America’s Founding Fathers: The Torch Podcast

An Interview With Professor Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., from a Lecture Series Produced in Partnership With Smithsonian

On this episode of The Torch, we discuss the courageous, tenacious, and audacious Founding Fathers who laid the ground work  upon which we built our amazing nation.

Here to discuss “America’s Founding Fathers” is Allen Guelzo, Professor of History at Gettysburg College

The following transcript has been slightly edited for readability.

What Makes a Founder?

Ed Leon: So many key individuals were responsible for the founding of our country. What constitutes a founding father? How do you make the cut, right?

Allen Guelzo: That’s a good question. I mean, what do you mean by founder? Should that maybe be the people that sign the Declaration of Independence? That would qualify. What about the people who attend the Constitutional Convention? They would count.

What about the people who served in the confederation congress before the Constitution was written? Were they founders? How about the generals commanding the continental army? They might count as founders. What about their wives? What about their mothers? What about their children? After awhile, you begin to wonder, “Am I losing a grip on things here?” Actually, no. It’s actually a good sign to have that sort of vagueness. We don’t often think vagueness is a positive thing, but in this case, it is, because it says that the founding of the American Republic was in fact something in which a lot of people had participation.

The remarkable thing is how many of them did it at such an extraordinarily high level.

Ed Leon: Right, where do you make the demarcation for the course?

Allen Guelzo: Generally speaking, I’m looking at the people who were participants in the Constitutional Convention, especially the 39 who signed the Constitution. There were 55 who were selected for positions as delegates, but it’s those 39 who signed it. They are really the nuclear core.

Ed Leon: Would you consider that the founding moment of our country?

What you begin with in the Declaration you end with in the Constitution. The Declaration sets out the aspirations, the Constitution finds a way of codifying them.

Allen Guelzo:  No, I think that the founding moment is actually a long moment that begins in 1776 with The Declaration of Independence but continues to the Constitution. Now, people sometimes like to say, “Well, the Declaration of Independence is one moment; the Constitution is an entirely different moment. Ah, no. I think that’s missing something that the people then understood very clearly, and that was that what you begin with in the Declaration, you end with in the Constitution. The Declaration sets out the aspirations, the Constitution finds a way of codifying them.

Image of The United States Declaration of Independence

Ed Leon: Were they a contentious group, the founding fathers?

Allen Guelzo: Oh, were they ever! Oh my goodness. These are people who don’t mind, as one delegate from Delaware did at the Constitutional Convention, getting up and saying, “Gentleman, I do not trust you.” Well, that’s a wonderful way to get things started off. As it goes on, the disputations, the committee work that has to get done, the scratching of the heads, the drawing of lines, the confrontations, the argument, especially over slavery, whether the Constitution should make some provision for eliminating slavery or at least eliminating foreign slave trade. All of that brings out the worst in some of these people.

Ed Leon: It was a big issue at the time. What did the Constitution say about slavery?

Allen Guelzo: It decided not to talk about it.

Ed Leon:  Talk about that choice.

Allen Guelzo: That’s an acceptable solution for the members of the convention, because in many respects, even those who were slave holders really believed in 1787 that slavery was a dying institution. It was going out on its own, and it would be best to let the sleeping dog just go and disappear rather than raise a kerfuffle by trying to say something specific about it in the constitution.

Who was in Charge?

Ed Leon: Who brought all the divergent opinions together? Was there a speaker of the founders? Who wrangled this thing through?

Allen Guelzo: Well, there was a president of the convention, and it was George Washington, but Washington did not have very much to say at all during the constitutional convention. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t preside over it. All George Washington had to do was to walk into a room and he was in charge. The image of this convention with Washington sitting at the dais at the head of a hall, everyone knew they had to be on their best behavior. Washington had scarcely but to raise an eyebrow. That was a statement in its own turn. Nobody who was a member of that convention was going to challenge or contradict George Washington.

Ed Leon: No kidding. Well, what do you think all these great names: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin; what do you think they would think of our current election cycle, everything that’s going on in public discourse today?

Allen Guelzo: They would say, “What’s an election cycle?” For them, elections, contests like this, were supposed to be done in a detached, disinterested, impartial, virtuous way. Well, it was supposed to. It would almost never happen in their day.

