I’m grateful to Mark Kurlansky for busting loose and saying what a lot of people think, but are too intimidated to say. That doesn’t mean he’s not grossly wrong about every sentence he writes in this Fourth of July fireworks assault on the Founders.
Kurlansky is the author of food-themed history books (*Salt,” “Cod”) which may or may not be good history; I’ve never read them. Based on this column, though, I don’t think I’d rely on him to teach me much about America’s past. Put on your Fisking hats and let’s go inside:
SOMEONE HAS TO SAY IT or we are never going to get out of this rut: I am sick and tired of the founding fathers and all their intents.
There’s some sort of pleasure, I suppose, in watching an annoying house mouse start banging its nose on the trigger plate of an unbaited mousetrap. Not that a mouse ever was that stupid. But it’s what I thought of when reading this.
The real American question of our times is how our country in a little over 200 years sank from the great hope to the most backward democracy in the West.
But already he’s tripping over his argument, which is the opposite of what he says here: The point of his piece is to assert that the country’s foundation was the work of an oligarchy of backwards, racist, sexist, militaristic genocide-approving hypocrites. And that the achievements we revere them for deserve no praise.
Rather than being a “great hope,” a beacon to follow, Kurlansky writes, the deeds and words of 1776 ought to be scorned as a mistake we tack away from as rapidly as possible.
The whole piece veers schizophrenically between an attempt to be scathing in denouncing the worthless Founders and an attempt to be scathing in denouncing modern America for not being true to their vision. He wants to hurl rotten tomatoes at that marble statue of Thomas Jefferson and beat you over the head with it at the same time.
The U.S. offers the worst healthcare program, one of the worst public school systems and the worst benefits for workers. The margin between rich and poor has been growing precipitously while it has been decreasing in Europe. Among the great democracies, we use military might less cautiously, show less respect for international law and are the stumbling block in international environmental cooperation. Few informed people look to the United States anymore for progressive ideas.
A predictable litany, and yes, these are real and serious problems for America. But they are societal problems. Kurlansky elides a mass of political experience to connect them to the work of declaring independence from Britain and writing the Constitution. His implication is not only that these are the government’s problems to solve, but that 18th century Americans should have perceived the world through the eyes of a 21st century statist liberal. It’s a common enough error, but its frequency doesn’t make it less hubristic, infantile, and historically foolish.
To treat it in detail: If you could resurrect the Founders and show them modern America, they would not be appalled that we had “one of the worst public school systems” in the world. Most of them would be appalled that a nationwide, government-run, federally controlled and mandated education system existed at all.
That the government had any business regulating the gap between rich and poor also would strike them as outlandish. It’s not that they relished poverty, or thought it was God’s judgment on the wicked, or any such thing. But the idea that the government should stage-manage the national economy with equality of outcome as a goal wouldn’t have occurred even to a Hamilton.
I do agree, however, that they would be appalled by the way the American military is ordered around the world and involved in foreign wars. But before they got to that, they’d be appalled by the very idea of a paid, professional standing American army.
We ought to do something. Instead, we keep worrying about the vision of a bunch of sexist, slave-owning 18th century white men in wigs and breeches. Even in the 18th century, the founding fathers were not the most enlightened thinkers available. They were the ones whose ideas prevailed.
That’s the kind of dismissive jaw-jaw you expect from a smart junior high school student, not a historian. But Kurlansky does us the favor of nominating a contemporary American he evidently considers a more “enlightened thinker” than the Founders in the pantheon:
Those who favored independence but were not in favor of war are not called founding fathers. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania — with whom John Adams bitterly fought in the Constitutional Congress of 1776 because Dickinson did not believe it was necessary to engage in bloody warfare in order to achieve independence — is not a founding father.
Wait a minute. That’s not the history. That’s “1776 The Musical.” For dramatic reason, the musical needed a villain. The lyricists picked on good, honest John Dickinson, who simply was too conservative to support the Revolution. Kurlansky seems to have learned his history from the movies. Perhaps he hummed “He Plays the Violin” to himself as he typed this screed.
