The truth is that the man whose pen wrote the words “all men are created equal” was a slaveowner. The truth is that it would never have crossed the minds of the men who signed the constitution to let their wives vote. But it is just as true that without their gigantic first steps none of the liberties that have painstakingly followed would have been possible.
America didn’t invent slavery. Slavery has been a fact of human life from the time of the Agricultural Revolution (about 3,500 BC) and the leap agriculture made possible from small tribal societies to the first nation-states. Large, powerful states conquered smaller, less powerful states and enslaved their populations, their entire populations. Some wars were started simply to obtain additional slave labor for large projects – Pyramids anyone?
Slavery was based on two underlying concepts:
- The other, either racially or tribally, is inferior to us and deserves to be a slave.
- It’s this way because God wants it this way. In the early days, it was simply that “Our Gods are stronger than their Gods”. As monotheism took hold, that stance was slightly modified to “There is only one God and he likes us best”.
These two concepts also supported feudalism and colonialism. Simply put, the people in charge have the right to do what they want with the people who are not in charge. The many who are powerless work for scraps to support the lavish lifestyles of the few who are powerful. And it’s this way because God wants it this way. The “Divine Right of Kings” was not a metaphor.
Organized religion, which evolved at the same time as the larger states, supported and, in fact, created this system. Church and state were joined at the hip. Many of the first kings were also their country’s high priests. The first challenge to this system came from Jesus of Nazareth, who dared to suggest that the smallest of the small were as beloved in the eyes of God as the richest ruler. The system saw him as a threat and dealt with him mercilessly, but the word was out and would not be stopped. It was, however, contained. Christianity was absorbed into the mainstream of organized religions. Nation states continued to exist, the nobles continued to tax the peasants and less developed countries were looted to enrich the ruling and merchant classes of “Christian” countries with navies and gunpowder. America was no exception to this.
The original inhabitants of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States were driven out by a combination of bullets and smallpox and their land was plowed into tobacco fields worked by slaves kidnapped from African villages. This was business as usual for the world of the time and America was no exception. The exception came when a group of entitled white men decided they were tired of being treated like colonists and revolted against the British Throne. This is where history takes an important side step.
Instead of installing themselves as the “New Kings of America” the founding fathers created a form of government that existed for and was accountable to the people, with checks and balances and with those in charge elected by vote, not divine right. This is as radical a break with previous human history as the Sermon on the Mount. By insisting that the Monarch of England, who was , additionally, the head of the Church of England, was equal in the eyes of God to the guy sweeping out Ben Franklin’s office, the Founding Fathers struck down “Concept #2”. They made it official by instituting Freedom of Religion, another massive leap forward. And don’t forget Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press, two other unprecedented steps. These steps made possible all that followed, from Women’s suffrage to the Civil Rights movement.
They were men of their time. They were still living with “Concept #1” – their slaves were property and, to a large extent, so were their wives. But without an officially enforced “Divine Order” to sustain them, the time-honored standards of the “other” wore thin. It took centuries, war and bloodshed - and the fight is still going on in our streets. Us vs them doesn’t give up easily, not in 1776 and not today.
Attempting to insist that the United States is “special” or “blessed by God” puts us at risk of falling into the same system the Founding Fathers rebelled against. Everything special about America started in a room in Philadelphia and was the work of human beings as flawed as ourselves.
Acknowledging that the Founding Fathers were flawed is almost beside the point. Every human being who has ever lived is flawed. The human need to see our heroes as flawless does a disservice to both ourselves and our heroes. The fact that we humans are able to do great things despite our flaws is perhaps our greatest achievement. The importance of our “Founding Fathers” to our identity and our sense of ourselves as Americans cannot be underestimated. Dismissing them as unworthy of respect because they, like us, were molded by their times would be a mistake we as Americans cannot afford to make, especially at this point in our history.