Liddick: Conflicting views of the Founding Fathers (column)
May 22, 2017
"Exhibit Challenges the Madison Myth" was the breathless headline. I'm jaded but I looked, titillated by the possibility of some long-undiscovered link between our fourth president and the New England Royalists of 1814. Or maybe conciliatory letters between Madison and the Dey of Algiers before the latter capitulated to Commodore Decatur, much to the delight of shippers in the Mediterranean. Alas, it was not to be.
Instead, readers were treated to another fashionable excoriation of another Founding Father as a slaveholding hypocrite. The article, about a new exhibit at Madison's Montpelier plantation, recycles a tired old complaint: How could Madison, responsible as much as any man for our Constitution, a bulwark of human liberty and monument to freedom, own slaves? It is a question asked ad nauseam about all southern Founders: Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison — the list is long.
It is also as obtuse as calling a bunny rabbit cowardly for terrorizing the grass but running away when a hound approaches. Nevertheless it is thinking worth examining, not because of what it reveals about its objects, those eighteenth-century upper-class types who gave us both our Constitution and nation, but about those who ask the question.
Inherent is the assumption that humans are entirely one thing: good or evil, greedy or generous; they either love and extol freedom and liberty or they are slave drivers who would make Simon Legree recoil in horror. Real people who pay attention to the real world know this is piffle: Most people have a bit of both in them and understand their contradictions. The Founders knew this; it's one of the reasons they created the constitution they did.
Which directs us to the author's second erroneous idea: that the Constitution was "designed to protect the institution (slavery) without ever using the term." This is of a piece with modern "America can do no right" historians like Edward Baptist, and it is just as ham-handedly wrong. Whether the Constitution — which Madison had a large part in creating — was pro-or anti-slavery is a question invented in the early 1830s by the likes of John C. Calhoun as they sought to manufacture protections for their cherished "Peculiar Institution," rightly under growing attack. Now, as in 1834, the argument misses the point. The Constitution was designed and ratified not to protect slavery but "to form a more perfect Union," as it says of itself. That is why it did not mention the term: The Founders' priorities were elsewhere. And the Constitution's notorious ambiguity on this question was the price of its ratification — without which the United States would not exist.
Which illustrates the problem faced by those who project our values into the past: The residents of previous centuries did not think quite as we do; their motives were different, their ethics not ours. They generally reflect our view of humanity, its ends and the proper methods of achieving them, but that does not mean we are the same. To illustrate, contrast the article's assumptions about Mr. Madison's character and ideas with those of New York City native and Constitutional delegate Gouveneur Morris, who decried the "three-fifths compromise" and refused to sign the document because of it. Before we declare the acerbic New Yorker victor in the good guy derby, we should note that he also loathed the idea of common folk voting, stating more than once that, "The evils we experience spring from an excess of democracy."
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More disturbing is that these negative attitudes about Madison, his contemporaries and the world they made are actively being jammed into the heads of students young enough to believe them without question. Given enough of this, a majority of citizens will come to see the Founders not as farsighted men who embraced sacrifice and compromise to give their country the oldest surviving constitutional government on earth, but as a greedy, self-interested cabal. They will think their country not a unique and powerful bastion of liberty where, despite shortcomings, human freedom tends to advance, but a nation created by hypocrites whose ill deeds outweigh their positive contributions; a nation founded on lies and crimes, whose sole purpose is to enrich the few at the expense of the many and whose greatest contribution to liberty would be to vanish.
When we arrive at that point, the Republic will be at death's door. If it shrugs indifferently and enters, to where might we fly that our freedoms be protected? History holds an answer, but it's not pleasant: nowhere.
Slowly but inevitably night will fall on all of humanity. And it will be a long age before another dawn.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.