The Myths of the Founding Fathers

Michael Parenti - Real History, Part 1

This is Michael Parenti, and welcome to Real History, a series of talks by me on different subjects in history that are relevant for today's realities. Most people are never exposed to real history.

In school we don't even read real history, we read history 'textbooks' - mainstream ones, that avoid the underlying realities and propagate all sorts of myths that serve the powers that be, myths that are not very useful, that are in fact harmful to those of us who might want to believe in truth and in democracy.

This particular segment of Real History is entitled The Myths of the Founding Fathers.

As we were taught in school, a group of dedicated leaders of our young nation, called our 'Founding Fathers', met in Philadelphia in 1787 to build a nation and to write a constitution.

The United States of that time has been described as an egalitarian society. It was supposedly free from the extremes of want and wealth that characterized the feudal Old World. But in fact there were landed estates and there were colonial mansions that were really quite impressive and demonstrated a most impressive accumulation of wealth.

From the earliest English settlements men of influence received vast land grants from the British Crown. By 1700, three-fourths of the acreage in New York State belonged to fewer than a dozen persons. By 1760, fewer than 500 men in 5 colonial cities controlled most of the commerce, the banking, the mining, the manufacturing and most of the newspapers and journals of the Eastern seaboard, and they owned most of the land. It is hardly your egalitarian middle class society.

As of 1797 property qualifications left perhaps more than a third of the white male population disfranchised. Property qualifications for holding office were so steep that most voters could not even qualify as candidates. Thus a member of the New Jersey legislature had to be worth about a thousand pounds, free of debt, even to run for office. There were also no secret ballots. The men who got together in Philadelphia to frame the constitution were financially successful planters, slave-holders, merchants, creditors, bankers, and manufacturers. Who else could take four-and-a-half months off and go sit in Philadelphia and write a constitution?

Many of them were linked to each other by kinship and marriage, and by years of service in congress, or the military, or diplomatic service. And they had three things that they wanted to do:

They wanted to build a stronger central government to deal better with the conditions of trade and industry within the thirteen states.

They also wanted to build a stronger central government to deal better with other nations.

But there was a third reason, and that's the one that historians who don't want to bother with real history never talk about ... the framers of the constitution were increasingly concerned about an insurgent spirit, a rebellious spirit, among the common population. There were attempts to take over state governments, there was broad agitation, and the wealthy class looked to a national government as a means of protecting their interests. As a means of building a stronger mechanism of national control.

Most historians say very little about the actual plight of the common people in that time. Most of the agrarian populations - and about 85% of Americans in 1787 lived in the agrarian sector - most of them consisted of small farmers, tenants, or indentured servants. Indentured servants were white people who were in indenturture ... who were in conditions of servitude - it wasn't quite slavery because it was for a fixed time and they could get out, eventually. They could work their way out.

These people were burdened by heavy rents, ruinous taxes, and low incomes. To survive they frequently had to borrow money at very high interest rates. To pay their debts, they mortaged their future crops. When you mortgage your future crop you go still deeper into debt. So large numbers of them were caught in that cycle of rural indebtedness which is today still the common fate of many agrarian peoples in many countries who are in the grips of the monied interests.

Throughout this period, by the way, newspapers complained of

“increaing nymbers of young beggars in the streets.”

Economic prisoners crowded the jails. Many were incarcerated for debts or non-payment of taxes. And among the American people there grew the feeling that the revolution against the English Crown had been fought for no good reason.


Disorders of a violent but organized kind ocurred in a number of states. In the winter of 1787 the most dramatic disorder was when debtor farmers in western Massachusetts led by Daniel Shays took up arms - but their rebellion was crushed by the state militia after several skirmishes that left exactly eleven men dead and scores wounded.

When the so-called founding fathers met in Philadelphia they were determined that persons of birth and fortune and affluence should control the affairs of the nation, and

“check the levelling impulses of the propertyless multitude”,

that composed what Madison called the “majority faction”.

James Madison, who played probably the most-crucial role in putting the constitution together, talked, in his famous Federalist Paper No. 10, about how it was important to keep the spirit and form of popular government with only a minimum of the substance. How do you construct a government - and this was the task, he said that the framers were facing - how do you construct a government that would win some popular support but would not tamper with existing class structure? A government strong enough to service the growing needs of an entrepreneurial class while withstanding the democratic egalitarian demands of the popular class. And the way you do it is by excluding the popular class from most of the crucial points of power.

The framers all agreed with Madison when he wrote in Federalist Paper No. 10 that

“the most common and durable source of faction has been the various and unequal distribution of property.”

- and by faction he meant class, wherever he used the word faction -

“those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”

Now if you say that today you're called a Marxist. Well, Madison was talking about reality, and we can't help it if certain forms of reality are Marxist.

“The first object of government,” Madison went on

“is the protection of different and unequal faculties for acquiring property.”

