Let’s stop pretending they knew anything about today’s world.
Can we stop using the founding fathers as the basis of our political arguments? It’s a sloppy way to argue, filled with fallacy, and it does an injustice to both the past and the present.
The founding fathers were imperfect human beings. They had some good ideas and some bad ideas. Good idea: representative democracy. Bad idea: slavery. Good idea: freedom of religion. Bad idea: disenfranchising everyone who isn’t a white male. When we treat their ideas like holy scripture, we do a disservice to some of their best ideas and hold on to some of their worst.
We talk about them as if they thought with one mind, but the fact is they argued incessantly. Asking what the founding fathers thought about an issue like monarchy or federalism is like asking what Congress thinks today about gun control or corporate taxes. You might be able to determine what the majority thinks, or pin down the opinion of a senator, but could Mitch McConnell or Bernie Sanders represent the whole of congress? It’s ridiculous on the face of it.
The founding fathers were human beings. And one of the defining characteristics of human beings is that they exist as part of a culture. That culture determined the way they thought about certain issues. Given those limitations, they did a remarkable job of designing a resilient system of representative government, but most of them never even considered that women might deserve a voice. None of them planned for public education, or Twitter, or nuclear weapons, or AI-driven vehicles.
Edmund Randolph, one of the original drafters of the U.S. Constitution, said that one of the goals of that document was “To insert essential principles only, lest the operations of government should be clogged by rendering those provisions permanent and unalterable, which ought to be accommodated to times and events.”
A noble goal, but clearly the operations of government have become clogged, and we are obviously failing to accommodate times and events. Disinformation proliferates like weeds; representation has skewed out of all proportion to population; corporations have hacked into our cultural software for their own profit; terrorists can easily access war machines and slaughter the innocent in supermarkets; the basic life support of our planet is disintegrating before our eyes.
Meanwhile, we argue about what a small group of men two hundred and fifty years ago intended. Intelligent men, forward-thinking men, yes, but men who were limited by the cultural beliefs and technological developments of the time.
Instead of arguing about what the founding fathers intended, perhaps we might reasonably argue about the ideas themselves. I, for one, am tired of hearing the founding fathers trotted out as an authoritative reason for why Washington D.C. should or shouldn’t be a state, or why we can’t have universal background checks.
The question isn’t what the founding fathers intended for a time 250 years in the future, but whether or not we believe that D.C. citizens deserve to be represented today. I’d have to check, but I imagine that D.C. today has more people than any of the original thirteen colonies did. We shouldn’t be asking whether the founding fathers would have approved of AR-15s or background checks or weapons registries, but whether we approve of them and can justify them, and to what extent, today. Should deliberate disinformation count as protected speech? Why or why not? Show your work. YOUR work. What principles and values apply? What are the ramifications?
We can no longer pretend that the founding fathers are an adequate authority in today’s world. To continue to do so is to abdicate our freedom and our duty to self-govern. The founding fathers were not prescient, and they were imperfect. Where the ideas are good, let them stand on their own merits. Where they are bad, let them fall. It’s high time we honored the vision of the founding fathers rather than appealing to their long-dead authority.