America's Founding was Imperfect. Just Ask the FoundersRoundup
tags: Constitution, culture wars, teaching history, founders
George Thomas is the Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College and author of The Founders and the Idea of a National University: Constituting the American Mind and coauthor of the two-volume American Constitutional Law: Essays, Cases, and Comparative Notes.
The American founding was imperfect. America’s founders weren’t just aware of the point, they insisted on it: “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.” This bit of wisdom was central to the founding. In contrast, today, Republicans, continuing their departure from any serious understanding of American ideas and history, have taken to insisting that teaching about a flawed founding threatens the very foundations of the republic.
That would be news to the founders, who were often the Constitution’s most perceptive critics. In his closing speech at the Constitutional Convention, the only speech from the Convention to be published at the time, Benjamin Franklin confessed that he “did not entirely approve of this Constitution at the present.” Yet he acknowledged his own fallibility, noting that in time he might come to change his mind, and, given the circumstances, it wasn’t clear the Convention could “do better” than it had. This is no small thing, but inherent in the political philosophy of leading founders. To insist on a perfect founding is to misapprehend the thought of the founders themselves. The founders rejected the notion of a perfect political order. They built from low but solid ground by insisting on imperfection as an inescapable feature of political institutions crafted by human beings. And they built from experience, learning from the past, but knowing full well that the future was likely to require adjustments and improvements to our political institutions.
Championing the Constitution to the citizenry in The Federalist Papers, James Madison insisted we must make a choice for “the GREATER, not the PERFECT good.” In the closing paper, Alexander Hamilton reiterated the point, noting the Constitution was “the best which our political situation, habits, and opinions will admit.” It is not simply, in Madison’s famous words, that men are not angels. Nor is it, again in Madison’s words, that we cannot always trust that enlightened statesmen will be at the helm. Both points are true. The deeper point echoes Franklin’s insight that perfection is an impossibility in crafting political institutions, which inevitably require compromises that bow to reality. And there will always be gaps between political practices and political aspirations, as well as contingencies that the Constitution’s framers simply did not anticipate.
Adjustments to the Constitution were needed almost immediately. The Twelfth Amendment stipulated separate electoral votes for the president and vice-president after the problematic election of 1800 where Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s running mate, got the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson throwing the presidential election into the House of Representatives. As the founding generation learned how elections actually operated under the new Constitution, innovations like political parties came to be defended as a necessary constitutional development even if the Constitution had tried to rise above them. Such adjustments were expected to be—and have been—a fairly routine feature of American politics.
Yet far and away the most evident constitutional shortcoming was the reality of American slavery. An emerging republic that insisted that all men were created equal, creating a self-governing polity based on that principle, also allowed for the enslaving of fellow human beings. To call slavery an imperfection or flaw is a colossal understatement.