The people who truly founded America didn’t have to be alive at its founding. Some might find that an odd thought but it’s not odd at all. If we respect the most basic ideal on which America was founded: freedom, then those who lived that ideal are the true American Founders.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are commonly understood as the pre-eminent Founding Fathers. But this is untrue. While both were present as America began, while both served in various roles, they did not “found” the country because their lives offended America’s most basic ideal: freedom. George Washington and his wife owned hundreds of enslaved people. While Washington might have been a wise military man and a good farmer, his plantation did not succeed because of his hard work. It succeeded because of the hundreds of enslaved people who worked there. He and his wife were so committed to the institution of slavery that when he went to Philadelphia, where the law allowed enslaved people to gain their freedom after being in Pennsylvania for six months, he would send his enslaved people back to Virginia just before the six month date and then bring them back to Pennsylvania. This skirted the law and broke the spirit of the law. But most importantly, it showed that George Washington did not understand the most basic American ideal. He didn’t get it. His military mind helped start the new nation– but a founder? No. Not at all.
Similarly, Thomas Jefferson was born owning hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children. He used them over the course of his entire life on his plantation at Monticello. He regularly raped one of his enslaved women, Sally Hemmings, and she gave birth to several of his children. None of whom lived free. Jefferson wrote some of the most powerful words about human freedom but he did not live them. Like Washington, he didn’t get it. Did he write the founding documents? Yes. Did he understand human freedom? Perhaps intellectually. Did he show a true understanding of the American ideal of freedom? Not close. Was he present at the beginning of the country? Yes. A founder? No.
Consider Frederick Douglass. Born enslaved on a plantation near Easton, Maryland. As a young boy he was taught the basics of reading by the wife of one of his owners. He would go on to fully teach himself to read and write using spelling books thrown away by white children. As a teenage boy, he was sent to a “slave breaker,” William Covey. This man, his owners believed, would make him obedient. Covey nearly did “break” Douglass, but one day, during a brutal beating, the young Douglass put his hand on Covey’s throat and they fought. Covey could have killed him, brought charges against him, but he knew that would ruin his reputation as a “slave breaker.” He stayed silent. Douglass bided his time and eventually escaped.
Douglass’ life would unfold in the most American of ways. The trajectory of his life reveals one who understands the American ideal of freedom. He writes three versions of his autobiography, the first, in 1855, titled, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He becomes the primary speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He speaks all over Britain and Ireland, and upon return, he speaks all over the eastern United States and Canada. He eventually becomes an administrator in the District of Columbia and the ambassador to Haiti. His personal life is American too. He marries and has children and grandchildren. HIs first wife, Anna Murray-Douglass bears his children and dies in 1882. He remarries a white woman, Helen Pitts-Douglass. She survives him. Douglass, unlike Washington and Jefferson “got it.” He understood the most basic American ideal: human freedom.
Consider Harriet Tubman. She too is born enslaved in Maryland, near Cambridge. As a young girl she is struck in the head by a metal weight because she wouldn’t help a store owner apprehend another enslaved person who wasn’t supposed to be in the store. Eventually, she escapes and returns to Maryland and other states to rescue, first her family members, then an untold number of enslaved people. She is a “conductor” on the most American of institutions, The Underground Railroad, a network of houses, cellars, caves, intricate plans and paths to free enslaved people. She does scout work for the Union Army and at one point, helps to free an escaping band of nearly seven hundred enslaved people who were caught between the Union Army and a Confederate regiment.
At one point late in Tubman’s life, when a writer is going to write her life story, Tubman communicates with Douglass for a kind of reference letter. Douglass writes one of the most powerful letters in American Literature. He tells her that he knows no one “except John Brown” who has done more for the abolition of slavery than Tubman. He also writes that for everything he (Douglass) did toward abolition, he received praise and applause. But Tubman’s work was in the dark, in swamps and dangerous places. He writes that the only people who could thank Tubman were exhausted enslaved people, following her as they ran for their lives.
Was Tubman around in 1776? No. Did she perfectly understand and live the American Ideal of freedom? Yes. Is she an American founder? Absolutely.
It’s time for Americans to get clear on our founders. Living in Washington, D.C. I see the monuments for our alleged founders often. The Washington Monument stands boldly in the center of the National Mall. The Jefferson Memorial sits quietly on the edge of the Tidal Basin just off the Mall. But are those men who owned humans founders? No. They did not get it. They did not understand the most basic realities of human freedom. However, Douglass and Tubman did. They suffered under slavery and because they believed in freedom so fiercely, they lived far more American lives than Washington or Jefferson. If we want to really celebrate our founders, we should honor those who lived the American ideals: Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. There are more, of course, but let’s begin with them.
Images: The photograph of Frederick Douglass comes from an engraving by J.C. Buttre. It first appeared in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1855. The mosaic of Harriet Tubman is by my friend, Pierre Sylvain, an artist in Connecticut. This mosaic was completed in 2020.