The evening of July 4 is an appropriate time to muse upon the foundation of this country. From the perspective of 238 years, it’s easy to take the lofty principles and rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and later of the Constitution as inevitable things, and to see the evolution of our freedoms as a natural product of the flow of history. It would be easy (but wrong) to think that on July 3, 1776 we were 13 crown colonies, and on July 4, 1776, one free republic.
And it’s easy to forget how easily the nascent nation could have been snuffed out by the fortunes of revolution, or could have become progressively less democratic, rather than more. It’s hard to overstate the lack of consensus that obtained at the beginning of the Constitutional Convention. Anything could have come out of that meeting of 55 delegates. While we are fortunate that they came to such a flexible and durable result, it could have been otherwise, and even the “more perfect union” they envisioned was less than perfect, as the years, wars and amendments since attest.
The 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not represent a cross-section of 1787 America. The Convention included no women, no slaves, no Native Americans or racial minorities, no laborers. As one historian noted, it was a “Convention of the well-bred, the well-fed, the well-read, and the well-wed.”
That being said, the abolition of slavery at the nation’s founding was the intent of a number of delegates.
Luther Martin of Maryland said that forbidding Congress from banning the importation of slaves was “inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character.” Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania said that slavery was a “nefarious institution” and a “curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.” George Mason of Virginia spoke at length about the horrors of slavery and criticized slave owners, who he called “petty tyrants,” and the slave traders who, he said, “from a lust of gain embarked on this nefarious traffic.”
But instead, a compromise led to more lifetimes of slavery, The Civil War and a legacy of pain and unequal justice that endures until this day.
And while no women were in attendance at the convention, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband (and Massachusetts delegate) John Adams and to the convention:
“…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
It would be more than a century before the Constitution would catch up with Abigail’s vision enough to allow women the vote, and longer yet before they approached equal status in society.
The colonies both surrounded and were surrounded by Native nations who had no direct role in the founding of the U.S. political system. But they had an indirect influence on the founders:
The Iroquois nations’ political confederacy and democratic government under the Great Law of Peace have been credited as influences on the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution. . . Prominent figures, such as Thomas Jefferson in colonial Virginia and Benjamin Franklin in colonial Pennsylvania, two colonies whose territorial claims extended into Iroquois territory, were involved with leaders of the New York-based Iroquois Confederacy. . .
John Rutledge (SC) quoted Iroquoian law to the Constitutional Convention, “We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity, and order…”
Despite this influence, Native Americans were not given the right to vote, and have suffered slaughter, exclusion, appropriation of their lands, and ethnic discrimination throughout the nation’s history. Land claims dating to the era of the founders are still in the courts today.
So, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, “We have a republic—if we can keep it.” In hindsight, we have been slow on the uptake in many regards, but we do seem to be getting somewhere in the end. If we can just keep at it.