They Weren't Prophets

When I was younger my stepfather was fond of ribbing me about my political positions. I presume he chocked my ideas and ideals up to my uninformed youth or an unhealthy gullibility about the nature of government. Whether it was gun control, the rights of the accused, the nature of foreign policy or climate control, he almost always fell back on a handful of similar arguments, arguments I have often heard echoed by conservatives of all stripes:

'The founding fathers wanted/intended/wrote X and so X is therefore correct.'

This position is all well and good but is it really relevant to talk about the current state of America in terms of what men two centuries in their graves thought when compared against the realities of today?

The founders didn't live in the twentieth century. They didn't have the internet, aviation, mass media, telephony, urbanism, nuclear weapons, factory farms, labor unions, germ theory, mass transit, space travel, data mining, ballistic missiles, universal suffrage, universal literacy, twenty-four hour news, power grids, health codes or even a standing army.

The founders didn't have to contend with Rove v. Wade or the multinational corporations. The founders had never heard of global warming or embryonic research. They didn't have to battle overpopulation and they'd never heard the word 'nonproliferation.' The framers certainly knew what abortion was but they didn't make a national issue out of it. They didn't care one lick about gay rights. The founders didn't have to contend with a vocal, violent, apocalyptic death cult that actively desired to conquer and subjugate the world in the name of Jesus and that was disproportionately represented in governing bodies across the nation.

Most importantly, the founders were trying to found a new nation rather than perpetuate one that was already hundreds of years old. Thus, they were allowed, and should be understood to have made mistakes. y

While the men who founded our country had plenty of good ideas that have persisted through the intervening decades, they also had a large share of bad ideas as well. They believed that human beings could be owned like livestock. They believed that only white land-owning men should be allowed to vote or hold office. They believed that senators should be elected by their state legislatures rather than by citizens. Let me also remind everyone that the current version of government, as created by the founders, is a second draft. They had to scrap the first government and start over when the original version collapsed after less than twelve years.

The words of the founding fathers are not and should not be treated as scripture.

The history of our country is defined as much by the struggle to shrug off the founders' bad ideas as it is by the attempt to live by the good ones. With less than two decades remaining until the country's semiquincentennial, it might do us all some good to think and talk about what we want our country to be in the here and now rather than concentrating on what a gaggle of rich white elitists wanted for a fundamentally different place nearly a quarter of a millennium ago.

I should also note that, in the past fifteen years or so, my stepfather has substantially liberalized his thinking, probably as a result of spending those years with my mother.

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Tom Harper said...

This is why I like the view that the Constitution is a "living, breathing" document, rather than an ironclad document that means exactly what it says.

Child labor laws are one example of this. These laws were routinely overturned by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional. Then, sometime in the early 1900s, the Supreme Court ruled that child labor laws were constitutional after all. The Constitution didn't change; the times did.

waldo said...

Absolutely right. Gun laws should be reviewed.