Jan 31, 2011

Fighting Over the Founders - Or Not

We all know that there's been lots of talk about "the founders" recently, especially as the Tea Party and the right wing have been using factually inaccurate references to "the founders" to bolster their political arguments - like Michelle Bachmann claiming that founders like John Quincy Adams* "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States"** or Glenn Beck arguing that the 3/5 clause in the Constitution was actually written "because if slaves in the South were counted as full human beings, they could never abolish slavery."***

So I was amused to see 

this yesterday in a fellowship description for historians:
 "The project should address the history and/or legacy – broadly defined – of the American Revolution and the nation’s founding ideas....Please note that neither the fellowships nor the Starr Center have any political agenda or orientation. We encourage a broad reading of such terms as ‘founders’ and ‘founding ideas.’” [bold in original]

Clearly the current vogue of using and mis-using the founders has frightened some scholars and funders-of-scholars.

* John Quincy Adams was the 6th President of the United States. He was 9 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed and 20 when the Constitution was written. He was not, therefore, one of the signers or writers – although his father, John Adams, was.

** No matter how you define the “founders” – as the people who wrote and signed those documents, or who fought in the Revolution, or whatever – many of them owned slaves and many, if not most, defended the institution of slavery. See: 3/5 compromise.

*** The 3/5 compromise had nothing to do with abolishing slavery – unless Beck means that it helped galvanize opposition to slavery 70 years after the Constitution was ratified. The compromise helped save the Constitution, because during the Constitutional Convention both northerners and southerners seemed likely to walk out if they didn’t get their way on the question of how slaves would count for purposes of taxation and of apportionment in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. In large part the southerners worried that, if only free whites were counted, they would be outnumbered in the House of Representatives (because the white population of the north was greater than that of the south) and thus that slavery would be abolished by an act of Congress. The compromise had the effect of giving free white men in the slaveholding states much more relative political power than their counterparts in non-slaveholding states – and, if anything, of protecting slavery for the following seven decades as Congress repeatedly voted to expand slavery (see: Missouri Compromise, Kansas-Nebraska Act…).

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