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Fathers don't always know best

July 04, 2006|Mark Kurlansky | MARK KURLANSKY is the author of many books, including, most recently, "The Big Oyster: History On a Half Shell."

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.

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. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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."

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."

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.

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.

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