Roger Wilkins presents perhaps the most complete picture of the Founding Fathers in his book Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism. It is Wilkins' argument that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison and George Mason were not the idyllic seekers-of-justice and equality that we have been taught, but rather they were wealthy slaveholders with political powers that were not always exercised is an "American" way. In light of this newly presented information, our former ideals need to be reevaluated against the ideas of black patriotism, as well as against our thoughts on patriotism in general. How could all men have been created equal, when African-Americans were not considered to be men at all? Indeed, Americans cannot fully come to understand themselves until they are able to understand who the aforementioned individuals were - no matter what the results.
Slaveholders were great politicians in our nation's founding years making it hard to define exactly what our ideals were at that time. How could Americans ask for - no, demand - freedom, while holding an entire race in bondage?
The answer isn't a simple one, nor is it one that has been fully answered, even by today's standards. Wilkins explains his tolerance of our "founding slave owners" - they were raised in the culture of slaves, and found that cultural habit hard to break. Wilkins concludes that the founding men were " great men," and their achievements for our nation are proof positive of that. It is the portrayal of our founding fathers as men who are without blemish or fault that Wilkins argues against, and the somewhat whitewashed, diluted version of U.S. History that is typically taught and remembered.
This version of history is emulated in the Declaration of Independence - no doubt many slaves, if they could have read its contents would have remarked at the absolute ironies that existed. For example, the accusations that Britain had "waged cruel war against human nature itself" by "violating...persons of a distant people who never offended...captivating and carrying them into slavery" may have been true, but Americans were enabling British control over American affairs by continuing the practice, instead of taking a stand then, and abolishing slavery of any kind. The establishment of slavery, and the culture of slavery were threaded into every aspect of American life, and the founders took the more non-confrontational, passive role. They placed all of their faith in the ideal that once given freedom from Britain, the new country would rid itself of slavery, and other problematic institutions that threatened the preservation of freedom as a whole.
The founders of our nation were so concerned about setting up America that they relied on the people to right the wrongs once the country was safe for democracy.
This reliance was ill advised and naive to say the least. Wilkins outlines the faults in Madison's and Jefferson's shared dream for Americans - human nature is not going to change just because the scenery did. In other words, people weren't going to come to a new land, a new country, and suddenly change their habits. Humans are creatures of habit, and slavery was one of those habits, unfortunately. The founders of our nation failed us, and numerous other generations in light of their unwillingness to enforce or at least spark changes in society. Honestly, it was a lie to ever call America the land of the free when the very leaders of the country still owned humans as property. To call the fight for democracy a victory would be a lie - you can't claim victory over oppression when you yourself are an oppressor.
Most Americans, today and in the past, never even knew about the compromises on slavery and freedom for ALL people that were in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I certainly was unaware until reading Wilkins' well-documented, and well-written book. Americans accepted the ideal of a pure white America because they wanted to, because this myth was "a gratifying notion." It is important to realize that the idealistic version of America's founding worked for many people - for the "privileged, the powerful, the nimble and energetic...the lucky." It did not work for the less fortunate, and so many of us would today fall into that category. The stories were too glamorized, and unattainable - for whites and blacks. This notion of America being the land of opportunity yields disappointment and resentment even today, and we have the founders to thank for that.
The founders were great men, and gave our nation its foundation, but it's difficult to understand how an entire race of people was excluded from that foundation - as if they didn't exist. History might portray our founders as saints - as ruthless men who sought truth and justice in the hopes of creating a better tomorrow for us all, but they never pretended like their prestige and power hadn't affected them. Their culture, their inherited culture, shaped them and these founders were groomed by their families, their teachers, their peers to eventually accept any and all privileges they had been born into. Like Wilkins points out, "privilege is addictive" and even he found himself accepting privileges that were given to him - an intelligent black man - that were not given to others he knew.
Not that slavery can be forgiven, but being a creature of habit must be forgiven. Our founders were just doing as they had always seen, and had always done - much like Americans have their own habits now. These men weren't bad people who abused their slaves (except perhaps for Jefferson who may or may not have had sexual relations with a slave). Wilkins makes the statement that it is when these men are called "secular saints" and their role in "the deep legacy of racism that they helped to institutionalize" is downplayed that the "impulse to pull them and the works of their whole generation off their pedestals becomes exceedingly strong." The truth - the whole picture - is what Wilkins wanted to present.
The entire picture is what Americans should demand, too. How can you truly be a patriot and have pride in your country if you are only seeing part of what the country was really about? You can't.
James Madison, a brilliant man who did great things for America and Virginia, wrote the Federalist Papers in the 1700s. Federalist Paper Number 10, written November 23, 1787, was written to the State of New York to present the argument that the Union would provide protection to Americans from factions - what Madison called "a number of citizens...who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." It is ironic that Madison saw America and its government as something that would prevent any voice of opposition from arising. Perhaps Americans saw this as protection from violence, but this seems like a way to prevent slavery from being abolished - as if Madison is saying that the Union can prevent social evolution and change. Madison seemed to have one of the more disillusioned senses of what America was going to be able to do as a country - he also stated that because the people elect government officials, that it would be unlikely for "unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried." Who does he think he is kidding?
Thankfully, America and American citizens have created and implemented many good, positive things since our country was born. As Wilkins concludes, there is still much work to be done, even in the 21st century. What patriotism is to me is to want to do…