If We Shouldn’t Judge the Founders by Our Values, Should We Live by Theirs?

Philadelphia Union honors those killed by police.

Philadelphia Union honors those killed by police.Our recent protests, sparked mainly by the Minneapolis PD’s nonchalant murder of George Floyd – with the cameras rolling, even – are roiling American society. Institutions are challenged. Assumptions are ravaged. The whole of the American metanarrative is seemingly up for review.

The rhetorical and ideological upheaval takes physical form as streets outside the White House in DC and Trump Tower in New York City (and closer to home, along Broadway by the Capitol here in Denver) are painted to assert, in boldface, that “Black Lives Matter.”

Athletes in the US and Europe kneel before matches with their fists in the air. Their uniforms bear the slogans of social justice campaigns (and, in one case, the names of black citizens killed by the police). In a move straight out of the Book of Revelation, NASCAR bans the Confederate battle jack from its events, and Mississippi, a state as congenitally steeped in racial hatred as any in the country, finally vows to remove that same emblem from its flag.*

In perhaps the most symbolic acts of all, statues of Confederate leaders, slavers, and harbingers of genocide like Columbus are hauled down from their places of honor.

Strange times, and from the perspective of those whose souls are sick from centuries of oppression and exploitation, it’s about damned time. Upward and onward.

Some of us have thought a few minutes into the future and wondered what comes next. Going after the statue of a traitorous Southern general who fought to preserve slavery seems obvious enough, but … George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and a number of other founders also owned slaves. They acceded to the demands of slave-owners from the South in constructing the documents on which our country was built. Do we reconsider their statues? The cities, streets, parks, public schools and other monuments to their legacies, as well?

Ripping down the iconography of racism – both literally and symbolically – is a good thing, and it’s also fair that we engage in a critical conversation about the legacies of founders whose actions were inconsistent with enlightened modern values. In doing so, it’s important to acknowledge those who fear a new “tyranny of the woke.”

And no, these concerns aren’t unique to conservatives.

The demand for posthumous perfection.

My friend Matt Boggs offered up a detailed critique of the current moment the other day, drawing some interesting parallels to China’s Cultural Revolution under Mao. His analysis articulates the concerns many people have about the fairness (and wisdom) of judging the past by contemporary standards and is well worth a few minutes of your time.

With respect to the slave-owning founders argument specifically, he says:

It is not only the sweeping away of racism per se that now sweeps the country; it is something more. It is the demand for posthumous perfection. If any American figure ever failed morally, then no nuanced evaluation of this figure’s role in history is to be countenanced. Down with George Washington. Down with Thomas Jefferson. As if, within any given person or historical period, anyone can entirely escape his time and place.

Imagine this scenario: Thomas Jefferson presents the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. With heated words and in a sarcastic tone, a member of the Congress stand up and says: “Very nice, Jefferson. Beautiful words. Yeah, created equal. But you own slaves. Tear your document up until you clean up your own house. Go home! Save us your hypocritical musings!” To that there is an eruption of mass applause and Jefferson goes home, the Declaration of Independence relegated to the trash, never published.

That, in essence, is what the cultural revolution of today in America demands. In a revision of Murphy’s law, no good idea goes unpunished. If its author is imperfect, his idea is dispensable.

Jefferson specifically strikes me a troublesome example. It’s one thing to argue that people were a “product of their time,” but it’s more difficult to excuse someone who knew better.

But the overarching question Matt asks and the principle it implies are important and obviously relevant. Culturally we stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Each generation draws on the wisdom of its ancestors and hopefully moves the needle ahead a tick or two. No era is as enlightened as the one that came after it, but that generation wouldn’t have progressed at all without its predecessors. Perfection, if it exists, arises from millennia of imperfection. The perfecting impulse, the aggregated exercise of good faith, must be central to the formula by which we evaluate historical figures.

It’s the height of arrogance and naïvete to think we have reached the pinnacle or moral actualization. In 100 years, or 300, or 500 our descendants will hopefully look back on 2020 and think yes, that was a big step forward, but … we’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we?

Do we want to be judged by them the same way many of us are now judging our founders? A complex issue, to be sure, and not one with a simple answer.


There’s one conclusion we can draw, though.

The argument that we can’t judge the actions of historical figures by current standards is an explicit affirmation that their values are of another era and are not applicable in the 21st century.

Further, it renders an inescapable verdict on our Constitution. This document, their document, which reserved the franchise exclusively to wealthy white men, which afforded no official voice to the poor or working classes, which treated women as second-class citizens and blacks as livestock, is by definition antithetical to the values of contemporary America. No system that codifies slavery and reserves de jure all power to wealthy white men has any use whatsoever in a society that values fairness and justice. This is especially true when its vaunted process for amending itself can’t be brought to acknowledge that women ought to be equal under the law.

