The founding fathers – heroes or villains?
I recently read “The Founding Fathers – heroes or villains?” by Tad Callister, posted by the Deseret News. It struck me as deeply problematic and ahistorical. It is problematic because he accuses people who today are critical of the founding fathers for being “hypocritical” and implies ingratitude for “heaven-sent messengers.” Most of that criticism comes from Black people, People of Color, and their allies. His narrative puts on one side grateful people who see God’s hand in the founding, and ungrateful hypocrites who want to destroy the legacy of God’s chosen messengers. This is an unhelpful framework given the conversation that Church members need to be having about race right now.
The title of the article and the first sentence contextualizes this article properly: it sets up an ahistorical and unnecessarily divisive non-conflict. Humanity is not divided into “heroes” and “villains” and no self-respecting historian would ever bother with trying to establish whether a person fell into one category or the other. The question suggests that our only two options are to erect a statue to someone or to spit on their grave. We must worship or despise. There is no room for nuance, and anyone who offers a complication to a heroic narrative is by definition denigrating the hero.
He begins by quoting Ted Stewart, a federal judge (not, we note, a historian who would actually be qualified to discuss history in an informed way)
“There is just one problem with judging [the founding fathers] by today’s standards and it is this: but for those imperfect founders and the sacrifices that they made and the instruments of government they created, there would be no current, enlightened standards of equality and justice by which to judge them.”
This comment presupposes that the American Founding Fathers a) originated the ideas they supported relating to human rights and liberty and b) created the only democratic experiment in the world in which they grew. Both of these are incorrect.
The American founders stood on the shoulders of giants, and they knew it. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau elaborated social contract theory long before the colonists started getting restive. They, and not Jefferson, originally put forward the idea that humans are endowed with freedom and equality by nature, and that we use our free will to create a political entity along democratic principles that meets the needs of both the individual and the collective. It was John Locke who first said that all individuals are equal and born with “inalienable” natural rights. Locke noted that these rights included “life, liberty, and property.” Locke’s definition of property didn’t only include the things we own, but also a right to personal well-being – or, as Jefferson put it, “pursuit of happiness.” It was Locke who argued that the purpose of government was to secure and protect the inalienable rights of the people. Other founding principles of the United States were likewise derived from Enlightenment thought – for example, Voltaire was a vociferous advocate of separation of church and state and a fierce critic of tyranny and censorship. So – the idea that, without our sainted founding fathers, we simply would not have these principles present in human minds is nonsense. They promulgated them. They produced one of several experiments on those principles. They merit recognition for their efforts. But they certainly didn’t come up with the notion of a social contract or natural liberties on their own.
So what about the second part of the contention? Sure, the founding fathers didn’t think of those ideas. But without them they would only be theory! Again, this is untrue. The French Revolution erupted shortly after the American Revolution and despite the flattering imagination of many a patriot, the French Revolution owed very little to the United States for either inspiration or execution. Like the American Founding Fathers, the French derived their ideology largely to their own countrymen – the French philosophes. The Haitian Revolution, which followed almost immediately on the heels of the French, was the birth of a democracy that truly challenged the idea that “all men are created equal” meant “only white men, and we are keeping slavery.” The Haitians freed themselves from slavery. The Haitians took the same ideology that inspired our Founding Fathers and, unlike Jefferson, immediately engaged with the questions of race and perpetual servitude.
Continuing with Tad Callister:
“Do the critics believe these liberties came about by chance or that they were spawned by evil men? If so, how do they reconcile such a position with the unerring logic of the Savior: ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits.’”
And so we return to the reductionist and absurd assertion that good ideas only come from angelic men, and that evil men produce only universally bad outcomes. Thus if something good happens, then the author of it must have been a hero.
Undoubtedly we have much to be grateful for and much to acknowledge. We have civil liberties enshrined on our constitution. We have separation of powers. We have a system that allows for improvement and change. We have examples of men who, in many important ways, were inspiring. But if we know them by their fruits, then those fruits also include the 3/5 compromise, and the specification that the international slave trade had to continue until 1808. Did God inspire that part of the Constitution? The fruits were a government that systematically murdered and evicted Native peoples. The fruits were a government that denied civil rights to women. When Abigail Adams pleaded with her husband to “Remember the Ladies” she was specifically asking for relief from coverture – the legal fiction in which a married woman ceased to exist in the eyes of the law but instead became subsumed in her husband’s identity, losing all rights to individual property. “All men would be tyrants if they could” she reminded him. His response? “I cannot but laugh.” Perhaps if the goal is inculcating hero worship, examining the fruit on the tree is a bad plan.
Tad Callister’s closing paragraph is particularly troubling because of his blithe disregard to the subtext of what he was saying:
“The Founding Fathers could have quietly retreated to the comfort and wealth of their plantations, law offices and businesses, but they put that all at risk for their children, fellow Americans and future generations — even us. To not be grateful for their sacrifices, for their willingness to literally put their lives, fortunes and reputations on the altar of sacrifice, would be ingratitude of the highest order. They were nothing less than heaven-sent messengers who gave us the greatest liberties ever enjoyed by any people or nation on earth. And as such we should honor and respect them, and their incredibly supporting and sacrificing spouses, as the heroes they indeed are.”
They could have retreated to their plantations. Where hundreds of enslaved people made the “comfort and wealth” for them. They were very careful not to put that comfort and wealth at risk, by making sure that slavery continued. Should the descendants of slaves reflect with unqualified gratitude on that reality? The founders did not “put their . . . fortunes” on the altar of sacrifice. They were categorically unwilling to sacrifice their fortunes. They would not free their slaves, the single greatest concentration of wealth. The founders guaranteed that they would have complete control of their wives’ property. Perhaps on an individual level, had they lost and been punished as traitors by Britain, they could have lost those fortunes. But they did all in their power to maintain white male supremacy, and they succeeded. If they were sent from heaven as messengers, then what does that say about God’s opinion of Black people? Of women? Of Indigenous peoples?
Of course the final line throws out a classic piece of Mormon pablum – after rattling on and on and on about heroic heaven-sent men we need to remember “their incredibly supporting and sacrificing spouses.” Would Sally Hemings fit in this category of supportive wife? Or was she more a child that Jefferson owned, a girl who was also his sister-in law? Was the fact that he engaged in a coercive sexual relationship from the time she was fourteen until he died, refusing to free her, evidence of her being “incredibly sacrificing”?
My argument here is not to say that our founding fathers were evil, or to suggest that their contributions are unimportant or unworthy of recognition. That reductionist position is what Callister suggests is the only alternative to hero-worship. But that is not the case. It is possible to reflect with gratitude on some aspects of a legacy, and admire some aspects of a person’s history, without putting them (literally in this case) on a pedestal. Removing a statue doesn’t automatically mean loathing every aspect of that person. It means acknowledging the complexity of the legacy, and finding better, more complete ways of telling the story.