Same Old Song

07/08/2024

Like Thomas Jefferson, I am sitting down in late June to write an opinion piece, and like Jefferson, I am writing in longhand, with ink on paper. That’s about where the similarities end.

Jefferson, who was 33 at the time, was a true Renaissance man with a keen interest in all the arts and sciences. He was born into great wealth and privilege and yet struggled all his life with debt. The one thing you can say with certainty about Thomas Jefferson is that he was a complicated guy.

His attitude toward slavery is a good example of that, and one that confuses civil rights activists and others to this day. In his first draft of the Declaration, Jefferson complained that the slave trade was a horrible practice that had been imposed on the colonies by Great Britain and implied that slavery itself should be abolished. The slave-holding colonies refused to vote for independence until that passage was stricken, and so it was.

The great contradiction here was that Jefferson was a slave-holder himself, and although he promised to free them, he never did so. Part of the reason for that was the aforementioned indebtedness, as one cannot legally give away one’s “property” without compensating the creditors.

At any rate, I see a certain irony in Jefferson’s legacy, other than the obvious one. It has become very popular lately to make references to the founders, sometimes called the “framers.” I’m not sure what the difference is, but I know that some people don’t like the term “Founding Fathers” because it sounds too male. Ok, whatever.

Rarely, though, does anyone specify whom, exactly, they are referring to. According to Google, there are seven men generally thought of as founders. In addition to Jefferson, they include George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. It’s certainly not a bad list, but I doubt that many Americans would come up with the same precise list, and I can think of at least half a dozen names that could easily be added to it.

Granted, some of them were more revolutionaries than they were framers. Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry may have been more consumed by tearing down the old order than building the new, but it’s hard to imagine the birth of the nation without them.

Nonetheless, I think the general public has a standard metric for determining founder status, and it has little to do with Google’s list or my own. Many people simply consider the founders to be the group of men who signed the Declaration of Independence on, or around, July 4, 1776.

While this method has the benefit of clarity, a name is either on the document or it isn’t, it does raise a number of other issues. The 56 signatures included a wide variety of individuals. There were lawyers, farmers, merchants, ministers, doctors, soldiers and even tradesmen. Some were rich and famous, like John Hancock; others were little known bureaucrats. They had frequent and sharp disagreements with each other about nearly everything.

Although the colonies were unanimous in voting for independence, the individual congressmen were not. Several of the men who signed the Declaration actually voted against it, and a few were not even members of Congress at the time it was adopted. That show of solidarity is truly remarkable, considering that their signatures amounted to treason against the crown, which was punishable by hanging.

So they were patriots for sure, but calling them the founders puts all the emphasis on the Declaration, ignoring the fact that our government rests upon the Constitution. That document was constructed 11 years later by a largely different group of people, led by Madison and Hamilton.

But I digress. The irony I mentioned regarding Jefferson has to do with the popular practice of using the founders to back up whatever political point someone is trying to make. How often do you hear that the founders thought this or feared that or worried about some other thing?

They speak of the founders as if they were a monolith that had one common set of opinions, when actually they argued constantly, whether it was in person, through the press or through the mail. Some actually hated each other.

That is why Jefferson is the perfect, albeit ironic, choice as the personification of the founders. He is the one person who appears on every list, and for good reason. Jefferson didn’t merely sign the Declaration but also wrote it, and his words have somehow touched a chord with Americans from the Revolution to the current moment. Those words seem even more poignant to me when I consider that they emerged from a life of internal debate.

In spite of all the disagreement and contradiction, whether between members of Congress or within Jefferson himself, the Second Constitutional Congress was able to achieve one of the greatest accomplishments in history. You may well be saying that they must have all been in agreement about something, and you would be correct. It just wasn’t independence.

By the middle of the 18th century, the British Empire stretched around the globe, and it was the greatest naval power on earth. It was also nearly broke. Two centuries of fighting wars against the other European powers had left its treasury depleted and the crown seeking new sources of income.

From 1756 to 1763, England fought a war against France that was called, appropriately enough, the Seven Years’ War. Much of the fighting took place in North America where the war had a different name. It was called the French and Indian War.

England won the war, which gained it all of Canada but left it more financially strapped than ever. At that point, the king and his ministers decided that since his American colonies had benefitted from Great Britain’s protection, they should shoulder some of the cost.

In March 1765 they passed the Stamp Act, which placed a tax on all documents and publications. It represented the first time the British Parliament had directly taxed the American colonists.

The colonists responded by forming into angry mobs and going after the tax collectors, which resulted in a lot of job openings in that line of work. The Stamp Act was soon repealed, but at the same time, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, making it clear that it would continue to tax whatever it pleased. It also stationed troops in Boston and set up military courts to try smugglers. At that point, it was just a matter of time until the two sides came to blows.

That’s what really united the founders with each other, and it is also one of the things that connects them to us. Once again, the government has rung up an unsustainable level of debt, and eventually someone is going to have to pick up the bill.

How that issue is resolved will determine the future of small business owners like you and me.

What would Jefferson do?

 


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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