As America celebrates Independence Day, many fondly remember the Founding Fathers and their contributions, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It is not uncommon to hear Americans wistfully say, “I wish our Founding Fathers were around today. They would set things straight.”
These men laid the foundations upon which America was built. However, the America they built does not much resemble the democratic America of today. It would be wise to recognize the flaws in their work: the Constitution’s incorporation of stupendously impractical ideas, failure to address slavery and, most concerning, the creation of an oligarchy.
One of those stupendous ideas would be how the Vice President was elected. The Presidential candidate who amassed the second most Electoral College votes would become Vice President. If you think gridlock in Washington is bad today, imagine the gridlock of a vice president and president who were opponents (think of an Obama/Palin administration).
Some of the Founding Fathers – George Washington for example – did oppose slavery in some way. However, at best, the Constitution failed to truly address the issue of slavery. At worst, it perpetuated a horrific institution. Less than a century later, the nation was torn asunder in the Civil War. This problem that the Founding Fathers had ignored resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths in that war.
There is also no question that the Founding Fathers created an oligarchy, not a republic or a democracy. They went to great lengths to curtail popular power. Whether or not their intentions were noble, I leave up to the reader. If you were not a white, Protestant, male property owner, you more than likely could not vote. To say that the majority of Americans could not vote would be a gross understatement.
The few Americans who could vote had little tangible power. They could only elect the House of Representatives, whose power was easily checked by the Senate. Those senator were appointed by state legislatures. The President was elected by the Electoral College. Supreme Court Justices were chosen by the President and Senate.
The results were dismal. The appointment process for Senators was ridden with corruption and patronage. The Supreme Court made appalling decisions, like Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott v. Sanford. Mean while, good decisions like Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, which protected the constitutional rights of Native Americas, were oft ignored.
Nowhere was oligarchy more evident than in the Electoral College. In the 1824 Presidential elections, John Q. Adams, who won 30.9 percent of the vote, was declared victorious after backroom negotiations, even though Andrew Jackson had won 41.4 percent of the vote (admittedly, it did delay the genocidal Jackson).
Fortunately, many continued the work that the Founding Fathers had started. Sometimes, this meant tearing down the old constructs. We must not forget these men, particularly on Independence Day. Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, William Jennings Bryan and Robert La Follette are four such men (these are not “the most important” men/women, just a few examples).
Representative Stevens and Senator Sumner were leaders of the “radical Republicans” in their representative branches of Congress during the Reconstruction. The Reconstruction was an attempt by victorious North to rehabilitate the defeated South. Unfortunately, President Andrew Jackson opposed many of their efforts, and the movement bogged down.
However, Rep. Stevens and Sen. Sumner helped Congress pass the 14th and 15th amendments. The former re-affirmed that all those born in the U.S. were citizens, entitled to civil rights. The latter prohibited the denial of suffrage on the basis of race. Although it took years for these ideals to become actual policy, the 14th and 15th amendments were instrumental developments in American democracy.
Bryan spearheaded the push for one of the most important revisions in American governing. As mentioned earlier, the Constitution let state legislatures appoint senators. It was not until the 17th amendment was ratified in 1913 that senators would be directly elected by voters. This watershed moment ensured that Americans would – at least on paper – control what is arguably the most powerful branch of the United States government.
La Follette, along with Bryan, was a beacon of American progressivism. The government laid out by the Founding Fathers was rife with corruption. Notorious political machines, like Tammany Hall, had strangleholds on local government while robber-barons and monopolies held tremendous sway, from town halls to Capitol Hill. La Follete fought some of these interests and graft, both in his home state of Wisconsin and at the federal level. He also championed minority rights.
No matter how much the Founding Fathers are lionized, there is simply no way around the harsh truth: they were flawed, no better, no worse, than any of us. John Adams, a key Founding Father, claimed that “liberty, once lost, is lost forever”. But past the veil of beautiful prose and rhetoric, Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts which, among other things, gutted free speech.
Continuing to pretend that the Founding Fathers were demigods is a disservice to their memory. Nostalgia blinds us to our shortcomings and faults. It impedes progress. No, the best way to honor the Founding Fathers is to recognize their errors, learn from their mistakes and continue building the house they laid the foundations of – America. I will leave you with a quote from one of those imperfect men. “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” – John Adams