Our Forefathers, Forecasters? Forthright?
I wrote this letter July 4th-5th, 2020.
Growing up, Independence Day was one of my favorite holidays. It was a celebration of the strong shoulders upon which this great nation was built; a celebration of the principles our Founding Fathers fought for and a celebration of the Founding Fathers themselves. The food was great and plentiful, the fireworks were magical,and when I’d rewind my memory, without exception my July 4ths past looked like they were torn from the pages of National Geographic.
Montecito 4th of July
After moving to Montecito full time in 2009, my family enjoyed driving our 1928 Ford Model “A” pickup in Montecito’s July 4th Parade. My husband is a horrible maintainer of cars, so I remember the 4th as the one day of the year that car worked – helped by the fact that the parade was sloped downhill so we had gravity on our side. Years we couldn’t revive that car, when I was on the School Board, we loved marching in the parade with MUS. One year our family was even offered to hold the school banner and lead the parade. We did so proudly.
This year the 4th felt different for many reasons. There were no official fireworks. It’s forbidden to gather in large groups because of COVID. It’s also hard to gather because our nation, and even our local citizenry, is divided.
Independence Day, which started as a celebration of our departure from an unfair British system of taxation and the declared independence of the American colony, has become a catch-all for patriotic tropes from the Founding Fathers to Mount Rushmore to the Statue of Liberty, to flag masks to flags-instead-of-masks. This year, I’ve noticed myself starting to have a different reaction to patriotic symbols which have been clashed over, subverted and weaponized by both sides in a way I’ve never before seen in my lifetime.
On Saturday the 4th I woke up to an Instagram post by Shaun King, the civil rights activist who often speaks for BLM, that basically said “F” the Fourth, it’s an arcane symbol of white supremacy and exclusion. And “F” the Founding Fathers.
So because of beach closures and stay-at-home orders I decided to use some quality quarantine time to do a deep dive on the Founding Fathers and see if I couldn’t defend them against Shaun King’s charges and vitriol. It seemed like a good, patriotic use of my Independence Day weekend.
In the U.S. the Founding Fathers, their principles and doctrines and intentions, seem as oft invoked as the Bible – and for every conceivable purpose. Are the Founders worthy of our hero worship? Every U.S. President, at one point or another, invokes the Founding Fathers in order to wrap rhetoric in the flag. But the America of the Founding Fathers is 250 years old and bears little resemblance to today’s world. Could the Framers have possibly planned for the complicated challenges we face today?
The America of the Founding Fathers
The America of the Founding Fathers had a total population of four million, 500,000 of whom were African (or in some cases Native American) slaves. The city with the most slaves was Charleston, South Carolina. The city with the second highest slave population… New York. The most populous state in the Union was Virginia, a colony in which nine of our first ten presidents owned plantations.
None of the privacy matters we grapple with today could have been anticipated by the Founding Fathers because there was no internet and electricity was still 100 years off. Surveillance meant someone literally lurking outside your window and invasion of privacy would have involved someone reading your mail, then resealing it with a counterfeit wax seal. The Postmaster General was not established until the Constitutional Convention of 1787, so concepts like vote-by-mail really couldn’t have been considered or even conceived of.
Looking back on the Founding Fathers and their “intentions,” when the Second Amendment (the Right to Bear Arms) was written, there were only two kinds of guns: long barrel muskets and flint lock pistols, both of which took about half a minute to get off a shot and reload.
The Electoral College was another Founding Father anachronism, in part enacted as a way to “count” slaves to gin up more delegates for slave states, while simultaneously denying slaves the actual right to vote. Historian and Pulitzer winner Garry Wills of Lincoln At Gettysburg speculated that without the additional slave state votes, Jefferson would have lost the presidential election of 1800. Just as, later, John Quincy Adams would have lost to Andrew Jackson. Others who lost the popular vote but won in the electoral college were Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, W, and of course, Donald Trump.
Principles of the Founding Fathers
So here we are in July 2020, everyone’s nominee for Worst Year of the Millenia (the one thing on which we can all agree), and as just one facet of this tumultuous year the Founding Fathers and other heroes considered foundational are today being torn down either actually or metaphorically. Should their images and the ideas behind these men be protected at all cost? Or was George Washington a “monster” as Shaun King said?