We shouldn’t judge them by our values? Fine. But neither should we live by theirs.

In other words, the US needs a new Constitution. The old one is obsolete. We need not throw everything in it out – some of the core principles are regarded as fundamental statements of human rights for good reason, as Matt makes clear above.

But other elements need updating. A few years back I took on just this task, and while I can be critical of what our founders gave us, I can also testify that composing a bill of rights is harder than it looks. Some of it I feel like I got right. Other pieces need work.

And yeah, I get that what I’m proposing is mostly an academic exercise. However, this is perhaps the greatest time for academic exercises in centuries, because our socio-political history and identity are under very public revision.

To many, 2020 feels like chaos unbound, but in truth it represents an opportunity for dramatic transformation unlike anything in our lifetimes. When weighty, unfamiliar arguments find us – as they surely will – it’s important to be as thoughtful and prepared as possible, because our ideas have a better chance than ever of encountering agents of actual change.


  • I would point out there actually is an argument in favor of Jefferson’s reputation. Yes, he did know slavery was wrong and still kept slaves. But keep in mind that he was constrained by a system of laws. Like many other plantation owners, he was in debt.

    It was against the law for him to free his slaves because, if he had tried, they would have been taken as payment to his debtors. That is to say his slaves couldn’t be freed, no matter what Jefferson believed, valued, and wanted. He was in a bind. There were a few slaveholders who freed their slaves, such as John Dickinson, but that wasn’t an option for Jefferson.

    Then again, that doesn’t justify his having sex with his slaves. Most modern people would argue that a slave is not capable of consensual sex with the person claiming to own them with the power to beat or kill them if they wish, even if Jefferson was the nicest guy in the world and the slave in question agreed to sexual relations. So, there is that.

    Your basic argument really is a great way of framing the issue. It’s not a matter of judging the past. These people are dead. They aren’t here to be judged. It’s not the individual we are judging but our own relationship to what that history represents in the present and what it means for what we value, uphold, promote, and condone.

    In that light, the Constitution is extremely problematic. The Articles of Confederation, a much more radical and revolutionary document, might stand up better in the harsh glare of modern scrutiny. The first draft was written John Dickinson who, as I said, freed his slaves. It was then revised by some Anti-Federalists, and Anti-Federalism (AKA true Federalism) has strains of democratic anti-authoritarianism.

    As for the Constitution, there is one detail that always stands out to me. After the Constitution was passed, there were fewer Americans with voting rights than before the American Revolution. That means the new government was less representative than the British Empire and representation was the entire justification for the revolution in the first place. It took many reforms to slowly chip away at that elitism and so cobble together something almost resembling democracy.

    I’m with you. It’s time for another constitution. Many other countries have had multiple constitutions. If we are to go by constitutional originalism, many of the founders assumed the Constitution would only be temporary and only apply for a generation before it was replaced. A constitution, for many at the time, was considered a living compact of a specific people that couldn’t be forced upon future generations. Each generation had to come to its own constitutional agreement, otherwise it could not be considered a free society.

    Like it or not, a new constitution is probably inevitable. We either find a way to reform the system or else it will mean another revolution. The old constitutional order is simply no longer workable, according to modern values. It was never intended to be democratic, although some of the founders hoped for democracy. The Anti-Federalists tacked on the democratic Bill of Rights onto the Federalists’ anti-democratic Constitution.

    I’m one to argue that we should go back to square one. Let’s reconsider the original vision based on the original documents: Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. The Constitutional Convention, on the other hand, was a political coup. They never had a public mandate to replace the Articles of Confederation, as they ended up doing behind closed doors. The new (second) Constitution was unconstitutional according to the first constitution, the Articles, that required full consensus of all the states to make a constitutional change. The new Constitution was implemented and enforced without that requirement being fulfilled.

    That is the thing about constitutions. They tend to be unconstitutional or otherwise illegal according to the prior system. Constitutions generally are simply forced against the old government or ruling elite. The Articles, however, was unique in being the first document ever of its kind to be established through the full freedom of the autonomous states. That could not be said of the (second) Constitution that enforced yet another elitism. Many fought back against that, such as Shays’ Rebellion, only to be violently put down by the new elite rule.


    • Sadly, the pragmatic we face is how, in this day and age, we could get 2/3 agreement on ANYTHING. We allowed slaveowners to dictate the Constitution, and after the Civil War, when we could have done something, we punted.

      More and more I come back to the series I wrote a few years back on why we need to divorce Red America…

      • The amazing thing with the Articles is was it didn’t merely get 2/3 agreement. Every single state agreed to it. It was total consensus, a unanimous vote. That is as democratically representative of decision-making as is possible at such a scale and across so many populations.

        Then according to the Articles, it was unconstitutional to change it in any way without another unanimous vote, which never happened. That is why a political coup was required to re-enforce elite rule of an ‘enlightened’ aristocracy. Unlike the original constitution, the second constitution was decided without public transparency and accountability.