Merely provoking the irrascible John Adams hardly was a distinguishing mark for a politician, and “because Dickinson did not believe it was necessary to engage in bloody warfare in order to achieve independence” grossly misstates the man’s position, making him look like a Cindy Sheehan pacifist.
Now, I like John Dickinson; I graduated from the college named in his honor by his friend Benjamin Rush. But let me assure you (and Kurlansky) that he was every inch the “sexist, slave-owning 18th century white man in wigs and breeches” that the rest of them were.
Perhaps moreso. Dickinson, like most of the rest, was proud of the liberal constitutional heritage of England and felt he was upholding it in protesting the Crown and Parliament policies of the 1760s and ’70s. He never gave up hope of reconciliation with the Mother Country, which is why he did not support the Declaration. He was a centrist, true to his principles, and he paid for it by seeing his property attacked by mobs of both loyalists and revolutionaries.
But he was no pacifist, and willingly fought for independence. He was appointed a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia and led 10,000 soldiers into New Jersey to throw back an anticipated British thrust toward Philadelphia from Staten Island. His political unpopularity drove him from a leadership position in the army, but even though he was one of the wealthiest men in the colonies he served as a private with the Kent County, Delaware, militia during the Philadelphia campaign in 1777.
It was Dickinson, after all, who wrote the famous conclusion that Americans were resolved to die freemen rather than live slaves.
As for real, not rhetorical, slaves, Dickinson owned more of them than anyone else in Delaware. And, like Washington and other Founders, he thought the institution inconsistent with liberty and eventually found a way to set his slaves free.
Not so different after all.
You could speak out against slavery and still be a founding father, as long as you did not insist on its abolition, as many did who aren’t in the pantheon.
But Kurlansky names no one in 1776 who “insisted” on this. Because no one did. The very idea of an “abolitionist,” much less an immediatist abolitionist, hadn’t come into existence. Once again, he’s unfairly projecting the present into the past.
The Constitution produced by the founding fathers lacked the enlightenment of some of the colonial charters of several generations earlier, most notably the laws of Pennsylvania that barred slavery, refused to raise militias and insisted on fair-minded treaties with Indians. Benjamin Franklin despised these “Quaker laws” of his colony and even published a pamphlet denouncing the Pennsylvania Assembly for not sending young men to fight the French and Indians.
Which Pennsylvania was that? I’m not aware of another one, but this description sounds nothing like the one I live in and have studied.
True Penn’s Charter of Libertie contained many provisions that would please a modern secular liberal American such as myself. Penn was tolerant of other religions and treated Indians well, all of which were marks of distinction. But these things grew not out of a modern secular liberal conscience, but rather from the purely religious roots of the Quaker colony. So embrace them if you wish, but they come in a package with some of the most restrictive blue laws in American history including a ban on card-playing and all theater.
Pennsylvania colony never “barred slavery.” It tried to halt the import of slaves, several times, as did many other colonies, out of racist fears of the baleful moral influence of Africans and out of economic fears of slavery driving out white labor. But the colony hardly was more fair-minded than the others on this matter.
William Penn himself owned slaves and used them to work his estate, Pennsbury. He wrote that he preferred them to white indentured servants, “for then a man has them while they live.” By 1693, Africans were so numerous in the colony’s capital that the Philadelphia Council complained of “the tumultuous gatherings of the Negroes in the town of Philadelphia.” Prominent Philadelphia Quaker families like the Carpenters, Dickinsons, Norrises, and Claypooles brought slaves to the colony. By 1700, one in 10 Philadelphians owned slaves. Slaves were used in the manufacturing sector, notably the iron works, and in shipbuilding.
Not only was colonial Pennsylvania a slave-owning society, but the lives of free blacks in the colony were controlled by law. The restrictions had begun almost with the colony itself. After 1700, when Pennsylvania was not yet 20 years old, blacks, free or slave, were tried in special courts, without the benefit of a jury. For a people who later protested against the fugitive slave laws, Pennsylvanians, when they had slaves themselves as property, used the full power of the law to protect them. “An Act for the better Regulation of Negroes” passed in the 1725-26 session, set especially high penalties for free blacks who harbored runaway slaves or received property stolen from masters. The penalties in such cases were potentially much higher than those applied to whites, and if the considerable fines that might accrue could not be paid, the justices had the power to order a free black person put into servitude.