The Father of Our Country owned 317 slaves at Mount Vernon. He received his first personal slave at age 11. From all reports (and there are books about it) we know that Washington was a taskmaster. In fairness, slavery was an accepted practice in human civilization almost since its inception. Perhaps this speaks more to the fundamental brutality of which humanity has certainly proved capable. Almost every culture has had slavery at one point or another. And there are 30,000,000+ slaves scattered around the globe right now according to the Walk Free Global Slavery Index.
While the prevalence of slavery does not justify Washington’s slave ownership, should we factor in what was considered accepted practice in “civilized” society at the time?
Washington’s false teeth, long thought to be wooden, were actually human teeth taken from the mouths of Washington’s won living slaves. The documents regarding the provenance of his slave teeth are housed in the Library of Congress in the city named after himself.
The wood teeth myth is even refuted on the Mount Vernon website where they admit GW’s teeth were human but don’t go so far as to say they were slave teeth. His slaves’ teeth. That’s the kind of fudging of history that exemplifies my public-school education. While it’s true that in those days it was not unheard of for poor people to sell their teeth to the wealthy, my guess is when that poor person was a slave, saying “no” to “Master” was not really a viable option.
These are facts. You may not like these facts. I don’t like these facts. Especially today, I think we all have a desire for something pure we can cling to: forthright Founding Fathers, perfect heroes and, in the absence of perfect heroes, perfect documents. We are all fond of words to live by. Mottos. Commandments. Holy books. An immutable and inalienable Constitution. I was happy with my parades and my barbecues, my sparklers and my Kodachrome memories. But I am now aware of facts that can’t help but recolor those memories.
These facts were certainly not told to my kids on their 5th grade Colonial Trip when they visited Mount Vernon. If ignorance is bliss, knowledge often comes with… well… a loss of innocence, consternation, Sturm und Drang. A need to take a position and perhaps even a need to take action.
Like most of us, I grew up with the dignified Washington whose image is on our stamps and money. That upright guy bravely crossing the frozen Potomac at Valley Forge. Not a guy with 317 slaves working his tobacco farm, a man who pursued his runaway slaves with the same relentlessness with which he drove the British out of Trenton. I’m bothered by the complexity of Washington and even more bothered that for so long I was passively yet blissfully ignorant to all this. Ignorant that while I was at the beach enjoying fireworks, many African Americans seethed at July 4th, pained by its ironic and oft invoked references to the Land of the Free while they were, literally, shackled.
In the early 1800s one black paper called the 4th “the bleakest day of the year. We wish we could blot it from the calendar.” And in fact, after the last of New York’s slaves were emancipated in 1827, many African Americans did not whatsoever celebrate the 4th and instead staged annual protests on July 5th.
The former slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” on July 5, 1852 to the Rochester (NY) Ladies Anti-Slavery Society. I think Douglass expressed best the July 4th quandary whereby we celebrate our patriots whilst acknowledging those excluded from the American achievement.
“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the Fathers of this Republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too. (However) the point from which I am compelled to view them is not… the most favorable. Yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”
Douglass goes on: “But I say with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. The 4th of July is yours, not mine.”
So how is Mr. Douglass’ legacy doing today?
This past weekend, on July 5th, 2020, on the 168th anniversary of Mr. Douglass delivering that speech in Rochester, where he fled from his enslavement in Maryland, the statue of Frederick Douglass was desecrated, moved off its pedestal, and irreparably damaged.
Which brings us to today, July 8th, and finding a path forward.
I do not advocate “canceling” the 4th or tossing it in the river like the bust of some confederate general. But I do think the 4th should be a celebration that puts on display our Founding Fathers, warts and all. A multidimensional picture. A celebration for ALL Americans. More nuanced, inclusive, and most importantly, tied to the complete historical record. Maybe one day we’ll celebrate the 4th-to-the-5th of July. A grand, two-day celebration of black joy and white joy and every joy in between. Let’s honor those who suffered to get us where we are today, those who suffered at the hands of our enemies but also those who suffered at the hands of our Forefathers.