A Historian’s Case for Why We Should Stop Talking About the Founding Fathers

In American politics, the Founding Fathers are more propaganda than people.

David Sehat May 20, 2015

(John Trumbull)

On the night of his 2012 pres­i­den­tial vic­to­ry, Barack Oba­ma stood in front of a large crowd at McCormick Place to rejoice in the prospect of four more years. The speech was in many ways unre­mark­able. He thanked his wife, his daugh­ters, his cam­paign, the Amer­i­can peo­ple. He pledged to fin­ish what he start­ed four years before. And in look­ing for­ward to four more years, he simul­ta­ne­ous­ly looked back­ward. Way back. I believe we can keep the promise of our founders,” he told his audi­ence, the idea that if you’re will­ing to work hard, it doesn’t mat­ter who you are or where you come from, or what you look like.”

When contemporary politicians refer to the Founders, they call upon a querulous and divided group that simply did not and cannot offer the singular guidance that we might wish.

That Oba­ma ref­er­enced the Founders was not unex­pect­ed. It’s what politi­cians do. I only remem­ber this instance because I hap­pened to be writ­ing a book on the way the Founders get used in polit­i­cal debate. And yet, even though I was pre­pared for a gen­er­al ref­er­ence to the Founders, I was astound­ed by the specifics of the comment.

Oba­ma was try­ing to counter the Tea Par­ty move­ment that had dogged most of his first term. After he pro­posed a pro­gram of mort­gage relief in 2009, the CNBC com­men­ta­tor, Rick San­tel­li, had set off the move­ment by sug­gest­ing that Ben­jamin Franklin and Thomas Jef­fer­son were rolling over in their graves” as a result of Obama’s poli­cies. From that point on, Tea Partiers claimed that the pres­i­dent was defy­ing the lim­it­ed-gov­ern­ment prin­ci­ples of the Found­ing Fathers and in the process had begun to erect a qua­si-social­is­tic state.

I think for many read­ers of this blog the his­tor­i­cal errors of the Tea Par­ty are so obvi­ous that I don’t pro­pose to dwell on them. In fact, let’s stip­u­late at the out­set that the Tea Party’s view of the past, which often involves the col­lapse of past and present and the embrace of the past as just like the present, is so wrong-head­ed that it deserves to be called, as Jill Lep­ore has sug­gest­ed, his­tor­i­cal fun­da­men­tal­ism.” But let’s set that aside.

What struck me as I lis­tened to Obama’s speech was that he, too, pre­sent­ed the Founders with just as much his­tor­i­cal anachro­nism and just as much mala­prop­ism as his Tea Par­ty crit­ics. Here was a black man cit­ing the Founders, many of whom would have had a hard time believ­ing that he could, as a black man, be pres­i­dent. And yet he cit­ed them as though they were mul­ti­cul­tur­al egal­i­tar­i­ans. Though the Founders did not on the whole sup­port class equal­i­ty, gen­der equal­i­ty, sex­u­al free­dom, or even racial equal­i­ty, Oba­ma used their sup­posed prin­ci­ples as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to cre­ate a mul­ti­cul­tur­al soci­ety of opportunity.

It is odd, if you think about it, that here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry we con­tin­ue to fight over men who have been dead for two hun­dred years. By the time of his speech, I was begin­ning to won­der if this is a pecu­liar­i­ty of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. You do not usu­al­ly hear a British politi­cian invok­ing Magna Car­ta in con­tem­po­rary debate, for exam­ple. And it is hard to imag­ine a pop­u­lar polit­i­cal move­ment in France begin­ning with a fever­ish call of return to the true mean­ing of the 1958 French Con­sti­tu­tion. Even though both nations have their pecu­liar ori­gins sto­ries, myths that iden­ti­fy their unique­ness as a peo­ple in rela­tion to the world, those myths do not mean that their nation­al Founders pos­sess intel­lec­tu­al cache in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. You might see the French Pres­i­dent rid­ing in a mil­i­tary truck down the Champs-Élysées on Bastille Day, but I can pret­ty much guar­an­tee that you will not see him claim­ing to be a Jacobin or in the intel­lec­tu­al lin­eage of Napoleon.

It is all the more odd when you con­sid­er that, as a point of fact, the Founders were not unit­ed and not the orig­i­na­tors of a uni­ver­sal Amer­i­can creed. They had pro­found dis­agree­ments about near­ly every issue that mat­tered to them. They argued over the role of the fed­er­al inter­ven­tion in the econ­o­my. They had dif­fer­ing visions of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy. They bick­ered over the author­i­ty of the exec­u­tive, the rela­tion­ship between the fed­er­al and the state gov­ern­ments. The Con­sti­tu­tion was a point of vast dis­pute. When con­tem­po­rary politi­cians refer to the Founders, they call upon a queru­lous and divid­ed group that sim­ply did not and can­not offer the sin­gu­lar guid­ance that we might wish. 

So why do we do this? It was when Oba­ma invoked the Founders that I fig­ured it out. The Found­ing Fathers are, as a group, a polit­i­cal foot­ball. Every­one wants them in order to score points. To have them on your side (chang­ing the metaphor slight­ly) is to dwell in the sun­ny uplands where the divine bless­es all of your poli­cies. To dis­agree with the Founders is … well, it’s just not done. Because a politi­cian needs the Founders to jus­ti­fy his or her poli­cies. And in those moments, more often than not, the Founders get re-cre­at­ed into the image of those who invoke them.

This dis­tor­tion caus­es var­i­ous intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal prob­lems. It turns the Founders from peo­ple into pro­pa­gan­da. It degrades polit­i­cal debate by con­vert­ing pol­i­cy dis­putes into more fun­da­men­tal dis­putes over first prin­ci­ples. And it is, in its intel­lec­tu­al inac­cu­ra­cy and mis­guid­ed his­tor­i­cal analo­gies, unwor­thy of a nation with the pow­er and con­se­quence of the Unit­ed States. I hope, at least, that by becom­ing aware of that fact, we might begin to have a dif­fer­ent kind of polit­i­cal debate.

This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by the Soci­ety for U.S. Intel­lec­tu­al His­to­ry.

David Sehat is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Geor­gia State Uni­ver­si­ty and author, most recent­ly, of The Jef­fer­son Rule: How the Found­ing Fathers Became Infal­li­ble and Our Pol­i­tics Inflex­i­ble.
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