Column: A Closer Look at Our Founding Fathers

John Hancock, a wealthy merchant from Boston, Massachusetts, who gained renown for evading the British blockade of Boston Harbor during the American Revolution, signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776. As President of the Second Continental Congress, he had the honor of being the first to sign the document, the first draft of which had been presented to the Congress by Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1776.  Despite Benjamin Franklin’s efforts as part of the committee drafting the Declaration to soften Jefferson’s excessively strident rhetoric, the Congress felt the document needed additional revisions. They redrafted it on July 2 and 3 and had a version that the Congress voted to adopt (with minor changes) on July 4, 1776. Delays in signing it were caused by the need to make minor revisions to the final draft, to set type with the final version, to print up copies for distribution to the colonies, and to get Congress members access to the original for their signatures. 

The Declaration was not signed by the last of the Congressional supporters until more than six months after adoption of the ‘final’ draft. The date the Congress voted to adopt the document was chosen as the date of the official Declaration of Independence, even though the final draft did not exist on that date and no official signatures had as yet been affixed to the document. When the last signature was acquired, this document helped the British monarchy identify a few additional traitors to the Crown slated to be hanged for treason.

This Declaration was remarkable in several respects. Most importantly it identified aspirations for a nation that did not yet exist in America or, for that matter, anywhere else. Its initial assertions were revolutionary and ironic. Included in these assertions was the oft quoted, ”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, …” The majority of the 56 men signing on to this statement held slaves or supported the continuation of slavery.

In subsequent debates about how a state’s population would be calculated and what would be the tax and other national obligations of states, representatives from slave-holding states supported the absurd notions that slaves should be considered property, not people, when calculating taxes and other national obligations, but that their slaves should be counted as people for determining their representation in Congress. These self-contradictory positions led to the infamous designation of slaves as 3/5 of a person for representation in Congress and for national obligations.

The claim that all men are created equal was an insult targeting the hierarchies in England and many other nations that gave extraordinary privileges to certain individuals simply because they were born into families with hereditary titles and holdings. Two hundred forty-five years later our nation is still struggling to make this abstraction a reality.  One need only look at infant mortality in different communities in America to recognize we have a long way to go to avoid the conclusion that ‘some people are more equal than others.’

Thomas Jefferson was obviously not thinking about women, native Americans, or the people working in his fields when he wrote, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” At least Jefferson [or perhaps Franklin] had the good sense to alter the familiar phrase from John Locke’s political writings that governments should respect the rights of its governed to “life, liberty, and property.” The pursuit of happiness continues to be a more achievable American goal than the pursuit of property.

Jefferson went on to insist “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Apparently, the thirteen colonies that now declared themselves united states fired the managerial staff, the British monarchy, that had been mismanaging their domestic and foreign affairs for many years. They list some of the ways the Brits failed at their job, but the bottom line was that they were mad as hell and would not take it anymore.

To those clamoring for a southern border wall and stricter immigration control, it may be surprising that the Founding Fathers complained about King George III’s interference with immigration to the colonies. In their list of evil actions perpetrated by the British monarch, they note that the king “has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.” Of course, it was a different time, and Manhattan was not crowded with the rapists and murderers that in more recent years some have noticed loitering in every high-rise apartment building doorway. In 1776, foreigners, like the Caribbean genius Alexander Hamilton, the Polish military engineers Pulaski and Kosciuszko, the French liaison officer Lafayette, and the unapologetically gay, Prussian, army instructor von Steuben were helpful in winning the war with England. Actually, they were indispensable in winning the war, and without these foreigners we might all be paying taxes to the British Crown today to help clear Prince Andrew’s debts to the Jeffrey Epstein estate. 

The debt America owes to immigrants since 1776 is enormous. A mere listing of those immigrants who have made the United States the envy of the civilized world would fill volumes. There is no field or activity, from music to medicine, from electrical engineering to environmental sciences, from poetry to policing, that has not made giant strides for the greater good by virtue of the efforts and activities of people born outside the United States of America.

The Founding Fathers certainly had faults, even by the standards of their own times and circumstances, but oddly enough they recognized the need for talent and energy from all parts of the world to enable their new nation to grow and prosper.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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