Art by Kailun Wang
Thomas Jefferson. Alexander Hamilton. James Madison. These are just a few of the prolific members of a generation of Americans that determined the destiny of our nation. The countless tributes to their respective names include street signs, public squares, dollar bills, and universities. As our founding fathers, they are unquestionably among the most influential and culturally significant figures in American history. Of course, their status in our collective consciousness is deserved, as their past contributions to the development of the United States are beyond question. But they have recently experienced a rein-carnation of sorts. Out from the history books and national monuments, the founding fathers have emerged as a posthumous force in the exact forum in which they do not belong— contemporary political discourse. Through a re-constructed history, they have become a symbol, in 2011, for irrationally clinging to the political realities of 1789.
One need not spend too much time researching the Tea Party Movement to see how the founding fathers have resurfaced as powerful political images. Tea Party rallies overflow with costumes, images, and signs that suggest an American Revolution theme. In its very name, the movement alludes to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, the fa-mous act of revolutionary protest. Along with the rise of the Tea Party, countless pundits, journalists, and analysts have injected the founding fathers into current debates on public policy. In today’s political discussions, the question as to whether the founding fathers would have approved of a given idea or policy is a tactic to stifle and delegitimize the opposition.
As asking the question “what would the founding fathers think?” becomes increasingly common, so does answer-ing it on its own terms. When the topic of the founding fathers is raised in a contemporary political debate, the response is often to argue that one’s posi-tion can indeed be reconciled with the founding fathers’ vision for America. As a result, what could otherwise have been a productive political discussion de-volves into exchanging highly subjective generalizations about what our nation’s founders believed.
Using the legacy of the founding fathers as a political litmus test not only abandons substantive debate, but it comes dangerously close to a logical fallacy. In some instances, it functions as a red herring. The founding fathers provide a convenient rhetorical distraction from debating the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, for example, on its own merits. Otherwise, the appeal to the founding fathers falls somewhere between an “appeal to authority” and an “appeal to tradition.” Accordingly, “a small government” ideology is prefer-able to a “big government” not because of facts, reality, or the needs of society and how to best meet them, but because of what the founders intended.
Nonetheless, the biggest problem with this situation is that all too often, the dialogue accepts the historically inaccu-rate and logically flawed assumptions of the original question—that the founding fathers were monolithic in their politi-cal opinions and that those opinions are somehow binding, much less relevant at all, in a present-day discussion of public policy. Our political discourse would be better served by exposing these flawed premises of the “appeal to the founders.”
The term, “founding fathers,” in and of itself implies a measure of internal conformity. To say that the founding fathers thought X or that the founding fathers were opposed to Y is to assume that they held definitive and absolute positions on everything. Likewise, when one argues that an idea runs counter to what the founders envisioned, the impli-cation is not only that there was indeed a single, comprehensive vision to which all the founders adhered, but that only one’s proposed alternative is compatible with that vision.
This claim falls apart when placed under historical scrutiny. Almost every issue that the founding fathers faced, from the idea of declaring independence to the grammatical and semantic minutiae of Jefferson’s proposed declaration, was hotly debated. In the years following the revolution, the founders were deeply divided on significant issues such as the role of the government in the economy, the proper size of the government, and the conduct of foreign policy.
Hamilton, Adams, Madison, and Jef-ferson held very different positions on those issues. For example, the Federalists (the political faction that became identified with Hamilton) believed that the government should embrace policies that would spur industrial growth, while Republicans (the political faction that became identified with Jefferson) called for the government to promote a virtuous, agrarian economy. This dispute was not just about culture and mo-rality; rather, it cut to the heart of how the American democracy would function. Should the political economy be an engine for American growth and expansion? Or, was this effort not worth the risk of powerful businesses interests cor-rupting the will of the people?
As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton supported and designed a nation-al bank as a private corporation with stockholders managing the national debt. Jefferson, in turn, argued that the government could not charter such a private institution. These two positions remained at odds for years as question of the national bank solidified itself as one of the most polarizing issues of early American history.
Finally, nothing brought out the passionate disagreements of the founding fathers more than the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Jefferson clamored for moral support for the revolutionaries, whereas Hamilton called for a neutral distance from the upheaval in France. Their respective factions claimed that this was more than a debate over the direction of American foreign policy. Rather, the legacy of the revolution was at stake, and each side charged the other with forsaking it. Federalists accused Republicans of destabilizing the country and leading it to chaos, while Republicans accused Federalists of tolerating and supporting monarchy and tyranny.
Nobody would question that both Hamilton and Jefferson deserve to be called “founding fathers,” but one must use caution in using that term to refer to this intellectually diverse group of people. To gloss over their deep-seated philosophical differences and superimpose on them legacy of ideological purity and unity displays ignorance of history.
Even if founding fathers had all shared one comprehensive political worldview, it would still not be relevant to a modern policy discussion. Today’s world is too radically different from that of the founding fathers; the sweeping technological and social progress since the 18th century has rendered many of their central concerns obsolete. For instance, a principal point of contention between Hamilton and Jefferson was the issue of keeping a standing army. Hamilton believed that it was a necessity for maintaining order, while Jefferson feared that it would lead America down a slippery slope to tyranny. Contemporary social and political norms are so incredibly unlike those of the founding fathers that Jefferson’s fears of a standing army barely resonate at all to the modern reader. A standing army has become an accepted fact of life and Americans would be hard-pressed to imagine their country without one.
Similarly, the founding fathers governed in a political atmosphere that makes little sense to us. No reasonable Americans today would be so outraged over their taxes that they would stage a revolt. But in 1794, when Washington was forced to raise a federal militia to suppress a western Pennsylvanian uprising over a whiskey tax, rebellion was not so unthinkable. In the modern era, taxes are a hegemonic reality, but in the revolutionary era, they were not seen as such.
Political realities have changed in innumerable ways since the American Revolution, and many of our founders’ ideas are simply incompatible with modern America. Therefore, the fact that this country’s founders subscribed to certain (often conflicting) ideologies does not mean that they should impede political development hundreds of years later. To nevertheless assert that the founding fathers should guide today’s political debates betrays the government’s responsibility to govern in the 21st century, not the 18th.
Consequently, asking what the founding fathers would think about the current state of American politics is an exercise in futility. Presidential biographer Edmund Morris was asked a similar question (with regard to Theodore Roosevelt, not the founding fathers) on CBS’s Face the Nation on November 28th, 2010 and was astounded by the premise of the discussion, “You cannot pluck people out of the past and expect them to comment on what’s happening today,” he said, exasperated. Morris was right to expose the pointlessness of the question. Historical figures like Roosevelt and the founding fathers lived in distant realities and understood the world in a very different ways than we do today. How then, are they supposed to contribute to contemporary political discussions in a practical way?
There is no shortage of substantive issues to tackle for present-day policy debates. With unemployment still high, the economy crawling towards recovery, and most of the Affordable Care Act yet to be implemented, the stakes are too high for distractions like appeals to the founders. A healthy and productive dialogue is imperative to solving the problems that face our nation today. So keep the founding fathers where they belong—in history books, not in political discourse.