Myth of the founding fathers

January 24, 2012

We tend to forget that the founding fathers got it wrong: it was called the Articles of Confederation.

The political confusion that is the Republican primary season is largely based on a deep and abiding misunderstanding of the beginnings of American style democracy. The founding fathers, note the plural, were not of one mind. They had deep and abiding disagreements. They were able to put many of these disagreements aside.

Benjamin Franklin told the Continental Congress:
“I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”

Who is today’s Franklin? I see many anti-Franklins. Certainty is the new definition of leadership. The President failed to live up to the promises he didn’t actually make. He failed to make the right guesses. We are assured that all his opponents would do otherwise. They won’t say how, or even why we should trust them. But they lead by being certain.

The founding fathers were not certain. they had doubts. Some that we try to avoid talking about. When given the chance to fix what they had done wrong, they created a dynamic and uncertain structure. Filled with conflicting constituencies, checks and balances. Why? Because they were certain? No because they knew only that nothing was certain, and no majority was fully benign. Freedom–everyone seems to be for that–depends not on certainty, but on the opposite. Minority rights in the midst of successful majority rule. They were for a strong central government. That is why they were in Philadelphia. They wanted a government and they wanted a government that worked. Jefferson didn’t disband the government when assuming power despite his often quoted rhetoric. He was not for making it so small it could be drowned in a bathtub! That is not American history. That is not American democracy.

American democracy is not the thing that didn’t work the first time we tried it. American democracy is that we fixed it, not only in 1789 but in 1865, and 1932, and 1964, and in all the time between and since. The genius of the Constitution is that our democracy is not in it, it grows from it.


One comment

  1. Thanks

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