Some days I’m content to treat the “founding fathers” as Real American Heroes, guys who did a pretty amazing job of forging a country out of the colonies, despite active opposition from England and internal divisions at home. You have to admire Jefferson as a writer and observer. Franklin the practical rationalist and experimental scientists is charming, if kind of weird, with his charts and his rationales for everything. Federalists and Jeffersonians alike clearly took the business of forming an American government seriously. And there are few writers in the canon who can touch Tom Paine for flair, or for cutting through the nonsense to the heart of matters revolutionary.
Of course guys like Paine and Jefferson would probably be on no-fly lists these days, getting their phones tapped by the NSA—those phone calls from Lafayette are definitely suspicious. (I mean, who can trust the French?) Our nation’s revolutionary beginnings pose all kinds of problems. Remember that Foner says, “American freedom was born in revolution.” But did it grow out of it? Or what? We aren’t so keen on revolution any more.
There are other problems, of course. “Deism” doesn’t sound like a particularly good founding principle for a “Christian nation.” But Paine, Jefferson—indeed quite a few of the founding fathers—expressed their beliefs in that form. Benjamin Franklin could get a little blue in his writing, as when he suggested the phenomenon of passing gas might be a fine subject for scientific study. Jefferson, like Franklin, was something of a scientist. His Notes on the State of Virginia are fascinating, and suggest a keen observer—and then he goes and “observes” that black people smell funny and can’t write poetry. It’s no longer a question whether the founders had feet of clay. Instead, we just wonder how they wandered around on those things. John Adams was jealous and difficult. He pushed for the Alien and Sedition Acts in part to silence critics. The fact that Jefferson was paying journalists to slander Adams probably didn’t improve his disposition any.
And why, for Pete’s sake, couldn’t these guys have taken better care of Thomas Paine? (Answer: The Age of Reason laid him open to charges of religious infidelity. He died in poverty, while rumors circulated that he was a drunken wastrel, and was denied burial in a Quaker cemetary.)
Maybe the best we can say is that the original leaders of our country were products of their time and the pressures under which they labored. The fact that they are human, all too human may make them less suitable as national demigods, but it makes them much more interesting as people.
When we’re looking at the ideas of the founding fathers, we need to look closely and carefully. The ideas of the Enlightenment seem very modern in many ways, but people of the day lived their commitments to science and rationalism much as people live any new enthusiasm—to the hilt, if somewhat imperfectly and uncomfortably. In the debate between Federalists and Jeffersonians, watch how the same premises can lead to nearly opposite conclusions about democratic government. In Federalist #10, we see the very interesting argument that the extent of the Union, rather than aggravating factional disputes will actually moderate them. Factions which could dominate dissenters in local governments face, at the very least, a broader array of opposing factions in a large, centrally governed republic.
We won’t do the debates surrounding the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution any sort of justice, beyond some indications of the conflict between Federalists, who advocated a strong central government, and Jeffersonians, who valued local control and tended to see the strength of democracy as coming from the mass of independent small-holding citizens. You can pursue the details in the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist responses.