Under other provisions of the 1725-26 act, free negroes who married whites were to be sold into slavery for life; for mere fornication or adultery involving blacks and whites, the penalty for the black person was to be sold as a servant for seven years. Whites in such cases faced different or lighter punishment. The law effectively blocked marriage between the races in Pennsylvania.
Throughout Pennsylvania colony, the children of free blacks, without exception, were bound out by the local justices of the peace until age 24 (if male) or 21 (if female). All in all, the “free” blacks of colonial Pennsylvania led severely circumscribed lives; they had no control even over their own family arrangements, and they could be put back into servitude for “laziness” or petty crimes, at the mercy of the local authorities.
Quakers felt uneasy about slavery; in part because they had doubts about the propriety of owning another person, but also because they feared it was a luxury that marked them as worldly, and in part because they feared Africans would be a bad influence on their families. Pennsylvania Mennonites had expressed concerns about slavery since the 17th century, but it was only in 1758 that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends made buying or selling a slave a bar to leadership in the Quaker meetings. In 1774 it became cause for disowning. Moral arguments were advanced against slave-owning. But the main motive for the Society’s shift against slavery seems to have been an internal clash of values between the few wealthy Quakers who owned the slaves and the many poor ones who did not.
To be honest, the U.S. was never as good as it was supposed to be. Perhaps no nation is. Henry David Thoreau wrote of nations, “The historian strives in vain to make them memorable.” Even in the first few decades, most Europeans who came to see the great new experiment were disappointed. Writer after writer, from British novelist Charles Dickens to the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, arrived to discover less than they imagined. Tocqueville observed of American character: “They unceasingly harass you to extort praise and if you resist their entreaties, they fall to praising themselves.”
Fanny Trollope, the English writer, made a similar observation in 1832: “A slight word indicative of doubt, that any thing, or every thing, in that country is not the very best in the world, produces an effect which must be seen and felt to be understood.” I have no doubt the response to this article will show an America still unwilling to be criticized. But it is difficult for a society that accepts no criticism to progress.
Enlisting de Tocqueville on the side of the America-bashers is false enough. Worse still is pretending the British literati crossed the Atlantic as open-minded observers, not as calculating writers bent on dredging up the most miserable specimens of American degradation, the better to sell their subsequent horror-story books about the experience.
But the audacity of invoking the shrilly vituperative Fanny Trollope as a reliable observer of American life is beyond absurd. And sillier still is Kurlansky’s claim that, “if you don’t like what I say, that proves I’m right.” It’s the sort of schoolyard excuse for an argument that’s become depressingly common on the left, which not so long ago used to be able to sneer at the conservatives as “the stupid party.” What’s next? “Nyah-nyah; you’re it I quit touch black.”
Slavery was the most celebrated flaw of the founding fathers, but they also set the stage for the genocide of about 10 million American Indians and did not even entirely reject colonialism. They believed that it was wrong to tax colonists who did not have representation in the legislature, but the tax, not the lack of representation, was the grievance. They were affluent men of property, and they hated paying taxes. Ironically, they repeatedly used words like “enslavement” and “slavery” to criticize taxes while at the same time accepting real slavery.
Old Beard-Hacker Marxist interpretations dredged up from the dustbins of history-writing. The “genocide” began again in earnest under Andrew Jackson’s presidency, which made the most radical departure from the system set up by the Founders and was the most “democratic” to date. The guilt for the genocide lies with we the people, not they the Founders.
The founding fathers were all men of the establishment who wanted what Robespierre sneeringly called, when his own French Revolution was accused of excess, “a revolution without a revolution.” John Steinbeck noted that the American Revolution was different from that of France’s or Russia’s because the so-called revolutionaries “did not want a new form of government; they wanted the same kind, only run by themselves.”
More Marxist boilerplate, but the invocation of Robespierre as a more approved type of a revolutionary is terribly illuminating of the mind at work.
