Who Cares What the Founders Thought?

A portrait of “Founding Father” and the Second President of the United States John Adams, Susan H. Douglas Political Americana Collection, #2214 Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Cornell University

With July 4th upon us, the web, cable news, newspapers and magazines are sure to bring reference to what the founders of the United States would have thought about the contemporary issues that face our nation. A quick google search already finds an array of articles claiming to voice the framers’ opinions on the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

Whenever I see people bowing to the, often alleged, opinions of America’s founders, I’m generally left with one main question: who cares? That is, does it make one iota of difference what George Washington would think of the PPACA or Thomas Jefferson of current issues of illegal immigration?

Before I go any further, let me preface this by acknowledging that, yes, the founders of America were brilliant individuals, who, overall, helped progress humanity towards the principles of democracy and liberalism (in the broad political sense rather than the liberal-conservative partisanship of the current United States). And yes, learning about their views and decisions on social, economic, political, and religious issues is fascinating and does add to a greater understanding of both humanity’s general history and these individuals’ specific biographical history.

However, let us remember, the founders were still mere human beings, with basic human flaws, complexities and contradictions. And like all humans, these individuals were, to varying extents, prisoners to their time and culture. Their views on many subjects today would be considered antiquated, tyrannical and sometimes outright stupid.

The main problem I have with simply deferring to the wisdom of the founders is that it’s an argument from authority—and that is no real argument at all. Citing John Adams’ views on federalism when speaking on contemporary health care issues is the equivalent of Adam Sandler’s character in the movie The Waterboy justifying his opinions with the qualifier “But momma says.”

My point is: what Washington said, what Jefferson said, what “momma said” is really irrelevant to our polity today. Our society, our nation is what we want it to be. And it is good ideas, not the researched views of good humans, that should guide us. Good humans can have bad ideas. To constantly bow to dead people’s views is a form of intellectual tyranny. All ideas, no matter where they come from, must be challenged, examined and refined.

So while considering what the founders thought about various issues might be interesting, it is far more important to consider what we think today—to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to be, not what humans long dead wanted us to be.

As one founding father, Thomas Paine, put it in response to Edmund Burke’s claims that post-revolution France should follow the wisdom of its founders and monarchs past:

There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the “end of time,”…Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it…Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow…Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated.

And before one points out the obvious counter to this article—that I cited Paine, in an article criticizing following the views of America’s founders—the reason I cite Paine here is because I agree with his well-written ideas. The ideas are what matter. I cite him not because one should always bow to the sacred views of this founder, but rather because I believe the ideas and that manner in which he writes them are valuable and convincing. So on this July 4th, I submit that we should grapple with the ideas of America’s founders on their own merit and not simply accept them with the misguided, idolatrous view that everything wise individuals of past thought is behind question and challenge.