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STATEHOUSE AFFAIRS: Revisiting the Founding Era for lessons learned

I have been asked by the Kewanee Library, near my residence in central Illinois, to lead discussions on “Revisiting the Founding Era.” What lessons might there be for us today, and what might we do today to honor those who made our nation possible?

Library director Barbara Love was awarded one of a very few grants from a New York City foundation to explore the topic. Over the coming six weeks, I will sit in the moderator’s chair at sessions in the library, and in classes at the local community college, high school and state prison.

I am a political scientist, yet have always enjoyed history, though I am not expert in the Revolutionary Era. To prepare, I just finished “American Creation,” by Joseph Ellis, author of the best-selling “Founding Brothers.”

The Founders, led by Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison and of course others, were not demigods. They were indeed true radicals, intelligent, imperfect.

Their audacity was breathtaking—a tiny band of disparate colonies of barely 3 million people taking on the world’s mightiest military.

Nor was there consensus in the America colonies. Ellis estimates that only one-third of the colonists supported the Revolutionary cause; one-third, opposed, and one-third sat on the fence.

General George Washington lacked the troops to confront the world’s most powerful military machine frontally. So, after several defeats, he played a defensive game from 1777 until 1780. The French, always happy to team up with opponents of their mortal adversary England, played a decisive role at Yorktown in 1781 in defeating the army o Cornwallis, causing the English to sue for peace.

Laboring under the woefully inadequate Articles of Confederation, the Founding Fathers convened a convention in 1787 to write a charter that would bind the new states more tightly and increase national power.

At the convention, there were basically three geo-political factions: New York and the Northeast; the slave-holding planter states led by Virginia, and the small states of New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware, which feared the big states would control all.

The leaders of the factions felt, however, that unification was more important than fundamental differences, so they compromised.

For example, Northern leaders, many of them fervent abolitionists, gave in on the slavery issue. As a result, Africans-Americans, mostly slaves, were not mentioned by name in the Constitution. These so-called “other persons” were counted as three-fifths of a person each for census purposes and allocation of seats in the new U.S. House.

Over Madison’s strenuous objections, big state leaders gave in to the small ones, granting every state two U.S. senators, a provision that appears unamendable in our Constitution.

And the issue of what to do with the estimated 800,000 American Indians, who stood in the way of white settler’s ravenous, irresistible hunger for their land, was left to future treaties with these tribal “foreign nations.”

Ellis considers the (mis)handling of the issues regarding slaves and Indians to be tragic compromises within an otherwise masterful creation.

But, were there any alternatives that would not have doomed the enactment of a Constitution?

No good alternatives come to my mind.

For Southern leaders, touching the slavery issue was a non-starter. As for the Indians, efforts by Washington in his first Administration to protect Indians by treaty were overrun, literally, by our forbears’ lust for the land.

Today, we would say the founders “kicked the can down the road” on these issues, and the consequences haunt us yet today.

So, any useful observations? First, humans are evolving animals. Simplistic stereotyping and “us versus them” views of the world, successful survival tactics in the past, are still with us, unfortunately.

Second, sometimes tragic compromise is apparently necessary, at least in the short run, with resolution of the resulting problems to be determined later.

What to do, today? Many African-Americans and Indians are not assimilated into our majority white world. Maybe some don’t want to be; after all, ours is not a perfect world.

Thus far, our nation seems incapable of closing the big education and economic achievement gaps between whites and blacks, and many Indians live on reservations in what appear to be sorry conditions.

What to do? I don’t favor money reparations at this late date, nor simply throwing more money at the issues, not without sound strategies for positive change.

I have many thoughtful readers, based on email correspondence. So, I solicit ideas from readers that might enrich and inform the discussions I am to lead in Kewanee, Illinois. 

JIM NOWLAN is a former Illinois legislator, agency director and aide to three governors. He also was lead author of “Illinois Politics: A Citizen’s Guide” (University of Illinois Press, 2010). Nowlan can be reached at

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