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Founder's Chic
August 7, 2003 9:20 PM   Subscribe

Historian H.W. Brands argues in this month's Atlantic that we over-venerate our Founding Fathers. John Adams and co., he surmises, were no wiser or more virtuous than our current crop of politicians, but their numerous flaws have been rendered invisible through the rosy glasses of time. What today's politicians could learn from their predecessors, he says, is bravado, the courage to take risks. Why not call a Constitutional Convention and rewrite the rules every so often?, he asks.
posted by grrarrgh00 (40 comments total)

 
obviously there are going to be some who feel we don't penetrate them enough. what's to be gained by... huh? oh.
never mind
posted by quonsar at 9:25 PM on August 7, 2003


I think the veneration is more targeted at the ideals than the individuals themselves.
posted by rudyfink at 9:58 PM on August 7, 2003


I don't think we can "over-venerate" the Founding Fathers; what they did was nothing short of literally changing the world for the better. They created a nation founded on IDEALS, and said nation has flourished in these 225+ years, producing the richest, happiest, and most emulated society in history.

The Founding Fathers are, in a sense, "gods."

Personal flaws or defects? Sure. But the magnitude of the changes they wrought and the society that they created far, far outweigh any piddling flaws of demeanor or personality.
posted by davidmsc at 10:15 PM on August 7, 2003


happiest

Wow. That's quite a claim.
posted by dobbs at 10:24 PM on August 7, 2003


I believe it to be an honest claim. Consider the number of people who have come TO America, and compare it to the number of the people who have LEFT America. Obviously, there are more people who want in than want out.
posted by davidmsc at 10:27 PM on August 7, 2003


"...there are more people who want in than want out."

The same could be said for Britney Spears' vagina, but I don't know if it's the happiest ever.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:30 PM on August 7, 2003


If Jefferson and crew knew they were being compared to Gods they'd rise up from the grave and give you all a collective smacking.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:40 PM on August 7, 2003


Maybe we do over-venerate them in general, but Ben Franklin and George Washington were remarkable people.
posted by homunculus at 10:49 PM on August 7, 2003


Alexander Hamilton was an asshole, and no mistake.
posted by scarabic at 11:17 PM on August 7, 2003


Thanks, crash...nice comparison (?).
posted by davidmsc at 11:22 PM on August 7, 2003


'Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and Hamiton: Less Of A Bunch Of Bastards Than Robespierre And Danton.'
posted by riviera at 11:28 PM on August 7, 2003


I particularly liked his curiosity about our modern reluctance to change anything the Founding Fathers touched, leading to endless battles regarding things like affirmative action, campaign finance or gun control where everyone's so busy trying to creatively reinterpret the constitution to support their position that they ignore the underlying issues these debates are really proxies for. Working on unambiguous amendments would provide a higher degree of closure and it would slow the increasingly common practice of judges significantly changing the effects of the law, a role which should really be left to the legislative branch.
posted by adamsc at 11:28 PM on August 7, 2003


The fact that the founders came up with a document that not only allowed for change, but anticipated it in the very design was genius in its humility. The judicial branch sways with the winds of current public opinion, the system is flexible so that it doesn't snap in two. Really, it's the best system of government yet established by mankind to handle such a large area and population.

My only fear is the dry-rot of apathy with our citizens. There's just so much less activism and interest in politics these days -- probably because of embitterment, disillusionment, and the obfuscation of the law by lawyers and corporations.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:02 AM on August 8, 2003


He has an interesting point. When you think of the Founding Fathers in an intrapersonal way, well things get almost mythic.

Seriously, would George Washington be a person you would like to hang out with? Would he want to hang out with you?

I'm pretty sure Jefferson, if he ever met me would think I blew dead bears. And I mean that in a bad way.
posted by Dagobert at 3:53 AM on August 8, 2003


The fact that the founders came up with a document that not only allowed for change, but anticipated it in the very design was genius in its humility.

But could it be better through being more amenable to change? The conservatism in American society can be traced, at least in past, directly to the difficulty in changing the constitution, making it diffcult to change laws even where a majority of the population believe those laws are outdated.

