Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Founding Fathers: An American Legacy of Exploitation and Oppression

by Lupus

A lot of people, from Democrats to Republicans, Tea Party to Occupiers, talk about “taking America back” and “returning the nation to its founding principles.” Clearly, there must be some confusion about what those “founding principles” are, to be so widely claimed by so divergent ideologies. Each sees within the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence their own primitive utopia of tricorn-hatted supermen who omnisciently had all the answers for all time. Such reactionary thought is ingrained into us as children in school , learning the myths of our country’s founding in order to instill in us the backwards pride of American Exceptionalism, and a blindness to our nation’s imperialist actions around the world. 
I’ve even heard Progressives talk about the problems of social and economic inequality we face today, and “if we could only get things back to the way things were” and “we never had this level of inequality from the period between the civil war and the great depression.”
Really? So, Segregation, Poll Taxes, Women being unable to vote, child labor (yes, made illegal in the latter part of that period, but extremely pervasive), no social security, vast amounts of illiteracy, the continuing genocide of native American peoples, and the rise of the robber barons of oil, railways, textiles, and manufacturing with working conditions that prompted Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle” – all of this is somehow better than the conditions we face today?
And what of our “great founding fathers” and their incredibly wise magical document, the Constitution?  Let’s talk about them, shall we? Why not start with the “great” George Washington – a rich, white, slave-owning, patriarchal, intolerant, racist miser who had little regard for human life other than that of other rich, white, slave-owning men.  The following quotes are from an article by Peter Henriques, “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret": George Washington and Slavery  ( ):

