The timely topic of the intent of the nation’s founders was turning over in my mind when I happened upon a quote by the Stoic philosopher Seneca. In response to a question about walking in our predecessors’ footsteps, he noted:
“I surely will use the older path, but if I find a shorter and smoother way, I’ll blaze a trail there. The ones who pioneered these paths aren’t our masters, but our guides. Truth stands open to everyone, it hasn’t been monopolized.”
The time-tested traditions of wise elders certainly merit our respect and consideration. But when we turn those predecessors into our masters, or attempt to make them masters over others, we are forgetting that their ideas were once new, controversial, and path-breaking. We have the same responsibility to think for ourselves.
After hearing an increasing number of politicians making arguments that start with “The Founders never intended…” she asserts, “Almost any argument that starts with those dreaded words is usually made in bad faith.” She provides two instances in which it’s appropriate to consider the founders’ intentions, but goes on to suggest that any attempt to apply 18th century ideology or values to the 21st century is inherently problematic.
This is obvious to historians. “The Founders almost never agreed. On anything.” The men (and they were all men at that time) were flawed humans, who understood their imperfections, and they even built a mechanism right into the constitution to amend it as better ideas surfaced. And then they used that process right from the get go. (Hello, Bill of Rights!)
We can best honor the founders, and other elders, by using their work as a guide, not as something cast in stone. They provided a path to change what isn’t working, and so much has changed from the time of the 18th century.
Historian Joseph Ellis has also taken on this false narrative of the infallibility of the founders, most directly in his book American Dialogue. There he notes that James Madison’s greatest achievement was recognizing that the Constitution presented a “framework for debate” and that “argument itself became the abiding solution.” The Constitution is an inherently “‘living document’ that successive generations interpret in light of changing historical circumstances.”
That understanding — supported strongly by Thomas Jefferson — provides the springboard for Ellis’s strong and sustained attack against the misconception of “originalism” as most proudly practiced by the late Antonin Scalia. In a scathing critique, Ellis takes apart Scalia’s one-sided opinions, and those of his conservative colleagues on the Supreme Court, as essentially a weapon to overturn liberal precedents. Justice William Brennan described originalism as “arrogance cloaked as humility.”
I love studying the past, believe that it has much to teach us, and continue to work to save some of the country’s most important places that link past, present and future generations together. But the past isn’t our master. We have to look at problems such as climate change, authoritarianism and anti-democratic voter suppression, racism, pandemics, cyber attacks, and more in 21st century terms and find solutions for today.
Historians can help us sort through fact and fiction. Heather Cox Richardson wrote about the damning memo by Trump loyalist John Eastman, outlining a pathway to destroy our democracy, and noted that we are facing an emergency. The Republican party, which “organized in the 1850s to protect the nation against those who would destroy it, has come full circle” she notes.
The nation’s founders — who set up our initial steps toward the more complete democracy we are now fighting to save — did have important things to say about authoritarianism. It is clear that the work to maintain democracy never ends. Our charge is to tackle the issues we face today, using the past as a guide but not our master.
More to come…
Image by lynn from Pixabay.