Elbridge Jerry, another one of the framers in Philadelphia, noted that democracy

“was the worst of all political evils.”

Both he and Madison warned of the danger of the levelling spirit. Roger Sherman of Connecticut, another delegate to Philadelphia

“The people should have as little to do as may be about the government.”

Alexander Hamilton, of course,

“All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the wellborn, the other are the mass of the people ... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.”

So these delegates were rather explicit that the further that you could keep people from government the better.

Now they spent many weeks debating their interests, and most of the historical account about the founding fathers is about these differences : the differences between merchants, and slave-owners, and manufacturers ... the debate between the northerners and the southerners ... but this was a debate of haves and haves in which each group sought to safeguard its own interests.

It envolved mostly questions of representation and structure. On these issues there were no dirt farmers or poor artisans attending the convention to offer an opposing view, they couldn't take four months off to go to Philadelphia.

For the most part the framers built a constitution that would have the power to support commerce and protect the interests of propery in a variety of ways. Levy and collect taxes, establish a national currency, fix imports and duties, and the like; setup uniform laws on bankruptcy, pay the debts, and so forth.

Some of the delegates, for instance, were land speculators and they espressed a real concern about westerrn holdings, and dealing with the Indian tribes. And so the congress was given

“the power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States”

That's right from our constitution. In other words to deal with the territories and the Indians.

Some delgates speculated very highly in inflated, and nearly worthless securities that had been floated under the Articles of Confederation. Well, under Article 6 all debts that had been incurred under the Confederation were now valid against the new government, and this allowed speculators to make enormous profits, because they bought these securities for a pittance and now they were being refunded and honored at face value. So they made quite a killing for themselves.

In the interests of these merchants and creditors the states were prohibited from issuing paper money or imposing duties on imports and exports or interfering with the payment of debt.


And there was another form of property that was mentioned in the constitution, a very important one, and it was afforded a special accommodation : slavery. The property of other human beings. They were never callled slaves. They would say persons in bondage and bondage and such, and persons in servitude. They were never called slaves in the constitution, but that's what they were. The importation of slaves was given constitutional protection for about twenty years, another twenty years. Slaves who had escaped from one state to another had to be delivered up to the original owner upon claim. This was a provision that was unanimously adopted in the convention.

The framers were also worried about rebellions by workers and such. Would the state militias prove reliable as the working class grew in numbers? - and by the way, they anticipated the day when the mass of the people would be working, not on their own land, but working as employees.

Well, congress was given the task of

“organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia.”

And calling it forth to “suppress insurrections”. Those are quotes right fom the constitution.

And by the way that was a provision that was to prove a godsend for the industrial barons a century later in the 1870s, 80s, and 90s when the army was used repeatedly to break strikes by miners, railroad workers, and factory workers.

The method of representation was interesting. Nobody could vote for the president. The chief executive was to be selected by an electoral college that was voted by the people [1], but the framers anticipated that these meetings of the electoral college in each of the various states would consist of political leaders and men of substance - again - who would be able to travel to the state capital, and sit there, and debate who should be president. They'd gather in their various states and they would choose a president of their own liking. So the electoral college was set up as a kind of filter against popular sentiment.

The senate could not be elected. The senate was picked by the state legislatures rather than directly elected by the people. The senators were not elected by the people until the twentieth century.

The Supreme Court, which could have final say over the constitutionality of laws, was elected by no one. Its justices were appointed to life tenure by the president and confirmed by the senate.

So you had a very elaborate structure up there that was far removed from the popular will. The only portion of government that was directly elected by the people was the House of Representatives, and even that took something of an argument to get through. The delegates finally agreed to have the people elect the lower house ...

But when they talked about the people, by the way, they were referring to a select portion of the population. As I said, property qualifications disfranchised the poorest white males in various states. There were all sorts of ways of disfranchising other would-be voters : literacy tests, inaccessibility of voting - you'd have to go ten or fifteen miles on a horse and wagon to get to the county seat and vote - you were not likely to vote, over those muddy roads and whatever else.

Half of the adult population was denied suffrage because they were women, American Indians had no access to the ballot, about one fourth of both men and women had no vote because they were held in bondage, and even the African Americans who had gained their legal freedom in both the North and the South - which was a small portion - but none was allowed to vote until the passage of the fourteenth amendment.

The question comes up, well, were these framers of the constitution motivated by financial interests of their own, simply? or by a national interest? This has been debated ever since Charles Beard published a very great book - which I recommend to you - An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, which he published in 1913. The defenders of our “Founding Fathers” said that they weren't guided by their class interests, they were concerned with higher things, things other than just lining their purses. They were motivated by a concern for nation-building that went beyond their particular class interests, the argument so goes.

