Founding Fathers … and Claptrap!

February 15, 2014

Everybody minds and pays homage to the Founding Fathers. And the Framers, those Founding Fathers who drafted the Constitution.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s model for deciding cases—original intent—directs justices and judges to determine the intent of the Framers, as it is embodied in the text of the Constitution. Sarah Palin and Mika Brezinski love the Founding Fathers. Ms. Palin says “all of them” are her favorites, and Ms. Brezinski likes Abraham Lincoln, who was born in 1809, 22 years after the nation adopted the Constitution! Speaker Newt Gingrich tells Governor Mitt Romney the Founding Fathers wanted to be sure opportunities existed for the very poor, responding to Governor Romney’s statement that he won’t worry about the poor if he becomes the president, because:  safety net. (Really? Eighteenth century white landowners—many of whom also owned slaves—were concerned about the very poor? Turns out the Speaker’s post-graduate history degrees were in European History!)

Years ago I served on a foundation board associated with the legal profession. We had an opportunity to host an event in a new federal courthouse. Some of my fellow board members—attorneys—wanted to hire Clay Jenkinson to perform his Thomas Jefferson impersonation act. I left the meeting in an uneasy state and by the time I returned home I knew why:  old Tom would spin in his grave at the notion that someone was acting like him in honor of the federal judiciary, especially in a way too grand building! President Jefferson saw the federal courts as a less than equal, anti-democratic, and malevolent institution. Alas, our foundation was not involved in the opening and there was no Jeffersonian moment, but my compatriots were definitely in “any Founding Father will do” mode.

The Founding Fathers were great men! They created a nation that has endured (and thrived) for more than 225 years. We see greatness in them, in part, because many of them wrote, while we live in a time in which many of our leaders cannot string together a coherent paragraph. We should not, however, see them as if they were singular in thoughts and deeds. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson agreed on almost nothing. (They did have a warm post-presidential relationship, and both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.) Alexander Hamilton was not in synch with President Adams (his fellow Federalist) or President Jefferson. And President Jefferson and Chief Justice John Marshall—his own cousin—could not stand one another. Etc.

We do the memories of our Founding Fathers no service when we lump them together, as if “all the guys in wigs” must have agreed about everything. More importantly, however, we help ourselves not at all by rationalizing our points of view by claiming support, collectively, from a disputatious group of great men whose accomplishments occurred more than two centuries ago. If it matters what someone thought back then, it should matter that it’s what Jefferson thought, or what Adams thought, etc.!

For an excellent history of Jefferson and the federal courts, read The Great Decision, subtitled Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court. In 190 pages the authors tell the story of judicial review of Constitutional questions, an aspect of our governmental system that we take for granted.

For additional writing on the Founding Fathers issues raised here, consider The Founding Fathers Fallacy from the Penn Political Review or The Feuding Fathers, a fine essay by Ron Chernow from the Wall Street Journal.

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