Commentary: Our Founding Fathers were men, not gods

Issac Bailey is a columnist for The Sun-News, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Issac Bailey is a columnist for The Sun-News, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. MCT

The latest person to come to the defense of Rep. Michele Bachmann's claim that the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States" comment is our very own Paul Peterson, a politics professor at Coastal Carolina University and a longtime member of the Horry County Board of Education.

I respect Peterson and on some issues we even agree. We share similar views on educational theory (though not all) and he helped in my efforts a couple of years ago to have a small conference for fathers.

We've also had heated, respectful debates on a variety of issues, including our views on gay marriage and just how much of the public's work should be done publicly, particularly when it comes to a large school district's attempt to hire a new superintendent.

About Bachmann's claim, Peterson argued in an opinion piece published Tuesday that her thesis was a solid one. He cites the formation of an anti-slavery society in Philadelphia in 1775. He recounted how more than 100,000 slaves were freed through the rest of the 18th century.

He even quotes President Abraham Lincoln and talked about how slavery was prohibited in some territories.

He could have mentioned names of some of the Founders who set the country on a path toward slavery's demise.

He could have also reminded us that some colonies wanted slavery and threatened not to join the union if it was prohibited and that given the choice, a grand bargain was had - including the infamous 3/5ths clause, which was actually more anti-slavery than an insult to blacks - which is why we began half slave and half free.

All of which is true. As I've written repeatedly, the Founders did great, wonderful things. But they also did awful things - things which Peterson conveniently ignores.

It is the kind of thinking that has too many people in South Carolina questioning historical fact and why so many are convinced that slavery had nothing to do with the South's reasons to go to war in 1861.

It is a dumbed-down, careless version of history that isn't worthy of Peterson or anyone else spouting it.

It is dangerous because it keeps us divided in ways we don't have to be. It's why the ongoing 150th anniversary of the Civil War is a potential landmine rather than an event that could pull us together, to celebrate and commiserate men and women from long ago who had to make choices none of us will fully understand.

Peterson begins his rewriting of history by changing Bachmann's meaning, saying tirelessly could be disputed.

But even without that sleight of hand, this isn't hard to figure out.

He spoke about the 100,000 slaves freed but makes no mention of the millions that remained in bondage.

He spoke of those agitating for emancipation, but did not mention those who not only tirelessly fought for that peculiar institution but tried to expand it.

He could have mentioned that the Southern colonies that dared to scuttle any attempts at forming a union because of slavery also had strong incentive to join, namely the threat that persisted from the British and attacks from Native American tribes. That leverage could have been used by Founders who really were tirelessly trying to end slavery.

Some historians believe the Founders overcame 60,000 to 1 odds in their victory over what was then the world's lone superpower because they worked tirelessly and wouldn't settle for anything less. But they did not use that resolve to end slavery, a decision that cost 620,000 Americans their lives almost a century later.

Beyond even that, Peterson left out something more obvious. The two most well-known (and maybe most important) Founders are Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

Over the course of his lifetime, Washington owned hundreds of slaves and freed them only in his will - and instructed they not be freed until his wife died.

Jefferson occasionally had a slave whipped in public as a warning for other slaves to remain in line, and he did not take the step to free slaves in his will the way Washington did.

Peterson didn't explain how those actions were evidence of men tirelessly working to end slavery - or evidence that they were trying at all, despite what Jefferson wrote and Washington said. Actions speak louder than words.

The Founders did great things from which each of us continue to benefit.

They also participated in horrors we are still trying to overcome.

They were men, after all. Not gods.

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