I cringe every time I hear someone start a sentence with, “The founding fathers believed…” Historian Alan Taylor has an op-ed in the New York Times pointing out that other than separating from England, they agreed on very little. And they fought just as dirty as our politicians do today.
oliticians praise America’s founders for having set guiding and enduring principles. Donald J. Trump declares that global free trade “is a direct affront to our founding fathers, who wanted America to be strong, independent and free.” Hillary Clinton counters, “Our founders embraced the enduring truth that we are stronger together.”
But that raises questions: Which founders, and which principles? For in history, unlike in mythic memory, they fought like cats and dogs over every major issue, foreign and domestic…
Instead of offering a single, cohesive and enduring vision for America, the founders were diverse and squabbling. They generated contradictory political principles that persist to our own day. Instead of offering us an antidote to our divisions, those clashing founders created them.
Our early politics were so edgy and shrill because the stakes involved were so high, as leaders and their followers struggled to define the revolution and Constitution. The union of states and the republican form of government were new, tenuous, vulnerable and open to debate. It was easy to imagine one’s political rivals as ominous threats to free government. When Mr. Trump accuses Mrs. Clinton of cofounding the Islamic State, he echoes the recklessness with which Hamilton associated Jefferson with the bloody Jacobins of the French Revolution…Political partisans and journalists shot one another in duels over insults. A South Carolinian noted, “Three-fourths of the duels which have been fought in the United States were produced by political disputes.”
Hamilton’s death from Aaron Burr’s pistol shot in a duel in Weehawken, N.J., was unusual only in its mortality. It was considered better form to shoot a rival in a leg rather than through the heart. The early Congress was full of limping gentlemen…
Our politics are not always worse than theirs were. The revolutionary era was no golden age. To preserve the union, the founding fathers felt compelled to preserve slavery. Today, women can vote and lead. In the founders’ era, a husband could beat his wife provided the stick was no thicker than his thumb. And despite the multiplying insults of modern politics, we have not yet resumed shooting one another in duels. We distort the past and discredit the present by inflating the founders’ virtues and denying our own.
This is just another version of the Paradise Lost myth. We treat the founders as plaster saints and their era as a garden of Eden from which we have now fallen because of some myriad of “sins.” We have made enormous progress for the better from the founding era. Things have gotten better, not worse, by virtually any measure. Myths like this almost always are a cover for regressive politics, urging us to go back to a mythical past that was, in fact, far worse than the situation today.