During the pre-Revolutionary years, Washington's views toward slavery were [as far as the record reveals] conventional, reflecting those of a typical Virginia planter of his time. He undoubtedly shared the "engrained sense of racial superiority" so common among white Virginians and did not emotionally identify with the slaves' plight. There is an extant letter from Washington [1766] that leaves a flavor of the nature of the institution and his rather routine acceptance of it."Sir: With this letter comes a Negro (Tom) which I beg the favour of you to sell, in any of the Islands you may go to, for whatever he will fetch, and bring me in return for him: one hhd [sic] of best molasses, one of best Rum, one barrel of Lymes if good and cheap, … and the residue, much or little in good ole spirits…That this Fellow is both a rogue and a Runaway…I shall not pretend to deny. But . . . he is exceedingly healthy, strong and good at the Hoe… which gives me reason to hope he may, with your good management sell well (if kept clean and trim'd up a little when offered for sale… [I] must beg the favor of you (lest he should attempt his escape) to keep him hand-cuffed till you get to Sea."
Washington tended to view slavery as a commercial enterprise. It was simply an integral part of his desire to make profits from tobacco and grain cultivation and keep debts to a minimum. In this sense, MV slaves were his chattels, his human property. The language he used in buying them might be applicable to livestock. He wished "all of them to be strait limbed, & in every respect strong and healthy with good Teeth." As the historian John Ferling notes in his often perceptive but essentially critical study of GW, "He was not moved to express hatred or love or empathy for his chattel. They were simply business propositions, and his comments regarding these unfortunate people were recorded with about as much passion as were his remarks on wheat rust or the efficacy of a new fertilizer."
GW unquestionably assumed that his slaves would "be at their work, as soon as it was light, [and] work till it was dark." Each bondsman "must be made to do a sufficient day's work." GW's goal for his bondsmen and women was explicit: "that every laborer (male and female) does as much in 24 hours as their strength, without endangering their health or constitution, will allow." Or again: "It has always been my aim to feed & cloath them well, & be careful of them in sickness - in return, I expect such labour as they ought[!] to render."…
He lamented, "Lost labour can never be regained," and overseers were urged to be constantly vigilant and to always remember that the slaves were working for GW. In his words, "I expect to reap the benefit of the labour myself." [He complained that Peter who was responsible for riding around the plantation to check on the stock was usually engaged "in pursuits of other objects… more advancive of his own pleasure than my benefit." Again the interesting point is that GW can complain about this while most of us would sympathize with Peter's actions.]
Washington, however, to his constant and growing frustration, found it was not easy in fact to reap the benefits of their labor. Indeed, he increasingly viewed the system of slave labor as inherently inefficient. He noted, "Every place where I have been there are many workmen, and little work." [It might be mentioned in passing that GW was a hard man to work for and he makes constant complaints about the quality of his laborers - white as well as black] He had lots of complaints. Slaves feigned illness, destroyed equipment, were often idle and regularly stole his corn, meat, apples, and liquor. GW lamented that unless watched the slaves would get 2 glasses of wine for every one served in the mansion. Everything not nailed down was in danger of being stolen. And how could it be nailed down when even the nails were disappearing? "I cannot conceive how it is possible for 6,000 12 penny nails could be used in the Corn house at River Plantation, but of one thing I have no great doubt and that is, if they can be applied to other uses, or converted into cash, rum, or other things, there will be no scruple in doing it." [from Jean Lee]
There is some dispute about the living conditions of the slaves at Mount Vernon as the evidence and testimony are in conflict. Certainly, they did not live well. One visitor to Mount Vernon [a Polish nobleman] was shocked by the living quarters of Washington's slaves referring to them as "huts," adding "for one can not call them by the name of houses. They are more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants. The husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground; a very bad fireplace, some utensils for cooking." GW himself seemed to acknowledge their very rudimentary condition, for when he later sought Europeans to work Mount Vernon's fields, he admitted that the slave quarters at MV "might not be thought good enough for the workmen or day laborers" of England. Clothing and blankets were carefully rationed. A woman would receive an extra blanket if she had a child, but if the child died, the woman would not get a new blanket for herself but was to use the one given to her child. On clothing for the children, another French nobleman declared, the Negro quarters "swarm with pickaninnies in rags that our beggars would scorn to wear." [This might be from 19th century] The slaves' rations, consisting chiefly of maize, herring, and occasionally salt meat, must have been at least on occasion rather meager, for GW's slaves at least once took the extraordinary step of petitioning their master, claiming they received an inadequate supply of food.
Why do we revere this man? In modern times, he would be viewed as despicable as the Grand Dragon of the KKK, or decried for his abusive labor practices and boycotted by concerned citizens groups. Does the excuse that “it was a different time” condone the attitudes and actions of those involved? Nineteen-thirty nine was a “different time,” does that excuse the holocaust?
The other “founding fathers” were just as elitist and reactionary. John Adams, a Neo-Monarchist, “declared that the distinction between gentlemen and commoners was the "most ancient and universal of all Divisions of People" — conceived of the Senate as a direct parallel to the British House of Lords, maintaining the interests of the gentry as a counterweight to the common people's representatives in the House of Representatives.” (Budiansky, ) Alexander Hamilton wrote in a letter to Theodore Sedgwick: “"... our real Disease ... is Democracy, the poison of which by a subdivision will only be the more concentrated in each part, and consequently the more virulent." ( ). Even Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, spoke of a “natural aristocracy” of people through merit. This probably should not be surprising coming from a man who, like the others (with the exception of John Adams), owned many slaves, and sexually exploited his personal concubine, Sally Hemmings. This charge of course is vigorously denied by Neo-cons today, but the circumstantial evidence together with the DNA evidence (which does not rule the possibility out) paints a clear enough picture – ( ).
America was built on the backs of slaves, the genocide of native nations, and the exploitation of immigrants and the working class. Today, it is a repressive oligarchy of bourgeoisie elites, feeding off the working people and nurturing and exporting Imperialist terrorism at home and abroad. This must be recognized and publicly acknowledged before we can hope to create the kind of nation we claim to aspire to be; one of justice, freedom, and equality. We cannot build a future on a foundation of lies about the past. Rather than reach back for a rosy history which never existed, let us rise up and take the power into our own hands and end once and for all the system of slavery to which we are bound with real and imaginary chains, and work to create a better future.

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