Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Judging the Founding Fathers

It’s fashionable to bash the founding fathers for their moral failings, and I think this is a mistake. It would be a mistake to deify these men, too, so I understand the temptation to push back against the fairy tale telling of American history. But I think it’s wrong to dismiss them as moral monsters for doing things that are now universally regarded as wrong.

The easiest criticism of the founders is that they owned slaves (many of them did, anyway). Isn’t all that talk of equality and independence hypocritical if they were a bunch of slave-owners? Of course it is, but here’s the thing: the moral march had to start somewhere. In their time, the notion that all white, land-owning men were equal was a novel idea. There had to be a first generation to reject the notion that the hereditary aristocracy were above everyone else. This had to get started somewhere, and it is completely unrealistic to expect it to have happened in one jump. We needed time to pass for sensibilities to change, for one generation’s prejudices to literally die out and be replaced by something new.

I think there are several factors that exonerate the founding fathers. For one, slavery was not yet universally regarded as wrong. It’s harder to denounce something in an environment where all your neighbors are doing it. It’s harder in that environment to even notice that something is wrong. For another thing, most of these men were deeply conflicted about the slavery issue. Jefferson and Washington owned slaves while taking strong anti-slavery stances (belatedly for Washington). Washington’s will granted freedom to all the slaves he owned, which was more than most slave-holders did (including Jefferson, who did not bequeath freedom to his slaves after his own death). For moral change to happen, the first step was for the people taking part in a great evil to feel deeply conflicted about it. Clearly, from the letters and diary entries we have, many of these men were so conflicted. Finally, how should I say this, “One war at a time, fellas.” It would have been hard, perhaps impossible, to fight a war for independence if they had alienated several of the slave-holding states.

One could also discuss the mistreatment of the Indians as a moral failing of the founders. I won't say much on this. Many of the founders wanted peace but thought it would be impossible to restrain all the homesteaders who would squat on land claimed by Indians. (Washington wanted peace, but this was his exact reservation about achieving it, according to the telling in His Excellency: George Washington.) The narrative of a united America "deciding" to subvert a united population of Indians is probably wrong and not very descriptive (until Andrew Jackson made Indian removal explicit American policy with his Trail of Tears). A more accurate narrative is that rogue squatters encroached on Indian land, repeatedly inciting violent conflicts and recriminations.

If I resist these contrarian narratives of the founders that denounce them as monsters, it's not for the sake of those dead men. It's more for the sake of the denouncers. These people are imagining that it's much easier to be morally upright than it actually is. They seem to be assuming that they would have behaved differently, morally, if faced with objectionable social conventions. They seem to think they would have abandoned their own livelihoods in pursuit of a moral principle. It's lovely to strive for such an ideal, but it's unrealistic to think people will actually behave this way. (They are indulging in morality porn.) Such unrealistic expectations can be dangerous if they lead us to think that evil is easier to notice and fight than it actually is. Evil doesn't manifest itself as mustached men rubbing their hands together and cackling insanely. Evil looks like your smiling, hard-working, church-going neighbor, kind to his family, always gentle in his temperament, who happens to own another human being. Or replace "own another human being" with "eats meat" or "supports drug prohibition" or "supports redistribution of wealth" or "shares misinformation on Facebook" or something else that makes you squirm a little. Don't take the easy way out and think you're already way ahead of the curve. Something in your every day life that you take for granted will be denounced as evil in some future generation. All this is cliche, "the indifference of good men" and all that. Just be wary that evil in plain sight is sometimes hard to spot, and even harder to act on once spotted.

For a cynical telling of the American Founders story, see this recent Econtalk with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. Not that I am competent to judge his arguments, but I don’t quite buy it. His (de Mesquita's) telling of the Washington narrative was that Washington simply wanted to protect his vast land holdings, which the British government would have re-appropriated. I don't know. There were too many times that Washington gave up power and showed restraint. He could have been the "king of America," but turned down executive power on several occasions. If his political life was entirely in pursuit of material ends, risking his life in a violent revolution doesn't really make sense. It seems he could have had a less rich but still very comfortable existence as a British subject. And he could have used his powers to acquire a lot more wealth if that was his primary pursuit. 

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