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American Intellectual History 101: Ideals of Founding Fathers


The American Intellectual History 101 series explores major public intellectuals and their contributions to the developmental process of American intellectual history from the American Revolution to the Civil War through the discussion of significant texts that adds to the public issues of the moment. This article series aims to provide an in-depth analysis of the establishment of the new republic and its institutions of individualism, transcendentalism, civil disobedience, women’s rights and the cult of domesticity and slavery by diving into the core values that have shaped the United States. Aiming to present the ideologies and worldviews of the United States of America, this analysis includes many thinkers and cultural pioneers to demonstrate the roots of some notions which made the U.S. a unique nation with distinct goals and ideals that have influenced the world.

This series will be divided into seven articles:

  1. American Intellectual History 101: A Native American Reflects on White Culture – Kandiaronk vs. Lahontan

  2. American Intellectual History 101: Effect of Enlightenment Thinkers

  3. American Intellectual History 101: Ideals of Founding Fathers

  4. American Intellectual History 101: American Individuality from Tocqueville’s Perspective

  5. American Intellectual History 101: Transcendentalism

  6. American Intellectual History 101: Cult of Domesticity in American Society

  7. American Intellectual History 101: The Institution of Slavery

The mid-18th century was the time when tensions between the American colonies and Britain began to escalate, causing colonies to liberate themselves from British tyranny. While there were many factors contributing to the tensions, British economic policies were one of the biggest triggers of the desire for the sovereignty of colonies. For instance, British policy towards the colonies was based on mercantilism, a system in which colonies were expected to produce raw materials for British industries and then purchase finished goods from Britain. This led to several restrictive trade policies that limited the economic opportunities of the colonies as opposed to the aspiration for their freedom. Additionally, colonies were crushed under burdensome taxes such as the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), and the Townshend Acts (1767). These taxes placed on American colonies were deeply unpopular with the colonists, who believed that they were being unfairly taxed without representation in the British Parliament. The taxes also had significant economic consequences, as they raised the price of goods and made it more difficult for the colonies to trade with other countries. While the British crown tormented colonies with unlawful taxations, colonies who developed their own political and social systems – which were often at odds with those of Great Britain –, thus the gap led by political and cultural differences in perceptions of two different peoples widened. Consequently, it played a significant role in distancing liberal American colonies from conservative Great Britain.

On the one hand, the colonies had a greater degree of self-government than many other British colonies around the world. Each colony had its own elected assembly and governor, and the assemblies had the power to levy taxes and pass laws. This degree of autonomy led to a strong sense of local identity and made the colonies more resistant to British control. On the other, the colonies were influenced by a variety of factors, including the Enlightenment – which emphasised reason and individualism – and the Great Awakening – a religious revival that encouraged a more personal relationship with God. As these cultural movements helped to shape a sense of American identity that was distinct from that of Great Britain, the distinct American identity created the need to liberate itself from the bondage of Great Britain. In consequence, the Declaration of Independence had been drafted by a committee of five delegates, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Once the text had been approved by Congress, copies were printed and sent to the colonies to be read aloud. On July 4, 1776, Congress approved the final text of the Declaration of Independence. Authored by Thomas Jefferson, it not only declared that 13 colonies were unified under one roof but it also notified people about the politics of the rising nation. Founding Fathers valued and emphasised some concepts greatly such as freedom, equality, and justice. They dreamt of a country in which the people were able to practice their religion and express their ideas freely while holding power. However, these great ideas were not going to be applied to the whole society and some parts of it were going to be excluded from getting these privileges. This article centralises the writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to explore the ideals of the Founding Fathers as well as demonstrate both the areas of society they include and exclude in their works.

An Overview of the Founding Fathers’ Background

Figure 1: Founding Fathers (Buxton, n.d.).

Even though there are debates about who should be considered a Founding Father, some names are consistently included in American history and these include Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton (Paul, n.d). Founding Fathers, “epitomizing a political myth of origin that is phrased in a language of kinship” were generally from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia (Paul, n.d, p. 197). Saul K. Padover, in his essay The World of the Founding Fathers, argues that Founding Fathers were coming from a similar cultural outlook and worldviews especially in the legal ideas and politics of Great Britain while indicating they had a strong educational and spiritual foundation that was heavily influenced by classical antiquity and the Bible (1958). Their education in the classics and the teachings of the Bible shaped their views, and they were influenced by both the philosophies of Plato and the principles of Protestantism (Padover, 1958).

