“Founding Fathers” is Not a Single Entity

Who and what are Tea Partiers and others referring to when they speak of the original intent of the founding fathers?

Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer

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I’m often perplexed by those people who refer to the founding fathers as a single entity presuming that when some of them came together in the summer of 1787 to write our present day Constitution they were of one mind before they arrived and were of like mind when they left.  Actually the opposite is true.  There is also the belief by those who use “founding fathers” in singular terms that there was some singular “original intent”; a perception that holds the view that there are no dynamics or evolutionary processes within human social structures.

A letter to the editor contributor to my local newspaper initiated this train of thought for me this morning by expressing his view thatwe have disregarded original intent” and, using culinary vernacular, suggested that we “get back to ingesting the ‘original-intent’ diet the framers cooked up for us”.  The writer at the onset informed us that for years he has “been reading and studying our U.S. Constitution. And as yet [had] not been able to get a clear picture of what the framers’ intent was in our following its formula.

Are these people referring to men other than the framers of the constitution as the founding fathers as they should with people like Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry, who were not there when the Constitution was conceived, documented and signed?

These people might find it disturbing that the 55 men who originally signed in for the commencement of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in late May of 1787 were of varying opposing views; perhaps less so than when they left in September of that year.  Most had come believing that a new, stronger central government was vital for the survival of the new confederation of states.

Secretary of State James Madison, who won Marb...

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One of the strongest proponents of this view was James Madison, the singular figure that many on the right hold as “the acknowledged father of the Constitution”.  They would be right in that his contribution was the basis  for the constitutional context.  It derived from his “Virginia Plan” that both he and fellow Virginian Governor Edmund Randolph had fashioned earlier.  But Madison’s vision also held that the president should be elected by a newly formed “national legislature”, not the people, and that he originally nixed the proposal by fellow Virginian, George Mason, as the Convention was about to close to add a “Bill of Rights”, similar to the one that was eventually added two years after the Constitution was ratified by all 13 states in 1790.

Madison and many of those who came to Philadelphia were, in historian Richard Beeman’s word’s, concerned about the “weakness in the Confederation government that allowed the self-interests of any one state to overwhelm the public interests of the nation.”  This view seems to be in direct conflict with a lot of those people who associate with the newly formed Tea Party of today as they give overbearing credence to the states rights’ position addressed in the 10 amendment, thus the term “Tenthers” for those who oppose most everything the central government represents.

Of the 55 that started, only 41 remained by the time the Convention delegates had concluded their business in September.  There were those alliances between small Northern states and some Southern states that wanted to continue the states equal representation found in the older Articles of Confederation as opposed to Madison and others who wanted representation of the states to be based on population, a plan that would benefit populous states like Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina.

There were those, especially from non-Southern states that did not want to count slaves as “legitimate” people to base representation on; partly for moral reason but equally for their reluctance to consider the black race equal to the white man in most if not all respects.  Those in the Southern states of course wanted to count their slaves amongst the representative population but if they could not have that, then most wanted to base representation on property ownership, which of course there too slaves would be considered highly valuable.

Delegates like purse-lipped Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Pierce Butler of South Carolina were suspicious of the democratic process by which each citizen had a say in who their elected officials were.  Some like Alexander Hamilton wanted to give great amounts of authority to the Executive branch where others were reluctant to let any single individual have greater authority than the individual state legislatures.  Virginia’s James McClurg proposed that the president could serve for life, provided he displayed “good behavior” at all times.

Today we hear many within the Tea Party pummel listeners with comments about their distrust of the federal government and how Washington wants “to tell us how to run our lives”.  These people might be shocked to find that one prominent “founding father” at the Constitutional convention, George Mason (yes, the same man that fought for an inclusion of a “Bill of Rights”) wanted to establish sumptuary laws, laws that would restrict the personal consumption of luxury items.  In today’s terms that would be mansions, yachts, private airplanes and fully loaded Cadillacs.

So how does one so easily conclude that there was a singular mindset explicitly implied in the Constitution?  We must all keep in mind that the framers of the Constitution were by-and-large wealthy aristocratic white males whose primary focus was to protect the nature of property, primarily theirs.  How does the intent of such men reflect the values of hard-working property-less people, including women and children and of course slaves and the minority races that were sparse then but would ultimately come to grow in large numbers.

Based on but this brief summation about some of the founding fathers I think we can safely assume that there was no singular mindset that existed amongst them.  And we can further conclude that the notion of an “original intent” that did not allow for a changing world is also unfounded within the full context of that document.