Well I think that the fallacy to presume that there is a dichotomy between the desire to build a strong nation and the desire to protect wealth is a fallacy. The other fallacy is to presume that the framers could not have been motivated by both.

In fact, like most people, they believed that what was good for them was ultimately good for the entire society. Their universal values and their class values went hand-in-hand. And to discover the existence of a higher sentiment - that they wanted a strong sense of government and a strong nation - doesn't eliminate a self-interested one.

Just as many of these same framers could say - and sincerely feel - that they were dedicated to the principle of liberty for all and at the same time own slaves ... so, they could serve both their nation and their estates.

The point is not that they were devoid of a grander sentiment of nation building, but that there was nothing in their concept of nation that worked against their class interests. And there was a great deal in their concept of nation - including a strong central government, a government with checks and balances, and a government that was removed from popular will - a great deal in their concept of a national government that worked for their class interests. It was to filter out the popular will and to thwart or blunt the levelling impulses of the people.


Those historians who argue that the founders were motivated primarily by high-minded objectives consistently overlook the fact that the founders themselves repeatedly stated their intentions to erect a government strong enough to protect the haves from the have-nots. They said that, explicitly. They gave voice to the crassest class prejudices - I just quoted you a few examples. They talked about how the people were unreliable, the people couldn't judge, and all that sort of thing. Their concern was to diminish popular control and to resist all tendencies toward class equalization, or class justice, or in what they called in that day, levelling.

Their opposition and distrust of democray - and by democracy they meant what Plato and Aristotle meant by democracy and what I mean by democracy, they meant not just a system of elections but a system that served the interests of the demos, of the mass of the people - their opposition to democracy and their dedication to monied interests was openly and repeatedly avowed. In fact, their preoccupation with their class interests was so pronounced that one of the delegates, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, finally complained that he was hearing too much about how the sole or primary object of government was property, and defending property, protecting property.

“The cultivation and improvement of the human mind”, Wilson maintained, “was the most noble object”.

And this was a very fine sentiment and invoked no opposition among his colleagues, and they continued to go about their business.

As for democracy - let me point out - that when Colonel Mason of Virginia got up toward the end of the convention and he said

“This constitution needs a bill of rights”

that proposal was voted down, unanimously. Without debate. With just the delegation from Massachusetts abstaining. So the constitution was a rather undemocratic instrument.

Well if it was so blatantly elitist, how did it manage to win ratification? How did it win the popular vote?

Well, in fact the constitution was never submitted to a popular vote. It was never ratified by the people. It was ratified in state conventions and those conventions were controlled generally by men of substance or whatever else [you may wish to term them].

Having said all this, let me add though, that the constitution was not without some real democratic concessions for its time. For instance

And that Bill of Rights had a whole bunch of excellent democratic things like freedom of speech and freedom of religion, freedom to assemble, freedom to peaceably petition for redress of grievances, a separation of church and state ...

The constitution also did something else, it guaranteed a republican form of government. Article 1 Section 9

“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States”

in other words it said, this is an open system, but you cannot go back to monarchy or aristocracy. Which was a real concession, because about 21 of the 55 delegates favored some form of monarchy. They couldn't come out and say it, because of popular opposition, but almost half of the delegates [38%, more than a third] - if they had their way, they would have had a king.


So these men feared and loathed democracy. And yet, on a number of occasions they found it necessary to show some regard for popular sentiment : as with direct election of the lower house, as with putting in a republican form of government, and so forth. They understood that if the constitution was going to be accepted by the states, and if it was going to have any stability it had to gain some measure of poopular acceptance. So they felt compelled to leave something for the people.

So they were powerful. They dominated the events of 1787 to 1789, but they were far from omnipotent.

The class system they sought to preserve was itself the cause of marked restlessness among the people, and this is the contradiction they are constantly dealing with. There still continue to be land seizures by the poor. Food riots and other violent disturbances throughout the 18th century.

This popular ferment, by the way, spurredthe framers in their efforts of to erect a strong central goverment, but it also set a limit on what they could do. What I'm saying is that they didn't give us a bill of rights, they didn't give us these democratic things, these were won by the agitation of democratic forces in society. These were concessions, including the Bill of Rights, they reluctantly - just reluctantly - gave up. They had to make concessions just the way management today reluctantly gives certain concessions or a contract to its workers because the workers are well-organized enough, and this is the only way to get them back to work.

So it was under the threat of democratic rebellion that they made these democractic concessions. They kept what they could and they grudgingly relinquished what they felt they had to. What I'm saying the myth of the founding fathers is, is that they were driven - not by a love of democracy - but by a fear of it. Not by a love of the people, but by a prudent desire to avoid popular uprisings.

The constitution then was a product not only of class privilege but of class struggle. A struggle that continues to this day.

This is Michael Parenti, talking some Real History.

notes at transcription

[1]“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector”. Article 2, Section 1, Clause 2.