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.

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23 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Em, this is outstanding. I was also recently reading about Sally Hemings and how there’s now scholarly consensus that that sexual relationship started when she was 14 or so. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Joseph Smith and Helen Mar Kimball when I read about her age.) Hemings was in an untenable position. She bore Jefferson six children, and as you say, he never freed her. It’s appalling. Like you say, there’s no utility in pedestalizing our founding fathers. I absolutely agree — we need nuance and complexity, recognizing positive aspects of their legacies alongside the places they fell far far short. Simplistic divisions of people into the categories of good and evil are utterly unhelpful.

    • Em says:

      That is a good point about Helen Mar Kimball. And let me just get out ahead of the old line that marriage to 14 year olds was common in the 18th/19th century. It wasn’t. And it especially was not common for men in their mid thirties or mid forties to form such unions. Just saying.

  2. Chiaroscuro says:

    “after rattling on and on and on about heroic heaven-sent men”
    mormonism loves nothing better than rattling on about heroic heaven-sent men

    • Em says:

      Indeed. And not examining the implications of assigning the role of divine messenger to a human being with many flaws — if you don’t add any nuance or complication you then risk sending the signal that all of the message was divine.

  3. Abby Hansen says:

    Aargh! I hadn’t read that article by Tad Callister. What on earth is he talking about? I can’t even wrap my mind around how he comes to his conclusions, and I am so glad you wrote out all the thoughts in my head that I couldn’t put together nearly as well. Thank you for taking the time, because it really needed to be done!

  4. Segullah says:

    First, those harshly judging the Founders by today’s standards are inflicted with a nasty case of historical presentism. The author of this post appears to be suffering from this affliction as well.
    Second, The three-fifths compromise was not (as frequently misinterpreted) the idea that slaves or “all other persons” were worth three-fifths of person. It was actually presented by those Founders critical of slavery so Southerners would not be granted more power in Congress based upon their slave population.
    Third, the Founders did put everything at risk in their rebellion against Britain.
    Fourth, I am absolutely positive that Tad Callister and Ted Stewart are well aware of the contributions of the Enlightenment thinkers.

    • Em says:

      1) I’ll see if I can find a cream for that rash. Historical presentism suggests that it is unfair to judge people in the past by the standards of today. But I am not judging them by the standards of today. I am judging them by their own contemporaries. Take, for example Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution. He wrote to the French National Assembly in 1792: “Let the sacred flame of liberty that we have won lead all our acts. Let us go forth to plant the tree of liberty, breaking the chains of those of our brothers still held captive under the shameful yoke of slavery. Let us bring them under the compass of our rights, the imperceptible and inalienable rights of free men. [Let us overcome] the barriers that separate nations, and unite the human species into a single brotherhood. We seek only to bring to men the liberty that [God] has given them, and that other men have taken from them only by transgressing His immutable will.”

      There were many loud voices that pointed out the evils of slavery to the founders. Slaves knew slavery was wrong. Abigail Adams knew coverture was oppressive. To suggest that people just had no idea that kidnapping, raping and forcing people to work without pay was morally problematic in 1776 is incorrect. Jefferson himself was theoretically opposed to slavery, calling it a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.” That didn’t lead him to free his slaves, including the woman with whom he fathered six children.

      2) The three fifths compromise reads: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
      -You can interpret that in one of two ways. You could either do the fraction to conclude that each slave was worth 3/5 of a white person. Or you could conclude that three of every five slaves were eligible to be counted as people in the census, leaving two in five who were not people at all. Neither is particularly flattering. I am fully aware that this compromise was in place to persuade everyone to join the United States. The South would not join if only their white population was counted. The North would not join if all slaves counted in the census for representation. That’s why it is called the 3/5 compromise. It is still morally repulsive and to suggest that it (as part of the constitution) was “divinely inspired” suggests some pretty unfortunate things about God.

      3) The founders personally put their lives and livelihoods at risk by rebelling. But in creating their new nation they were very careful to safeguard those institutions that benefitted them. While their bravery is praiseworthy in one sense, unqualified praise is misplaced. They bravely risked everything both for their freedom and for the right to decide how they would continue to oppress other people. If the United States had continued to be a set of British Colonies, the slaves would have been freed in 1833.

      4) If Tad Callister and Ted Stewart are deeply immersed in Enlightenment thought you wouldn’t guess it from the way they portray the intellectual innovations of the Founding Fathers.

  5. Spunky says:

    This is utterly brilliant, Em. I am so tired of church members upholding the American founding fathers as if they were Gods. It is absolutely the worship of false Gods.

    Thank you so much for your desperately needed rebuttal.

