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Lamps: Don’t appeal to the wishes of the Founding Fathers in modern discourse

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Daily Northwestern

Joseph Lamps, Columnist

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The American Founding Fathers were a remarkable group of leaders and thinkers, to whom we owe much wisdom. However, there is a tendency in modern political discourse to treat them as infallible and to debate modern policy based off of their supposed views. For example, last year in an article for The Washington Post, Newt Gingrich argued against a wall of separation between church and state by invoking the views of the collective Founding Fathers. Such argument lacks merit and should not be taken seriously. Although it may be more common on the right, this fallacy is visible across the political spectrum.

Obviously, the Founding Fathers were not infallible. They held views any decent person in the modern world considers abhorrent, such as support for slavery.

Furthermore, placed in today’s modern political discourse, they would likely be as partisan and controversial as the next person. The founders’ achievements were almost unbelievably great, but were achieved in spite of their differences in opinion. Fundamental human nature has not changed in the past 250 years so there is no reason to think they were inherently superior or more cooperative than modern politicians given similar circumstances. Rather, their achievements were likely the result of circumstances and rallying behind a common cause.

The Founding Fathers also cannot be relied upon for modern advice for the simple fact that they lived in the 1700s. Because a welfare state was not feasible in 1790 and Keynesian economics had yet to be invented, the Founding Fathers didn’t speak in praise of them. This does not mean the welfare state or Keynesian economics are against their principles. Rather, it means they were not informed enough to have an opinion on them. The Founding Fathers have been left in the dust by the passage of history on many modern issues, and therefore ought not be appealed to.

It is impossible to speak of the Founding Fathers as a collective. They were a group of people with different religions, political ideologies and cultural backgrounds. Their achievement is heroic specifically because they united people with diverse and clashing viewpoints. The Constitutional Convention, for example, was not a place of passive agreement. It was as heated as any modern political debate. Later, the election of 1800 was as contested as any modern election.

This is important because in a democracy such as in the United States, leaders are elected by presenting arguments to the voters, and many politicians are attempting to and succeeding at swinging voters with fallacious appeals to the wishes of the Founding Fathers. Raising our collective consciousness regarding this fallacy would be one positive step towards achieving a more enlightened electorate and political system.

A valid argument is that it is imperative to take into consideration the original intentions of the framers of the Constitution when interpreting it, instead of purely using the Constitution out of context. The Constitution is clear and carefully written in order to be timeless, and is not a document where we can claim unlimited discretion over interpretation.

However, this is different from claiming a Founding Father would oppose certain positions in modern politics today as a legitimate argument. This attributes ungrounded power to the fathers — what they would want in the 21st century is irrelevant because the Constitution is followed by 230 years of intervening history to guide our policy. Power that is wrongly attributed to the founders actually resides in the Constitution, which is clear and legally binding, unlike the opinions of its writers.

None of this denigrates the founders or their achievements. I think the founders ought to be highly admired and studied for succeeding in creating a republic. The problem only arises when they are taken out of historical context to have their views used as arguments in modern discourse.

Joseph Lamps is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at josephlamps2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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