“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them, like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment…I know, also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind…We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” –Thomas Jefferson
“Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?” –James Madison
When we hear a story about the people wanting Washington to be king after the Revolution was over, we nearly laugh at the idea of a monarch in America. We are dearly grateful that Washington had enough sense to turn down the position in favor of a mere presidency. Yet sometime in the past century – it is hard to say when – we went ahead and placed that crown upon the head of Washington and all of the other founders.
The Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act brought a whole new onslaught of American founder thumping to the political debate. Conservatives said founders would be rolling over in their graves if they knew what powers the federal government had accrued. Liberals defended with quotes showing their interest in promoting the general welfare. Almost everyone seemed to be missing what the founders would be the most concerned about: their posthumous coronation.
It is one thing to respect the incredible feats the founding fathers performed by separating themselves from Britain, fighting them off, and then founding a nation that would lead the industrialized world. It is another thing entirely to try and govern by their opinions written outside the law. The words of theirs we actually need to follow are in the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence, Federalist papers, and various letters, speeches, and pamphlets do not bind us in any way. The last couple weeks have shown that people forget that.
It is very useful and enlightening to look at what they wrote and consider how their opinions may apply to our government today, just as it is useful to contemplate the opinions of Lincoln, Reagan, the Roosevelts, and any other great leader or political thinker in our history. Unfortunately, a good amount of contemporary discussion seems to exceed mere consideration of opinions.
Part of the problem could very well be the group’s very name: the founding fathers. It creates the dynamic that comes through in modern debate, one where they are our fathers and we are their children. Many people do indeed seem to defer to the words of the founders as a young child would to his father.
Another problem could be the fact that we have never had royalty, and feel a need to place the weight of the nation on someone’s shoulders. Instead of thinking through problems for ourselves, in a knee-jerk reaction we try and apply the perceived opinions of the founders to whatever issue is at hand, no matter how unrelated. Thinking for yourself isn’t easy, and falling back on an eighteenth century quote seems to be a simple way out for many Americans.
Hopefully this country can outgrow a needless dependency on our predecessors. We have over two hundred years more collective governing experience than them, and our world is vastly different from anything the founders could comprehend. Their words should be listened to and respected, but no longer taken as binding commandments.