  6. Jason says:

    I read this piece yesterday and I was frustrated at the lack of historical literacy. As pointed out in the OP, the political development of the United States was very much situated within the context of the European enlightenments. Despite Callister’s beliefs and Friberg ‘s kitschy art suggest, Washington, Hamilton, et al did not wake up one morning infused by the inspiration of God to found a divine nation. Our inability as a church membership to read the complexities of the historical record does us no favours.

  7. Jane Hafen says:

    Just call me a merciless Indian savage.

  8. Susan Kitty says:

    Thanks for this excellent post, Em. What a great synopsis of the poly sci class, Early Political Theory that I struggled through 40 years ago.

    Oh, and it not only wasn’t common for a 30-something man to marry a 14-year-old, I can guarantee that it wasn’t common for married men of any age to marry 14-year-olds.

  9. JBB says:

    Thank you Em. When I initially read Callister’s piece (of ____) I couldn’t sleep. You articulated the problems so well.

  10. Allemande Left says:

    Thank you Professor Em. When I read the article by TC I knew you would have something to say!
    We need to move away from analogy of the the good tree only brings forth good fruit and the bad tree w bad fruit. We are all complex people w good and bad qualities and everything in between. People and circumstances are more than right or wrong.
    We owe our founders gratitude and we can see them as complete, complex people.
    Today in our zoom church mtg we sang My Country ‘Tis of Thee and America The Beautiful. For the first time I sang, read and listened to the words from the perspective of Black Americans and Indigenous Americans. The words fell flat. We can do better.

  11. David Preece says:

    I enjoyed reading your piece and appreciated your perspectives on the many nuances of a very complex issue. I don’t envy Tad Callister’s task to reduce this complicated discussion to a short opinion piece. My main takeaway was that we should be grateful for the efforts and sacrifices of the Founders and appreciate that God played a role in the establishment of America. That said, life and history are usually not simple either-ors. I like Jim Collins’ “the tyranny of the ‘or’ and the genius of the ‘and’ philosophy.” I think the likely scenario is that God inspired good but imperfect men to do something really important that coalesced the key concepts of the Enlightenment into the founding of a new nation with a divine purpose. We wouldn’t have the liberties of this day without that endeavor. This was necessarily rife with compromises (including some that benefitted themselves) that made it possible to achieve. The revolutionary outcome at the time wasn’t and couldn’t have been perfect. Our democratic republic is still a work in progress and we all have an obligation to continue in gratitude what was begun by men and women who should be honored but not worshipped. On the specifics of statues, I frankly don’t think their images should be torn down and relegated to an obscure museum. Rather, we should establish proper context around them so viewers can understand the full story and draw their own conclusions. It’s a different matter, however, with Confederate statues. That’s a very clear line in the sand. We should (lawfully) remove memorials to treasonous leaders who were driven almost solely by their desire to keep the slavery status quo.

    • Tina says:

      I don’t envy his task either…..at the same time, the author of this blog post managed to take this complicated discussion and put it in a short opinion piece and address the issue in a nuanced manner. Even your comment that is not a full opinion piece also addresses the idea of complexity. Shouldn’t the Desert News hold as high of standards for the pieces of writing it publishes?

      • David Preece says:

        Probably. I just don’t think most local news organizations have the resources (or experienced journalists/editors) any longer to scrutinize such pieces. That’s sad. And there may a “source assumption” in this case as well. I get that.

  12. Maggie says:

    I enjoyed reading this article so much. Thank you for all the work and time you put into it.

  13. Tina says:

    Love the last lines “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.”
    Well done and thank you!

  14. Ziff says:

    Excellent response, Em. I think you’re clearly spot on that Callister’s central problem is his completely simplistic division of people into a binary of praiseworthy and wicked.

    Also, as an aside, I am *so* happy that you have been writing these excellent takedowns of bad arguments coming from Church authorities recently. I love how carefully and thoroughly you take them apart.

    • Em says:

      Thanks! And indirectly let us thank my Conservative Facebook friends who keep posting this stuff. I certainly don’t haunt the Church News Room or Deseret News spoiling for a fight. But when my outrage cannot fit in a Facebook comment and would be unfair to direct at a hapless social media acquaintance— to the Exponent!

  15. Anon says:

    Love this post! Bold and sassy — Thomas Paine is looking down smiling. The Founding Fathers loved this tone of vigor and intelligence – they would approve, I think. Thanks for reminding us (as F.Scott Fitzgerald did) that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” We are also reminded of this as we read Fredrick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He starts with great praise for the Founding Fathers (“The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too, great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men.”). And then points out an obvious truth: “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…”

  16. SisterStacey says:

    Love this, Em! Thank you. A friend posted this and I just… augh. I haven’t liked Tad Callister since a BYU-I devotional where he put the responsibility for men’s thoughts firmly on women’s dress. He is not going up in my estimation.
    Also, it should be noted that Thomas Jefferson didn’t free his own children with Sally.

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