Founding father follies

Sep 26 2007 Published by under [Politics]

While in Amsterdam, my girlfriend and I got into a political discussion with my post-doc advisor about the founding fathers of the United States. Basically, my advisor argued that the founding fathers (FFs) are treated essentially as religious figures, and given an unreasonable amount of deference in the U.S. political world.

The discussion started over the "Scooter" Libby pardon, and the question of why the President has the unconditional ability to pardon anyone he sees fit. My advisor argued that this power is simply a holdover from monarchical rule, while I suggested that the FFs intended this to be another 'check' in the system of checks and balances that makes the government run (of course, I also pointed out that it isn't working quite as intended). This led right into the question of why we care so much what the FFs think in the U.S.: evidently there's no other country in the world where a political figure's thoughts are treated as 'the ultimate truth'.

I have a few thoughts on the subject, which I'll list below:

1. I believe it's true that a large number of people do treat the FFs and their words in the Constitution as gospel. One only has to look at the arguments over the second amendment as well as the number of originalist judges in the right wing. However, I would say that this group of 'originalists' is still a minority in the country.

2. Why do we care at all what the FFs think, and what their 'original intent' was? For my part, it is simply the recognition that the FFs were a very, very smart group of people who fashioned one of the best political systems ever adopted. These people thought far more about the consequences of a particular law or rule than most politicians of today (many of whom don't even know what's in the Constitution). Before I would argue that a law must be changed or removed, it does not seem unreasonable to ask why it was adopted in the first place: it may cause unintended harm to take it out without first asking whether something needs to replace it. A good analogy here would be removing a support beam in a skyscraper without first asking what it is supporting.

A reasonable deference to the FFs is not much different than a reasonable deference to early scientific 'greats' like Newton and Einstein. Certainly they can be (and have been) wrong, but understanding where they went wrong can lead to just as much insight as simply pointing out the error.

3. I suspect that a lot of the political figures who push the FF religion are not at all sincere. Again, I think of the gun fanatics who treat the 2nd amendment as scripture. Certainly most of them realize that the 2nd amendment did not take into account fully automatic, armor-piercing assault rifles, but they conveniently obscure this by appealing to the 'authority' of the FFs. This is not much different than any fundamentalist religion. One suspects that most leaders of fanatical movements don't believe the tripe that they're selling.

What do you think? Are the FFs worshipped in the U.S., and how far does it (should it) go?

5 responses so far

  • babs67 says:

    Ouch - you've given me a headache just thinking about this "discussion".

  • babs67: Oh, come on - it wasn't THAT bad!

  • Personal Demon says:

    Dr. Skull asks "Are the FFs worshipped in the U.S., and how far does it (should it) go?"

    Just because we build enormous marble temples (er... "memorials") to these men, commemorate their birthdays, tell grandious myths about them, and treat their word as gospel, that doesn't mean we "worship" them. 😉

  • Then again, when you read speeches like this one , you realize that the FFs deserve a little bit of reverence...

  • Personal Demon says:

    To truly appreciate the speech you mentioned, you must imagine Benjamin Franklin delivering it naked, because that is almost certainly how he wrote it:

    “I rise early almost every morning and sit in my chamber, without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing.”

    Franklin was a horny old goat (and I love him for it).