Ed Leon: Even for them, right?

Allen Guelzo: Even in their day. George Washington, for instance, the first time he ran for office, it was for the house of Burgess’s in Virginia. He believed that since he had been a soldier and had a reputation as a soldier, he should simply stand for election and he would be voted on, on the strength of his service. Every other candidate for office was busy toasting and drinking and offering whiskey to potential voters. Washington thought he’d be above that, which is why he lost. He never made that mistake again.

Lesser Known, But Vital Participants

Ed Leon:  We know the famous names, talk a little bit about some of the maybe less recognized or no-longer-as-famous founding fathers.

Allen Guelzo: Well, let’s try, for instance, William Paterson of New Jersey. Paterson probably lives on only for the fact today in most minds that he gave his name to a city in New Jersey. He was a major challenge to the constitutional convention. He came up with an entire plan about representation that, for all practical purposes, would have set the work of the rest of the convention at naught. He was very determined about it. He was a great persuader. Paterson becomes, so to speak, the anvil that the other founders have to pound the Constitution out on.

Learn more: William Paterson’s Dissent

Paterson’s an important player that way. Alexander Hamilton, well, he now has suddenly sprung into prominence because of the hip-hop musical. Hamilton, at the other extreme of things you would expect, Hamilton would walk into the constitutional convention and he’s be in charge. He gives a long winded speech in June that almost nobody agrees with. In fact, they almost sit there in this kind of stony silence. Hamilton leaves the convention, doesn’t come back until August, and really plays next to nothing in the way of a significant role in actually drafting the Constitution.

Ed Leon: Thomas Paine, what was his role?

Allen Guelzo:  Thomas Paine’s role was as a great agitator, as a great propagandist and he certainly carved out a role for himself during the Revolution in writing his pamphlets, ‘Common Sense’. That marvelous invocation of how the summer soldier will fade away but the patriot who stays in the field in the winter through all the suffering, his country will never forget what he had done. Paine was worth his weight in fighting men just by his words. The role he tends to play, though, for the founders is something of an outlier. I mean, for one thing, he has gone to France, and he’s been in France for several years, so he’s a little bit out of the swing of things, but more so, he turns from being a political propagandist to being a religious polemicist, in this case, an anti-religious one.

He is a deist. He articulates opinions that on the one hand are the kinds of opinions that make Thomas Jefferson very happy, but which other members of the convention simply execrate. Patrick Henry, who certainly took no second prize to Thomas Paine in his enthusiasm for the American Revolution, believed that Thomas Paine was an emissary of the devil. He thought it was horrible the way Paine was spreading the influence of deism.

Ed Leon: You mentioned France. Thomas Jefferson was in Paris when the constitution was written. Talk about the dynamic that was at play there.

Allen Guelzo:  It’s sometimes been said that it is an evidence of God’s favor of the United States, that in 1776, Jefferson was in Philadelphia, but in 1787, he was in Paris. In other words, we got him for the Declaration of Independence, which he was really good at writing, but he was some place else when the constitution was put together and shouldn’t we be happy about that. He may be one of the principle figures who actually regrets the demise of the articles of confederation and says so. He had a somewhat dim view of the Constitution. Though he was willing to eventually play ball with its rules … I mean, he is elected president of the United States. He’s always a little dicey that the Constitution hasn’t quite made things the way they should be, that it’s a little too aristocratic, certainly a little too Hamiltonian.

Who knows? Maybe after another 20 years, because he said every political generation should overturn what it was using as a governmental instrument, maybe after 20 years, we should come up with a whole new constitution.

Ed Leon: How would you think it would be different if he had been in Philadelphia, I mean for the constitutional convention?

Allen Guelzo: If he had been in Philadelphia, bear in mind he was not a great persuasive public speaker. He tended to be very shy and very diffident. He was a great writer. He was a sparkling conversationalist one on one, but could he have had serious influence in the deliberations of the Convention? My guess is no.

Ed Leon: Who held the most sway at the Convention do you think?

Allen Guelzo: Probably James Madison.

Ed Leon: James Madison.

