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Did the Founding fathers fail their own litmus test for freedom?

By       Message Herbert Calhoun     Permalink
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In this Pulitzer Prize winning book, entitled "Revolutionaries," about the American Revolutionary generation, the author, Jack Rakove, barely contains his romantic patriotic fervor enough not to allow it to get in the way of, or out in front of, the facts and motivations of our founding fathers. That he was able to walk this historical tight-rope without falling on his face, when so many other Historians have come crashing to the ground, is no small accomplishment. And arguably, is probably as much responsible for his winning the Pulitzer Prize as is his engaging and well-written narrative of the revolutionary period.

To cut straight to the chase, my agenda has always been an open one. It has been a quest to either confirm or deny (and then to expose) the Founding Fathers as either being men of high moral character and sound far-reaching judgment; or morally narrow-minded incorrigible racist hypocrites.

Always I have been willing to settle for whatever the facts might reveal, although I would be disingenuous if I were not to admit that my suspicions have always been that the latter is more likely to be true than the former. My suspicions are of course constantly being reinforced when I see how the American experiment in un-racial democracy and un-freedom has unfolded and misfired at every decisive inflection point throughout American history, including during the revolutionary generation.

It goes without saying perhaps that I have read (and reviewed) enough books on either side of this moral issue to qualify as someone who has at least taken this matter very seriously -- if not made me a self-declared arm-chair expert on the matter. Thus, this honest, balanced, well-written Pulitzer Prize winning book for me was to be one component of a two-pronged litmus test of my quest.

The other component was to be the positions the founding fathers took respectively on the only moral issue of the day, one literally begging for a moral resolution throughout the founding generation: freedom for America's black slaves.

What we discover here in this carefully written Pulitzer winning book leaves no further doubt on this matter. Even as the author undoubtedly would have preferred not opening up this can of worms, clearly in good conscience he had no choice but to do so, and then he had no choice but to allow the chips to fall where they may. All of the chips fell resoundingly on the side of our founding fathers being morally incorrigible racist hypocrites, period.

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Never is this issue brought into starker or more self-evident relief than in the discussions during the most trying times of the war -- on whether to grant freedom and citizenship to slaves who were then (out of dire necessity) about to be impressed into the Continental Army to fight against the British for "white only colonial freedom."

In discussions between the famous patriot Patrick Henry and his son Jack appearing on pages 238-239, Jack argued for granting slaves their full freedom and citizenship just as their enemies the British were already doing. His father, one of the most revered of American patriots averred nay. And several days later, the best proposal the Continental Congress could come up with was one made by the very architect of the Constitution, James Madison, who suggested that instead of granting slave soldiers their freedom, that "white soldiers drawn from the lower ranks, should be made slaveholders" -- presumably so that their slaves could then, instead of fighting, be left to tend the farms while the white boys fought the British for white only freedom?

The Continental Congress rejected Madison's idea -- as well as all others that suggested either freeing slaves who fought on the Colonial side, or making them citizens afterwards. They did this in the clear moral light of day while they prayed to their own white God for victory over the British. They did this cleared-headed and at the same time that the British were granting slaves their freedom as well as British citizenship as an automatic condition of military service? (Go figure?!)

Could the moral issue of where the revolutionary generation's heart lay on the issue of freedom be made more stark, or more clear? I do not think so. This is the "smoking gun." The quest has ended; the Founding fathers failed the litmus test. Amen Five Stars


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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 

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