From Hamilton: An American Musical to rioters defacing every stone Founder they can find: A lot can flip in a short time, especially in a country as social-media-addicted as ours. But don’t tear up your tickets yet. The American founding remains an epochal and admirable event in political history.
“The Founding” is the period spanning the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution, 1775–89. But the political backstory begins in Jamestown, England’s first permanent American colony, in the summer of 1619, with the first meeting of the General Assembly.
The Jamestown colony had been in existence since 1607. Its early history was checkered. The first settlers arrived on the Virginia coast during a severe drought, which made it almost impossible for them to raise crops. In one bleak year, called the “starving time,” they were reduced to chewing leather and eating vermin (and allegedly corpses). The colony attempted to recover from that disaster by imposing martial law: Men had to work in gangs under overseers; anyone who disobeyed was broken on a wheel (i.e., crushed to death). Meanwhile the leaders of the hapless venture squabbled among themselves.
Something had to change. In 1618 a new governor, George Yeardley, was given a mandate for political reform.
The General Assembly, which he convened the following year, was an innovation in European colonialism. It consisted of Yeardley and his council of advisers, who were all appointed in England. But they were joined by 22 burgesses, selected by the eleven boroughs and plantations that composed the settlement. The burgesses were elected according to the principle of one man, one vote, and the assembly, when it met, made its decisions the same way. There were limits —
indentured laborers and women had no vote in the boroughs, and the governor could veto any measure the assembly passed. But this was the seed of a representative body.
What topics did it discuss over the four days that it met? It proposed a standard price for tobacco. It required church attendance, forbade whoring, and directed that a man who had slandered his employer be nailed by his ears to the public pillory. It reviewed the performance of one of the colony’s emissaries to its Indian neighbors. The universal topics of politics: the economy, morals, foreign affairs.
In the beginning the General Assembly’s resolutions were advisory: Nothing could be enacted without approval from London. But persistence in Virginia and inattention in England ultimately gave the assembly’s decisions the force of law. The House of Burgesses, as it came to be called, was the first essay in the fundamental American political liberty, self-rule. This was the other 1619 Project, and it began weeks before Jamestown’s first purchase of African slaves.
Over the decades, American colonists secured other rights. Freedom of religion was the fruit of Enlightenment thinking, compromise (where many religions jostled, it proved easier to let them be), and Christianity itself (“desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us,” as the Flushing Remonstrance put it). Freedom of the press flourished because colonial juries nullified English laws against sedition. But liberty, as Burke observed, is power. Undefined and unfiltered, it inevitably degenerates into the liberty of the strongest, whether in the form of anarchy or of despotism. American thinking about the right matrix of liberty was summarized in the Declaration of Independence, the national birth certificate.
Thomas Jefferson, its draftsman, claimed in his old age that he had not been declaring his own particular thoughts, but simply supplying “an expression of the American mind.” So he had: The Continental Congress, which adopted his document, red-penciled his peroration and his indictment of George III. It left the philosophical statement with which the Declaration begins — a masterpiece of compression, only half of the second paragraph — almost untouched. The representatives of all 13 states signed off on it because it was, as Jefferson said, “the common sense of the subject.”
This half paragraph affirms American liberties in the most sweeping manner. Self-rule gets mentioned (“Governments . . . deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed”), as do “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Perhaps its most startling word is “among” (“among these [rights] are . . .”). The Declaration is not a bill of rights, because it won’t presume to make an exhaustive list.
The source of American liberty is the “Creator” (“endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”). Jefferson’s language can be as elusive as it is ringing. Though he esteemed Jesus as a moralist, he was personally no more religious than Ricky Gervais. But while he and Congress were perhaps fudging a theological point, settling on a formula that would embrace both him and a Calvinist nurtured in the Great Awakening such as Sam Adams, they were making a vital political point: The rights Americans enjoy come from outside history, and outside mankind. Thomas Jefferson did not confer them; neither did Congress. As no one made them, so no one can efface them. Rulers can trample them, of course (as Congress believed George III was then doing). But they are as much a part of us as arteries or imagination.
The great half paragraph begins with a clause, the first of its self-evident truths, that is as practical as it is philosophical: “all men are created equal.” This is the Declaration’s balance wheel, the limit that it places on everyone’s liberty. No man’s power may justly annihilate another’s, because no man belongs to a different, superior order of being than any other. The one-man–one-vote practice of the Jamestown General Assembly is rewritten in gold.
