- Sun-Times file photo
- Benjamin Franklin, shown here in a 1767 portrait by David Martin, crusaded for liberty—even as he owned slaves for decades.
Just out of curiosity, I observed the Fourth by asking Google to tell me which of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. From the Britannica site I found this list, which might be incomplete:
Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Benjamin Franklin, Button Gwinnett, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, James Madison, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Benjamin Rush, Edward Rutledge, George Washington.
These names shine in other contexts, yet it’s probably hopeless to ask African-Americans (or anyone else who’s aware of the full story) to buy into the national myth of America’s immaculate conception.
For years I’ve entertained this idle notion: King George III, recognizing that matters are getting out of hand in the colonies, sails here to talk directly to the rebels. The committee confronting him includes many of the above names.
“Look,” says the king, “we could try to crush you this time, and probably succeed, and in 20 years we’d just have to try to crush you again. Sooner or later you’ll be independent—the colonies are too big and too far away for England to hold on to them forever. So why spill blood pointlessly? Go with God. The king is better served by true friendship than deceptive fealty.”
The rebel luminaries trade startled glances. Word from London has it that the king is a crackpot, but what he’s saying makes pretty good sense.
“Just one thing,” the king goes on. “Folks back home think it’s laughable that you insist on freedom and keep slaves. For me to sell this deal to my subjects, I have to assure them there’s no double standard. So my only term is this: Agree to abolish slavery and I will decree your independence before I rise from this table. Refuse, and you choose war.”
(Note: this parable plays fast and loose with history. Slavery wasn’t abolished in the British Empire until the 1830s.)
“Give me death!” says Patrick Henry.
Lucky for them, the Founding Fathers didn’t have to choose between their thirst for liberty and their unalienable right as men of property to own other human beings. They wound up with both.
Now let me digress. As a boy I lived in Canada, and this stamped the die. Not only did I feel like an American outsider at that time (and proud to be one), but when we moved back to the States I still felt like an outsider, not having received the preadolescent indoctrination in Americanism, McCarthyism, and the evils of fluoride that shaped my new classmates. When I finally studied the Founding Fathers it was too late to accept them as deities—which is what Americanism requires.
Years later, after my high school classmates didn’t ask me to speak at graduation, I gave serious thought to what I would have said if they had. I’d have denounced racism and jingoism and whatnot, and then I’d have taken a deep breath and laid it on the line. “Make no mistake,” I’d have said. “The members of this graduating class are not the ones marching forth today to change the world. We’re on our way to the midwest’s finest land grant universities to get drunk and get laid. It’ll be years before we do anything useful. So let me speak directly to our parents. Now that we’re finally out of the house, it’s you people who get to take over. It’s you people who now have the time and the money and the seniority to run America. Don’t blow it! There’s plenty to be done, and most of you have just been sitting on your keisters.”
At some point you people acquired the tag of the Greatest Generation, and I thought twice about my remarks. I conceded that they’d given a good account of themselves fighting World War II. But then they came home and gave us the 1950s; and aside from the polio vaccine and soft ice cream, there isn’t much to say for that decade.
It is important to be realistic about our ancestors.
John Kass wrote a sweet Fourth of July column in the Friday Tribune. Tending the fire in the barbecue pit, hours before the guests arrive, he likes to ruminate on America then and now. He thinks about the Founding Fathers—”and I wonder what they’d think of us today.”
Kass asks himself, “What would we tell the founders and the men of Valley Forge about the nation they gave us? Would we tell them that many Americans probably know more about the curves of Kim Kardashian than we know about the Bill of Rights? Or that we’ve traded liberty for entertainment, and worship smartphones that record our movements, our thoughts and our ‘likes’?”
Kass gets the Founding Fathers. He writes, “When I was a boy I learned about them as if they were gods.” But they weren’t. “Some were slave owners, others were libertines. Some were principled, and others were less so. Some were trusting, others were cynical.” But they were men of the world who “understood human nature” and “created a system of government that took our human failings into account.”
But what Kass doesn’t seem to see is that you argue with men like that! You don’t stoop and bow and say we’re not worthy. You want to know what the hell they were thinking when they wrote something as incoherent as the Second Amendment. You tell them their gutless stand on slavery set America back a hundred years. They’re big boys; they can take it. And when you’re filling them in on everything that’s wrong with America today, as a topper you tell them it’s now fashionable, even in the highest courts of the land, to treat their ancient texts as inerrant scripture.
“As if we were God?” Ben Franklin might say, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
“Pretty much,” you’d tell him. “And since you’re not around to complain, your inerrant scripture means whatever we say it does.”
I imagine Ben Franklin chuckling wryly at this, then asking if you could spare a picture of Kim Kardashian.