Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Founding Fathers: Prelude to the constitution

There is one more post I would like to slip in before we go to war, if we do, about what actually went on during the framing of our present constitution (as well as the very concept of Federalism), and that is a post about the "Founding Fathers." (The picture above is not the founding fathers per se, but the men who wrote the Federalist Papers.)

I want to talk about the Founding Fathers for a bit because I think it is important that we try and crawl inside their heads and attempt to determine where they were coming from, because only if we can follow their thought processes can we ever hope to have an intelligent conversation about what they created.

First, who were they?

It is easy to generalize, and most Americans do, that anyone who was part of the drafting and debate of our constitution, anyone who was a delegate to the convention, should, at least loosely, be considered a "Founding Father." Not surprisingly, I disagree with this broad definition.

I believe that a lot of those people who have generously been included in the term "Founding Fathers" were merely along for the ride, swept along with the tide, and present simply by virtue of their standing as a representative or Favorite Son of this or that state, and who were among those persuaded at the convention rather than being one of the persuaders.

To me, the Founding Fathers were a small group of men who were in the fight from the beginning; prominent men whose names were known and hated by by the British Government. Most importantly, they were the few men without whom we wouldn't even have a country today—or they were the ones who set the chain of events in motion, the ones who convinced the necessary people that there should be independence, should be a revolution with Great Britain; who fought one way or the other in that revolution, convinced foreign powers to support our cause and loan us money, raised armies and planned military strategy and engaged the British Armies, and, in the end, came up with the plans for a government so far-sighted  that it still exists today.

The historian Joseph J. Ellis, in his book "Founding Brothers", postulated that there were seven Founding Fathers. I say there were only six. Six that meet the criteria listed above, and without whom the United States of America simply would not exist today—certainly not in its present form.

Ellis lists his seven:

Benjamin Franklin
George Washington
John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
Alexander Hamilton
Aaron Burr

I omit Aaron Burr.

Not all of these men were intimately engaged in the framing of our constitution, to be sure. But they got us to the place where we were an actual country in need of a constitution. Others not on the list contributed greatly to the concepts that are actually contained in the constitution, but I would not call them Founding Fathers within the strict criteria I laid out above. Not everyone who attended the convention and debated and contributed and voted and signed the paper were necessarily deserving of the term Founding Fathers.

As stated in previous posts, these men and their millions of sisters and brothers did not yet consider themselves Americans. They were New Yorkers. They were New Hampshiremen. They were Georgians.

And they were Virginians.

I think many present-day Americans don't quite understand the importance of Virginia in our history. Virginia, the first colony. The largest population. The wealthiest. The colony where most of the movers and shakers lived. The colony of gentility and even aristocracy.

The land of slaves.

When it came to framing and wording of the new constitution, Virginia was a force to be reckoned with. No Union would be viable without Virginia in it, and everyone knew it. What Virginia wanted in the constitution, well... you get the picture.

Four of the first five presidents were Virginians. Later, when we fought a Civil War, the capital of the confederacy ended up in Virginia and the Supreme commander of the Confederacy was a Virginian - and this was over 80 years after the constitution!

If you would understand some of the odd things that got put into our constitution, some of the tremendous compromises that went into hammering out that constitution, then look to Virginia and the rest of the South. Look to the Republicans** Thomas Jefferson and his protoge James Madison and their crew. Look to the institution of slavery.

I think we should also discuss the debates about federalism and thoughts about what the nature of the constitution should be, by Madison and Hamilton and others. Next, perhaps?

But first, I think, a few posts on other matters are in order before I lose all my other readers.

**Not in the least related to the political party of the same name that exists today. Some historians call them "Democratic-Republicans" for some reason. They called themselves simply "Republicans", in their writings - believers in the definition of "Republic" rather than in the concept of Federalism. The original "State's-Righters" if you will.


  1. Did you know about Governor Sevier, and the short lived State of Franklin?
    It's a sidetrack from the main thrust of your story, but an interesting one, a simple version is here,
    There's a lot more on the story elsewhere.

  2. I always thought there were only 3 founding fathers, but between you and Soubriquet we are all going to learn a lot!

  3. Why do you remove Aaron Burr? He is most remembered for his infamous duel, but he was a powerful man before then and a formative member of the democratic-republicans.

