Post#: 194-18 – Words: 2047 – Audio: N/A
Much of the argument and debate regarding our national divisiveness involves various sides of any issue making Constitutional comparisons to the intent of the Founding Fathers.
Even the nature of the Supreme Court is to pass judgment and/or pass legal opinion partially by trying to interpret the intention of the Founding Fathers when they established the Constitution and set down the Bill of Rights. Just take the debate over the vast decades regarding the Second Amendment and how to interpret the sentence, the punctuation, and overall meaning… to justify a contemporary position by assuming what the FF’ers meant. Even the First Amendment has needed some “adjustment” in the interpretation over the years by the various courts. This has inspired the two camps of Constitutional law suggesting that the document was designed to be a “living document” in that FF’ers designed to be instructions for adapting and applying the Constitution based on the changing needs of a developing country. The other side of that being… the document is a static document.. meant to be taken literally and not for second-guessing the intent of the FF’ers. The problem with the latter idea is that determining the intent of the FF’ers is very subjective in itself after 242 years. Most illustrative of this is that language usage, punctuation, and grammar alone is far different in meaning and application.
Now, admittedly there are academics and historians who have made a life of trying to understand “colonial speak” of the 1700’s and the prose of the day. I am surely nowhere near that knowledgeable. But we can try to apply some little common sense to get some idea what was going on in those times that made the FF’ers want to split from England and go off on their own in open revolt, even if we are “only” using what we recall from elementary and high school history class. I tend to recognize I have an above average grasp of history in general, as do many, so maybe I have a slight edge over the high schoolers.
Who were the Founding Fathers?
If we assume a Founding Father was a signer of the Declaration and/or the Constitution.. well, here’s some stats.
- 56 signed the Declaration (but not George Washington… he was off leading the army in revolt)
- 39 signed the Constitution (Tom Jefferson and John Adams did not. Ben Franklin was the only one along with five other lesser known to have signed both documents.)
I rather think we first need to ask ourselves some questions…
? – Are the “Founding Fathers” any famous colonial personage we learned about from the history books in school that wore a white wig?
? – Are the “Founding Fathers” the signers of the Declaration?
? – Are the “Founding Fathers” the signers of the Constitution?
? – Are the “Founding Fathers” signers of both documents?
? – Are the “Founding Fathers” any of the “popular” personages of the day who carry with them some larger-than-life legendary assignment of being a wise sage of freedom and independence either verbally or in print (and wear a white wig), and their mere existence, whether they signed anything or not, requires our eternal homage?
As late as 1973 historian Robert Morris assigned John Adams, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington, as the seven KEY Founding Fathers. By that definition, we now have regular “Founding Fathers” and “Key Founding Fathers”. Which group do we then give credibility toward interpreting their intent with the Constitution? If we assume to think that our current interpretation of the Constitution relates to the “Founding Fathers” as those who signed the document.. hence agreeing to the precepts in it, I suppose that leaves out T.J. , John Jay, and John Adams. But John Jay is not on the “key” list.
On the other hand, the signatories of the Constitution were not all contributors in it’s creation. So by nature of that we might extend Founding Father status to all who had a hand in creating the document… in which case you might be able to include everyone in one form or another. This is all getting complicated.
These are some general traits that make up the average Founding Father….
- They were White.
- They were all male.
- Most were born in the colonies
- Rich or wealthy or well-to-do (some inherited, some self-made)
- Educated (understanding of philosophy, politics, science, prose, etc.)
- Businessmen (owners, land owners, managers, etc.)
- Slave owners (not all)
- Local civic leaders, outspoken opponents/proponents of issues (some elected locally or selected by the Crown)
- Strong opinion of government’s role in civil life
So.. can we agree that the Revolutionary War was started by a group of rich, white guys… of white male privilege… with power, wealth, and influence (and slaves), who got pissed at the King of England for not allowing them to rule themselves with sufficient autonomy in order to make more money and expand their international power and influence?
Oh dear… am I suggesting GREED might have been a motivator for our national independence and not a bunch of torch-carrying farmers with pitchforks and rusty muskets rising up and demanding freedom from British oppression? While I am not a follower of Gordon Gekko entirely, I do agree that levels of greed (depending on your definition of it), in moderation, do tend to be a fair motivator across the economic strata. Necessity is needing a car for transportation; greed is wanting a Lexus.