More pertinently to the FPP, as a Brit looking in, I often see the phrase 'that's not what the founding fathers intended' applied to arguments to justify a particular position. This would seem to me to be irrelevant with regard to many of the topics in a technologically and socially changing world, and seems to me to be at the crux of the problems arising from veneration.
posted by biffa at 3:55 AM on August 8, 2003


There's just so much less activism and interest in politics these days

Compared to when? Not trying to be snarky, but I'm always suspicious of sepia-toned Thens with their amazing citizenry filled with hope, ideals and gusto. I'll admit any number of Americans were willing to be interested and active hundreds of years ago. Trouble is, most didn't have the right to vote.
posted by yerfatma at 3:55 AM on August 8, 2003


come/gone davidmsc: you left out the people already living in America before the other people came. I hate to bring it up, but quite frankly, if the first step to the "best ever" is genocide, then I guess it is not "best ever" in the first place. American optimism is generally refreshing. But sometimes it gets over the top.

This thread reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon in which one founding father asked another: "do you think that people will eventually figure out that we are a bunch of gun nuts?"
posted by magullo at 4:57 AM on August 8, 2003


The idea of the current crop of yahoos holding a Constitutional Convention gives me the cold, dark shivers.
posted by jscalzi at 5:01 AM on August 8, 2003


Homunculus, Brands does particularly note both Franklin and Washington as specially deserving of praise.

Adamsc hits on the practical effect of what Brand refers to in the interview:

Americans treat the Constitution like the Bible.

To us, amending the thing is like changing the canon. Brand argues that it should be as difficult as it is to get an amendment through, but that we ought to try it every now and then, really take the risk of hammering out and then codifying our beliefs as a society.

I definitely think that is true. Why doesn't the Constitution give us an explicit right to privacy? And if someone actually proposed an amendment that gave us one, would there be anyone saying, "Hell, no, I don't want any privacy!"? What would their arguments be? Because currently, the argument is "The Constitution doesn't say so!" Which seems to me like a rather juvenile foundering. If we've developed some more basic, less abstract values since the time the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, why can't we write those into law?
posted by grrarrgh00 at 5:13 AM on August 8, 2003


But could it be better through being more amenable to change?

Probably, but then you run the risk of instability -- that is, the easier it is to change the system, the more likely it will be changed, and usually to whatever whim catches the fancy of the nation at the time. If something is important enough, the document gets changed, but with the current design it takes an extraordinary amount of opposition to do so. I believe that, at least with constitutional amendments, they should be overwhelmingly supported by the people over an extended period of time.

I'm always suspicious of sepia-toned Thens with their amazing citizenry filled with hope, ideals and gusto

I agree. One of the first things I learned when studying history was that you have to try and look at it through the point of view of the people at the time, and not infuse it with your modern-day ideology. This is quite difficult, and requires you know a lot more about the time in question than "people were poor during the depression" or "people didn't like the British". And while I don't think our hopes, ideals or gusto has changed much over time, I do believe political activism has, in recent years, been observed as a sort of anachronism.

Perhaps this could be because attacks on our civil liberties are far more subtle than before. Just listen to the hackneyed campaign songs of the 30's and 40's and compare it to today's Presidential candidates' commercials. Today we have psychologists working with advertising agencies working with pollsters working with computers to create ads that offer the most streamlined, slick, mass-appeal possible. Ideas are sold to the citizenry like products in a supermarket, and like in a supermarket, the toilet-bowl cleaner with the better, greater funded advertising campaign will usually trump the "best" product any day of the week.

I'll admit any number of Americans were willing to be interested and active hundreds of years ago. Trouble is, most didn't have the right to vote.

Very true.

On preview: if the first step to the "best ever" is genocide, then I guess it is not "best ever" in the first place

Come on, now. Most of the native Indian population in the Americas were killed off long before the country was founded. Plus, look at all the great land we gave them. (j/k)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:14 AM on August 8, 2003


Why doesn't the Constitution give us an explicit right to privacy?