Yet it is only with anti-establishment thinkers that a society progresses. The reason that there is always more disillusionment with Democrats than Republicans is that Democrats raise the expectation of being anti-establishment when, in reality, both parties are committed to maintaining the status quo and the “intent of the founding fathers.”
And it is only when following anti-establishment thinkers that a functioning society quickly goes to hell. The passage about disillusionment with Democrats looks sound to me, though.
But the founding fathers, unlike the Americans of today, understood their own shortcomings. Thomas Jefferson warned against a slavish worship of their work, which he referred to as “sanctimonious reverence” for the Constitution. Jefferson believed in the ability of humans to grow wiser, of humankind to make progress, and he believed that the Constitution should be rewritten in every generation.
“Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind,” Jefferson wrote in 1816. “As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstance, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
The quote comes from a letter to Samuel Kercheval, supporting efforts to rewrite Virginia’s state constitution to eliminate woefully unfair voting rules that restricted power to a Chesapeake aristocracy that was increasingly the minority in the state.
Somebody please tell Kurlansky that, in spite of what he thinks, Jefferson was not referring to the U.S. Constitution here. Though I don’t doubt Jefferson would approve modifications in the form of government to suit changes in times and the nation. So would they all. It was part of their genius and part of why they are rightly revered down to the present day.
Jefferson’s correspondence with Kercheval touched on other matters, too. Such as justifying national policies that Kurlansky deplores, and criticizing the Quakers, whom Kurlansky reveres. Jefferson wrote:
Our efforts to preserve peace, our measures as to the Indians, as to slavery, as to religious freedom, were all in consonance with [the Quakers’] professions. Yet I never expected we should get a vote from them, and in this I was neither deceived nor disappointed. There is no riddle in this, to those who do not suffer themselves to be duped by the professions of religious sectaries. The theory of American Quakerism is a very obvious one. The mother society is in England. Its members are English by birth and residence, devoted to their own country, as good citizens ought to be. The Quakers of these States are colonies or filiations from the mother society, to whom that society sends its yearly lessons. On these the filiated societies model their opinions, their conduct, their passions and attachments. A Quaker is, essentially, an Englishman, in whatever part of the earth he is born or lives.
Back to Kurlansky:
It is surprising that these words are not more often quoted in Washington because they are literally carved in stone — on a wall of the Jefferson Memorial to be exact.
And so the gear-jamming schizophrenic article turns, at last, into a paean to the revolutionary foresight of the Founders, after having dismissed them as silk stockings full of shit. But not before packing all the loopiness of that into one tight sentence:
So let us stop worshiping the founding fathers and allow our minds to progress and try to build a nation of great new ideas. That is, after all, the intent of the founding fathers.
Let us forget what they wanted us to do, and live as though they had never lived and rule as though they had never ruled, because that is what they wanted us to do.
Now, give your head a few minutes to stop spinning. Then realize that the shame of it is, Kurlansky can have much of what he wants in modern America without jettisoning the Founders. They were learned political theorists, but they also were practical men. They dealt with America as they found it, not as a nation of angels or apes. They built a constitution meant to govern that America, but with provisions to grow and change — and they knew it would. It was another of Jefferson’s dictums, as a president, to be progressive but to do no more good than the country can bear all at once.
Kurlansky, if he can get over his need to order the world — past, present, and future — exactly as it suits him, might learn something from reading what Jefferson wrote about the rule of the people. What Kurlansky wants is what we’ve been doing all along: using the fluid qualities of the Constitution to run a continuous, but evolving, nation.
That Kurlansky doesn’t like where we’ve turned out is probably less a testimony to his ambivalent feelings about the Founders. More likely, I think, is that he, like Fanny Trollope, simply detests the majority of Americans.
Kurlansky might even learn to appreciate the discovery of one of his own essay’s inappropriately dragooned anti-Americans, de Tocqueville, who wrote: “I have never been more struck by the good sense and the practical judgment of the Americans than in the manner in which they elude the numberless difficulties resulting from their Federal Constitution.”