Sins of the (Founding) Fathers

The Classical Education of the Founding Fathers by Martin Cothran
These guys. It's all their fault.


Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Exodus 20:4-6

Yes, I used the non-inclusive archaic King James Version on purpose, because this essay is literally about men ruining the world for their descendants.

First, let's talk American exceptionalism. Some things about being an American are indisputably wonderful. The cultural heterogeneity that birthed jazz, R&B, soul, rock 'n' roll, country, rockabilly, bluegrass, Cajun, hiphop, folk, and all their permutations, then freely shared them with the rest of the world, is the direct result of this country's on-and-off open-door policy toward immigrants. And that's just music. It can be argued that no nation of the modern era comes close to American ingenuity in the creation of popular entertainment.

And how about peaceful transfers of power? Apart from the Civil War (which is a big exception I'll be coming back to), approximately half of all Americans (far more, in fact, if one takes into account the limitation of the electoral class to propertied white men over the age of 21, then white men, then men, then [in the South, at least] just white men again, then white women, then all citizens over 21, and finally all citizens 18 and older) who've lived since 1776 have accepted the election of heads of state they didn't vote for without taking up arms.

America is unarguably exceptional in its consumer culture, as well--though this is a decidedly mixed bag. Consumerism and the engine that drives it, industrialism, are turning the planet into a hothouse. There's a lot of irony in me typing those words on my iMac, knowing I could edit them on my Macbook Air, my iPad, or my iPhone; and if all of those devices failed me, I could pull one of my retired Windows laptops out of storage and finish the job there. There's plenty of tech in this house. It empowers me to do amazing things, and it keeps getting more and more amazing. But it's destroying the planet.

Now, if the first and second exceptional things I wrote about were working as they should, that would not be nearly as much of a problem. American scientists and industrialists have known for at least four decades that carbon emissions are heating the planet up at a rate that will soon make it impossible to sustain the ever-growing population of humans who occupy it. Had the Presidential election of 2000 not hung on another aspect of American exceptionalism, the electoral college, American ingenuity could've been at the forefront of reversing these trends. That might even have been true if the election of 2016 hadn't been decided in the same obsolete way.

But that's not how things came out in either of those elections. And now, millions of senseless Afghan/Iraq War deaths and countless tons of carbon pumped into the air later, it's clear who's ultimately to blame for the ever-rising temperature of the Earth.

Those guys. The ones on the money. It's their fault. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and yes, even Alexander Hamilton: they blew it.

To be fair, they were doing their best to cobble together something new, a nation founded on principles of liberty, and to make it last past the end of their lives. One need only look to what became of the French Revolution to realize just how unlikely the success of this project was. Within a generation, nascent French democracy had already been shelved, discarded by a narcissistic populist general who crowned himself emperor. The bloodiness of this parallel revolution, not to mention the rapidity with which it collapsed back into monarchy, came as no surprise to the founders who were still alive to see it.

The founders were students of history, and knew what had become of both Greek and Roman experiments in democracy. They could also look to current events, and see how British democracy had empowered the very imperial tyranny that had triggered the American Revolution. Defeating the British had meant bringing together a new nation made up of thirteen mini-nations. Bringing those entities together as united states, and keeping them together after defeating the British, entailed concessions, compromises, and ultimately the original sin that has infected the entire planet.

That sin was twofold: the genocide of the indigenous people who were Americans thousands of years before the first European explorers set foot on these continents; and the enslavement of millions of African persons to perform the hard labor that would build the new nation. Lest we be swayed by the lies of "Lost Cause" confederate apologists, consider that the first ban on slavery was put in place in 1315 by King Louis X of France. It obviously didn't last--the French colony of Haiti practiced enslavement so brutal it makes Southern American enslavers seem mild by comparison--but it was just the first of many European efforts to abolish the institution. The founders knew the irony in signing a Declaration of Independence, then a Constitution, that applied only to white men. They also knew that without the enthusiastic participation of the southern colonies, there would be no revolution, no democratic republic, no future for an America free of monarchic domination from across the Atlantic. So they compromised. They tabled the necessary abolition of slavery for a later time.

They also created an exceptional boondoggle of a complicated legislature and an electoral system for choosing the president that granted disproportionate power to those same southern states. The Senate and the electoral college were created to appease rural southerners who feared domination by urban, industrial northerners who had little use for slavery.