Allen Guelzo: Not only because he’s the one who becomes the great recorder of the Convention, but because he’s the one who is the architect of so many of the players. If there had been such things as clipboards in the 18th century, you would have seen James Madison with a clipboard. Who knows, maybe even a headset with a mic. “You go in there. You go in there.”

Ed Leon: He’d be stage managing the Convention?

Allen Guelzo: Yeah, not quite stage managing as we would think of it, but still, a major influence.

Learn more: James Madison’s Conference

The Constitution

Ed Leon: You know, let’s talk about the Constitution a little bit. What do you think is so uniquely brilliant about the document that was achieved?

Allen Guelzo:  You know, we live with it on such an everyday basis that it’s sometimes hard to step back and appreciate it. First of all, it’s short. The Constitution is only 4,000 words long. The constitution of the European union is 315 pages. 4,000 words. It’s extraordinary that the concision with which the Constitution was constructed. Second thing, is it’s written…constitutions of nations like Britain for instance are really this combination of tradition, common law, a combination of things.

It’s a very general document, not a very specific thing. The United States Constitution is an explicit written doctrine. It also performs what many people thought was an act of political suicide. That was separating power, because you have these three branches of government, they have these separate roles they’re going to play. You also have the great separation between federal authority and state authority.

Ed Leon: Was there precedent for that at the time?

Allen Guelzo: Absolutely none, except in failed states, like Poland for instance. Nations that tried to operate as federations were often really writing their own death warrants. The notion that you would separate power instead of concentrate… That’s what monarchies do. Monarchies concentrate power. The whole thrust of the 17th century had been to concentrate power in an absolute monarch.

However, what the founders wanted was liberty. Even if they made the process more cumbersome, if they made politics take longer, if they made politics seem like it was going to be subject to gridlock, that was fine with them, because that would promote liberty.

Image of the Constitution of the United States

Ed Leon: You know, you mentioned what the founders wanted. What do you think about the judicial approach of trying to interpret the intent of the founders as opposed to having the constitution being a more modern living, breathing document? There’s a lot of dispute.

Allen Guelzo: In the most general sense, you have people who identify themselves either as originalists or people who are not

The great difficulties about originalism, though, is that fundamentally, there isn’t an explicit original meaning to agree with because the members of the convention weren’t agreed on the meaning.

originalists. Originalism itself is a divided camp, because there are different kinds of originalism. There’s original intent. There is original meaning. There is original understanding. You can easily lose originalism in that forest and not really see the trees. One of the great difficulties about originalism, though, is that fundamentally, there isn’t an explicit original meaning to agree with because the members of the convention weren’t agreed on the meaning.
Members of this convention turned around and after the constitution was ratified were elected to congress and then proceeded to have these arguments about what the convention had intended to do. They had been there.

Ed Leon: They were there.

Allen Guelzo: People who talk a little too confidently about originalism are in fact not really paying a lot of attention to what the members of the Convention themselves did and said and how the behaved, but don’t fall off the other side of the horse, because those who talk about a living, breathing constitution are really underestimating the degree to which the constitution lives and breathes just as it is as a text. I’m afraid that a lot of people who are critical of originalism open themselves up to treating the constitution as though it was kind of a wax nose. Well, you know, it was those people of 200 and some years ago. They didn’t know what our problems are like today. We’re a more complicated society, etc, etc.

Therefore, we have to set the Constitution, if not entirely aside, then we have to create interpretations of it that will adapt to modern circumstances. I don’t really think that’s true. I don’t think it’s true at all. I think the concision of the Constitution gives us plenty of room for applying the Constitution. I think a lot of the times what people are really saying when they’re saying, “The Constitution doesn’t apply to us today,” what they’re saying is, “I don’t really like what the Constitution says.”

Ed Leon: Yeah, that’s right.

Allen Guelzo: I’m sorry, but there it is. It is the founding document. This is another aspect of the Constitution, which it’s easy to miss. The Constitution is not like a statute. It is, first of all written, but more than that. It’s a product of a national convention. It’s ratified by state conventions, not by state legislatures. It’s above statute law. It is literally a constitution. It is the structure itself in which we live. That makes the Constitution a very different kind of document than just a statute, or for that matter even a municipal building code.

