Much of the progress that America experienced during the Revolution happened as a result of the Founding Fathers’ contradictory actions. The Founding Fathers, predominantly privileged, in some ways paid the price of the Revolution in the most noble way.
The Founding Fathers have a complicated legacy, and that legacy is constantly undergoing change. While the reverence of the Founding Fathers fluctuates generation-by-generation, certain questions emerge about the Founding Fathers’ effectiveness in setting the foundation for the United States.
Gordon Wood, in Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, presented the Founding Fathers’ legacy as: “If it was the intense commitment of this generation of founders to new enlightened values that separates it from other generations, why, it might be asked, and indeed, as it has been asked by recent critical historians, did these so-called enlightened and liberally educated gentlemen not do more to reform their society? Why did they fail to enhance the status of women? Eliminate slavery entirely? Treat the Indians in a more humane manner?” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 26.
It has become popular, glamorous even, to question the principles and integrity of the Founding Fathers in recent years, for their lack of ridding the country of its most foul traits. The Founding Fathers lived in a much different world than contemporary Americans.
To be fair to the Founding Fathers, accomplishing any of the goals similar to abolishing slavery, ensuring equality of men and women, and treating Indians in a humane manner, must have come after ensuring the creation of a government that would last ages. As Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and James Madison drafted the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers came to sign and approve those documents, their priority was creating an environment and a country that would facilitate future successes and ensure equality in for future generations.
The Founding Fathers were not in a position to contemplate every injustice and inequality, amidst the Revolutionary War, the tumultuous years of the early Republic, and the rapid growth of the country.
To expect them to have addressed and resolved every issue that was perhaps foreseeable at the time of the Revolution is to ignore their extraordinary accomplishments. The Founding Fathers collectively deliberated what the best form of government should be. They created the most extraordinary government that has thrived for over two centuries and has been a model for successful government.
While it is popular to question the Founding Fathers’ accomplishments, the context of their work must be remembered. We remember each American icon for their accomplishments, given the circumstances that existed during their respective times. The Founding Fathers’ time was perhaps the most tumultuous and contentious in American history, and yet they devised a system that has allowed one of the most free and just societies known to the world.
Shortly after the Revolution, new principles emerged that permeated all of society, from government institutions to societal norms to family life. Egalitarianism spread to families. The family became an “autonomous private institution whose members had their own legal rights and identities.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 500 citing Michael Grossberg, Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 1985), 26-27.
The rights of women became an issue, particularly after the Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft published “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792, which would be in “more private American libraries of the early Republic than [Thomas] Paine’s Rights of Man.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 500 citing John Kukla, Mr. Jefferson’s Women (New York, 2007), 167-72; Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (New York, 2007), 433. For the first time, American women felt that public discourse reflected their collective discontent with the subservient role.
This led to women increasingly inserting themselves in public life. However, there were limitations, and there were naysayers. For example, Thomas Jefferson “thought that if women were permitted to ‘mix promiscuously in the public meetings of men,’ the consequences would be a depravation of morals.'” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 506 citing Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York, 2004), 202.
Gordon Wood concludes in Empire of Liberty that these early efforts for equality between men and women ultimately “prepar[ed] the way for the future,” which is undoubtedly true. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 507. However, analysis of early Americans’ beliefs regarding equality deserves some attention.
For all of the open-mindedness and revolutionary ideals floating about in the early Republic, many of which challenged some of the strongest underpinnings of Western society, the early Americans could be remarkably ignorant of the pervasiveness of inequality. It was inevitable that true equality would not be immediate.
Perhaps equality is best viewed through the lens that equality is relative to the era. Perceived inequalities now could hardly have been imaginable in the earliest days of the Republic. For example, transgender rights, while a significant issue now that gets increasingly more consideration, would likely be inconceivable to nearly all early Americans.
The reality is that progress is gradual. However, only through taking the smallest of steps forward can the light of liberty be eventually shed on all segments of society, bringing justice and equality to all Americans.