Jun 3, 2014

The Founding Fathers, Really

Last night I was sitting alongside my daughter in the den. She was deep in study for an AP U.S. History final, and I was online having a spirited political debate with a gentleman I'd made contact with just hours prior. It was quite an interesting back and forth, though on contentious issues that have been commonly discussed between Americans who view the role of government in very different ways. There are those who think government should intervene very little in human affairs, and those who regard that suggestion as one rooted in unreality. Often, the former will introduce the topic of the 'founding fathers' and their original intent in framing our country's Bill of Rights and Constitution. The latter recognize a number of awkward truths about those overly-revered man.

I had to end last night's conversation before we could get to what I think is the most salient point about our so-called founding fathers, which is that they were not the forefathers of us all, not in any sense. Not only did they and their ideas have no connection to the people already inhabiting this part of the world when they landed, but there is also little connection to those who came later in chains and during the waves of immigration from eastern Europe, Asia, and countries south of the American border. The forefathers of which they speak were British, and only British, and two-thirds of them were lawyers. From the very beginning the wealthiest among them and those from the larger states presided over, penned, and pushed their own agendas through to what was ultimately adopted. It was not long at all before the tyranny of the Church of England was replaced by another peculiar form of religious control over all aspects of colonists' lives.

We all need to be very clear and honest about the motives and convictions of those who created our system of governance. Yes, they were fleeing what they perceived as tyranny in their home land and seeking freedom, but there was an extreme degree of self-interest at play. When these men conceived of individual rights, they were thinking only of those within their insular community of British males. Their idea of a 'person' with unalienable rights did not include women, did not include the native people they pushed aside, nor did it included the human beings they forced to immigrate from Africa, enslaved, and treated like mere chattel. Those who were different from them were both in their minds and in the laws they would later write mere fractions of a 'person', available for exploitation in any way they saw fit. That is just the ugly truth, like it or not.

We so often hear the more conservative among us referring to the institution of slavery as an unfortunate 'stain' on our history. That's an interesting way to view it, and one that makes light of many despicable events and aspects of this nation's history, including the forced Indian migrations, Asian internments, the maltreatment of non-Christians and eastern Europeans and, yes, slavery. All of this has been seen as legal, as were the flouting of women's rights and the Jim Crow laws that persisted for decades. It has always been against the will and at the discretion of those in power that assimilation has taken place and those equal rights they hold so dear have been extended to others. And that still holds true, as the majority stubbornly cling to their right to run roughshod over gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals and those who dare to come here from south of the border to seek the same opportunities those 'forefathers' sought.

Those first Americans perceived the vast land of rich natural resources they invaded as theirs for the taking and a God-given right. This is a form of arrogance that many of their descendants either can't see or choose to disregard. When minority groups try to assert their rights under the Constitution, those descendants prefer to characterize it as an assault on their rights. They want not only their own guaranteed but the right to restrict others, and they see nothing wrong or hypocritical in that position. What those who cry out for less government interference ignore is the fact that our government exists primarily to protect minorities and the powerless from the self-interested acts of those who would do them harm. The writing of those protections into our framing documents is the one thing we should all revere them for, whether they fully appreciated the implications or not. In the end, we all understand on some level that we are flawed beings. We all have the capacity to harm others out of self-interest when we gain a degree of power, and until we are much more evolved we must protect us from ourselves.

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