The Founding Fathers
A frequent commenter here and at The Unrepentant Individual asked me the below question. Given that today we celebrate the official acceptance of the Declaration of Independence, I thought it might be a good day to explain.
I am curious to find out what you think of Benjamin Franklin. I live in Philadelphia and so many institutions were formed or influenced by Franklin. I hardly ever see him discussed. I see a quote or two every now and then.
I sometime read and comment at The Liberty Papers, and when some arguments are supported by the views of the founding fathers; it seems that too few are mentioned. The purpose of government differed even then. Also, are your beliefs about our government based on how it was created or how it ought to be?
I think my views of Franklin fit well with my views of all the founding fathers. Which is to say that, unfortunately, I don’t know as much about them as I would like. I’m still young, to most people, nearing my 28th birthday. Beyond my AP US History class in high school, and some forays onto the History Channel, which is often World War II and newer content, I hadn’t had a chance to really delve into the history of our founders before the last year or two.
Franklin, though, is one of the easier nuts to crack. More has been written on him than on quite a few others. I’ve been watching some documentaries about him over the last few weeks, and he seems to be a truly interesting guy. He seems to be a genius in all aspects of life. But while most academic geniuses tend to have problems with interpersonal communication, Franklin was able to read and play people like an instrument. He knew what buttons to push and when, and his masterful performance while in France meant the difference between America winning and losing our revolution. I have a lot of respect for Franklin, and the way he’s treated in our history books is well-deserved.
But beyond Franklin, most of our founding fathers don’t get a lot of print unless they also became President. For example, when Eric first set up “The Liberty Papers”, he gave the tagline above “Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.” But who was Patrick Henry? What did he give us, beyond the “Give me liberty or give me death!” oration? There’s very little “mass” history about Henry. Looking further, one begins to see a clearer picture. He was an anti-federalist at the time of the Constitution, and worried greatly what giving the power in the Constitution to a federal government would mean to the country. He was largely credited with forcing the Federalists to write a Bill of Rights, and was similarly key in ensuring the 9th and 10th Amendment were included, which, although forgotten by most people today, are intended as serious checks on government power. From what I’ve learned since about Patrick Henry, and from what I’ve learned reading Eric’s writings, I can plainly see why Eric used him. Perhaps if I were choosing, I might say “Written by the heirs of Tom Paine”, as the blogger-pamphleteer angle might be more apt.
Looking back at the founding fathers, I am truly intrigued. We hold up this view of them as stuffy academic white men, living in a theoretical world up on a pedastal, and forget their humanity. Franklin was a flirt, drinking enough wine to ensure gout problems. Washington, although he always said he didn’t want power, wore his dress uniform every day to convince the Continental Congress to put him in charge of the Continental army. Jefferson had quite a few interesting elements, including an affair with one of his slaves. These were real human beings, with flaws and character issues everywhere. Yet they came together to change the course of human history, creating the first modern government that was founded on the nature of individual rights being the fountain from which government flows, not the other way around.
Why are there not more quotes by the Founders? I can’t speak for the other writers here, but I can say for myself, I simply don’t know enough yet to quote them effectively. To a large extent, I understand the basics of how and why they set up the government the way they did, but don’t really have a complete feel for who they were as people. I am learning more every day, and every bit I learn makes me more in awe of what these diverse characters were able to accomplish. And as I’ve said before, the realization that these were real humans (I hesitate to use an expression like “ordinary men”), makes me wonder just what I am capable of. At my age, I’m starting to ask myself what I’m going to do with my life, and part of that question is whether that’s going to be remembered by historians 200 years from now.
As to your last question, my beliefs on government are based on how it should be, not how they set it up. Part of the understanding of the founders as real humans means accepting that they can make mistakes. I try, whenever possible, not to appeal to authority, and say that something must be true because Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson said so. I think our Constitution is impressive, but I think (as I pointed out last week) that it didn’t do enough work to protect us from the growth of government. I don’t think the founders intended the government to grow to its current size, nor do I like it. Thus, I’m doing everything I can to oppose the current state of government that I believe is unconstitutional, but if you asked me what I would like to see, it would certainly include some changes to the Constitution itself.