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What Would the Founding Fathers Do?

With Independence Day coming up, we often hear people talk about the Founding Fathers. That’s what we call the men (and because of gender roles at that time, they were all men) who served on the Continental Congress that declared independence from England in 1776 and the men who eleven years later were delegates to the convention that wrote the Constitution of the United States.

Many of them are familiar names, like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Others are less well-known, like Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Charles and C.C. Pinckney, John Dickinson, and Button Gwinnett.

After all these years, many people think of them as one group who shared common ideas and one way of thinking about government, as if the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States came to them magically, without disagreement, and unrevised, as they all nodded their heads sagely in accord.

But really, that’s not how it was at all.

For one thing, the Founders didn’t think of themselves as all citizens of the same country. Up until the Declaration of Independence in 1776 there was no “United States.” People thought of themselves as citizens of their own state, so they were citizens of Massachusetts, or citizens of New York, or citizens of Virginia. Each state had its own government, its own laws, its own citizen army called a militia, even its own type of money. The idea of being citizens of one nation – the United States of America – was new to them, and even after the Constitution was written in 1787 not everyone was happy about the idea of having a central, national government.

For another, the people of the different states – including and, in some cases, especially the Founding Fathers -- really weren’t united about much of anything. When it came to declaring independence from England, for example, some people called “patriots” were all in favor of breaking free and establishing their own country. But some people, called “loyalists” still saw themselves as British subjects and wanted to stay that way. In between was a large group of people who weren’t sure whether to stay or go. They liked the idea of having their own government and not having to pay so much in taxes to England, but they also liked the idea of doing business with England and having protection from the powerful British army and navy, and were fearful about giving up those benefits. John Adams complained about all the “nibbling and quibbling” in the Continental Congress in the debates leading up to independence and how difficult it was to get all “13 clocks to strike as one.”

The Founders also had many personal differences. Those who lived in small states were afraid that big states with large populations would become too powerful. Those who lived in big states were afraid of giving too much power to the small states, which outnumbered them. Those who were planters and farmers wanted laws and taxes that favored them. Those who were merchants or manufacturers wanted laws and taxes that favored them. Those from the North disagreed with those from the South over slavery and other matters. And some people from some states just didn’t like each other. Some thought New Englanders were pushy; some thought Virginians were arrogant.

So with all of those disagreements, it is a wonder that the Founders were able to agree on two huge, history-making decisions: Declaring independence and uniting thirteen separate states into one nation under the Constitution.

How did they do it? Compromise. For all of their disagreements, most of the Founders shared a couple of important ideas in common – self-government, the belief that people had a right to choose their own form of government and who would lead that government; and unity, the belief that the thirteen states would be stronger, safer, and more prosperous if they acted as one nation, protected each other, did business with each other, and had shared laws and currency.

So the Founders compromised. They made deals so that each of the different points of view got some of what they wanted, but not everything, and so that each side had to give up a little to get what most of them ultimately wanted: An independent, self-governed, United States of America.

I think about the Founders a lot, and especially when I hear someone say things like “The Founders are rolling over in their graves because of . . . .”

I hate when people say that. For one thing, the Founders have been dead for 200 years. No one alive now knows what they would be thinking today. Times have changed. Circumstances have changes.

But mostly, I hate when people say that because “the Founders” represented so many different people from so many different places with so many different ideas about government and business and individual rights. There are very few universally prescribed and adhered to positions that one can say with certainly collectively reflect what the Founders thought.

Except perhaps for compromise for the sake of the public good. Most of the Founders believed, as Franklin said upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” So they looked for common ground and made compromises and worked together so that, in the end, they would stay together.

That’s what I think the Founders would want to remind us as we prepare to celebrate the 240th birthday of the United States of America.

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