“Of all the books on political ideas and institutions, by far the most influential were Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651); Locke’s Letters on Toleration (1689), Treatises on Government and Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690); and Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des lois” (Padover, 1958, pp. 203-204).

Equality and Freedom from Jefferson’s Perspective

The most striking sentence of Jefferson’s masterpiece Declaration of Independence is “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (United States, 1776). This sentence guarantees equality and liberty to the people of the United States regardless of their socio-economic condition. Since Jefferson believes that everyone is already equal by birth and this is inseparable from any human being while emphasizing the idea that individuals have a right to pursue their own interests and goals. Jefferson continues by saying:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness” (United States, 1776).

Jefferson voices that government, which is powered by the people, will be the insurer of these rights given by God himself and he stresses that if the government ceases to become helpful to its people, citizens will be able to abolish the destructive government to replace it with another one. In light of this, Jefferson justifies the reason why Colonies are liberating themselves from the British crown:

“[…] But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States” (United States, 1776).

He then provides a list of tyrannical behaviours of the British Crown, such as “imposing taxes on colonies, cutting of colonies’ trade with all parts of the world, obstructing the administration of justice” (United States, 1776). Thomas Jefferson discusses that Colonies are abused by Great Britain in many ways and through declaring their independence; they aimed to put an end to such abuse.

Figure 2: Script of the Declaration of Independence (National Archives, 1776).

Another work of Jefferson that presents his ideas on equality, freedom, and justice is his book Notes on the State of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson touches upon critical subjects such as freedom of religion, and education, to uplift society culturally and intellectually. Jefferson points out that uniformity is key not in terms of getting rid of the differences but rather increasing tolerant towards one another within society:

“Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity” (1785, p. 187).

He indicates that religious differences are advantageous and says “The several sects perform the office of a censor morum over each other“ (Jefferson, 1785, p. 187). Jefferson believed that when different religious groups coexist, they serve as a moral check on each other, promoting accountability and ensuring that no one group becomes too dominant or powerful. Each group acts as a “censor morum“ (moral censor) over the others, helping to maintain a balance of power and preventing any one group from imposing its beliefs on others. Jefferson advocates for religious freedom and tolerance by pointing out that the states of Pennsylvania and New York have successfully existed without an established religion, meaning that the government does not officially endorse or support any particular religion. He notes that this experiment has been successful, as religion is still well-supported and there is harmony among people of different faiths.

Jefferson argues that the key to silencing religious disputes is to simply not give them any attention or support from the government, and to allow individuals to practice their religion freely. He refers to laws enforcing a particular religion as "tyrannical," suggesting that they infringe upon individual liberty and contribute to religious conflict. Jefferson, considering the diversity of religious beliefs and practices as a strength of American society, believes that tolerance towards religious differences allows society to live in a stable and peaceful environment while believing that the government should not interfere in matters of personal belief and practice.

Figure 3: Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence (Peale, 1800).

Additionally, Thomas Jefferson values education for creating strong generations; therefore, he asserts that a revision is needed to spread education to the common people by dividing each county into small areas called hundreds, which will have a school for teaching basic skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic (1785, p. 185). Jefferson highlights the importance of rationality and science in improving oneself:

“Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history. The first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds; such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by shewing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits” (1785, p. 186).

Jefferson is proposing an alternative to the traditional approach of teaching children religion at a young age. He suggests that instead of focusing solely on religious education, children should be taught history, morality, and critical thinking skills that will help them lead fulfilling lives. He argues that by teaching children about the successes and failures of past civilisations, they will gain valuable insights into how societies function and how to make good decisions. In addition, by emphasising the importance of personal responsibility, good health, and ethical behaviour, children will be better equipped to pursue happiness and success in all areas of life, regardless of their circumstances.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and future president of the United States of America, has quite impressive ideas on concepts that hold broad places in individuals’ lives; however, he held complex and contradictory views on race and slavery. Jefferson, presenting his ideas on slavery and black people as well in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, believed that black people were inferior to white people in both intellectual and physical capabilities and that they were best suited for manual labour rather than intellectual pursuits. Jefferson acknowledges that the institution of slavery was an unjust system by saying “God’s justice cannot sleep forever” (1785, p. 189) but he also believed that black people were not capable of self-governance and should be colonised or deported to Africa. Jefferson, defending the equality and liberty of all human beings, discriminated against black people extremely from the rest of American society because of the colour of their skin while attracting attention to other physical differences as well such as having less hair on the face and body to justify his racist ideas to his readers and followers:

“They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labor through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning… Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous” (Jefferson, 1785, p. 182).

