Myth: The Founders should be revered as secular saints.

Fact: The Founders were human.


The Founders, although brilliant, were also corrupt, inept, scandalous, prejudiced and slave-owners. To deify them is unwarranted.


There can be no doubt that the Founding Fathers were among the elite of the young nation, and were exceptional intellects by any standard. Thomas Jefferson was considered so brilliant that when John F. Kennedy invited all the Nobel Prize winners to dine at the White House, he told them: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined here alone."

However brilliant they were, the Founders do not deserve to be historically recast as secular saints. They were not gods -- they were quite fallible human beings. They owned slaves, denied women the right to vote, committed atrocities against Native Americans, and made clearly anti-Semitic statements. The government they created was not really of the people; it was of rich, white, male landowners. Although they created a Bill of Rights guaranteeing individual freedoms, this document was not seriously enforced for 130 years afterwards. For example, the press was frequently censored for "seditious" material, and it was not until the early 20th century that the Supreme Court actually heard its first case on free speech!

The Founders first attempt to build a nation -- the Confederation of States -- was a dismal failure. Even our current constitution passed by sheer luck. The federalists were in the minority, but the anti-federalist majority was divided, overconfident and badly organized. Had they not been, our nation would look very different today. Furthermore, judicial review -- the process by which the Supreme Court reviews federal laws for their constitutionality -- wasn't even included in the constitution. Its authors simply trusted Congress to pass laws that obeyed it.

Not surprisingly, the Founders' personal lives were filled with all the same foibles that plague our current politicians -- and then some. Vice President Aaron Burr, for example, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Even our first president is more remembered by his mythology than his actual life. Every American school child learns the legend of young George Washington cutting down the cherry tree and then admitting to his father, "I cannot tell a lie." The story itself is a lie, but what is true is that Washington bought his first election. Historian George Thayer writes: Should we praise the Founders for their revolutionary new approach to democratic government? Of course. But to turn them into secular saints, incapable of error, atrocity, immorality or faulty judgment, is clearly unwarranted.

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1. George Thayer, Who Shakes the Money Tree? American Campaign Financing Practices from 1789 to the Present (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973), p. 25.