        The main problem is the moment the Constitution replaced the Articles, the United States switched from being a federation of autonomous states to an empire. Some of the most influential Federalists were quite open about aspiring to imperialism. Even Jefferson, supposedly an Anti-Federalist, pushed imperialism with the unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase.

        As long as the federal government entirely controlled taxation and the military (purse and sword), the ruling elite had all of the power they needed to further centralize governance, which is what Dickinson warned about. That is exactly what has happened with the inevitable takeover at the federal level. One could argue that, if we take constitutional originalism seriously, we’d be forced to follow the original intent in judging our present constitutional order a failure.

        One of the key arguments for the American Revolution, made by Paine and Hamilton, was that the British imperial government in London was too far away to govern the diverse colonies. What right did an island on the other side of the ocean have to tell people what to do on a continent?

        Consider that London was about as far from the colonies as Washington DC is from the West Coast, Alaska, Hawaii, and the territories. Most of the people in many of the colonies weren’t even English, just as most of the American population today is not WASP. So, why are we still mostly ruled by WASPs, specifically rich white men?

        You make the argument that we should divorce Red America. I might take it a step further. We are simply too large for democracy to be possible. A number of individual states in the US are larger and more populous than most countries in the world. The common trait of all of the most well functioning social democracies is being small, both in population and territory.

        We know what makes democracies work. That isn’t the problem. The challenge is those in power don’t want democracy. So, they’ve kept the public ignorant about what is democracy, what defines it, how it works, and what makes it possible. Most Americans don’t realize we live in a banana republic, not a democracy. So, the complaints that get blamed on democracy really have nothing to do with democracy itself.

        Divorcing from Red America is more complicated than it might seem. What exactly is Red America? The Republicans maintain control of the South through an oppressive social order and political system of demoralization and disfranchisement: voter purges, polling station closures, gerrymandering, etc. But when Southerners are asked, most identity as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party.

        If this were an actual democracy, the present Republican Party would never win a single election at the federal level. Even as it is, they regularly lose the popular vote in presidential elections they win through the electoral college. Research analyzing congressional records shows that federal politicians only do what the rich want them to do. Since we have no democracy, how could we possibly reform the system toward democracy?

        I can think of only one example of a country that peacefully transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy. That one example is Portugal, but it was an extremely rare case and unusual situation. It was a passive military coup, in that the military generals simply refused to defend the government. I don’t see that happening with the US military leadership suddenly deciding they no longer want to participate in the American Empire and police state.

        So, what other option does that leave us? It’s unlikely there will be another constitutional convention. And if there was, it’s almost guaranteed that it would be controlled by the ruling elite with a predetermined decision about the next constitution. Is there any way to avoid either revolution, civil war, collapse, or other similar fate? If so, it’s hard to see what it might be.

      • Well, in moments like this I find myself talking terms of change within the system or some form of rationale, peaceful change of the system.

        But I can’t say I really believe this is at all possible. I’d like to think we can get where we need to be without heads being paraded about on pikes. But I really don’t. History teaches us that elites don’t surrender power in the absence of … coercion.

        Here’s that divorce series…


      • I could buy into your general argument. But I’m maybe more likely to think in terms of cultural or geographic regions, not the Civil War terminology of North and South.

        Take my state of Iowa. We could make a nice country by combining Iowa with Minnesota and Wisconsin, maybe Illinois or at least the northern part.

        Or Iowa could be added to the Great Lakes Region. If parts of Canada were willing to secede, this new nation-state could also combine with the the three provinces of the Canadian Prairies.

        Part of the farm culture in Canada originated in the United States from an earlier period of immigration. There is a common worldview and economics that differentiates this region from New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

        One could argue that, at the very least, we should give back to Mexico what we stole from them. Then again, northern Mexicans might want to break off to be part of what some refer to as El Norte which would include the Southwest.

        Cowboy culture originated with the frontier culture of the Spanish Empire, such as the free range practices of the republican-minded Basque. But eastern Texas is part of the cotton belt of the old slave system and so maybe would better fit with the New Confederacy.

        I suppose there are many ways North America could be divided up according to political boundaries. But the basic point is the present system doesn’t seem workable in the long term.

      • No way is it easy, right? We have all these blue islands – blue cities in red states, like Atlanta. Here in CO the Denver/Boulder corridor is a very blue island in a purple state. Most big cities in red states fit this description. How do you account for them?

        There are cases where it makes sense for breakaway mini-nations. CA, OR and WA, for instance. Your Upper MW case is tricky, as well.

        I’d think a partition would need mechanisms for migration – you don’t want to live in a hillbilly state, how do you get out. Maybe asset exchanges? Progressive family looking to get out of the South can hook up via an “online dating” app and trade houses with someone wanting to move South?