Figure 4: Slaves awaiting sale in Richmond, Virginia, 1853.

Jefferson talks about black people as if they are not simply human beings but creatures of a different kind by contradicting his idea advocating equal treatment of every creature of God. Therefore, William W. Freehling suggests in his essay The Founding Fathers and Slavery that:

“The Declaration of Independence, it is now argued, was a white man’s document that its author rarely applied to his or to any slaves. The Constitution created aristocratic privilege while consolidating black bondage. Virginia shrank from abolition, for slave prices were too high and race fears too great. Jefferson himself suspected blacks were innately inferior. He bought and sold slaves; he advertised for fugitives” (1972, p. 82).

Freehling directs criticism towards both Founding Fathers and their documents for they were complicit in the perpetuation of slavery and racial inequality by demonstrating Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and expressed suspicions about the innate inferiority of black people. Another scholar who criticises Jefferson, “[the] slaveholding spokesman of freedom”, on the issue of abolition of slavery is Edmund S. Morgan (1972, p. 7). Jefferson thinks that if slavery were to be abolished, they should not remain in the United States so that the mixture of black people with white people would be prevented. In this regard, Morgan voices that “The slave, accustomed to compulsory labour, would not work to support himself when the compulsion was removed. This was commonplace among Virginia planters before the creation of the republic and long after. “If you free the slaves”, wrote Landon Carter, two days after the Declaration of Independence, “you must send them out of the country or they must steal for their support” (1972, p. 13). This paragraph describes a commonly held belief among Virginia planters that slaves were so used to being forced to work that they would not work to support themselves if they were freed. This belief persisted both before and after the creation of the United States. Planters believed that if slaves were freed, they would either have to be sent out of the country or would resort to stealing in order to survive. Landon Carter, a planter, expressed this belief in a letter written two days after the Declaration of Independence was signed. In this sense, while Jefferson’s ideas on equality and freedom were influential, his record on slavery and racial inequality should not be ignored. His legacy highlights the tension between American ideals and the realities of history.

The Father of the Constitution: James Madison

Figure 5: James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.

Another Founding Father to be mentioned is James Madison an American statesman, diplomat, and political theorist. He played a crucial role in the drafting of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He was born in Virginia in 1751 and was a close friend and political ally of Thomas Jefferson. Madison is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution” for his role in drafting the document and for his efforts to get it ratified. He was also a key figure in the creation of the Federalist Papers, a series of essays published in support of the Constitution and its ratification.

The Federalist Papers were written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, and were intended to convince Americans of the need for a stronger federal government. The papers, published between 1787 and 1788, remain a key source of insight into the intentions and thinking of the Founding Fathers. For instance, In Federalist No. 10, James Madison argues that factions, or groups of citizens who are united by a common interest or passion adverse to the rights of other citizens or the interests of the whole community, are a natural and unavoidable consequence of human nature and the freedom to form associations. Madison believes that factions are dangerous to the stability and prosperity of the republic, as they can easily become tyrannical and oppressive. Madison writes:

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” (1787, p. 154).

James Madison is arguing that the federal system of government established in the United States will be able to withstand the influence of factionalism, or the formation of interest groups that seek to promote their own interests over those of the broader community. Madison is acknowledging the potential danger of factionalism, which he defines as a group of citizens who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, who are opposed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. However, Madison suggests that the federal system of government, with power divided between the federal government and the state governments, will prevent any one faction from gaining too much power. While factious leaders may be able to stir up trouble within their own state, Madison believes that the diversity of interests and opinions across the country will prevent any one faction from gaining a nationwide foothold. Furthermore, Madison argues that the presence of multiple religious sects throughout the country will also serve as a check against factionalism. If one religious group were to try to turn their religious beliefs into a political movement, the presence of other religious groups with different beliefs would prevent any one group from gaining too much power. In this way, the diversity of interests and opinions throughout the country acts as a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority, which Madison believed was a potential danger in a pure democracy

Figure 6: First Page of the Constitution Authored by James Madison (National Archives, 1789).