Probably (and I'm just guessing here) because such an issue was simply beyond the scope of the framer's minds. That is, certain forms of civility were probably so ingrained that the idea of codifying them would have seemed absurd. Kinda like writing an amendment that says, "Congress shall pass no law preventing the people from breathing and blinking."

Also, this attitude reflects a view of the Constitution that I think is fundementally flawed -- that is, the Constitution is more about what the government can't do than what the people can do. For example, the 1st amendment doesn't say, "You have the right to free speech, religion, etc.", but rather, "Congress can't pass any laws restricting your speech, religion, etc."
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:20 AM on August 8, 2003


Very true, Civil Disobedient, but unfortunately, all too many people don't see it that way, and a few of them are in the Supreme Court. I would argue that we should make even more explicit that the Constitution should not be about ennumerating the rights of the people, but the rights of the government.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 5:27 AM on August 8, 2003


I'm pretty sure Jefferson, if he ever met me would think I blew dead bears. And I mean that in a bad way.

But whose fault is that? His or yours?
posted by rushmc at 5:37 AM on August 8, 2003


This thread seems to cover muchof the same ground as the thread regarding the EU Constitution yesterday.

Change is good. Planning for change is good. Deification of our fellow humans is bad. Total inflexibility is bad. As somone already said, using the argument "our founding fathers didn't intend ..." sucks.
posted by nofundy at 5:51 AM on August 8, 2003


More pertinently to the FPP, as a Brit looking in, I often see the phrase 'that's not what the founding fathers intended' applied to arguments to justify a particular position.

Exactly so. When I hear this argument I usually respond that the "Founder's Intent" was to provide a framework for governing that was capable of changing with the times.
posted by Cerebus at 6:26 AM on August 8, 2003


I may have mentioned this a while back, but this great book on the FFs left me amazed how great the risk and uncertainty was surrounding the founding of this country - nothing like this had ever been tried before, and the fact that it did is testament to both their practical foresight/genius and pure luck.
posted by gottabefunky at 6:30 AM on August 8, 2003


Seriously, would George Washington be a person you would like to hang out with? Would he want to hang out with you?

From the little I've read, he was rather cold and dreadfully formal and elitist. So probably not.

if the first step to the "best ever" is genocide, then I guess it is not "best ever" in the first place

Then Iceland is the best ever, since it's the only modern society I can think of that didn't begin with genocide some ways back. And that's only if we trust the sagas and stuff; for all anyone knows, there may have been some aboriginal population there that was killed by the Norse immigrants/invaders.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:46 AM on August 8, 2003


Probably (and I'm just guessing here) because such an issue was simply beyond the scope of the framer's minds.

Actually, there was a very recent book on the emergence of the concept of 'privacy' during the time that yer Fathering Flounders were doing their business.

privacy is in our time regarded as wholly desirable, indeed as a human right, whereas in the past it could mean something more like 'privation' and refer to a condition no sane person would claim or seek; or anyway that its social disadvantages outweighed its individual attraction.

So, make your own judgement, but that sounds like the exact opposite of the context Civil_Disobedient presumes.
posted by riviera at 8:33 AM on August 8, 2003


side note --

my history professor last semester announced that she wouldn't give essay questions on George Washington anymore because Americans are incapable of looking at him critically.

From our earliest introduction to the "Founding Fathers" (just look at what we call them), we have been taught to idolize these men for creating our country. Even in later years when we learn about certain character flaws (Washington's poor business sense for example) we are still told to look at their amazing accomplishments to measure their stature.

Yes we idolize them, but who can blame us after being told to for 20 years?

They were better men than the dolts we currently put into office.
posted by Julnyes at 9:27 AM on August 8, 2003


Washington's poor business sense for example

Surely Washington's poor business sense pales in comparison to one Mr. Jefferson's poor business sense.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:37 AM on August 8, 2003


I attribute the "deification" of the FF three things, in these proportions: 40% to their genuine greatness, and 60% to 150 years or so of relentlessly uncritical adulation by a monolithic culture.

Pick up an elementary school history book. Trust me, in another couple of generations any Washington adulation (or even name recognition) remaining will be split more or less equally between George and Booker T.