Ed Leon:  The Bill of Rights may be the most impactful, or maybe treasured, elements of the Constitution. Why were they not included from the get go?

Allen Guelzo: Because Madison was convinced they were not needed. They would have been redundancy or maybe even worse. His reasoning runs like this. First of all, the state constitutions, you know, we tend to forget that the states have constitutions. There are actually 51.

Ed Leon: Right, were they in place at the time?

Allen Guelzo: Some of them were. There are actually 51 constitutions. Sandord Levinson wrote a book about this, how there are 51 constitutions. Those constitutions themselves secured … They had bills of rights, and they secured basic rights. Madison’s philosophy was the constitution is for the federal government. Therefore, we don’t need to repeat that. What’s more, the constitution enumerates the powers of the federal government. It doesn’t give a general grant of power, so if the powers are enumerated, then the federal government can’t step beyond those enumerated powers.

It can’t threaten basic rights, so we don’t really need a bill of rights. That was Madison’s argument.

Ed Leon: I want to get back to the characters and the individuals involved a little bit, because that’s really so fascinating. You had mentioned all the people that [had] the ripple effect of impact. Were there any founding mothers? Were there any women that had such an impact, either directly or indirectly?

Allen Guelzo: I wish I could say yes, but that’s not really the case. In the 18th century, we’re still dealing with a world which is not quite yet modern, and in the world of the 18th century, women are still relegated to a position that is very much out of a dimmer past. In that respect, there are no women members of the Constitutional Convention. Women cannot, at least legally, vote, except in New Jersey, and even then only with a property qualification. Women themselves do not tend to write political treatises. There are some exceptions, Mercy Otis Warren is one. Judith Sargent Mary is another.

As soon as I’ve used the word exception, you see, then I’ve qualified that. It’s simply the fact we have to deal with the reality that this is 1787, that there is not a large public role for women to play, that it is dominated by men. For the most part, white men of some standing property. That was simply the rules of the game as it was played then.

A Moment of Great Achievement

Ed Leon: Sure, so were these white men particularly geniuses or were they just in a moment in time where the circumstances of their times called them to great achievement? What do think?

Allen Guelzo: Some members of the Constitutional Convention were actually pretty humdrum. You might have to scratch your head and wonder who picked them? That’s somebody’s brother-in-law? In fact, some of them actually were, but what is really remarkable about the Convention is how many of the people in that assembly room, in the Pennsylvania state house, really were geniuses. My goodness, when you think about it, Washington, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton. When have we ever seen a collection of people of that caliber, of that range of intellect together in one space for an entire summer working on writing one document?

At the end of the convention, Madison said he really believed the convention marked the work of more remarkable people in one place than had ever been before.

I’m not really sure we’ve seen anything quite like that at any other point, at least in English speaking history. The curious thing is that even they were somewhat conscious that this was a remarkable moment of remarkable people. At the end of the convention, Madison said he really believed the convention marked the work of more remarkable people in one place than had ever been before.

Ed Leon: They felt it.

Allen Guelzo: This is the 1927 Yankees plus the 1929 Philadelphia Athletics plus the 1969 Mets. You get the idea. This is the American political all-star game.

Ed Leon: Yeah. You’re a scholar of Lincoln. What was Lincoln’s feeling towards the founding fathers?

Allen Guelzo: Oh, no question that for Lincoln, the favorite one is Washington. Washington, from very early on in Lincoln’s political utterances, is the measure that he is using to measure himself. He, in one of his early speeches, talks about who could possibly question the position of Washington? Who could hope to improve on Washington? When he’s bidding farewell to his fellow hometown residents of Springfield, Illinois, he says, “I’m going on this journey to Washington to become president. I’m bearing with me a task greater even than that of Washington.” He’s always invoking George Washington as a model.

Lincoln is one great figure in American life, Washington is the other. Washington is the founder, Lincoln is the savior.

You know, it’s not surprising that after Lincoln’s death, when people pictured Lincoln, they often pictured him in the lithography an the paintings yolked together with Washington, that Lincoln is one great figure in American life, Washington is the other. Washington is the founder, Lincoln is the savior. There’s even one very overblown painting of Washington welcoming Lincoln into a political Valhalla.

