Were the Founding Fathers Democratic Reformers?

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In Issue Seven in the book Taking Sides, John P. Roche and Howard Zinn provide their views about whether or not the founding Fathers were democratic reformers. Between these two arguments, the no case that Howard Zinn represents is more convincing because it provides more evidence. John P. Roche contends that the founding Fathers were absolutely and fully democratic reformers and that they created a Constitution in order to benefit to the nation but at the same time was considered tolerable by the people.

Howard Zinn gives more accompanying evidence as to why the founding Fathers were not democratic reformers but rather, a select group of wealthy slaveholders who wanted to design a strong central government that would protect the property rights of the rich. John P. Roche gives his case that proposes that the form of the Constitution was simply a representative development involving a compromise of the interests of the state, economy, and governmental concentrations.

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In John P. Roche’s argument he states that the government was as democratic as possible: “My concern is with the further position that not only were they revolutionaries, but also they were democrats. Indeed, in my view, there is one fundamental truth about the Founding Fathers…: They were first and foremost superb democratic politicians…”[1]. He continues by stating that what they did was create a practical compromise that would support both the national interest and be something that the people would agree with. They started with the Virginia plan that proposed a bicameral legislative branch.

This would give states representation based on proportionate population. They also considered the New Jersey Plan. This plan proposed a single house legislative where any state, regardless of size, would have the same representation. John P. Roche puts forth his thoughts that the founding Fathers were the most adequate for the position they were in. However, he argues that the founders did not want to make the central government too powerful, and avoided this by giving powers to the states by allowing them to elect their own representatives.

The founding Fathers also tried to make the representation equal in the two houses of legislature. However, the makeup of the senate doesn’t agree with this because large states and small states had the same amount of representation rather than the house that has representatives equal to the ratio of the people. While John P. Roche gave his argument that the founding Fathers were best suited for their position, he never gave concrete evidence to support his statement. On the contrary, Howard Zinn gives his opinion that the founding Fathers were not democratic reformers; rather, they were making decisions that protected their power.

Howard Zinn’s centers his argument on an editorial written by the historian Charles Beard. Beard stated that the rich founders protected what they had and that they did this by regulating the government by regulating the laws in which the government operates itself. Howard Zinn states that the Fathers were trying to keep the power that they already had. As most of the founding Fathers were “wealthy” lawyers, most of them had a significant amount of land, slaves or interest in manufacturing or shipping.

They realized that they had loaned money to the government and that the only way to get money back was to create a strong government …a majority of them were lawyers by profession, that most of them were men of wealth, in land, slaves, manufacturing, or shipping, that half of them had money loaned out at interest, and that forty of the fifty-five held governmental bonds, according to the records of the Treasury Department… the makers of the Constitution had so direct economic interest in establishing a strong federal government: the manufactures needed protective tariffs; the moneylenders wanted to stop the use of paper money to pay off debts; the land speculators wanted protection as they invaded Indian lands; slave-owners needed federal security against slave revolts and runaways; bondholders wanted a government able to raise money by nationwide taxation, to pay off those bonds.

Four groups, Beard noted, were not represented in the Constitutional Convention: slaves, indentured servants, women, men without property. And so the Constitution did not reflect the interests of those groups. [2] Through their restructuring of the Constitution, they were trying to keep their power and their privileges and they had to try to repress the rebellion because they didn’t want to lose their power.

So when Shays’s rebellion took place, a rebellion that ended in doubters believing that reform was necessary, the founding Fathers decided that they wanted to create a senate that would make decisions for the people because the people were too indecisive and inconsistent to make their own decisions.

This rebellion was when the Western Farmers decided that they wouldn’t pay taxes. They armed themselves and rallied outside the courthouses. Though they stopped many from entering the court houses, numerous were arrested and some were hung. George Washington is relieved when this rebellion is over but says “Surely Shays must be either a weak man, the dupe of some characters who are yet behind the curtain, or has been deceived by his followers” (George Washington on Shay’s Rebellion).

In contrast with Roche’s assertion that the senate provided equal representation, Zinn believed there was unequal representation because there was more power in fewer hands. Throughout changing the Constitution, the Founding Fathers decided to put more constraints on the people with the sedition acts after the Constitution was passed. This put a restraint on the freedom of speech that is required for a democracy and protected by the first amendment.

The sedition acts severely limited the ability of citizens to speak out against the government. Howard Zinn’s case for the no side of this issue is much more persuasive than John P. Roche’s reasoning because there is more supporting evidence about why the founding Fathers would reform the Constitution.

With Zinn’s argument, the supplementary evidence is solid and deeper more reasonable evidence to the reasoning behind the reform. Roche’s argument never really addresses a solid reason to why the founding Fathers would have wanted to change the Constitution. He explains that they were the most fit to make the changes but fails to give an example of why they would have had a motive to do so. Zinn did an exceptional job in persuading the reader that the founding Fathers did what they did merely for personal gain.


  1. Madaras, Larry and James M. SoRelle, Taking Sides Clashing Views in United States History Volume 1,(New York City: McGraw Hill, 2011), pg 139.

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Were the Founding Fathers Democratic Reformers?. (2016, Dec 23). Retrieved from


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