Two evenings ago, I was delighted to discover this music video, which is a very highly produced parody of Timbaland’s hit song, “Apologize.”
No wait!, stick around – I actually have something of substance to say other than the obvious fact that this video is totally fucking awesome. It gets me to thinking about one of my favorite pet peeves – the type of idolizing that American political culture so cruelly and ignorantly asks its founding figures to endure.
Now, let it be known that I come to this position as a profound lover of the founding fathers, and of early American history in general. In fact, I love it so much that I originally planned to make my living at it – my emphasis was in early American history before switching, at the end of my third year of graduate school, to twentieth century American history. I made this change because my interest in contemporary politics became so important to me that I could not imagine putting my academic energy into a field that I could not easily apply to the questions that face us today, and 240 years ago was just too much of a stretch – more on why that is in a moment. However, I will never lose my love for the people and stories of early American history, and a large, framed image of Alexander Hamilton is still one of the most notable features of my interior décor.
However, despite my affection for Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams and all the rest – an affection that at times feels so intimate and immediate I occasionally refer to them as “my boys” – I do not think that they hold the key to every social question we face today, nor do I believe that an argument on either side of a question is bolstered simply because you can cite one of the founding fathers as being in support of it. I’ll begin with the first issue.
If there is one thing you learn from historical training, one mantra you will pick up, it is this: context, context, context. Partly this is because without obsessing about the niceties of context, the field would stagnate and there would be no way to attack each others' work * - but mostly it is because historical analysis shows us how much - from the clothes people wear to their assumptions about God, nature, and humanity - is dependent on historical context. Simply put, the worldview - the basic assumptions, the feeling of life itself - of someone from the eighteenth century was so dramatically different from someone from the twenty-first century, that to artificially extract an eighteenth century opinion and apply it to a twenty-first century problem is a very ahistorical, and indeed illogical, thing to do. It is silly to ask what the founders would have thought about abortion, or affirmative action, or net neutrality. Even if you possess primary source material expressing opinions you could then map onto these modern questions, why would you want to? They come from a profound position of ignorance – the founding fathers could not imagine the type of society we live in today nor the obstacles we would face in fulfilling our values. They were not psychic, so their writings should not be treated as though they apply equally well to all times and circumstances.
Furthermore, the idea that true, virtuous American values are necessarily those articulated by the founding fathers is false – we indeed still have many of the same values today, but we also have additional values; our goals as a society have evolved and been elaborated. And then there are values we have entirely shunted aside, such as patriarchy and racism. Of course, if you are a cultural conservative, denying this has two benefits – one, you can paint a picture of American history which attributes everything good about America to old, dead white men, and second, you can paper over the moral ambiguities that something like Jefferson owning slaves – and fathering children with them – necessarily presents. Because if there is one thing cultural conservatives deeply fear, it is the shade of gray.
But I digress. The second reason why granting the opinions of the founding fathers a divine like dignity is problematic is due to the fact that there is no such thing as a monolithic body of founding father opinion. True, most of them shared some basic assumptions, although many of these – such as the cyclical view of history – are unfamiliar ideas today. But if we are going to talk about policy, they are all over the place. That is, of course, why the first party system developed almost the moment after Washington was inaugurated – indeed, the major divisions that would drive the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans to demonize each other in the years to come had already been highly aggravated by the debate preceding the ratification of the Constitution. Even if we look at the closest thing to a collected, cohesive body of political philosophy by the founding fathers – undoubtedly The Federalist Papers penned by Hamilton, Madison and Jay – we are looking at two authors (Hamilton and Madison) who would within years represent the major leaders of opposing political factions, and by the mid 1790s they were in profound disagreement about what exactly their arguments in The Federalist Papers implied. (This is also why originalism, as a theory of law, does not work, but that is another post.)
That is the historical argument. But there is also another objection that is at once philosophical and practical. To cite the opinions of the founding fathers as evidence that your position is correct is to argue from authority, which is flawed logic. A principle is just or unjust, an idea good or bad, on its own merits, regardless of who agrees or disagrees with that argument. Simply because some incredibly wise, intelligent, or wonderful people once argued in favor of something does not magically impart truth to that which is being argued. Furthermore, this is all the more true in this case because, as I just mentioned, any bit of wisdom a founding father imparted to posterity is likely to be contradicted by a member of his own cohort. And as should be obvious, wise, intelligent, and wonderful people are in the habit of disagreeing all the time.
Additionally, it is actually an injustice to the memory of the founding fathers to burden them with such omnipotence and perfection. I think a true love of historical figures is much like a true love of people in your life – perfect people might actually be more difficult to admire. After all, what would Adams be without his temper tantrums, Jefferson without the deep mystery of his profound hypocrisy, and Hamilton without his brash bad judgment whenever he picked up a pen? To me, what makes the founding fathers such wonderful people to get to know is not only what makes them impressive, but what makes them human.
Do not get me wrong – I am not here arguing that we have nothing to learn from the founding fathers. Indeed, we have had the good wisdom to hold onto much of what they taught the eighteenth century world, and hopefully will continue to do so. But it is precisely that this process is a choice that is so vitally important – generations cannot simply receive wisdom uncritically, but must understand on an analytical level what makes ideas good or bad, policies just or unjust. Indeed, if we are going to invoke the founding fathers for any contemporary argument, let it be that – for as revolutionaries, they broke with centuries of tradition and blind obedience. Indeed, as I watch contemporary political commentators end thoughtful discussion with a simple evocation of how the Constitution is a distilled combination of unalloyed genius and divine authorship, I reflect how ironic it is that one of the most popular founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, believed that the Constitution should be reconsidered and rewritten every generation or two, so that the prejudices of the past might not hold back the progress of the future.
But Jefferson was silly like that. That is a horrible idea.
* This is an exaggeration, but it holds a grain of truth.