Understanding Conservative Arguments about our Founding Fathers

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Newt Gingrich published an essay for the Washington post on July second called: Five myths about the Founding Fathers that argues for a particular point of view of the founding fathers and their policies. Gingrich, being a politician, is obviously influenced by his politics, but some of what he says is true and that which is not deserves to be explained in detail so that we can have better nuanced arguments in the future. My response is in italics.

“From Athens and Rome to the present day, all great societies have founding myths — stories they tell themselves about who they are and where they came from. Perhaps because the United States is younger than most nations (239 years old on Saturday), our founding is among the best-documented.”

There are myriad reasons for the myths surrounding our founding fathers. Much of it has to do with historical revisionism. Parson Weems for instance wrote much of the untrue “history” about George Washington. The stories of the cherry tree, his ability to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac were all of Weems’ invention. This kind of hero worship isn’t all that out of the ordinary as Gingrich says, but the idea that the founders were the ones that proliferated some of these myths is patently untrue.

“We’re fortunate to have thousands of pages of letters, speeches and other writings from our founders, recording their thoughts and debates as they played out. It’s a sign of how politically powerful and historically important the American founding was — and still is — that deeply rooted myths persist today. As we celebrate Independence Day, here are a few of the biggest myths about the Founding Fathers.”

We have letters and speeches, but aside from that we really don’t have much else. No one at the Constitutional Convention for instance was allowed to take notes or in any way disseminate what was going on in Philadelphia until they had agreed on a plan of action. Jefferson burned most of his personal correspondence when his wife Rebecca died which is why historians quote his work: Notes on the State of Virginia so frequently.

“1. They wanted a secular nation.

According to the ACLU’s Web site, the Founding Fathers “knew the best way to protect religious liberty was to keep the government out of religion.” And according to About.com’s Austin Cline, Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, describing “a wall of separation between Church & State,” was merely a “mild expression” of Jefferson’s — and other founders’ — desire to achieve freedom from religion, not just freedom of religion.
Not so.”

First of all, I want to point out that Gingrich is using an argument from About.com. That’s very questionable scholarship for someone with a PHD in history. Second, it’s important when you’re analyzing documents historically not only to understand what was written, but to understand why it was written and for what purpose. Jefferson’s 1802 letter was a letter of reassurance to a particular sect of believers that he wrote while he was President of the United States. Undoubtedly there were political reasons for writing that letter, so it’s usage here is at best questionable.

Jefferson asked: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?” George Washington thought religion essential to curbing the influence of despots and providing a higher authority for the rule of law, proclaiming in his Farewell Address that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” And Alexander Hamilton wrote, “The politician who loves liberty . . . knows that morality overthrown (and morality must fall with religion), the terrors of despotism can alone curb the impetuous passions of man.” Hardly the words of men seeking to drive faith from public life.

One of the keys to understanding George Washington is to know just how highly he thought of a Roman leader named Cincinnatus, who was considered the model of civic leadership for walking away from power while he was at his pinnacle. Washington understood the power of language to form ideas that he wished to remain as policy when he was no longer around. Think about every time a President leaves office. The number one thing that they’re concerned with is their legacy. This idea comes from Washington. More important than Washington’s reasoning behind his Farewell Address is again the context in which it was written. The Founders believed Religion to be a way to block the notion that Kings themselves were “divine.” The divine right of kings was after all one of the key issues that our Revolution was fought over. Religion at this time was more of a civic institution to ensure a check on the power of government than an actual institution that should be fought for with the same zeal as our nation’s Constitution.

“The modern notion that morality and religion can be disentangled from the republic would have been alien to our founders. They inscribed their belief in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, writing that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” appealing explicitly to God as the source of the document’s — and the new government’s — very legitimacy.”

As many historians have pointed out Jefferson’s use of the term “creator” as opposed to “God” is in and of itself significant. A creator, as Jefferson understood well, could just as easily be science as a divine deity. Why historians urge caution when looking at what role religion itself played in the founding is due to the fact that Religion was as much a social institution at the time as party politics are today. If you didn’t belong to a church in many cases then you did not belong to a community.

“To be sure, there was room in this philosophy for people of all faiths. But to assert today that our founders left no space in the public sphere for God does a disservice to history. They demanded tolerance, not secularism.”

2. They unanimously supported the Revolutionary War.

“We imagine our war for independence as a straight-ahead clash between patriot colonists and British soldiers. But the patriots themselves were British, and they were deeply divided about war with their mother country.”

This is a highly problematic interpretation of the understanding that even the founders themselves had of their roles. The founders keep in mind were in the upper echelon of society in America, but were not British citizens on par with someone born in London. The fact that they were treated differently because they were born in a colony was a major issue that men like Franklin fought with the crown over as early as the 1760’s. If you were a colonist you were considered a “subject” of the King, but not a citizen of the realm. It was this messy legal interpretation of what it meant to be a British subject that drove many to fight for the American cause during the war.

“As late as July 1, 1776, John Dickinson, the Founding Father who had written the “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms” with Jefferson the year before, was still arguing “against the Independence of these Colonies” in hopes of a possible reconciliation. It’s true that when the Continental Congress voted for independence on July 2, the vote was unanimous — 12 states in favor, none opposed. But then again, the entire New York delegation abstained because its members were unsure of the will of their constituents. (The state’s merchant class was especially ambivalent about the revolutionary cause.)”

Dickinson was the moderate that gave everyone in the Continental Congress a headache. The reason that the New York delegation abstained was because they were unsure that they had the authority to declare themselves a free and independent nation. Indeed, this was a problem for many of the delegations because many of the early colonial assemblies were brought together from committee’s on public safety, which had no real connection to the British crown.