It took a civil war to put a legal end to the institution of slavery. Then it took another century to create federal guarantees for the rights bestowed upon persons of color during Reconstruction. A half century after those civil rights and voting rights laws were passed, some Americans are still more equal than others.

I've hardly touched on the indigenous genocide, which has continued to the present in the neglect of native populations on and off reservations. In the last month, indigenous people won a major concession from the Supreme Court, acknowledging that much of the state of Oklahoma was simply taken from them.

But back to the end of the world.

Of all the peculiar American institutions that have percolated through our history, none has proven more indelible than the electoral college. This practice of granting lump sums of votes for president to each state, skewed toward smaller, more rural states, has for the most part moderated the progressivism of liberal candidates for the office. It has also paradoxically led to the election of five presidents who did not receive a majority of ballots, two of them in the last twenty years. At the end of the 43rd president's tenure, it was common to refer to him as the worst president in the history of the United States. George W. Bush had presided over a bloody, endless war of vengeance against Afghanistan that was expanded to include Iraq through the use of doctored intelligence and false accusations of complicity in the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC. He had also slow-walked environmental reforms that could have mitigated and even ended climate change. His successor, Barack Obama, contending with a recalcitrant Republican Senate (the other half of that boondoggle), was only able to restore those policies through executive orders--promptly overturned by the least-democratically elected president in the history of the republic, Donald Trump. More than that, Trump has gone to great lengths to not just reverse environmental reforms, but to actively promote environmentally lethal policies.

Summers are hotter. Siberia had a heat wave last month, with temperatures in one of the coldest occupied places on the planet topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Glaciers are melting, beaches are receding, tundra is thawing, weather patterns are shifting. If it hadn't been for the electoral college, Al Gore would've been our 43rd president, with climate change mitigation at the heart of his administration. If it hadn't been for the electoral college, Hillary Clinton would've been our 45th president, and would've picked up and enhanced the environmental policies of Barack Obama.

Instead, for twelve of the last twenty years the United States has been led by climate change deniers who were in the pocket of polluting industries, concerned more about eroding bottom lines than vanishing coastlines. Corporate profit has been deemed more important than human lives.

Which brings me back, finally, to this essay's epigraph. I'm going to put it in context, using a more contemporary translation:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Yes, it's from the Ten Commandments. Note the preface: from the very foundation of Israel, the nation's identity was that of slaves liberated by God. In return, God expected absolute devotion. Backsliding--idolatry, bowing down to other gods in any way--had consequences that would repeat for generations to come. The same was true of righteous living, which would yield benefits for far longer.

The United States of America was founded in sin. We can understand the reasoning behind the compromises--first, of permitting enslavement to continue; second, of granting disproportionate power to slave states that guaranteed the institution of enslavement would continue for almost another century, while sanctioning genocide against both native people and the descendants of slaves that continues to the present day--as essential to creating the republic. But considering that Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire in 1833, while slavery-infused racism still lingers in the United States, one has to wonder if the compromises were worth it.

There: I've said it. In light of the continued persecution of persons of color, whether indigenous, formerly enslaved, or immigrant, it's getting harder and harder to believe that the wonders of American exceptionalism outweigh its horrors. Those horrors continue to exist because of the compromises that were the true birth of this nation. It can be further argued that the founders made these compromises in the service of a false god called Liberty--or, more accurately, a compromised version of that god that favored only a tiny minority of Americans, those who were white, propertied, and male.

That original sin has had consequences not just for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the founders, many of whom died in the Civil War, but for all persons of color who've ever lived on this continent and, more than that, for every person now living on this planet. It gave us George W. Bush. It gave us Donald Trump. It gave us all the unnecessary deaths that resulted from their presidencies, the delays in climate change mitigation that will ultimate cost millions more lives, the multi-trillion dollar price tag (because bottom lines supposedly matter to Republicans) for cleaning up the messes they've left behind, and the loss of prestige and influence of a republic that, at its best, sets a shining example for the rest of the world but has rarely come close to being at its best, particularly under the leadership of these incredibly incompetent presidents.

In Hamilton, the titular character sings about the million things he hasn't done, but just you wait... until it's too late for him to do any of them, thanks to his hot temper and impulse toward settling disputes with a pistol. Among those million things was abolition. Another was creating a truly democratic system for electing the president.

We've been waiting two hundred years to repair the damage of those two errors. God willing and the election isn't hacked, we might just be able to turn back from the brink, and begin to set things right.

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