Happy Friday and welcome back. The Founding Fathers are often used as justification for maintaining the status quo in political discourse. But why are our Founding Fathers held in such high regard, and how does memorializing their legacies affect our efforts towards racial justice? Andrew shares more in today’s newsletter. If you’re celebrating the Fourth of July this holiday weekend in the U.S., add some time to reflect on the resources in today’s take action section – it’s stocked with lots of good reading from diverse perspectives.
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Read how the wealthiest members of the “colonial ruling class” led the American Revolution and authored the Constitution.
Learn how the Declaration of Independence was motivated by slavery and attacks on Indigenous communities.
This spring, House Democrats voted to make Washington, D.C. the 51st state and give its 700,000 residents Congressional representation (CNN). South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds objected, tweeting “The Founding Fathers never intended for Washington D.C. to be a state” (Twitter). Many quickly objected that they never intended for Senator Rounds’ home state of South Dakota to exist, either (MSN).
Interpreting the Founding Fathers’ wishes is a staple of American political discourse. Constitutional originalism is more of a conservative thing, but really, Founding Father mindreading cuts across the ideological spectrum. The Founding Fathers would have hated partisanship (History) or Trump (Foreign Policy) or gun control (History) or not having gun control (HuffPost). Obama informed us, helpfully, that the Founding Fathers didn’t want presidents to serve three year terms (ABC). The Atlantic told us the Founders would have been especially disgusted by Trump’s pardon of the former owner of the San Francisco 49ers (The Atlantic).
If Washington and Madison and Jefferson et al. time warped into the contemporary U.S., they’d be shocked by many things. Maybe the particulars of gun control or presidential pardons, but definitely by the idea of women and Black people having voting rights. They would be shocked at the abolition of slavery. They would be shocked at the 50th state being a Polynesian archipelago. They would be shocked at highways and laundromats and TikTok. The list goes on.
So why do we keep appealing to the framers’ intentions? Two big ideas keep dragging us back to 1787. The first is that many believe the Constitution is an enlightened document, despite the fact that its authors weren’t exactly saint-like. By this way of thinking, George Washington was a historic hero and genius who helped invent democracy and freedom. But he didn’t extend these beliefs to the enslaved men, women, and children he owned as property and whose labor made him the richest man in Colonial America (Mount Vernon). In order to keep the ideals of Washington and Jefferson eternal, we’re asked to disregard the crimes against humanity that they executed in their pursuit of the nation (Smithsonian).
Our nation is also quick to protect our Constitution to maintain superiority over other nations. But no cartoon villain portrait of America’s enemies can whitewash the horror of a continental Indigenous genocide (The Nation) or the barbarity of a forced-labor empire of cotton, tobacco, and rice plantations sprawled across the South (The Advocate). When Nazi jurists looked for a precedent for the kind of racial laws that led to the Holocaust, they found the American Jim Crow system a shining example (History). Today, “there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height” (New Yorker). Enslavement, genocide, the elimination of 100,000 Japanese civilians, a modern prison system that dwarfs any other in human history: all constitutional in their time.
We should know by now that racism is systematic, not just individual acts of hatred (NPR). The system of government and power created by a slave-owning or slavery-adjacent colonial elite never served the enslaved Africans they owned or the Indigenous people they murdered (Howard Zinn). If we are looking to uncover systemic racism, we need to take a hard look at the systems that make up this very country.
Perhaps D.C. statehood is unconstitutional. Maybe it’s not, and D.C. should get the 51st star on the flag and Congressional representatives of its own. In either case, the modern-day American colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands won’t be so lucky (The Guardian). D.C. residents might get to vote for their senator, but prisoners and felons won’t (MSN). Those killed by American chemical weapons in Fallujah won’t, either (The Guardian). A great deal of human suffering, exploitation, and death falls squarely within what the American constitution allows.
Don’t ask what the Founder Fathers intended. Ask what the oppressed communities on whose backs the Founders’ vision was constructed need. If there is anything to celebrate on Independence Day, it’s those whose resistance, courage, and care actually brought us closer to a world with liberty and justice for all.
Many Americans make appeals to the real intention of the Constitution.