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America's Founding Pragmatism

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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In retrospect, none of this should reflect badly on John and Abigail Adams, who sacrificed greatly for the revolutionary cause. They were simply doing what they had to do to make it through dangerous and difficult times.

Similarly, General George Washington had a mix of personal and patriotic reasons for hating the Articles of Confederation, which had allowed the 13 "independent" states to renege on their financial commitments to the Continental Army and, after the war, had undermined economic reconstruction.

Washington, like other Founders, had invested in undeveloped land to the west and thus recognized the necessity to build canals and roads for reaching this territory and making it more valuable.

In 1785, Washington established the Potowmack Company, which began digging canals to extend navigable waterways westward along the Potomac River. But these efforts were hampered by the national disorganization under the Articles of Confederation.

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So, in 1787, Washington and Madison engineered the most significant shift of governing power from the states to the central government in American history. In secret meetings in Philadelphia, a convention, which had been assigned the limited task of proposing amendments to the Articles, instead scrapped that states-rights structure and drafted the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution eliminated key wording of the Articles, which had granted the states "sovereignty" and "independence." Instead, the federal government was given legal supremacy. Madison even wanted to give Congress the authority to veto any state law, though a compromise was struck, giving that power ultimately to the federal courts.

In one of its most important decisions, the Constitutional Convention approved Madison's plan to give Congress an unlimited power to regulate interstate commerce. Madison touted this Commerce Clause as a way to promote the construction of roads and canals and to take other steps to strengthen the American economy.

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Thus, the idea of public-private collaboration to enhance U.S. commerce -- along with federal regulatory power -- was there at the beginning, contrary to the Right's current propaganda portraying the Founders as free-market extremists caring only about individual liberty. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Did the Founders Hate Government?"]

Famously, the Constitutional Convention reached other compromises that revealed the uglier side of the founding pragmatism. To avert a splintering of the young country, the Framers accepted the continuation of slavery, which was a major industry in the agricultural South and which touched on the personal wealth of key figures, including slave owners Washington and Madison.

Romney's NRA Speech

So, it is hard to argue -- as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did before the National Rifle Association on Friday -- that the Framers were libertarians committed to the high-minded principle in the Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal."

Still, there is much to admire about the Founders and their courage battling for independence against a tyrannical monarchy. Nothing in history -- or today -- is a case of black hats versus white hats. Usually it's gray hats or at least mud-splattered hats.

America's founding narrative also can be a powerful force in modern American politics -- and mostly for the good. It can be applied honestly with the nation's finest of First Principles providing inspiration and guidance to the present. But the narrative also can be twisted dishonestly to promote destructive or self-serving ends.

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That is where the nation finds itself now, as the Right has distorted the founding narrative and sold the false version to millions of gullible Americans, who think they are standing with the Founders in opposing practical solutions to the nation's problems.

Most likely, Founders like Washington and Madison would be shocked by the ideological extremism that has been superimposed on their practical attempts to find a way forward for the nation and to make it more competitive in the world.

It is way past time for honest historians to get off the sidelines and join this battle for a truthful recounting of the nation's early years. The American people are in desperate need of some lessons from the pragmatic Founders.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at

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