The Founding Fathers, Through the Lens of Empire

Lately I’ve been thinking about the founding fathers of this country. I used to turn to them for solace, wondering how they would feel about their Republic-cum-Empire, and thinking they’d be distraught about the fascist state we’ve become.

The world’s best-known collection of dead white guys had much to say about religion, most of it bad. But the mostly ignorant, church-going members of the American populace have gobbled up so many bullshit sandwiches that the fairy tales they’ve adopted about the religious views of the founding fathers are nearly as grand as the ones they’ve accepted about spirits in our midst. The founding fathers were deists, and they were very clear about the separation of church and state. Had Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species a century sooner, there is little doubt the reasonable men who founded the United States would have leaned even further away from the cross.

If the First Amendment doesn’t provide a compelling enough example about the founding fathers and their disrespect for religion, perhaps these passages will elucidate the issue:

“During almost fifteen centuries, the legal establishment of Christianity has been on trial. What have been the fruits of this trial? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; and in both, clergy and laity, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” (James Madison, speech to the General Assembly of Virginia, 1785)

“Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause. I had hoped that liberal and enlightened thought would have reconciled the Christians so that their [not our?] religious fights would not endanger the peace of Society.” (George Washington, letter to Sir Edward Newenham, 22 June 1792)

“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” (Article 11, Treaty of Tripoli, signed by John Adams, 7 June 1797)

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to a Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, Connecticut, 1 January 1802)

“As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?” (John Adams, letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, 27 December 1816)

“Among the features peculiar to the political system of the United States, is the perfect equality of rights which it secures to every religious sect.” (James Madison, letter to Jacob de la Motta, August 1820)

The contemporary view: Surely Madison didn’t mean to include Muslims. Or atheists. Or agnostics. Or anybody except Gawd-fearing Christians.

The views of the founding fathers on non-religious issues often show great wisdom and compassion:

“They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” (Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759)
It’s as if Benny foresaw the PATRIOT Act.

“As parents, we can have no joy, knowing that this government is not sufficiently lasting to ensure any thing which we may bequeath to posterity: And by a plain method of argument, as we are running the next generation into debt, we ought to do the work of it, otherwise we use them meanly and pitifully. In order to discover the line of our duty rightly, we should take our children in our hand, and fix our station a few years farther into life; that eminence will present a prospect, which a few present fears and prejudices conceal from our sight.” (Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776)

Or, to put a BushCo spin on this one: Today’s economy depends on tomorrow’s bankruptry. Day is night. Light is dark. And so on.

“Here sir, the people govern.” (Alexander Hamilton, speech to the New York Ratifying Convention, 17 June 1788)

Dubya’s view is slightly different: “I’m the Decider.”

“An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among the several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.” (James Madison, Federalist No. 58, 1788)

My, what a quaint idea.

“Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” (George Washington, Farewell Address, 19 September 1796)

It’s as if George foresaw BushCo.

“An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens…. There has never been a moment of my life in which I should have relinquished for it the enjoyments of my family, my farm, my friends & books.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Melish, 13 January 1813)
Power corrupts. Today’s Executive branch enjoys power that is virtually absolute. It’s not too tough to connect the dots on this one.

Perhaps the most exemplary quote comes from the most enlightened of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. He was referring to Native Americans, but they were merely the best “Them” of the day. The quote holds up very well today. Dubya should be justifying his lust for war by invoking this Jeffersonian line in every speech:

“In war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.” (Statement to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, 1807; The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Lipscomb and Bergh, volume 11, page 345)

These days, I rarely rely on the founding fathers for solace. They were very pragmatic, and therefore violent. They were, in a word, terrorists. They were correct about so many things. But we have not yet destroyed all of “them.” Here’s hoping the Empire falls before we have a chance.

Comments 1

  • The realization that we have been individual and collective fools hits like a 100-mile an hour pie in the face with the missing layer of recovering laughter.
    Other than considering the past to support decisive actions, solace resides in the beauty of a small moment and of a sweet experience. Now that we notice.
    If even a flashing glimpse they took: Forgive me, son, for I have sinned?