Monday, May 19, 2014

"The Founders" - Four Reasons You Should Avoid Using Them

It's primary season in Texas, so it's that time again.  That time when we get to hear this phrase over and over again: "The Founders believed..."

In any political argument, it's the ultimate evidence; the ultimate trump card; the ultimate way of stopping your opponent in his tracks.  Just start your sentence with these three words. "The Founders believed..."

Unfortunately, using these three words is very intellectually risky, and often a terrible blunder. Here are four reasons why you should either be slow to invoke "The Founders," or avoid doing so at all:

1. There is no one recognized club of "Founders"
Unfortunately, creating a Founders Club for historical discussion isn't as easy as creating one on Facebook.  Are you talking about some of the common big names, like George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson? Or, are you talking about some lesser-known but important men like John Witherspoon, Patrick Henry, John Marshall, and John Jay? Or, maybe you're more progressive and you want to talk about Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren.

Turns out, hardly anyone is EVER talking about the same individuals when they invoke "founders" in their arguments.

2. There is no one point in American History that can be officially dubbed "THE founding."
When people talk about "the Founding" they are often referring to different times, documents, and events.  Could be the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Could be the the nation's first constitution, the 1781 Articles of Confederation. Could be the writing of our current Constitution, ratified 1787-89.  Or, do you mean the settling of Jamestown in 1607, or Plymouth in 1620, or the peopling of America by Indians in the hundreds of years previous to these?

Who your "Founders" are will depend on which "founding" you are assuming.

3. The Constitutional "Founders" were a diverse group of people, with a diverse set of beliefs on everything, including the Constitution.
The Constitution did not fall out of heaven with everyone in perfect agreement on its divine origin.  You chuckle, but we often forget that the Constitution was not merely written down.  It was forged through months of debates and compromises in every city and state in the nation.  Major Revolutionary leaders like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams initially rejected the Constitution as antithetical to the ideals of the Revolution. No single man at the Constitutional Convention got exactly what he wanted. What every man did get was a document of compromise that he could settle with, even if he didn't agree with everything in it.


4. The "Founders" were humans, who changed their minds over time.


A good example of this is James Madison. In 1787, he was the primary architect of the Constitution, pushing for a stronger national government than many of his contemporaries wanted (like Jefferson and Henry). Only a decade later, in 1798, he helped Jefferson draft the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, now considered classic defenses of the rights of states to challenge the power of the national government. So if you're referring to Madison in your founders argument, which Madison are you referring to - the 1787 Madison, or the 1798 Madison?  We change our minds and thought processes over time, and so did they.






The Founders were many, diverse, and human. Appealing to them collectively as biblical prophets or as a historical unified front is ahistorical, unfair, and unhelpful.



2 comments:

Mark Boone said...

An important reminder about most of our uses of "the Founders!"

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Having said that, the Founders believed that the meaning of the Constitution only changes when its text changes. If it is a "living document," this is only because there is a process for making amendments!

The idea that the meaning of the Constitution can be changed by the mere feelings of a citizenry that hasn't bothered to make an amendment to it had never occurred to them. Nor had the idea that it can change because a federal court sees it differently now than it did 200 years ago.

In short, they weren't postmodernists. This is one (of a very few) broad generalizations that can be made about the Founders: that they did not give us a postmodern republic.

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Of course, those who really want a thoroughly postmodern republic don't care what the Fathers thought.

But there are a number of people who think that America should be a postmodern republic who also think that it was originally a postmodern republic. And they could stand to learn a little more about what the Founders believed.

Brian said...

Mark - Agreed!