Rethinking the Founding Fathers 

  • Replica of the Constitution of the United States as signed by the Founding Fathers. PHOTOPA1

Published: 7/2/2020 6:53:23 AM
Modified: 7/2/2020 6:53:13 AM

Calvin Bake’s article “Black Like Who” in Harper’s Magazine (March 2017) has caused me to question the version of American history that I’ve believed all my life.

We learned at school about the honor and wisdom of the founders, how they worked to make difficult compromises to unite the various factions of the new colonies, how they fought for their freedoms, religion, the press, guns, etc. They went so far as to write these freedoms in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. When the Revolutionary War was fought, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights were years away, a dream of some of the founders. We learned of the cruelty of King George, his tea tax, his arbitrary and unpopular rules.

The New World population was likely polarized, as now, between the haves and the have nots. Most of the king’s unpopularity was based on rules (and taxes) that affected the more wealthy settlers, who became the leaders of the revolution. George Washington (said to be the wealthiest American at the time) had difficulty recruiting the common men to fight in the revolutionary army. I wondered why people would hate the tea tax so much that they would risk their lives to fight it, especially if they were wealthy slave owners.

Baker’s article explained this to me. He wrote about a court case in England in 1772. The case of Somerset v. Stewart was heard by William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, the judge at the King’s Court in London. Stewart had bought Somerset in Boston and had brought him to London, but later lost most of his money and decided to ship Somerset to the West Indies, to be sold there.

But Somerset had met and acquired godparents in England. They sued for his freedom on the grounds that a slave should not be forcibly removed from Britain. They won, and Somerset walked away as a free man. That case led to the abolition of slavery in England and Wales. It must have signaled that the end of slavery in the British colonies was near.

Baker suggests gently, that our founders might have been more concerned with the possible threat to the institution of slavery than with the dreaded tax on tea. If not for our revolution, slavery might have ended much earlier.

When I discussed this article with Jimmy, my son-in-law, he gave me some more to think about. He suggested that another reason our founders wanted to escape King George’s harsh rule might be some of the binding treaties the king had made with the Native Americans.

So were our Founding Fathers full of honor and wisdom, or were they, like so many others, money-grubbing liars? We know that most of them owned slaves, and slaves were worth a lot of money. When lawyers argue payments for loss of life, financial compensation is based on expected lifetime earnings. An adult slave’s lifetime production would be even more valuable since the expense of owning and maintaining the slave was very little.

Harper’s describes Calvin Baker as the author of four novels, including “Dominion” and “Grace,” who teaches at Yale University and at the Graduate School of the Arts at Columbia University. He is also an essayist and a scholar of Black History.

Ted Scott is a resident of Greenfield.


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