Guest opinion: What can we learn from the Founding Fathers?
Since 1776 an aura of allegiance to the alleged wisdom, far-sightedness and insightful understanding of effective governance of the Founding Fathers has become dogma. After a careful reading of history, the perception is neither justified nor true.
In fact, I would submit that it has contributed over the past 245 years to much of America’s political strife, our Civil War and the state of the nation today.
To be clear, the men (there were no women) who gathered in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Virginia and the Carolinas represented the “elite” of colonial society — landed gentry of the North, plantation owners of the South, emerging business tycoons of trade and developing industry in the North. They included the likes of Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton and many other recognizable names. They were economically and socially powerful in their cities and agrarian communities. They were intelligent, savvy and pragmatic!
In 1776 their purpose was simple — to declare themselves free of the dominance and control of King George and the Parliament who told these upstarts how to behave! Their Declaration — “… liberty and justice for all,” “one nation under God,” presented their objectives in eloquent prose which struck a chord among many. Independence was achieved!
The meetings of 1786, 1787 and 1788 were far different. They met not to end slavery (an institution present since 1619); not to provide universal suffrage; not to empower and enrich the masses of people who had fled England and Europe in search of a new home.
Simply, the Articles of Confederation had failed! There was no effective government, no standing army — only ineffective state militias (you know, those pesky Second Amendment groups which would hopefully protect the colonies from the marauding Indians), and no national currency. There was chaos and the threat of enemies: England to the North, Spain to the South and Southwest, the French on the banks of the Mississippi. All waiting to gobble up the defenseless country.
The meetings that included the Constitutional Convention brought together able negotiators, lawmakers and pragmatists of the first order — THEY HAD TO BE IF THEY WERE TO SURVIVE.
From those meetings there emerged a figurative giant in the person of James Madison. He and his cohorts helped craft a document which barely won the support of the needed 10 states. They fashioned a bicameral legislature — a House and a Senate — and a president to lead the way. And from the divisions over how best to govern the new nation there arose our first political parties: Federalist and anti-Federalists!
America in 1787 was as deeply divided a nation as we are today, dealing with many of the same issues facing America today. The political hostilities were intense and passions were as high as they are today. Anarchy was on the doorstep. Some assert that without George Washington we wouldn’t have made it.
The Founding Fathers were not icons of virtue endowed with the ability to see forward some 245 years. They were mortal men striving to create a nation that would survive. Their original intent was simple. Survival!
Today, those (the Mike Lees, Scalia acolytes) devoted to preserving “… the original intent of the Founding Fathers…” simply know not of what they speak. The Constitution the Founding Fathers wrote was designed to seek common ground on which to build consensus and to limit the ability of any one person or group to impose their beliefs on all others. In fact, without the added Bill of Rights, it would have failed.
There is little, if anything, to be found in the Constitution or Federalist Papers that justifies the claim that original intent should be the basis for solving problems 245 years later. If there is anything to be learned from them, it is that reasonable men ought to be able to find ways to resolve their differences, not “my way or the highway.”
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“Proponents should be honest about what they plan to put in a landfill,” writes Thomas Jacobson, “and everyone should understand the consequences if the geology and hydrology have not been properly studied.”