Edmund Randolph

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When Virginia’s governor Edmund Randolph assisted others within a Committee of Detail to write a first draft half way through the convention, he “laid down two principles that, while they never appeared in the final report of the committee, seem extraordinary in their wisdom and foresight more than two centuries later.” They were

  1. to insert essential principle only, lest the operations of government should be clogged by rendering those provisions permanent and unalterable, which ought to be accommodated to times and events, and
  2. to use simple and precise language, and general propositions, according to the example of the constitutions of the several states. (For the construction of a constitution of necessarily [sic] differs from that of the law)  *

I noted this component about the document in an earlier article and stated that the first gives credence to contemporary jurists and constitutional scholars who argue that ours is a ‘living constitution’ that must be interpreted in the light of changing times and circumstance, while the second supports the notion of those today “who argue for an ‘originalist’ interpretation of the Constitution.

I think the letter writer to the editorial column I mentioned earlier sums up the problem many today have with this concern.  Reading the Constitution alone will not convey what the framers as a unit or as individuals “originally” intended.  Nor will gleaning selected passages from the writings of preferred delegates who attended that convention in 1787.

Most who exposed their thoughts on this historic event did so many years after the Continental Convention concluded.  Reluctant to allow the minutes of their meeting to be made public for fear they would be exploited by some for nefarious reasons, agreement was made amongst them to keep them secret for a while.  They ultimately handed them over to George Washington, the  convention’s chairman, who in turn conveyed them to the new Department of State in 1796.  The new Congress prohibited their publication until 1818.

Madison, the so-called “father of the Constitution”, did so only after his death in 1835.  For those who rely too much on Madison’s perceptions alone, expressed in the Federalist Papers, it would behoove them to know that though he kept copious notes for the most part in his role as a Constitutional framer, the Federalist Papers were written years after the fact, with reflections that changed somewhat from some initial views he expressed several decades earlier; probably “refined” overtime to reflect contemporary realities.  What then would you call his “original intent”?

Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman,  page 270.

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11 responses to ““Founding Fathers” is Not a Single Entity

  1. I think we learned throughout school a vanilla-fied version of what went on in Philadelphia. If you go to the historical area of Philly and take the tour, the Rangers and interpreters will tell a different version: a version of arguments, collusion and just plain misery because very few delegates believed in their fellow delegates and few believed that a constitution would be written. This post only goes to show that the tea partyers are easily duped people. Why else would they have embraced the ideals that they do?

    • Why else would they have embraced the ideals that they do?”

      I think to give legitimacy to the claim that people hear and see what they want to.

  2. Another excellent post, Larry! None of our so-called politicians have any idea of the history behind the founding…..as Donna said…..we are fed a diet of government approved propaganda on the subject…..by that I mean states approve the textbooks used and each state does not necessarily use the same book….so there is much confusion…..and groups like American Progress (example only) can be influential in the choice of history that is taught…until we have a standardized textbooks….this will continue and people will not understand their own history…

  3. The Tea Partiers supposedly have read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which in turn, don’t understand it, never will understand it, and yet they will preach whatever is told them, and think it is the final word. Its the same with their interpretation of the bible, again, that’s if they ever read it.

  4. I teach fifth grade, which is the time when most children learn about the formation of our country. I can assure you that our textbook is excellent. It explains the major disagreements and compromises made throughout the process of coming up with an organization for our government. I have the students look at some primary sources too. As the teacher, I try to get kids to understand that democracy is a robust and messy business. I don’t tell them what to think. I try to get them to put themselves in the place of the imperfect people who tried to figure it all out (our founding fathers).

    • You are a good teacher…….and there are some great textbooks…the problem is that there are something like 75,000 different school districts and the choice is not up to teachers but rather to some got his/her job thru politics…..and in our toxic atmosphere….it does not help….here in my state the textbook teaches a very revisionist view of the Reconstruction, that makes the time look like a take over of the states by blacks…they fail and white people had to bail them out…..this is the type of stuff that can be found in the many different books used to teach History…..and almost all textbooks present the “founders’ as somehow divine…they were men dealing with a situation that they created, period!

    • My favorite teacher in high school was a history teacher Joan. Like you, he made us think and see things in perspective rather than force-feeding us a view. Keep up the good work. Teachers are our greatest link to the future for the next generation and are too often under-valued.

  5. and I thought “founding fathers” was the court locating dead-beat dads…..

    You know I had to say that….I’m a humorist, I don’t have a serious bone in my body!

  6. OK.. The founding fathers first of all loved Jesus, hated gays, never had abortions, and wanted to make this a christian nation. They never screwed their slaves and definitely would never grow hemp 🙂 I’m being sarcastic of course. Good post, amazing what some of the “founding fathers” actually thought.

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