This Fourth of July, Let's Stop Worrying What the Founders Would Think

This Independence Day, as we're drinking and stuffing our faces to commemorate the founding of our nation, let's take a moment to reflect on just how tumultuous the Revolutionary period really was.

History bears little resemblance to the cartoonish view of the birth of the nation that most people hold. Our forefathers didn't just wake up one morning, declare "no taxation without representation!" and then wait for Paul Revere to tell them it's on. It was a period of 30 years of internal struggle to define what this new country might look like, and the notion that there were some immutable principles on which everyone agreed is entirely wrong.

In her book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History, Jill Lepore, a historian at Harvard, writes: “Beginning even before it was over, the Revolution has been put to wildly varying political purposes.” Between 1761, when the first signs of discontent with England became apparent in the Colonies, and 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, Lepore explains that leading Americans debated an “ocean of ideas” from which “you can fish anything out.”

Indeed, ever since the last of those revolutionaries we've come to call the “Founding Fathers” shuffled off this mortal coil, Americans from across the political spectrum have claimed to be continuing on in their tradition. Saying the Founders would be standing firmly behind one's ideological preferences – or that they'd be rolling over in their graves contemplating one's opponents' – is a rich tradition in American politics. Back in the 1820s, Andrew Jackson's Democratic Republicans insisted they were the true Constitutionalists, as did the Whigs they opposed. Both sides of the Civil War made the claim, as did civil rights crusaders and Southern segregationists.

The Tea Partiers are obviously the latest in this long tradition. Lepore found that their “view of American history bore almost no resemblance” to the one she studies and teaches. “What was curious about the Tea Party's revolution,” she writes, “was that it wasn't just kooky history, it was anti-history.”

Conservatives tend to swear an almost religious allegiance to the Constitution, but as I've written before, their “originalism” is simply a crutch used to avoid making substantive arguments – an appeal to the Founders, which have come to be the highest authorities in America after God. Almost everything on their ideological wish-list is justified by vague references to that great document.

This can seem pretty comical at times. Last year, for example, Think Progress reported that “one radical conservative has declared yet another common public good to be unconstitutional: bike paths.” Rep Duncan Hunter, R-California, told an interviewer he didn’t “think biking should fall under the federal purview of what the transportation committee is there for. If a state wants to do it, or local municipality, they can do whatever they want to.” The punchline came when he was asked if he's “OK with mandating highways?” Hunter's response: “Absolutely, yeah. Because that’s in the Constitution. I don’t see riding a bike the same as driving a car or flying an airplane.” So airplanes and cars are in the Constitution; bikes, not so much.

The Constitution was a beautiful document, but it was not intended to be a detailed guidebook for governing the country. Lepore writes that “the Founders were not prophets. Nor did they hope to be worshipped. They believed to defer without serious examination to what your forefathers believed is to become a slave of the past.”

Indeed, Lepore notes that it was none other than Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human.”

In Federalist 14, James Madison wondered if it was “not the glory of the people of America, that... they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons or their own experience?”

This gets to the heart of the matter: the Founders were grappling with 18th century problems, and would be bewildered by the debates we're having today. When people say that the Founders, were they to be reanimated today, would be shocked by this or that policy, keep in mind that what would really stun them is indoor plumbing, horseless carriages and flying machines, not to mention all these women and free black people daring to cast votes in our elections.

While conservatives are happy to delude themselves with the belief that the Founders' politics were indistinguishable from Ronald Reagan's, perhaps the rest of us can let them rest in peace. They fought their era's battles and they won. Meanwhile, we've got 21st century problems to deal with.

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