    Also, why leave off Thomas Paine. It would be misleading to discount his powerful pamphlet series that well and truly spurred the revolution. Just like being a signer didn't mean you were a powerful influence, not being in the congress didn't mean you didn't shape the future and influence it.

    Or how about Patrick Henry, instrumental in forcing the Bill of Rights after a vivid and memorable involvement in the Revolutionary War (and an antifederalist after your own heart)?

    Or Samuel Adams? Perhaps the folks who were pivotal to revolution but weren't invited to the framing of the Constitution are just as important as those that were invited.

    It's not surprising to me that many of those strong voices from the revolution and beyond were from the north. But then, that's a whole other tangent.

  4. @Stephanie - Why not include these other men? Because all the people you listed were dwarves compared to the others, who would have a hard time running fast enough to even keep up with the shadows of the real founding fathers. Not just my opinion either. Why don't you make a list of the perceived accomplishments of the these littler men and look at the list compared to the list of valued accomplishments of the others? If you do, you will soon see.

    Thomas Paine? PLEASE! A hack writer chased out of England and living on the purse of Benjamin Franklin? Then running back to England his home as soon as he pissed off the Americans with his religious writings? Come ON Stephanie! Paine a founding father? Puh-leeze!

    Aaron Burr. Big shot New Yorker and small fry everywhere else. What, exactly, did Aaron Burr do for the cause? I mean REALLY? WHAT? Sure, he offed the arrogant Hamilton who nobody but Washington liked. But Washington was dead then and not able to protect him and his mouth anymore. But even the service to the country of killing Hamilton had nothing to do with the country's start-up years. And Burr slunk off to oblivion shortly thereafter, never to be heard from again.

    Samuel Adams? I will not make any smartass remarks about his facing being on a beer label, but he was really not that huge in the larger scheme of things, was he? Be truthful with yourself. Hardly a mover and shaker on a grand scale. Just another Massachusetts muckraker. Couldn't hold a candle in the history books to his distant cousin, that's for sure.

    Stephanie, I am not trying to run down ALL these men (just some) but only saying their contributions, in the minds of historians, just don't match the list of giants; don't deserve to be on that short list.

    I will go calm now. I am beginning to have fun. Finally. :)

    I don't yet know you well enough to do this, so I am taking a chance. I hope you are able to compartmentalize this conversation.

  5. @Soubriquet - Still digesting.... :)

  6. @Frostygirl - I do hope I can continue to hold your attention. I am flattered you seem to care. I have been trying to learn about your country too, as you know, and you have helped me a lot. Maybe it's time to return the favor on some small scale. ;)

    As to the actual number of founding fathers, and who they really were, that is still up for debate. As you will soon find out if you continue to read these posts.

    Learning from Soubriquet? Hmmmmm. DO bear in mind, at the very least that he is British and therefore in the enemy camp. As such, any opinions he may favor us with about the American Revolution must be taken with a grain of salt. He is HARDLY impartial, despite his cloak of seeming benign-ity. He does have teeth and is not afraid to show them when provoked.

    I provoke.

    (Before this is done, btw, I must get him to retell his story of John Paul Jones. I think I believe him on that. 'Twas on another blog.)

  7. @Stephanie - I will never attack you personally. I will always do my best to show respect for your opinions and beliefs. I know you are smart enough not to get these things confused with an abstract debate. K?

    I WILL attack you positions, but not gratuitously. I will have facts to back up my opinions. Promise.

    In the end, I expect my convictions to also be changed by what you say. I am not set in stone.

  8. To everybody:

    Those of you who know me realize that my primary goal is to learn, to come to new and better understandings, to become CLEAR.

    It is a (sometimes unfortunate) characteristic of my personality that I often learn best when I am in a debate, and that I sometimes argue just to get the learning process kick-started.

    Long-time readers of mine have long-since made allowances for this. New readers need to be told. And they may need to be reminded that they sometimes need to dish it out to me ruthlessly and stand by their guns if they think they are right, and whenever I seem to be approaching "know-it-all" status.

    That is how I learn, and I will thank you.

    We are all friends here and there is no need to be embarrassed to speak freely. This blog is meant to attract people who like to think. The true dullards have already left.

