- ›› Coverage People : Frederick Douglass
Nearly all of the blockbuster biographies of the Founding Fathers—whether the subject is George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, or John Adams—portray the vast majority of ordinary Americans as mere bystanders. Meanwhile a host of other historians have been quietly documenting the many ways in which women, slaves, natives, and small farmers—the 95 percent of Americans who were not members of the founding-era gentry—shaped the independence movement and Revolutionary War and were in turn influenced by both.
Historians are generally agreed that if the Constitution had been put before the electorate for an up-and-down vote—a plebescite, in effect—it would not have been ratified. This essay considers how three large groups—African Americans, artisans, and small farmers—viewed the Constitution, and examines why these groups had deep reservations about its ability to steer the nation forward without compromising the founding principles of the American Revolution.
From long before the United States claimed its independence through revolution or established its governmental structure based on its grand Constitution, the contradiction of a freedom-loving people tolerating and profiting from depriving their fellow human beings of freedom was central to any understanding of the nation’s formation.