I have been asked by the Kewanee Library, near my home in central Illinois, to lead discussions on “Revisiting the Founding Era.” What lessons might there be for us today, and what might we do today to honor those who made our nation possible?
Library Director Barbara Love was awarded one of a very few grants from a New York City foundation to explore the topic. Over the next 6 weeks, I will sit in the moderator’s chair at sessions in the library, and in classes at the local community college, high school and state prison.
I am a political scientist, yet have always enjoyed history, though I am not an expert in the Revolutionary era. To prepare, I just finished “American Creation,” by Joseph Ellis, author of the best-selling “Founding Brothers.”
The founders, led by Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison and others, were not demigods. They were indeed true radicals, intelligent and imperfect. Their audacity was breathtaking – a tiny band of disparate colonies of barely 3 million people taking on the world’s mightiest military.
Nor was there consensus in the America colonies. Ellis estimates that only one-third of the colonists supported the Revolutionary cause; one-third was opposed, and one-third sat on the fence.
Gen. George Washington lacked the troops to confront the world’s most powerful military machine frontally. So, after several defeats, he played a defensive game from 1777 until 1780. The French, always happy to team up with opponents of their mortal adversary, England, played a decisive role at Yorktown in 1781, in defeating the army of Cornwallis, causing the English to sue for peace.
Laboring under the woefully inadequate Articles of Confederation, the Founding Fathers convened a convention in 1787, to write a charter that would bind the new states more tightly and increase national power.
At the convention, there were basically three geopolitical factions: New York and the Northeast; the slave-holding plantation states led by Virginia, and the small states of New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware, which feared the big states would control all.
The leaders of the factions felt, however, that unification was more important than fundamental differences, so they compromised.
For example, Northern leaders, many of them fervent abolitionists, gave in on the slavery issue. As a result, Africans-Americans, mostly slaves, were not mentioned by name in the Constitution. These so-called “other persons” were counted as three-fifths of a person each for census purposes and allocation of seats in the new U.S. House.
Over Madison’s strenuous objections, big state leaders gave in to the small ones, granting every state two U.S. senators, a provision that appears unamendable in our Constitution. And the issue of what to do with the estimated 800,000 American Indians, who stood in the way of white settler’s ravenous, irresistible hunger for their land, was left to future treaties with these tribal “foreign nations.”
Ellis considers the mishandling of the issues regarding slaves and Indians to be tragic compromises within an otherwise masterful creation.
But, were there any alternatives that would not have doomed the enactment of a Constitution?
No good alternatives come to my mind.
For Southern leaders, touching the slavery issue was a nonstarter. As for the Indians, efforts by Washington in his first administration to protect them by treaty were overrun, literally, by our forebears’ lust for the land.
Today, we would say the founders “kicked the can down the road” on these issues, and the consequences haunt us yet today.
So, any useful observations?
First, humans are evolving animals. Simplistic stereotyping and “us versus them” views of the world, and successful survival tactics in the past, unfortunately, are still with us.
Second, sometimes tragic compromise is apparently necessary, at least in the short run, with resolution of the resulting problems to be determined later.
What to do today? Many African-Americans and Indians are not assimilated into our majority white world. Maybe some don’t want to be; after all, ours is not a perfect world.
Thus far, our nation seems incapable of closing the big education and economic achievement gaps between whites and blacks, and many Indians live on reservations in what appear to be sorry conditions.
What to do? I don’t favor cash reparations at this late date, nor simply throwing more money at the issues, not without sound strategies for positive change.
Based on their email correspondence, I have many thoughtful readers. So, I solicit ideas from readers that might enrich and inform the discussions I am to lead in Kewanee.
Jim Nowlan is a former Illinois legislator, agency director, senior aide to three unindicted governors, campaign manager for U.S. Senate and presidential candidates, and professor of government at several universities in Illinois as well as China.