The new Constitution, written eleven years later to replace the Articles of Confederation, confirmed the point. Like the Declaration, it had a skillful draftsman — Gouverneur Morris, the peg-legged ladies’ man from the Bronx. (No prole he — Morris was a wealthy elitist, and proud of it.) But the Constitution was a collective document, argued into shape by 55 men over four months and then debated nationwide for a year. Four provisions and one silence established equality in America’s fundamental law.
Article II, Section 1, gave the executive power to an elected president, while Article IV, Section 4, guaranteed each state a republican form of government. There would be no royalty in the United States, neither nationally nor locally.
No lords either — Article I, Sections 9 and 10, prevents both the federal and state governments from granting titles of nobility.
And while the Constitution wove slavery into American life and government in several ways — mandating the return from one state to another of fugitive slaves, partially counting slaves in the calculation of representatives and presidential electors, allowing states to continue the slave trade for at least 20 years — it did not use the word “slave,” referring instead to “Person” or “Persons.” On paper, at least, there would be no classes in American life.
The prohibitions against royalty and nobility may seem needless, closing the barn door after the horse has been let go. But the temptation to look up and exalt was — and is — strong. One of Washington’s officers during the Revolution, Colonel Lewis Nicola, suggested Washington become king afterwards; another, General William Alexander, claimed to be a Scottish earl and was punctiliously addressed as “Lord Stirling” by his comrades. Elected political dynasties have flourished throughout our history, from Adamses to Cuomos — to say nothing of the worship Americans accord athletes, entertainers, and now, it would seem, influencers. The Constitution wisely prohibited kings and lords because Americans, like any other people, are so often unwise.
A law passed by the Articles of Confederation Congress in the summer of 1787 was more forthright than the Constitution on the subject of slavery. The Northwest Ordinance settled the status of one-fourth of the country, bounded by Pennsylvania, the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the Great Lakes. The authorship of the Ordinance, unlike that of the Declaration and the Constitution, is somewhat clouded; Nathan Dane and Rufus King, congressmen from Massachusetts, usually get the credit. Manasseh Cutler, a Congregationalist minister and land speculator — what an American type — also gave input. The Ordinance directed that the Northwest Territory become states, on a par with the original 13, as soon as it was settled. It also declared that “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory,” except as punishment for crimes.
Yet whatever the Northwest Ordinance said or the Constitution didn’t say about slaves, there were almost 700,000 of them in the United States when those documents were written (out of a population of almost 4 million). “Why is it,” the Tory abolitionist Samuel Johnson had asked as the Revolution began, “that the loudest yelps for liberty are heard from drivers of Negroes?”
Many in the founding generation asked themselves this question. Their answers were various. Many had never owned slaves (John Adams, the people of Vermont). Others freed those they owned (George Washington at his death). Still others passed laws abolishing slavery, immediately or gradually, in five states by 1789, in two more by 1804. And some Founders who continued to own human property continued to agonize over the question. In 1835 James Madison, one of the last Founders left standing, told Harriet Martineau, an English traveler, that he hoped American slaves — over 2 million by then — might be freed and sent to Liberia. (Martineau, who knew how few had so far been sent there, was skeptical: “How such a mind as his could derive alleviation to its anxiety from that source is surprising.”) Many felt no anxiety. John Rutledge — whose brother Edward had signed the Declaration of Independence for their home state, South Carolina — told the Constitutional Convention, to which he was a delegate, that “religion and humanity” were irrelevant when considering the slave trade. “Interest alone is the governing principle with nations.”
Or maybe, when declaring that “all men are created equal,” the Founders simply meant men like themselves — white men. This was the argument advanced by racists, south and north, in the 19th century, and oddly by BLM protesters today. It was answered, in every generation, by those (Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr.) who asserted that the founding documents were freedom documents, setting a standard against the day when it might be met.
It is important to get our founding right, for the world as well as for us. The American Revolution was the first of an era of revolutions that has not ended yet. So many of them have turned out worse. The two nearest to ours in time set the pattern. France would not find domestic tranquility until the Third and Fifth Republics. Haiti is still looking.
We once brought a great thing into the world. Our job is to understand and uphold it.