Recently when commenting on how Americans view the Founding, an associate of mine observed that in many people’s minds the Founders had become mythological rather than historical figures. That is, many people routinely ascribe ideas and actions—both good and bad, wise and stupid—to them that have little to do with historical reality or even human probability.
A common example: Some commentators who profess to revere the Founders and may even claim they were divinely inspired, nevertheless also insist that they grossly breached their faith in proposing a new Constitution rather than amendments to the Articles of Confederation.
My associate’s observation induced me to recall how ancient Greek and Roman writers portrayed their gods. They frequently portrayed the gods as just, majestic, imperturbable, gracious, and wise. But they also told stories that depicted the gods as wicked, petty, jealous, mean, and stupid. To cite one example: Jupiter (Zeus) was pater deumque hominumque—the father of gods and men, the defender of justice, the guardian of the world. Yet he was also a multiple rapist who turned himself into a bull so as to lure a young girl (Europa) in service of his lascivious plans.
Obviously, such portrayals have nothing to do with historical reality. But they are different only in degree from some portrayals of the Founders.
On the one hand, we need to remember that the Founders—framers, ratifiers, and opinion-molders—were not a passel of hicks who, in the dismissive words of Professor Louis Michael Seidman, “thought it was fine to own slaves.” On the other hand, we need to remember that they were not gods either. They were very wise, educated, and experienced men—and in some cases, such as that of Mercy Otis Warren, women. Nearly all were honorable and believed that slavery was a violation of natural law. Their knowledge of human nature and politics enabled them to erect our system of checks and balances. Their knowledge of history enabled them, to a very great extent, to transcend their own time and circumstances. Their drafting skill enabled them to produce a beautiful document, whose phrases have real meaning—even if, as in the case of the Necessary and Proper Clause, those meanings are often technical in nature.
Yet because they were men, they were fallible, and because they lived in a particular time and set of circumstances, they had to make compromises. One of those, and the one most often used to bash them, was their accommodation with slavery: They were faced with the difficult choice of indulging their belief that slavery was wrong or creating a new form of government that all states might ratify. They chose the latter. It was a nasty choice, but it also was one that helped ensure that America did not become, like Europe, a collection of small countries incessantly warring against each other.
In treating the Founders therefore, we should take them as they were. No hagiography and no demonology, either.