U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Why We Should Stop Talking about the Founding Fathers

SehatThe following guest post is by David Sehat, 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.

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.”

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.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The French might not still appeal to Napoléon or the Jacobins, but the French Revolution and the ideal of the république still carry a lot of meaning in French politics.

  2. Thanks for this David, I am looking forward to reading your book!

    I was wondering if, in the book, you explore how and why the founders became, as you aptly put it, a political football. If other countries do not do this, why do we? Arguably they could use some historical figures to try to gain political credibility? Off the top of my head, I would guess that other countries preserved a sense of disagreement over major figures, and lack a singular recorded “founding moment” that immediately became christened as essential to national unity. As I type this, I now realize this is a silly comment and I should just read your book! But I guess it’s a long winded way of saying I think it’s a book sorely needed and am looking forward to understanding this peculiarity better!

    • Occasionally German politicians refer to Bismarck as an inspiration and for a long time it was not recommended in the Soviet Union to ignore Lenin.

  3. You’re absolutely right, David, but the cast of characters is even larger. It’s not only the Founders of America as an ideal, it’s the Sustainers a well. Lincoln, FDR, both liberals and conservatives now want JFK on their side, and some Democrats are starting to claim Reagan would agree more with them today (contra Tea Party extremists) on certain issues. Dead leaders make great political trump cards. I think your post made such an impression on me because I spent six years dealing with all the diverse Americans who over the years claimed Edmund Burke would agree with them on some matter he could not possibly have foreseen (or on which his position was unclear)—and he wasn’t even an American. Seldom does a living politician (or advocate) equal the weight of a dead statesman (or philosopher).

  4. The Dutch still venerate Willem van Oranje (no, not the one who became King of England). His name is mentioned in the first sentence of the national anthem. However politicians rarely invoke his legacies one of which was a rudimentary freedom of religion for the new Republic.
    I have just finished reading “Rough Crossings” by Simon Schama in which he sort of lampoons the FF’s by suggesting that the proclamation by the British Governor General of Virginia John Earl of Dunmore did more for freedom than the Declaration of Independence.

  5. Hi all. Thanks for the comments. For those who pointed out similarities in other political contexts, I’m grateful for the examples. I still think that the American rhetoric about the Founding Fathers is more pronounced than the occasional reference to Bismark or Willem van Oranje or even the (very important) French ideal of the république. But that is a side issue for my larger point–which is the lack of intellectual integrity of this Founders rhetoric and the damage that that rhetoric causes. I would not want to get bogged down in a debate over whether another nation’s political rhetoric is comparable and then lose sight of my larger point. As for the notion that the Founders are not unique in American politics–since Lincoln, FDR, and JFK are also invoked–I still consider the Founding Fathers primary, even as I readily grant that there are other symbols and icons. Consider the number of occasions that an undergraduate has written about Abraham Lincoln as though he was a Founder–that happens with a certain amount of regularity in my courses and I think it testifies to the primary importance of “the Founders” as a cultural category. Finally, as for how the trend developed, I do try to explain it in the book (hint: it goes back to Jefferson), but for a shorter version check out an interview that I did with Jack Balkin at Balkinization: http://balkin.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-jefferson-rule-interview-with-david.html

  6. David, I wonder if you might clear up a few things for me. It seems as if you are making two distinct categorizations of the phenomenon you describe. At first it appears that you are saying that political discourse assigns the founders with the modern values that we give them. This would explain Obama’s appeal to the founders when he talks about hard work and alludes to the American dream, etc. Then you seem to say that this phenomenon traps American political discourse in an attempt to determine, and then argue, about first principles. This, it seems to me, would constitute two distinct phenomena. One in which Americans utilize the founders to justify ideals they never had, and the other in which Americans remain doggedly fixated on ideals, or perceived ideals, they actually did have. I am sure that you treat this issue more in depth in your book, but I do not think this article addresses that issue. Understandably so, given its brevity, of course.

  7. Picking up on “historical fundamentalism” and thinking of how similar this text proofing of the Founders (minus the texts in many cases) is like text proofing of the Bible. In both cases we really don’t know what the original text says, b/c it’s been filtered so thoroughly through other lenses. But the authority of the source persists, so we head to “the Bible says” or “the Founders say.” Parallels here as well to my “American Jesus” project–another place where Americans looked down a well, saw themselves, and called the image something else.

  8. I’d say Stephen Prothero is exactly right–and thanks for weighing in Steve. We Americans unwittingly assign modern values to the Founders while we continue to revere them. And because we disagree with one another politically (while agreeing about the importance of the Founders), our disagreement becomes an interpretative difference over the Founders. Yet all of this is intellectually suspect. The Founders disagree about any number of things, so there are few stable ideals that can be ascribed to them (as a group) with intellectual integrity. What happens usually, then, is that we create gods that look like us, bow before them, and then cast aspersions upon those who refuse to bow to our own image. That is a bad place to formulate policy and a problematic form of political debate.

  9. I kind of disagree. Though the tea partiers and conservative think tanks have struggled mightily to appropriate the founders, it seems overwhelmingly clear that all – including the whigs – were flaming liberals. How could it be otherwise? They were children of the Enlightenment, nourished on Locke and Voltaire. Our founding documents are as radical as any manifesto ever written. Today’s liberals are wimps compared to the Founders.

    • Do the liberal ones include those who owned slaves (nearly half, depending on who you count), the ones that didn’t believe that women ought to participate in public life (all of them), or the ones that were suspicious of men without property (most of them, at different points in time)? I regret to say that I think this comment is exactly the kind of myth-making that I am arguing against–creating the Founders into images of ourselves, in this case, modern liberals.

  10. Fascinating piece. But maybe these ideas resonate better elsewhere. When I did over 100 interviews in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina with leaders of democratization NGOs, I found that they talked often of Enlightenment thinkers, and sometimes of our founding fathers. Indeed, at one point in my book I call them the “heirs to the Enlightenment.” Democratization NGOs import ideas from other countries (e.g. participatory municipal budgeting from Brazil) and from the past. They combine them with the recovery of democratic practices at the local level such as village councils.

  11. “It degrades political debate by converting policy disputes into more fundamental disputes over first principles.” . . . now there’s a WHOPPER. Pardon me, David, but first principles is EXACTLY what we should be arguing over. All the rest is simply a distraction from the core issues. Are we truly free, up to and including anti-social behaviors like discriminating against others, taking our money and leaving the country, or refusing to be drafted into a war we disagree with? Does mankind have an inalienable, God-given right to self-defense? Answer questions like these about first principles, and all the policy disputes that flow from them evaporate.
    P.S. Rhetorically, I think invoking the Founders is a lot like invoking God. If they (or He) be for it, who can be against it?

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