Debunking the Cult of the Founders

In 1787, they were radicals.

I can’t recall the actor’s name or the historical figure he portrayed in his YouTube videos. It was one of the Founding Fathers, but which one exactly I’m not sure. The message, however, was quite simple: America has lost its course and needs to return to the days of its roots. In a stereotypical white-wig and gaudy attire harking back to the “glory days” of the Founding Fathers, he railed against corrupt politicians who were destroying American democracy and selling out the nation to foreign creditors. In short, the whole thing was insufferably condescending—he seemed to actually believe that a colonial-era American would respond to all the advances the United States has made in prosperity, technology, and global influence with the same level of indignant ire.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t appear to be a passing ideological fad or, for that matter, anything relatively new. Even when I was growing up, I remember hearing people—mostly old people—lament the loss of the America of the nation’s founders. Looking back, this doesn’t surprise me considering Colonial nostalgia is often wedded to an extremely right-wing political ideology; I was raised not only in one of the most conservative states in the Union but in the most conservative region of that state.

In my subsequent thoughtful self-reeducation and reformation of my political, social, and economic views, I’ve found this attitude to be every bit as farcical and ill-informed as those evil, conniving “liberals” people warned me about say it is. It’s actually quite humorous to consider what would have to happen in order for us to “return to the days of the Founders.” Here’s a few examples:

  1. About 310,000,000 million people would have to leave the United States to return to our 1790 population of 3,000,000. This would undoubtedly be a boon for the anti-immigration xenophobes.
  2. The nation would have to return to an agrarian society with farming and only light industry forming the basis of economic output .
  3. Every state except the original thirteen would have to leave the Union.

Sound unreasonable?

I thought so and this is by no means an exhaustive list. Only the most naïve person would think that America’s best days were in the 1790’s, a time when liberty was predicated upon being white, male, and a landowner. There’s an entire genre of writing that lambasts the founders as racist hypocritical pigs but that’s not my purpose in discussing this topic. This piece will actually initiate a series of writings in which I hope to enliven the discussion of some of the hotter topics of the day, particularly those which are playing a key role in the Republican presidential contest.

If nothing else, I’d like for at least one person to come to the realization that taxes are not evil, rather merely a necessary part of living in a civilized society; that trickle-down economics is the talk of liars; and, most importantly, that Americans are being sold ideas from the political right that, quite simply, are dangerous.

Furthermore, it would be nice if more people would embrace the fact that America is a different nation now than it was 230 years ago and an irrational desire to “return to our roots” does nothing to solve the problems we are facing in the present. Call me a pot-smoking liberal, but I actually don’t subscribe to what I believe is the ridiculous notion that the Founders expected America to always be the same country it was in the years after Independence. They doubtless couldn’t have known about the advances in technology and industry that were decades away, about the social and political upheaval that would shape most of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, nor about the eventual role the new nation they were forging would play as the most powerful and wealthiest nation in human history. Nevertheless, they almost assuredly believed that in some way, the world was undergoing radical change: the mere nature and text of the Constitution that is in such hot contest today is evidence enough of that. A free republic was born in the midst of an age of empires and warring tyrants because a radical group of men saw that new wine needed new wineskins.

What would they have to say about any of these topics specifically? It doesn’t matter, and for two reasons. First, they’re dead and have been for a long time. The presumptuousness of any person of any political persuasion who claims we should believe a certain way because that’s how the Founders would have believed is astounding. Secondly, Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson lived in a world vastly different from ours. Late-Eighteenth Century Colonial America no longer exists and likely never will again. Modern problems require modern solutions and the idea that a religious devotion to the policy beliefs and constitutional interpretations of early American statesmen will solve our problems is absurd.

I actually think the Founders would be insulted to learn that the document they worked so hard to perfect is being used by a group of people (tea party fanatics, right-wing ideologues, etc.) to justify holding the nation back. A new age requires new thinking and an openness to traverse philosophical territory previously considered too radical to breach. Social programs for the poor, subsidization of technological advancement, greater regulation of corporate interests, protection of workers’ rights, all of these will have to be looked at from the context of a modern Twenty-first century state. As I said, new wine needs new wineskins.

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2 thoughts on “Debunking the Cult of the Founders

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