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

(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-Elysees 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.

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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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