Federalist Number 51 in the Federalist Papers. Number 51, written by Madison, deals with the need for separation of powers and checks and balances to prevent tyranny in government. Madison articulates that:

“In a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people, is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people, is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each, subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other; at the same time that each will be controlled by itself” (1788, p. 160).

Madison begins by comparing a single republic with a compound republic like that of America. In a single republic, all the power is given to one central government. However, in the compound republic of America, power is divided between two distinct governments, namely the federal government and the state governments. The powers assigned to each of these governments are then subdivided further into different departments, such as the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. According to Madison, this division and subdivision of power create a double security for the rights of the people. The different governments will be able to control each other, thereby preventing any one government from becoming too powerful. At the same time, each government will be controlled by itself, with the powers of each branch of government being separated and balanced against each other. By dividing power among different levels and branches of government, the Founders sought to create a system that was resistant to abuses of power and capable of protecting the liberty and welfare of the American people.

“Thus Madison, in common with most Founding Fathers, followed Hobbes in distrusting human nature but went beyond him in being equally distrustful of government, especially one with unchecked powers. Both man and government being imperfect, it was thought necessary to keep them in permanent restraint through institutional contrivances known as checks and balances” (Padover, 1958, p. 206).

Figure 7: Madison gives a speech in the constitutitonal convention in Virginia.

Here, Padover suggests that Madison, like many of the Founding Fathers, believed in the need for checks and balances to restrain the imperfect nature of both humans and governments. Additionally, James Madison highlights the importance of protecting the rights of minorities in a republic. Madison recognized that in a society with different interests among its citizens, it was necessary to ensure that the majority did not oppress the minority. He understood that if the majority had a common interest, they could potentially trample on the rights of the minority, and that could lead to an unstable and unjust society. Madison believed that the government should be structured in a way that protected the rights of all citizens, including the minority, to prevent this kind of injustice. Madison demonstrates his belief in the idea of checks and balances. He argued that the government should be designed in a way that prevented any one group from becoming too powerful and infringing upon the rights of others. This concept is at the core of Madison's philosophy and was embodied in the Constitution's creation. Madison was aware of the potential for factions to form and dominate the political process, leading to oppression and tyranny. He argued that a system of checks and balances was necessary to limit the power of any one group and ensure that all voices were heard and represented. In essence, Madison's emphasizes the need for a fair and just society in which all individuals have equal rights and opportunities. It is a reminder that the government must always work to protect the rights of its citizens, especially those of the minority. Without such protections, a republic is at risk of becoming a tyrannical majority.

In conclusion, the ideals of the Founding Fathers, particularly James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, are centred around the principles of individual liberty, limited government, and checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power. Madison’s ideas, as presented in Federalists No. 10 and No. 51, emphasized the importance of guarding against the dangers of factions and the need for a system of checks and balances to limit the power of government. Similarly, Jefferson believed in the importance of limiting governmental power and empowering individuals to exercise their rights and freedoms. However, despite these ideals, there remains a paradox in Jefferson’s ideas as he simultaneously championed individual liberty while also owning slaves and denying basic rights to African Americans. Moreover, the limitations of Madison’s ideas are evident in the challenges facing American democracy today, including issues of polarization, the influence of money in politics, and the potential for abuses of power. Nonetheless, the ideas and principles of Madison and Jefferson continue to influence American political thought and remain relevant to the ongoing debates about the role and limitations of government in American society. As such, their legacy serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle to balance individual freedom with the need for a strong and just government.

Bibliographical References

Congress, U. S. (1776). Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson, T. (1955). Notes on the State of Virginia. 1787. Ed. William Peden. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P.

Madison, J. (1787). Federalist number 10. The federalist papers, 42-49.

Madison, J. (1788). The Federalist Papers, Nos. 10, 51. New York.

Morgan, E. S. (1972). Slavery and freedom: The American paradox. The Journal of American History, 59(1), 5-29.

Morgan, E. S. (1972). Slavery and freedom: The American paradox. The Journal of American History, 59(1), 5-29.

Padover, S. K. (1958). The World of the Founding Fathers. Social Research, 191-214.

Paul, H. (2014). The myths that made America: An introduction to American studies. transcript Verlag.

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Hazal Kazancı

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