Founding Fathers and the Tea Party
There is a constant refrain coming out of the right-wing about how disappointed the founding fathers would be with Obama. The gist of it being that everything Obama is doing violates the intention of the founding fathers and the Constitution. Here, for instance, is our favorite Glenn Beck informing us that everything comes down to “The Founding Fathers vs. Today’s Progressives.” In Beck’s new fictional work/right-wing insurrectionist fantasy book, the heroes will be called, surprise surprise, the “Founders Keepers” (which I assume are just the Promise Keepers with powdered wigs.)
Here is one of the various tea party groups declaring their allegiance to “our core values derived from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States of America and the Bill Of Rights as explained in the Federalist Papers”
This, of course, all reached the level of the absurd when Dick Armey, who leads one of these Tea Party groups, refused to believe that Alexander Hamilton, who of course authored a good chunk of those Federalist Papers, supported a strong federal government.
Put aside, for a second the absurdity of the idea that there is a single coherent group that you can refer to as “Founding Fathers.”
Put aside, then, the differences between Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton, between John Adams and Patrick Henry, etc… Put aside your questions as to who exactly gets to be in this group (did you have to sign the Declaration of Independence?- sorry Washington! Draft the Constitution?- sorry Jefferson! Be a voter in 1789?- Sorry Paine)
Then, on top of that, put aside the obvious questions about whether people who, for instance, believed in bad humors and leeches have much to tell us about modern health care policy, or people who used smoothbored muskets have valid opinions about whether citizens should own assault rifles. Or, more obviously, whether people who lived before the days of wage labor have anything to tell us about capitalism.
Then, hardest of all, assume, for the sake of argument, that Glenn Beck or Dick Armey, actually have a pretty firm understanding of what this group of people actually thought. That the man who can’t spell “Oligarchy” correctly and the man who doesn’t understand the difference between Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian ideology has a perfect understanding of 18th century political philosophy.
Even with all that… so what? Is an idea correct just because John Adams or Benjamin Franklin held it?
There is a rot in our intellectual culture when we try to defend every idea by looking backward, by trying to fit it into boxes inherited from the past. Like we’re nervous of our own beliefs and look behind our backs for approval. It is a collective use of the “appeal to authority” fallacy, made worse by the timidness and lack of good faith it encourages.
If our ideas are good- if they will make, today, a better society- than they should and can stand on their own two legs. If they don’t, then appeals to tradition and authority will be all that is left.
But for much of the modern right, there seems to be an almost childish awe of the founding fathers, more as if they were religious figures– Moses-like lawgivers– than compromised historical actors. It is a combination of unthinking hero worship of the ultimate “Daddy” figures with blind veneration of nationalist symbolisms. Beck is obviously a loon, but more respectable versions, like originalism, are hardly better.
This isn’t to say that the Founders were really liberal. There are readings of them that sustain such an interpretation. For instance us liberals loved throwing Franklin (“They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security”) or Jefferson (“I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature”) at the torturers and theists back in the Bush era.
But ultimately, if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit that we all pick and choose from what they believed in. We like freedom of speech and religious toleration, we don’t like slavery and the fact that only men could vote. We like bans on torture, we don’t like property requirements for the franchise, etc… But our belief in things like religious freedom or humane treatment of prisoners should never rest on the fact that someone else also believed in them a couple of centuries ago.
One of those founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, once said that the Earth belongs to the living, and yet too many of us act as if we’re willing to cede our judgement to those who have been dead for 200 years (that’s right, I just quoted a Founding Father to explain why not to quote Founding Fathers!).
Of course, this all was an excuse to post this video, explaining in good historical detail, how the founders decided on the current American flag.