What would the Founders think? Quite a bit, actually.

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.americas-founding-fathers

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.

(1) Thomas Jefferson; The Art of Power by John Meacham, p. 317

(2) John Adams by David McCullough, p. 221

(3) McCullough, p. 379

(4) McCullough p. 506

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Ben Franklin Was Wrong! (and that’s OK)

Yesterday as I watched “This Week with Christiane Amanpour” the round table discussion focused on the US Constitution. I found it very interesting, in particular the view that the Executive Branch has been steadily increasing its power over the other two branches.  It has been my opinion that the biggest problem facing American politics is the fact that our system of checks and balances is no longer administered by the three branches of government, but instead the job has fallen to the two political parties.

This has led us to the rigid orthodoxy that paralyzes any effort to get anything done.  Witness the debate on the debt ceiling.  Neither side can compromise; in fact the word compromise is taken as a sign of weakness.   This tug-of-war has led to Congressional ineffectiveness and enabled (or forced?)  the Executive branch to fill the void of power. While there are many recent examples (Health Care, Libya) in the news today, it is by no means a new phenomenon.  From Obama, to Bush, to Nixon, to Roosevelt, to Wilson, you would be hard pressed to find any President that did not believe in expanding the power of the Executive branch. It’s the answer to an inefficient and messy legislature.  Even Thomas Jefferson, himself a founding father, can be accused of this regarding the purchasing of the Louisiana Territory. I believe that this is the natural order of things, which is precisely why the Constitution was drawn up.

Our country was founded on the idea of not having a king. Not only were the founders against a hereditary monarchy, but they were also concerned with the idea of placing an inordinate amount of power in the hands of a single individual.

I believe our Legislative Branch needs a good dose of humility in order let go of ideological trappings.  Perhaps then they can work together and provide a better check on the Executive branch. On the “This Week”  yesterday Jill Lepore quoted Ben Franklin saying , “let us doubt a little of our own infallibility“.  This got me curious and after some quick research I found the speech she was alluding to.  It was short enough and so good that it is posted in its entirety below.  I believe the sections in bold are particularly applicable to our day in regards to the current climate.

Ben Franklin

Before the Constitutional Convention of 1787

 “I CONFESS that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present; but, sir, I am not sure I shall never approve of it, for, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment of others. Most men, indeed, as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant, in a dedication, tells the pope that the only difference between our two churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrine is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But, tho many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who, in a little dispute with her sister said: “But I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.”

In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults—if they are such—because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other. I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our counsels are confounded like those of the builders of Babel, and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us, in returning to our constituents, were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects and great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign nations, as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength and efficiency of any government, in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of that government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its governors. I hope, therefore, for our own sakes, as a part of the people, and for the sake of our posterity, that we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts and endeavors to the means of having it well administered.

On the whole, sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

Finally, as I flipped through the pages of “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine this July 4th morning, I found the flowing; “virtue is neither hereditary nor is it perpetual.”

The fact that many disparate opinions joined together to create a system of government over 200 years ago does not bestow on the current members of those bodies an inherent merit or distinction for their opinions in the present day.  This virtue must be continuously earned, and not individually only but organizationally as well.  Perhaps, when the House and Senate and work together, we can again have the checks and balances as it was designed.

To see the notes of James Madison regarding this speech including some of the discussion that followed click here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_917.asp