Ed Leon: Welcome to the president’s club.

Allen Guelzo: Oh yes, the great president’s club.

Ed Leon: The great president’s club. How about you? Do you have one who is a favorite or that resonates more with you personally? You have a lot of scholarship under your belt, so what?

Allen Guelzo: When I was in the process of taping this course, one of the things that struck me at one moment very, very forcibly, and it took me by surprise, how proud I was of these people collectively as a group. What a remarkable group they were.

What sublime faith they had that ordinary people could govern themselves.

What wonderful things they did and said. What sublime faith they had that ordinary people could govern themselves. In the 18th century, that was almost bordering on a crackpot theory. The assumption was that there had to be born professionals running human affairs. You had to have aristocrats, you had to have kings and princes and what not.

They were born, booted, and spurred and ready to ride. The founders, if they agree on any one thing, it’s this. That ordinary people are capable of looking out for their own lives and their own society. They can do it themselves, and they don’t need the oversight of those who are out of the manor born. When I look back at that as a conviction of that group, I think, “You guys were really wonderful. You had it spot on. You saw it clearly. You did and said just the right things.” Yeah, I’m proud of them.

Alexander Hamilton

Ed Leon: Did they all feel that way, or was there one that was really the champion? Would that be Jefferson?

Allen Guelzo: I think if I have a weakness for any one of them, it’s for Hamilton. I’m saying that recognizing that Hamilton definitely had his character deficits. He could be cocky. He could be arrogant. He irritated people. He was such a know-it-all. He was like the brightest kid in the class who never lost an opportunity to remind you of it. He had, at the same time…he’s illegitimate. He was born in poverty. He was born in the West Indies. He’s as far removed from privilege as anybody could be in the 18th century. What he sees in America is an opportunity to make himself over completely, to transform himself in this new American environment.

There is a lot about that aspect of Hamilton that I resonate with.

Learn more: Alexander Hamilton’s Republic

Ed Leon: Do they ask why the musical’s resonated? Music aside, because that’s a very American story. That’s a very new American story.

Allen Guelzo: I think it’s largely because that really is the case, that the Hamilton of the musical really is portrayed as, at one point, the musical says, “Who is this bastard son of a whore who is now grown up to be a philosopher and scholar? How is that possible? How did that happen?” Well, it happens because in America, you can be born in a log cabin and become president as Lincoln did. You can, like Alexander Hamilton, be that kind of low-born person and by sheer talent be able to rise as high as he did.

Ed Leon: Do any of these founding fathers get overly mythologized?

Allen Guelzo: Yes. We sometimes think that James Madison wrote the Constitution himself personally and pulled all the strings of the Constitutional Convention so that everybody was nothing but Madison sock puppets. That’s not true. There was a lot of frustration from Madison at the Convention. There were a lot of times when he spoke, people ignored him. There were a lot of things he wanted done which didn’t get into the Constitution. There were moments when he had to change his mind about a number of things. People who think that James Madison, because he’s called the Father of the Constitution, was somehow the only person responsible for it–that’s a myth. That’s a myth.

People who think that James Madison, because he’s called the father of the constitution, was somehow the only person responsible for it–that’s a myth.

Madison might have wanted to be the only person responsible for it, but the other members of the Constitutional Convention really didn’t see it that way. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t important. He was, but the mythology that Madison creates the Constitution whole claw, no, that’s really a pretty serious exaggeration.

Ed Leon: Yeah, any myths that drive you crazy particularly?

Allen Guelzo: No, because the Constitutional Convention really didn’t give a lot of room for myths to emerge. That was largely because Washington, from day one, made it clear that the Constitutional Convention sessions will be closed. There would be no leaks. They even posted someone outside underneath the windows to make sure no newspaper-types were trying to listen in.

So everything was kept so closely under wraps that no one even really knew what was going on in the Convention. Some newspapers invented stories that said they were all arguing with each other and it’s all going to break up. Other newspapers said everyone is getting along fine; it’s going to be a great result. They didn’t know. They were inventing it, because look, you got to go to press with something.

From the Lecture Series: America’s Founding Fathers
Taught by Professor Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.
Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952)