  9. I am not offended, Max. I've worked in safety more than a decade and my skin's so thick I'm almost a solid. I can readily have a debate and a difference of opinion without feeling personally attacked or feeling like I have personally attacked another.

    However, I disagree with your assertion. Getting people involve and aroused was much bigger in the North prior to the war than it was in the south

    (Virginia, among other things, provided more than its fair share of generals, a fact that slants things post war and was another big factor all the way into and through the Civil War. Why? With landed gentry, second sons have no real job or prospect unless they go into the church or the military). When you're, however, a property owner involved with trade or industry, you need all your sons to put to work.

    One reason why many of the key movers and shakers that made an impact and drove the Revolutionary war (and for you to discount Paine's contribution frightens me a little) weren't directly part of the "new government" is simply a matter of not having the leisure or self-generating wealth (like owning a plantation allows) to go into government full-time. But those principles and factors were big drivers for such things as the Bill of Rights and it was actually Shay's rebellion (in Massachesetts) that helped ring the death nell for the confederacy.

    I do read historians, Max. They are not all in agreement. (Disclosure: I was born in New Hampshire - I likely was exposed to a few more "Yankee" historians than average).

    Just sayin'.

    An important you might want to add about the founding fathers from Virginia - statesmen from Virginia were landowners which flavored their thinking and is a factor why one had to be a property owner to vote early in the union (most people don't know that). I believe, though it's speculation on my part, that this was intended to keep disproportionate power in the South and agrarian states. They also, as I mentioned, were disproportionately represented in the upper echelons of the military. Not that all the states didn't have militias and army divisions, but generals and high ranking officers were often from the south. It was very much a Virginian tradition particularly.

    It also served the south badly in the long run.

  10. Whilst you digest, I'll add a little thought.
    That the petition of the Western Country to the Assembly of North Carolina shows their grievances against the government there to be roughly analogous to the colonies' grievance against Britain.

    I am indeed not impartial, those rascally "Founding Fathers" were a den of pirates, fomenting illegal activities, civil unrest, terrorism, treason, insurrection, and murder.

    Let's not discuss the ingrate behaviour of John Paul Jones, who is elevated to a position he hardly deserves by a nation he never served.

  11. @Soubriquet - I love this story, especially as told by the person owning the webpage you linked to. Hilarious! So disorganized they were back then. And even today, North Carolina still doesn't give a damn about what day of the week it is, much less losing a bit of territory! Har!

    Our friend Ettarose lives in North Carolina. I must remember to give her a hard time. Come to think of it, my best man was from North Carolina. Another story, but indicative of their general attitude I think. He was the one who thought it was cool to watch a pretty girl walk by and remark, "I'd eat a mile of her shit just to see where it came from!" Ah, North Carolina.

    Good basketball players, though.

  12. @Stephanie - South more eager to join the revolution than the North? Probably you are right. As a group they probably had more to lose/gain, eh?

    But not so eager to sign later to a constitution that watered down state's rights. Many compromises to them by the North to get them to go along with it. And it was only postponing the inevitable conflict to come. Interesting stuff. And thank you for your additions that help us understand the times better.

    I admit I had forgotten Shays' rebellion. The Articles were too weak.

    But some of us believe the pendulum swung too far in the other direction with both our current constitution, and (especially!) the twisting of it to allow outlandish (outlandish!) interference of our present federal government. :)

  13. Actually, I was thinking the North was more interested in the revolution (industry/trade really big there), but less interested in the nuts and bolts of government (it didn't pay like it does now and most of them had day jobs).

  14. But reading about Shays' rebellion again does remind me of another reason I was not so hot on Samuel Adams, since he wanted to execute debtors.

    But is our current federal government more humane about collecting taxes than the first government was? Hardly. I say we agree to agree that the Articles of Confederation were a bad and unworkable idea, and move on to critiquing the debate that went on as to what should be in our present constitution.

  15. Yes, your friend Ettarose does reside in North Carolina. I was born and lived for 36 years in Phoenix Arizona and miss a lot of the history of that state. North Carolina was not my choice of places to live but one I took out of necessity. Do I take offense? Hardly. I am thoroughly enjoying all the debates.



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