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Jewish World Review July 3, 2000 / 30 Sivan, 5760

Jonah Goldberg

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On July Fourth, time to reflect on America's founding -- THE AMERICAN FOUNDING is the greatest story almost never told. "The Patriot" included, there hasn't been a good movie about the Revolutionary War in more than a generation. High school textbooks belittle it and college courses ignore it.

Indeed, after spelunking around Harvard's Web site, I found that there is not a single required course covering the Revolutionary War and the American founding in the core curriculum. The Chinese, British, French, Cuban and sexual revolutions do fulfil history requirements.

The explanation for America's blind eye to its founding begins with our legitimate queasiness over slavery. It is difficult to cheer the birth of freedom when so many were still in shackles. But there are other reasons as well.

America has never dwelled long on its past, preferring to look to the horizon rather than through the rearview window. Also, we somehow doubt that a bunch of rich white guys could have had the conviction that traditional textbooks ascribe to the founders. They must have been in it for the money. It is a near consensus in universities that the founders were hypocrites, tax evaders, sexists and, of course, racists. This view was summed up by the late Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. On the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, he said the Constitution was an immoral enterprise which attempted to "trade moral principles for self-interest."

Marshall had it backward. The American founding is a story of privileged men trading their interests for their moral principles. Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence, and they weren't kidding when they pledged "to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

Upon signing the Declaration, all of those 56 men, including Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were the subjects of a relentless British manhunt. Of the names we don't remember, five were arrested as traitors. Twelve had their homes destroyed. Nine died from wounds received in battle. Seventeen were reduced to poverty.

Indeed, it's difficult to find the greed supposedly so prevalent among the Founding Fathers. The four representatives from New York signed knowing they would immediately lose their estates. Thomas Nelson, a Virginian signer, had his home occupied by General Cornwallis during the battle of Yorktown. Showing respect, American troops refused to fire their cannons at Nelson's majestic home. So Nelson manned the guns and blew it up himself. Nelson had raised $2 million to support the Revolutionary cause, borrowing against his estates. After the war, Congress would not reimburse the debt and so Nelson died at the age of 50 a pauper.

John Hart, of New Jersey, had his home destroyed while he was away signing the Declaration and his wife was on her death bed. Hunted by the British, he eventually made his way home to find his mill wrecked, his house destroyed, his wife long buried and his 13 children taken away. He went to his death without ever finding them. These were just some of the hardships, and yet not one signer renounced his pledge or defected to the British.

Indeed, if the Founders were motivated by greed, George Washington becomes a difficult fellow to figure out. Washington was the first leader of a Third World agricultural nation to defeat a world power. Plenty of colonials wanted Washington to accept the title of "King" after the war.

Indeed, King George III remarked that if Washington was really willing to pass up a chance at being an American dictator, then he would surely go down as the greatest man in world history. But that is precisely what Washington did - twice, once as a general and again as president.

Those who believe slavery disqualifies any reverence for the founding should realize that slavery existed around the globe among all races. Indeed, according to JWR columnist Thomas Sowell , the Islamic world imported more slaves than the entire Western Hemisphere. When they abandoned slavery, more often they just killed their slaves.

Yes, it is hypocritical that some men kept other men in bondage while swearing loyalty to the idea that "all men are created equal." But even at the outset, America was bitterly divided over slavery and many founders recognized that the institution could not survive (one of the reasons Washington freed his slaves upon his death).

So resolute was the moral logic of the American founding that it eventually overthrew slavery at home and tyrannies abroad. The race for equality and liberty is a long one. The Revolutionary War's "shot heard round the world" started the race.

To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.


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