Monday, July 04, 2011

Three Facts About the Founding Fathers

There is a myth that America's Founding Fathers got democracy right first time out and actually believed the fine words in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Right to Vote
When the Constitution was signed the right to vote was only granted to white males who owned property. A condition some in the Tea Party movement want to restore. Many states limited voting to owners of at least 50 acres of land. It wasn't until 1856 that the last state, North Carolina, lifted the property ownership requirement for voting.

After the Civil War, poll taxes were installed to insure that voting was a white privilege and not a universal right. The current voter ID movement is intended to have a similar disenfranchising effect. They remained until the 1960's. Women, of course, didn't gain the right to vote until 1920.

Freedom of Speech
The ink wasn't dry on the Bill of Rights when the Founding Fathers made it a crime to oppose any measure of the US Government. The Sedition Act had a fine up to $5000, equal to $60,000 in today's money, and carried a five year prison sentence. A member of Congress Matthew Lyon was found guilty of describing President John Adams of "ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice." Lyon was reelected while serving his prison sentence.

Since then speaking out against actions of the government has frequently been met with extreme reactions. The modern fight against free speech has been to herd it into isolated "free speech zones" or drown it under corporate capital.

The great founding families of Virginia - Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lee - all owned slaves. They couldn't vote unless they own property and slaves were property. The history of American presidents is loaded with slaves.
  • Washington owned over 200 slaves and freed just one slave on his death. Martha freed the others two years later. 
  • Jefferson freed his children by Sally Hemings on his death but no others. He never freed Sally.
  • Madison never freed a single of his slaves.
  • Neither did Monroe nor Andrew Jackson.
  • Martin Van Buren of New York own only on slave in his life and he ran away. Upon recovering his slave Van Buren sold him for $50.
  • William Henry Harrison tried to expand slavery into Indiana.
  • John Tyler, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor all owned and vehemently defended slavery. Taylor was the last president to own slaves while in office (1850). (source)
While it is true that some of these slave holding presidents opined against slavery in private correspondence, none did so publicly nor spent any political energy opposing slavery. Certainly there was no "tireless" effort. Some northern founding fathers, like Ben Franklin and Sam Adams, did work tirelessly to oppose slavery. Other northern founders like Alexander Hamilton were mostly accepting of slavery and were certainly willing to profit from it.

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