…do we surmise that all these gentlemen of means sat around drinking their ale and decided they were the ones who were going to call for a split from England, foot the entire bill to raise and equip an army to fight the most powerful military in its day, avoid getting captured themselves and hanged as traitors in the process, all for freedom and independence for all people in the colonies? Um.. I somehow think their motives were not all that “pure”. Oh to be sure, they were sincere in their convictions and they weren’t singling themselves out to be some special ruling power class of their day. They wanted equality for all; which meant in those days, all white males (which, I might note, had NO intent of changing that status in any new Constitution). They did recognize that their desire for independent rule depended on including “everyone” in the deal. But likely most importantly they recognized not so much some way to make more money but rather recognizing that a free and secure country depends on the freedom to create a thriving economy within a free market system; that the ability to encourage innovation and universal trade adds to that pursuit of individual freedom and happiness.
At present the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted as written by the Founding Fathers falls to the conservatives, while more liberal interpretation of the Constitution suggests the document is meant to allow for changes and evolved adaptation to the changing needs of the nation. This is very much illustrated with the recent Trump selection of Brett Kavenaugh to the Supreme Court. Kavenaugh expressed his intention to follow the mindset of referring to the Constitution as written rather than introduce change or deviate from what the Founding Fathers had in mind. When we are taking SCOTUS justices isn’t there suppose to be a sensitivity not only to established law, but also to some interpretation to the original intent of the Constitution, AND the current mores of the nation as it relates to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? I mean, that’s the whole reason FOR the Supreme Court. Why would ANY American want a SCOTUS justice to determine his/her opinion based ONLY on what’s written in the Constitution? Well, apparently some Conservatives do.
My point for this entire exercise is to illustrate that when people wish to call up in their political debates the spirit of Founding Fathers past as the sole resource in declaring our fundamental freedoms as outlined in the King’s English in the Bill of Rights, people really need to understand the accuracy and context of their frame of reference. Many times Conservatives will defend their political opinion by making the point that the Constitution should be “left alone”.. that we should hold true to the original meaning and intent of what the “Framers” created and wrote in “plain” English. Usually they will cite quotes from the Federalist Papers, op-ed’s from The Virginia Gazette, or some other writings of the day to establish an example of some colonial collective opinion or universal thought of the day. What most Conservatives forget is that while the idea of independence itself was universal (to about 50% of the then colony population, it has been speculated by the historians).. formation of the new government.. the Constitution… was hotly debated and far from anything called a “universal” acceptance by any persons assigned as “Founding Fathers”. If anything that could be called as some “universal” Founding Father precept is that the Constitution was not one person’s idea but a compromise of many ideas to reach a consensus. It’s one thing to defer to the “framers” and “creators” and in the end, the signatories of the Constitution itself, in what their intention was in their final product. But to cite other published opinion of the day as an overriding political thought of the day that fostered our Constitution is just apples and oranges.
One has to apply only a little common sense here. First off.. the Constitution, written some 240 years ago, is NOT in plain contemporary English. Although there are current scholars and legal minds who profess to being able to determine meanings from 18th century grammar, punctuation, and penmanship… exact meanings are often still debated. Add to that the changing social and political mores of the nation can affect interpretation. Just use the Second Amendment as an example. Back when our Founding Fathers creating the wording, set it onto paper in the King’s penmanship, and got it ratified… the wording and meaning made absolute perfect sense to those folks. Fast forward 240 years and it makes absolutely little sense because of its wording, punctuation, context application at the time, and the advancement in technology. So much so that the Supreme Court had to decide what it meant for our modern times.
Personally, what I feel would be most valuable for our nation as a whole would be to identify and re-write into contemporary language those amendments that run ambiguous. But that will never happen because of one main reason.. the wording has already been debated once before… in the late 1780’s… when we were just starting out as a nation and our population was much smaller. Such a debate in our modern times would take years if not decades. Besides, Conservative or Liberal, politically it’s far easier debating historical meaning and bowing to a SCOTUS decision, even if it changes every few decades as the makeup of the Court changes.
The bottom line here, when someone dredges up an argument that stipulates that the Constitution should be followed solely in the manner and spirit in which the Founding Fathers intended it… is a historically inaccurate principle. The completed document was a compromise.. not a document received from the heavens unto man on a carved stone tablet as if the Founding Fathers were divine political soothsayers. I am sure there were signers who actually “reluctantly” signed it.. without celebration, because something wasn’t totally to their liking. Heck, no two people will agree who exactly comprises a Founding Father by our contemporary definition anyway.
All this doesn’t matter, though. People will still use the “Founding Father” argument as if it has some ideological authority. The Founding Fathers, whoever they are/were, could in NO way even hope that their creation would be relevant 240 years later. They provided the guidelines for creating the democratic means to make future changes.. or, to amend as needed (hence, “amendments”). If anything, they realized change is inevitable. Conservatives shouldn’t be confused with the idea that our Constitution is NOT some political bible; the Holy Bible is a finished, completed, never-changing religious publication. The U.S. Constitution is never a completed document, by design… and by intent of the signatories elected by the people to reach a consensus in the wording.
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