No, timeistight, not that Booker T.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:40 AM on August 8, 2003


I mean *two* things.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:41 AM on August 8, 2003


Washington's poor business sense for example

He did pretty well making and selling whiskey.
posted by homunculus at 12:28 PM on August 8, 2003


Washington's poor business sense for example

Surely Washington's poor business sense pales in comparison to one Mr. Jefferson's poor business sense.


My main point was that no matter what revelations may come out about their personal quirks or failings, it doesn't make a dent in the hero worship.
posted by Julnyes at 12:48 PM on August 8, 2003


Compared to when? Not trying to be snarky, but I'm always suspicious of sepia-toned Thens with their amazing citizenry filled with hope, ideals and gusto.

The system set up by the founders does not merely allow for, it depends on a population as interested in vigorous debate and self-education as people like Ben Franklin, John Adams and James Madison were. The constitution is very much a utopian document, very hopeful about the natural trajectory of human beings when unhindered by heavy systems, coming as it was out of the enlightenment. They actually thought that if everybody realized that the source of power was the governed, not the government, that this would make people care about the mechanism of politics -- that they would go to a circulating library (Franklin), or write essays of inquiry and defense (Madison), or debate minutiae with missionary zeal (Adams). The founding fathers firmly believed we would care as much as they did.

Now, I think they were naive. I think they were caught up in Locke and Rousseau, and they forgot about Hobbes. If I look around, I don't see the average person on the street engaged in vigorous political debate, I see people nodding their heads to voices on the radio. I don't see people reading about political theory, histroy, philsophy, I see ideologies so narrow you can fit them on your car bumper. I think we take it for granted. I think the essence of the entire idea has been lost -- that essence being that we personally are the country itself. If you asked 10 people on the street about the Constitution, I think at least 8 of them believe that the Constitution grants certain rights to the citizens. You know, the first ten amendments? Right?

So, did the founding fathers "get it" more than we do? Well, depends on what is meant by that. We are, after all, the country itself, so if we all by consensus believe that the way the government is run right now is the way that best represents us, then it's hard to argue with that. But, I would say that what most people at this particular moment in time believe their responsibilities as citizens are is very different from what the founding fathers believed, and so the real question is, did the founding fathers have the right idea 200 years ago, and is that idea still valid today?
posted by Hildago at 5:11 PM on August 8, 2003


would George Washington be a person you would like to hang out with?

Given his pesky habit of enslaving people like me? Nah.

We were supposed to be idolizing the founders? Huh, news to me. American history tends to look a little different from a minority perspective I suppose.

As for the Constitution, I'd say it's pretty solidly constructed and in no need of major revision. We just need to work at keeping the reality as close to the ideal as possible.

Not that everyone agrees, of course.
posted by tyro urge at 5:14 PM on August 8, 2003


Interesting argument Hildago.
posted by pjgulliver at 5:39 PM on August 8, 2003


they forgot about Hobbes. If I look around, I don't see the average person on the street engaged in vigorous political debate, I see people nodding their heads to voices on the radio

Bopping along to music isn't really very Hobbesian. In a Hobbesian world, you'd see people by the jillion killing their neighbors to eat their babies and steal their tea-cozies.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:25 PM on August 8, 2003


Um, about that book, riviera:

Through inspired readings of novels by Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, along with a penetrating glimpse into diaries, autobiographies, poems, and works of pornography, Spacks ultimately reveals how writers charted the imaginative possibilities of privacy and its social repercussions.

A real piece of scholarly work.

I'm reminded of professor's need to "publish or perish". This book is tripe, doggerel, an attempt to make waves and a career and little else.

But Hildago: "I see ideologies so narrow you can fit them on your car bumper" -- that's pure eloquence.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:47 PM on August 8, 2003


This book is tripe, doggerel, an attempt to make waves and a career and little else.

So, you've read it, then? Or you're just bloviating? Because I think that a study of contemporary literature dealing with privacy probably has more scholarly value than your gut feeling, which may just be trapped wind. Certainly, you're capable of expelling a lot of hot air already.
posted by riviera at 3:43 AM on August 9, 2003


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