articles’ time on top, and were only put down when George Washington stamped down with a boot made of militiamen.
            The Constitutional Convention came close to being just as much of a failure, broken by partisan views and uncomfortable, humid, living quarters. The document, at the end of the process, included a clause requiring states to send runaway slaves back to their rightful owners, and restricted the vote to privileged white men.
            The Constitution’s failure to resolve slavery through legal means resulted in the Civil War, the deadliest war in American history. It took almost a full century for the last issue of the Constitution to be resolved, and the Union only survived through a bloody, terrible war.
            In the 1842 case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story found that slave catchers did not need any written warrants or permission from states to reclaim runaway slaves. Part of his argument was based on a thoroughly untrue idea that the Fugitive Slave Clause “constituted a fundamental article, without the adoption of which the Union could not have been formed,” when it was actually a practical afterthought. Now, Justice Story is obviously not a Founding Father, but this anecdote is another problem with the Founding Fathers: The Founders have stood for whatever the powers-that-be said they did, throughout history. The worship Americans give to the Framers along with vague language allows policy that the Founders may have abhorred to be pushed through. Our sentimental connection to the past opens the way for America’s very history to be perverted into supporting either side of whichever controversy is at hand.
            In short, the Founders were bigoted by today’s standards, and couldn’t even follow their own laws. Through their failure to adequately state their plans for the future, any view of how America should be run can be attributed to upholding the Founders’ true beliefs.

These men made the world what is is today! What dicks!
The Connecticut Compromise
            These are both well written arguments that should be a shoo-in for Best Post and Most Handsome Blogger awards this coming season. But I need to come to a conclusion not only for my personal peace of mind, but for narrative closure as well. So where do we land?
            The Founding Fathers were human. They existed, they pooped, they had sex dreams about the women that they were associated with in polite company, and had a couple of days of inexplicable awkward conversation with said women because of it. They fought for what they believed in, but they weren't exactly sure what that was. Too often we forget just how large the group of Founding Fathers was- 57 men signed the Declaration of Independence and 38 put their names to the Constitution. (How did I know this? I got out my copy of each document and counted the names, ‘cause I’m high tech like that.) You can’t get fifteen people in a comfortable, air-conditioned room to agree on what pizzas to order, much less 38 men in a hot Philadelphia courthouse, deciding how a country will be run.

"So it looks like we're all in agreement then?"
"I disagree!"
            To say they were products of their time makes me sound like an apologist for racism, but it’s true. Despite owning several slaves, Thomas Jefferson was a huge proponent of gradual emancipation. Other Founding Fathers were straight up abolitionists. We see how ingrained slavery had become by the outbreak of the Civil War that we forget it hadn't always been that way. The South actually grew less tolerant of threats against slavery as time went on, and dug itself deeper into the trench of the “Peculiar Institution”. By the end of Thomas Jefferson’s life, he was distraught at the condition of slavery in the United States.
            Yes, the laws and rules drawn up by these men are vague, but they’re done that way for a reason. They were writing a Constitution for the future, and didn't assume to know the business of coming generations. Hell, there’s an entire section of the Constitution devoted on how to amend it, which a man who thinks himself perfect would never include.
            But we must always remember that as great and as smart as these men were, they were just that- men. By elevating them to a state of Patriotic Deities, we actually undermine their legacy. Think of two American tourists abroad. One is polite and wearing nondescript clothing while the other yells that as an American (the greatest country in the world), he should be given special treatment. He’s also wearing a cowboy hat and an American flag shirt. Nothing hurts America’s image worse than its over-the-top supporters, and the Founders are the same way.
            Using these men’s names to give false historical backing is sickening. Not only for slavery, but a wealth of other issues have been linked back to the formation of America. For example: Hey, Christian activists- this country isn’t a “Christian nation.” Sure, we are a country of an overwhelming Christian majority, but it is actually written into the laws and historical documents that America rejects such a label. The First Amendment doesn’t only protect religion from some laws, but prevents the government from supporting a particular one. The Pilgrims and Puritans were small groups of settlers that nowhere near matched the secular business interests that settled the original colonies. The Founders, far from being hardcore Christians, were often more moderate secularists or even diests. And speaking of diests, the Framers weren’t hardcore atheists either. Thomas Jefferson may have chopped the religious aspects out when he was writing his own personal bible (and then distributed it as the weirdest party gift in history), but he still recognized that the Bible held a lot of cool moral lessons.
            The only way to avoid this pitfall is to study. Yes, I’m biased and promoting what is essentially job security, but knowing where you come from is a huge aspect of knowing where you’re going.
            In closing: The Framers were very smart men who did very smart things. But they were men, and were susceptible to the same mistakes as any other men in history. We should look up to them, and respect their accomplishments, but take a very hard line not to worship them. The best way to honor their memory is to actually know what their legacy entails; hard work, compromise, and a hot-ass courthouse in Philadelphia.

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