      • The main problem is the Blue islands of liberalism and leftism. That describes Eastern Iowa, specifically what is referred to as the Corridor, primarily Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. The rural farmlands of Western Iowa is far more Republican and increasingly right-wing and reactionary, which contradicts Iowa’s historical culture of moderation, although there was some farmer radicalism earlier last century.

        The difficulty is that part of this is defined by generational demographics. Young people are leaving the rural areas and so leaving behind the oldest. Also, a large swath of unemployed, disabled, addicts, and mentally ill are left behind in these impoverished and dying communities. It doesn’t create the conditions of sociopolitical health and happiness.

        Each generation is more urbanized than the last. Partly, it’s liberals and leftists moving to urban areas. But it’s also that urbanization seems to encourage liberalism and leftism for those who grew up there. Now the social dynamics of suburbia are a bit different with their history of racial and class agendas, and I’m not sure if that has changed at all or if we’re simply seeing different forms of segregation, such as rich whites moving back to the inner cities with gentrification.

        It was only about a century ago when most Americans became urbanized. And initially it was mostly the movement into smaller towns and factories were found more spread out. But there has since been the rise of massive metropolises where everything is concentrated. There was a racial divide in this as well. The majority of blacks were only urbanized around the 1960s and 1970s, right at the moment the inner cities were being deindustrialized with redlining having trapped them there.

        There is something different about big cities, mainly having to do with forcing people to learn how to deal with diversity. It also creates the conditions for larger scale social organizing that is needed for modern democracy, as happened with the civil rights movement. It might be noted that the South and many other conservative parts of the country were urbanized and industrialized much later and more slowly. But this process is happening everywhere.

        Then again, this same process of modernization can just as well lead to ever new forms of authoritarianism, as seen with the history of many countries over this past century, from Nazism to Maoism. A certain kind of modernization may be necessary but not sufficient for a well functioning social democracy. James Loewen has some discussion about what creates liberal values like tolerance in his book Sundown Towns, and he also discusses how diversity correlates to innovation.

        I spent my later youth in Columbia, South Carolina. That is definitely Deep South territory. Yet as a large multicultural metropolis, it had a relatively stronger liberal-mindedness about it. Between the University of South Carolina and Fort Jackson, a significant portion of the population wasn’t from the South. I wouldn’t exactly call it a Blue island, but it is maybe moving in that direction. The military, interestingly, can have a way of unintentionally indoctrinating their recruits into certain liberal values of egalitarianism and tolerance.

        The blue islands are likely to grow in number and in size, as the population further leaves rural areas. That will continue, unless something about the modern economy changes. What will the ideological and partisan maps look like if almost no one was left in rural areas. Manual labor in farming, forestry, mining, etc is moving toward becoming obsolete. How close are we to that shift? It could dramatically change the balance of power and cultural attitudes.

        The thing is, as you point out, how long do we have to wait? If a health social democracy ever does take hold across the entire country, it could take many more generations or even centuries. At some point, patiently proclaiming moderation ends up feeling like a rationalization and defense of those holding back change.

        There have been Americans demanding democracy by name since the American Revolution and all we’ve got for our centuries of struggle is a banana republic. Many of those revolutionary era calls for reform go further back to the English Civil War. With every generation that pushes a little bit forward, there is a massive backlash. How much longer must we wait?

        This is why arguments for secession are so compelling. We may all be moving in a similar direction. Most American conservatives today are more liberal than most American liberals in the past. But we aren’t all moving at the same speed. Maybe we should allow conservatives move at a slower pace, as long as the rest of us are allowed to move at a faster pace. Hence, let us go our own ways. Conservatives might find themselves forced to accept change more quickly once they don’t have a liberal elite to blame for everything.

        That is one argument for why the South should have been allowed to secede during the Civil War, ignoring the act of terrorism that couldn’t so easily be ignored at the time when Fort Sumter was attacked. It’s easy to imagine that, if there had never been an exodus of blacks and desperate poor whites and if they didn’t have a federal government to constantly bail them out, the Southern elite and the Southern population would have had to deal with their own problems long ago. Democratic reforms would more likely have emerged from within Southern society.

        It probably would have been beneficial for all involved. Then neither could Northern liberals have blamed Southern conservatives. Everyone would have had to take more responsibility at a local level within their own region. That is an argument to go beyond a mere North/South divide and have even smaller Scandinavian-sized countries. I suspect democracy requires smaller countries, although concentrated urban populations within them.

        Yet dividing up the American Empire could be harder than when the British Empire down-scaled from its once grand colonialism where the sun never set over its vast territories. That is the rub. If we don’t figure it out for ourselves, a defeat in hot or cold war might lead to a fate more along the lines of the dismantled Ottoman Empire or collapsed Soviet Union.

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