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27 November 2000

Are the Founding Fathers to blame for this mess?

In 1787, 55 men of property decided how America should be governed. They were interested in business

By Scott Lucas

Sooner or later, the Founding Fathers were going to be dragged into this mess. Two weeks into the swamp-watch known as the US presidential election, commentators are retreating into history for some salvation.

Little did I anticipate, however, that British commentators, no doubt deluded by jealousy and xenophobia, would turn upon my native heroes. The normally kind-hearted Christopher Hitchens sneered at “America’s dirtiest and least-known secret . . . the high-sounding ‘electoral college’ system is designed to keep the rabble from picking the president”. Even the New Statesman alleged that “the Founding Fathers, being affluent, slave-owning property owners, distrusted not just executive power, but mass democracy itself”. Excuse me? America challenged as the bastion of democracy? The makers of the constitution challenged for their self-serving profit motives? I think I smell a Marxist somewhere.

So let’s put the record straight, with the memory of childhood lessons. In 1787, to form a more perfect union, 55 public servants gathered in the sweltering heat of a Philadelphia summer. The great general, George Washington, chaired the proceedings. When debate stalemated over the representation of small states v big states and presidential v congressional power, wise old Benjamin Franklin had the doors locked until agreement was reached or everyone sweated to death. Led by Little Jimmy Madison, whose devoted wife would later save the White House furniture when you Brits uncharitably burned the place, the delegates reached a historic compromise. We had our constitution, complete with a two-chamber Congress, a Supreme Court and an elected leader. The world had its first great republic. Hurrah!

To recap: the world owes its democratic debt to Washington, Franklin, Madison, and . . . gosh, it’s a bit embarrassing, but I’m not sure. There was Alexander Hamilton, who would cap his career by taking a bullet from Aaron Burr, and the great all-rounder Thomas Jefferson. No, wait, he was tucked away in Paris as US ambassador. John Adams was serving as representative to the Court of St James, and Sam Adams and Patrick Henry, suspicious of moves for a national government, declined their invitations.

So who were these esteemed 55? Unfortunately, it is hard to bring them to life from the mass of detailed minutes. There is a teasing reference to Luther Martin of Maryland, “whose speeches were made livelier by his frequent drunkenness”. Background checks reveal that Alexander Martin of North Carolina had been arrested but acquitted on charges of cowardice during the American revolution, while his colleague Hugh Williamson was a philosopher who had “served on a commission that observed the transits of Venus and Mercury”. The greatest contribution of Massachusetts’s Elbridge Gerry to political life would be the creative drawing of his constituency boundaries – thus “gerrymandering”.

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Most delegates, however, had pretty standard CVs. The majority were lawyers; many were planters with large estates. There was a healthy proportion of businessmen and shippers, including one Nathaniel Gorham, who rebuilt his fortune “by privateering and speculation”. Only two delegates could be classified as smallholders; one other stated his occupation as running the family’s general store.

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Not exactly a cross-section of the Ameri-can populace, then. Still, no reason why those with positions and possessions cannot represent the unheralded and dispossessed. Here’s the reassurance of James Madison: a “well-constructed Senate”, appointed by state legislators, was “sometimes necessary as a defence to the people against their temporary errors and delusions”. These errors and delusions included “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property”. Alexander Hamilton was concerned with protecting the lower orders against themselves: “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give, therefore, to . . . the rich and well-born . . . a distinct permanent share in the government.”

It seems that the catalyst for the convention might not have been democratic impulse. Months earlier, a disenchanted farmhand and veteran named Daniel Shays, unpaid for his military service and unable to pay his debts, had organised a march of several hundred compatriots through Massachusetts. The authorities got tough and, after a series of skirmishes, broke up the rebellion, hanging several of the participants.

Thomas Jefferson may have written from afar, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing”, but the constitution’s signatories were more concerned with protecting the passing strong from the passing weak. Creditors would not be threatened with the inflation of paper money since “no State . . . [could] make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts”. Business would be unhindered by any “Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts”. And, as a reward for agreeing to a system of interstate commerce, the south would be allowed to trade in slaves for the next 20 years.

Then there’s the curious matter of these slaves being assessed as “three-fifths of all other Persons”. Here was American trading at its finest. The southern states, in which the number of slaves approached that of the “free” population, wanted them counted to boost southern representation in the House of Representatives (as well as votes in the newfangled electoral college). African Americans might only be property, but they were now property with political value.

I could resort to the argument that the Founding Fathers were products of their time, that it is unrealistic to impose 21st-century values upon an 18th-century environment. Elitism and racism came with the political territory. Democracy did not.

The problem is that my fellow Americans can’t leave it at that. No, their “democracy” must be timeless, eternally superior. In the first days after the inconclusive election, there was a mad scramble to assure, “All is well, we’re still number one”. Robert Strauss, the former chairman of the Democratic Party, scribbled: “The genius of the Founding Fathers was their enormously successful effort to reach political consensus and institutional compromise, to avoid extremes, and to provide for strong political institutions whose powers and manner of selection were explicitly provided for by law. It may not be a perfect system, but it is the model to which all other people on this planet aspire.”

It’s a neat little cover-up. The first business of the American “democracy” isn’t democracy; it’s business. By focusing on the Founding Fathers – indeed, by focusing on the electoral college and the spectacle of Bush v Gore – we can avert our gaze from what lies beneath.

Even the British newspapers are up to this. On one page, they maintain the facade that the Florida wrangle will lead to a result that makes a difference; on another, they report on the US’s profitable destruction of the environment. And nowhere do they make the connection that the US shredding of the Kyoto agreement is the responsibility not of George Bush, the denier of global warming, but of an administration whose environmental policy is supposedly led by the “liberal” Al Gore.

The business of American “democracy” will mean, whoever occupies the White House, that some enemies (Iraq) will continue to be bombed, some (China) will receive Most Favored Nation status, and others (Vietnam) will be rehabilitated with a commercial embrace. The controversial issue of comprehensive healthcare for children will remain controversial and unresolved, guns will still be sold, and those disenfranchised by choice, criminal conviction or poverty will remain so.

Let the Founding Fathers rest in peace. For better or worse, they are long gone. All their story can offer us now is distraction and meaningless rhetoric.

Scott Lucas is professor of American studies at the University of Birmingham