Kerr: We owe it all to our founding fathers, like it or not

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D. Allan Kerr
D. Allan Kerr

Our Founding Fathers in recent years have been increasingly portrayed as a bunch of rich old white guys who suppressed women and benefitted, either directly or indirectly, from the slave trade.

Well, yeah.

These men were not saints or gods, and we need to stop thinking of them that way. I’m among the absolute worst when it comes to lionizing the flawed, usually entitled, brilliant, fearless and extremely “human” beings we celebrate every Fourth of July.

We have to remember these were men of their times. And the reason we continue to honor them after nearly two-and-a-half centuries is not necessarily who they were, but what they created.

You can complain about the divided state of our current government, but that’s all on us. The fact is, these guys put together the framework of the most balanced, efficient, democratically representative society ever constructed. Perhaps the greatest genius of this system is its ability to evolve as America grew into the sprawling, complicated superpower it is today.

This evolution was brought home for me last weekend during our annual Independence Day ceremony here in Kittery, which serves as a sort of Seacoast kickoff to this particular holiday season. The highlight of our event is Whipple’s Reading, when the living embodiment of native son Gen. William Whipple shares his public reading of the Declaration of Independence he signed back in 1776.

This year, Maine Gov. Janet Mills was gracious enough to introduce the general at our event. Usually I have that honor, but thought it would be cool for one historical figure (Maine’s first female governor) to provide the introduction for another (the only Maine native to sign the Declaration of Independence).

As the two stood side by side for a moment, I had to wonder what the original Whipple, or his colleagues in the Second Continental Congress, would have thought of such a scene. He was welcomed at the podium as honored guest by the state’s chief executive, who happened to be a woman.

Behind them stood Kittery’s two delegates to the Maine House of Representatives — Kristi Mathieson and Michele Meyer — and town manager Kendra Amaral, who are all women. And in the crowd before him was the female chair of Kittery’s Town Council, Judy Spiller.

I don’t pretend to claim this was a day envisioned by the Founding Fathers back in 1776, when women couldn’t even vote. But the structure provided by them set the path to our current state.

A panel in the presidential memorial honoring Thomas Jefferson in Washington, D.C., features an excerpt from one of his letters, in which he wrote “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind as that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change. With the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”

“We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors," he concluded.

These men knew exactly what they were doing, even if they never could have envisioned the world around us today.

Jefferson, of course, has long embodied the internal conflicts – some say outright hypocrisy - of these patriots. The man who authored the Declaration of Independence also wrote some of the most eloquent damnations of slavery ever penned, even as he enslaved hundreds of people throughout his lifetime and kept at least one as his personal concubine.

Locally, I consider our own Gen. Whipple a symbolic representative of this very human evolution of American Revolution leaders. Whipple, born and raised in Kittery, set out to sea as a young boy and before the age of 30 had earned fortune enough as a ship’s captain to leave the life of a mariner and settle down across the river in Portsmouth.

By most accounts, Whipple at least on one occasion transported slaves as a sea captain, and as a merchant was part owner of a ship that once carried slaves to the Colonies. But in Portsmouth, he emerged as a leader of the Revolution, both as a member of the Continental Congress and as a brigadier general in the New Hampshire militia.

I’ve repeated this story several times in the past, but according to a popular local tale, Whipple and his manservant, or slave, named Prince, were preparing to depart for a military campaign when the general exclaimed something along the lines of, “Hurry up, Prince, we’ve got to go fight for our freedom.”

“But I have no freedom to fight for,” Prince replied.

Whipple, it is said, looked into the young fellow’s eyes and proclaimed, “From this moment on, you are a free man, Prince. Hurry up now and we will fight for our freedom together.”

Who knows, maybe this is along the lines of Washington chopping down the cherry tree. But Prince was freed by Whipple, and officially issued his manumission papers shortly before the general’s death in 1785.

Whipple also once wrote in a letter to fellow Declaration of Independence signer Josiah Bartlett of a report that a regiment of black men was being raised in one of the Southern colonies. “This will I suppose lay a foundation for the emancipation of those poor wreches [sic] in that Country, & I hope be the means of dispensing the Blessings of freedom to all the Human Race in America,” he wrote.

I like to think that as Whipple helped lead the fight for independence, he recognized the hypocrisy of keeping others in bondage. Likewise, the foundations of government put in place by him and other Founding Fathers have allowed following generations to build upon that groundwork in ways they could have never predicted.

We should remember that.

D. Allan Kerr is a journalist and author who lives in Kittery, Maine.

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Kerr: We owe it all to our founding fathers, like it or not