In the wake of the Dallas shootings and others across the United States this week, I have felt at a loss for words. This is not a good feeling for a writer, but so much senseless violence, whether motivated by racism or fear or just hate has made me stuck.
I did find this quote from Shakespeare, however.
“How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds / Make deeds ill done!” –Shakespeare, King John.
We need to make it more difficult for people to do ill deeds. I believe that people have a right to own guns to protect themselves and their families from people who would harm them. However, I don’t think the Founding Fathers could have envisioned semi-automatic weapons or rogue police officers. The proliferation and misuse of weapons isn’t our only problem, though.
We also have racism.
The Founding Fathers didn’t envision a society where people who did not look exactly like them would rightfully demand equal rights under the law. All men are created equal? The fine words of the U.S. Constitution didn’t remotely ring true in the 18th century. This week’s events, among others, has made it clear that we still fall short of thinking that everyone is equal.
Many of the Founding Fathers committed “ill deeds” by owning slaves. Sometimes the slaves escaped or even managed to revolt and use weapons against their masters. In many ways, our country still suffers from the evils of slavery.
White and black people too often look at each other with distrust. And when a gun is handy for either side, the results are often disastrous.
Babies aren’t naturally born with a racist gene. They have to be taught to distrust someone who looks different from them. Laws that limit the sale of weapons that only need to be used in war and require background checks are all well and good. However, if children continue to be taught by their families or by their everyday experiences to hate people who are not just like them, ill deeds will be perpetuated.
The third President of the United States had a personality that was similar to George Washington’s in many ways. Like Washington, Jefferson was fond of dancing at parties and tended to be shy. Instead of addressing Congress in person, Jefferson sent his messages in writing. This tactic showed off his writing skills and helped him avoid his fear of public speaking. Known as an intellectual for his scientific and architectural pursuits, he thought he was also a good violin player, though some people who heard him play thought otherwise!
Official Presidential Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1800
Official dinners were conducted in a manner different from the presidents who preceded him. He insisted on dressing simply to the point that one guest thought he was a servant. The dinners were served on a circular table so that no guest would feel superior or inferior to another. Jefferson did not eliminate all luxury in the executive mansion, however. Fancy French food was served regularly during his presidency.
As many people know, he sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore “Louisiana country” west of the Mississippi River. Jefferson and Lewis had been neighbors in Virginia, so Jefferson already knew how seriously Lewis would take the job. With Lewis and Clark’s help Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory. While Jefferson added land to the United States, he also scaled back on some government departments. In a move that would delight many people today, he temporarily got rid of the Internal Revenue Service.
Like his close friend Jefferson, James Madison also tended to be shy in public. Madison had the additional disadvantage of being the shortest president in history (he was 5’4″). He was also one of the skinniest, which led some people to believe he was always at death’s door.
His personal qualities may not have made him noticeable to others, but his wife Dolley made up for Madison’s awkwardness. The outgoing Dolley was Thomas Jefferson’s hostess while the widower was president. This gave her opportunities to mingle with members of Congress who would decide whether or not to elect Madison when he ran for president. When Madison was elected, he and Dolley held the first inaugural ball at a hotel on Capital Hill.
Portrait of James Madison, 1815
In many ways Madison served as Jefferson’s junior partner. He kept Jefferson informed of political matters in the states while Jefferson served as minster to France by writing coded letters to his mentor. Madison told Jefferson, “I shall always receive your commands with pleasure.” Yet Madison had his own opinions. While Jefferson was away, Madison helped draft the U.S. Constitution. His belief in a strong central government ran in opposition to Jefferson’s preference for individual rights. Madison did, however, have a flexible personality, which allowed him to see both sides of an issue. Just as he helped write the Constitution, Madison helped create the Bill of Rights that supported Jefferson’s individualistic views.
The democratic ideals of the American Revolution probably caused African American slaves to hope that their status in society might improve. Slaves took part in the revolutionary movement and assumed new roles in the process. Slaves served the British and American armies and received bounties, land, or freedom in return. After the war a movement to abolish slavery began in the North. Various Northern states called for a gradual abolition of slavery so that slaves born after a certain date would be set free.
Although the American Revolution caused slaves to assume new roles and gave some their freedom, in general African Americans did not achieve the freedoms which the Declaration of Independence claimed for all men. It was one thing to limit slavery in the North, but slavery was most common in the South where it was an important part of the economic system. Plantation owners felt they needed slaves to work in the fields, and they did not want to lose their cheap labor. To southerners, the principles of liberty established in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to African Americans. Slaves were thought of as property and not as men so they could not be considered equal. Despite America’s promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, slavery remained a fact of life for most African Americans, depriving them of each of these rights.
The failure of the American Revolution to grant basic rights to African Americans was not changed by the Constitution which developed after the fighting stopped. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not attempt to abolish slavery, though some wanted to, because they knew the southern states would not accept a constitution that eliminated their labor force. Establishing a constitution that would unite the states was more important to members of the convention than African American rights. The constitution permitted Congress to limit the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, but it failed to give those slaves who were already in the U.S. any additional freedoms. The failure of the Constitutional Convention’s delegates to fully address slavery meant that African Americans would continue to struggle for equality with whites for years.