What kinds of morality did the Founding Fathers advocate?

Note we’re in GQ. Discussing legitimate disputes historians have over the matter is fine, getting into a pissing match about over whether or not what they considered moral is in fact moral is not.

I often see a lot of people (okay, mainly conservatives or uber religious types) advocating that the Founding Fathers had standards of morality, and we should go back to them. Or that they assumed these standards are written into the Constitution (that one I think is a pretty obvious falsehood, with any sane reading of it), and we’re just going against it.

Now here’s the question –

  1. What standards of morality did the Founding Fathers (individually or as a group) advocate?
  2. What standards did they actually follow in practice (if they differed from 1)?
  3. As far as religion goes, what did they advocate and what did they do?

I was under the impression that most of them didn’t even talk a big game about morality. As in, they wrote and gave speeches about morality only insofar as it affected the government, meaning about taxes and freedom and such. For the most part, again, as I understand it, they didn’t really preach that a man should be religious, or that we shouldn’t do this or that.

As for actions, as I understand it a good deal of them weren’t exactly… moral people. Thomas Jefferson’s adultery with his slaves is pretty well documented (though I also heard he treated the slaves well for a slaveowner of that age, and raised his illegitimate children in an okay manner). Ben Franklin supposedly attended a secret society that basically thought drugs and orgies were awesome.

I also heard that among the Founding Fathers in general, their flavor of Deism was so sparse it was practically indistinguishable from atheism.

That’s about all I know, though, or at all I remember off the top of my head. This will probably end up in GD sooner rather than later, alas (it’s kind of hard to talk about someone’s standards of morality without passing moral judgment), but at least try to be as neutral as a textbook for a little bit please.

And despite the clearly numbered question parts, no, this isn’t for a class assignment or anything else.

Well, much of this is nonsense. All of the Founding Fathers I’ve read were greatly concerned with virtue, morality, and religion, believing that without them, the natural passions of mankind would destroy society. However, most of their writings stop there, or make it clear that the vices they were most concerned with were those influencing public life: greed, ambition, and the like, although John Adams wrote scathingly of infidelity and “gallantry” (I assume that he meant exaggerated courtliness toward women, rather than conspicuous courage). Certainly none of them were close to being atheists; they believed firmly in a creator, though some were Christian while others were not (Jefferson famously rejected the trinity and the divinity of Jesus). The majority were quite definite that religion was a positive force for good.

Incidentally, “Thomas Jefferson’s adultery with his slaves is pretty well documented” is untrue in almost every word. Jefferson had been a widower for 13 years when Sally Hemings’s first child was born; no sexual relationship is documented at all, nor is it proven – though I find the evidence convincing, many do not, and it is not conclusive.

It is likely that Franklin attended some meetings of the Hell-fire Club (actually called the Brotherhood of St. Francis, and other fanciful names); while it was rumored and is now generally accepted that the club’s meetings included sex, and this is the first I’ve heard of drugs, no one now actually knows what went on there. Franklin’s personal code of morality included chastity, (though it also included humility, and we all know how that worked out!), but his main ethical thrust in this, as in all his precepts, is to improve oneself and avoid strife.

I was going to question this but Cecil has already weighed in on it.

Didn’t they do DNA testing that gave pretty solid evidence?

I think your misunderstanding. That Jefferson impregnated a slave is pretty well established. But the impregnating happened many years after his wifes death, so it wasn’t adultery.

That relationship was also very different than most people think when they first hear the story. It isn’t like Thomas Jefferson raped field slaves. Sally Hemmings was Jefferson’s sister-in-law. She was the half-sister of his deceased wife and only 1/4 black. There likely wasn’t anything immoral about the relationship from their perspective but it had to remain hidden because their different social statuses. Their kids were only 1/8th black and 3 of the 4 successfully passed as white after Jefferson officially freed them as they became of age. Because Jefferson lost his wife early, it would have been normal to have one of her unmarried sisters replace her.

Plus, all the DNA proved was that some of the descendants had the same Y-chromosome as Jefferson. (The one family that did not - well, you have to wonder if there is a “parental anomaly” in the intervening years). However, it’s entirely possible too that one or more could be descendants of Jefferson’s brother or nephew, also in the same general household.

OTOH it seems that other circumstantial evidence and long-term rumor puts them together.

Here are George Washington’s rules of civility, which he copied when he was a child. He pretty much lived them all during his life: http://www.foundationsmag.com/civility.html

Here’s his famous 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue, about religious freedom: http://www.tourosynagogue.org/index.php/history-learning/tsf-intro-menu/slom-scholarship/86-washington-letter

And here’s an excerpt from his 1796 Farewell Address, in which he discusses religion and morality in the nascent republic: http://www.vindicatingthefounders.com/library/washington-farewell-address.html

Quite a guy.