“Even after the Declaration of Independence, writes historian Robert M. Calhoon , following an initial swell of support, no more than 45 percent of the population actively participated in the war effort. Historians estimate that a fifth of the colonial population openly opposed the patriots during the war.”

The phrase “actively participated” like much of Gingrich’s language is again problematic. Many had to do what they could simply to survive at this time. If you were a citizen caught in the theatre of war your land might change sides six or seven sides. Obviously you’re not going to be helping one side or the other in that situation because if you do so you’ll be hanged for treason by the other side as soon as they retake your land. There were also a large number of spy networks working for the Revolutionary cause that we are just now learning about. Also, the idea that you could poll support for the war effort at this time is at best a dubious claim as even the first census figures twenty-five years later were highly flawed.

“Which explains why the fable about Paul Revere shouting “The British are coming!” on his midnight ride could never have happened. He was on a covert mission and couldn’t know who among the population was a patriot and who was a royalist. (And since the colonists thought of themselves as British at the time, the phrase would have baffled them.)”

There is so much that is wrong historically here that I don’t have enough room to even get into it.

3. The founders were isolationists.

“In a widely read 2007 Manchester Union-Leader op-ed, then-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), running for president, attempted to rebrand his isolationist foreign policy stance — a call for America to withdraw from its traditional role as a global power — by declaring that he advocated “the same foreign policy the Founding Fathers would.”“

“But the founders weren’t isolationists. Washington counseled that “it is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world” — a passage often cited by those looking to pull back America’s drawbridges. But he was responding particularly to the expiration of our 1778 treaty with France, not arguing that America should withdraw from world affairs. In fact, Washington and the Continental Congress had previously pleaded — through Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassador — for then-Bourbon France to intervene on behalf of the colonists during the Revolutionary War.”

But the founders absolutely were isolationists, Newt! You have to keep in mind that Washington’s policies were designed to keep us out of another war with Great Britain. The British policy of impressment ultimately led to the War of 1812, so you could make an argument that Madison wasn’t an isolationist even though his decision to go to war was ultimately one that he struggled mightily with. None of the founders wanted anything to do with foreign entanglements. They saw Europe’s wars as very destructive, which is why Washington didn’t want any new treaties. This should be differentiated from the idea that the founders wanted us to be withdrawn from “world affairs.” Hamilton’s economic policies were very pro-British and Jefferson’s very pro-French. Adams had extensive diplomatic e experience with foreign powers and new the power of diplomacy, which is why he ordered diplomats to France during what has become known as the “XYZ Affair.” But, Jefferson chose embargo over war when he absolutely could have declared war, in fact the big reason that Madison asked for a declaration of war was the fact that the embargo had been ineffective and war was the only step that could be taken if we were going to remain autonomous from Britain. How all of this winds up not being isolationist I can’t begin to fathom.

Jefferson’s entreaty, in his first inaugural address, to seek “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” is another favorite of today’s isolationists. But it was he who launched the Barbary Wars to secure free maritime passage for commerce, one of America’s first military excursions abroad.

The Barbary Wars, first off were undeclared, and second not led entirely by the U.S. That’s such a flimsy defense.

4. They were above partisanship.

In 2004, USA Today’s Chuck ¬Raasch wrote, “So much for the vision of the founders,” lamenting the machinations of party politics on display during that year’s presidential race. This past week, ABC News’s Matthew Dowd invoked the founders while calling for “politics that puts country first and not party.” Who, after all, could argue with putting country first?

Indeed, John Adams and James Madison professed disdain for partisanship. Adams said parties were “the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” Madison warned in “The Federalist No. 10” that “so strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

But Madison wrote this as a leader of one distinct faction, the Federalists, who argued vociferously in favor of constitutional ratification while their anti-Federalist opponents, among them Patrick Henry, attacked their ideas in terms that were, for their day, far from polite. Madison later aligned himself with Jefferson and James Monroe in the opposition Democratic-Republican Party, moving away from Federalists Washington and Hamilton.
Madison was right about “violent conflicts,” though: Jefferson ally Aaron Burr so reviled Hamilton (their enmity was both personal and political) that Burr challenged Hamilton to, then killed him in, a duel. The founders might have ballyhooed partisanship — as our leaders do today — but they were just as guilty, if not more so, of partisan fighting.

Joseph Ellis in his fantastic, Pulitzer-Prize winning book Founding Brothers details the story of how Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson came together in order to guarantee a Bill of Rights, the permanent seat of the capital, and the economic plan that would set off America’s industrial growth. One could make a far better argument for partisanship by showcasing the election of 1800, by far the closest election in American history and often cited as the most contentious. This is just poor historical scholarship on Gingrich’s part.

5. They thought the Constitution would “evolve.”

“The provisions of the Constitution are not mathematical formulas,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said. “. . . They are organic, living institutions.” His words prefigured Woodrow Wilson’s “living” constitutionalism — the notion that the Constitution evolves over time. Even Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing last month’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, claimed that the founders “entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.”

But while there’s no question the framers believed that the Constitution could be changed — through the amendment process they carefully outlined — an evolving document wasn’t what they had in mind. “Our peculiar security,” Jefferson wrote in 1803, “is in possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.” Washington affirmed that the Constitution was unchanging “till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people.”

“If in the opinion of the people,” he added, “the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this in one instance may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”

The argument that Jefferson is making is that we should not change constitutional “powers” in other words the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the government. To suggest that Jefferson didn’t believe the Constitution should be amended is just absurd. Jefferson fought for as many constitutional changes as anyone else. This argument that Newt is using is just plain wrong. The constitution was thought by the founders to be a “living” document that needed to be changed to fit the times and the historical scholarship on this is almost indisputable.


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