I received a Facebook message from my Congressman last week. Representative Walter Jones is against allowing women in combat, which is a fine position to take, I suppose. I respect his beliefs on that and admit it’s complicated, but what got me going was the fact that he ended his post by asking “What would the Founders think?”.
I’m not a professional historian, but do consider myself at least “well read” on the topic of Early American History (the books I’ve read are listed on the tab above). I believe it’s a little pompous to phrase such a question in order to prove the moral argument of social issues.
This is a worthless question because what they did think was often very different things. Not just as a group, but sometimes even individually. One example that sprang to my mind occurred in the early 1800’s when John Adams led the charge for the Alien and Sedition Act. Under this act newspaper editors that supported the Jeffersonian Republican ideals were arrested, tried, and thrown in jail. Not criticized, not ostracized, thrown in jail. A congressman from Vermont, Matthew Lyon, was charged with sedition for writing a letter to a local newspaper protesting the the very act he was subsequently arrested for. Lyon’s was found guilty and sentenced to 4 months in jail for his crime. (1)
John Adams was the author of the Massachusetts Constitution, a plan that he made sure included “A Declaration of Rights” to guarantee “freedom of speaking” and “liberty of the press” (2). He was a man whose initial thoughts to Jefferson on the proposed US Constitution was to ask, “What think you of a Declaration of Rights? Should not such a thing precede the model?”. (3) This was a man pretty much on record as being a fan of the 1st Amendment even before there was such a thing. Twenty five years later, though, he was turning his back on the Constitution based upon the reality of his present day circumstances.
Did anyone ask, “What would the founders think?”. They probably did this question because the Founders were all pretty involved. This was proposed by a Founder President, and passed into law by a congress largely made up of actual founders. The act was even supported by George Washington. David McCullough wrote that Washington felt some publications were long overdue for punishment for their lies and unprovoked attacks on leaders of the union (4), which sounds an awful lot like a current complaint. Does this mean Obama now has some “Founder Street Cred” because he thinks like the original GW? I don’t see that meme going around Facebook (yet).
So what are we to make of this? The Founders were not a monolithic group of people whose attitudes should be used to prove or disprove an opinion. They, like us, had different views on different subjects and some of those views even changed over time. They, like us, often voiced profound (sometimes outright ugly) disagreement about the other’s viewpoints.
There is a lot to learn by studying history. In some cases we can learn how we should operate as a country, and in some cases we can learn how we should not operate. We must understand that putting historical figures on too high a pedestal is dangerous. We should certainly honor and remember them and and absolutely study them. But we should strive to keep them in the correct context. It takes more than a few quotes to prove that a historical figure would necessarily support or oppose a complex position especially one that occurs two centuries after their passing. And any attempts to lump their attitudes together to prove a point is lazy.
Let’s instead try to learn that we as a country have historically faced many complicated issues, with honest brokers on both sides of the issues. Even Jefferson and Hamilton could sit down and dine together. Let’s get away from ascribing unpatriotic motives to those we disagree with. Let’s talk to each other, not past each other. Let’s quit assuming that somehow The Founders agree with one side and not the other.
There is nothing wrong with frank discussions or even (civil) arguments. In fact two of the most influential books that I have ever read are precisely on this aspect of our national fabric (The 13 American Arguments and American Creation). There are plenty of facts on both sides of just about every case. We don’t need to unilaterally invoke the assumed collective thoughts and opinions of our Patriotic Superheroes in an attempt to shut down debate.
(2) John Adams by David McCullough, p. 221
(3) McCullough, p. 379
(4) McCullough p. 506