Monday, December 22, 2003

THE CANONIZATION OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS
I was reading a newspaper article which included a great quote. The quote inspired this entry that I've been meaning to write for a long time.

Many people, notably libertarians and strict constitutionalists, will inject to nearly any debate: "So-and-so is bad because the Founding Fathers wouldn't have wanted it." They almost inevitably cite passages from the Federalist Papers, written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, to justify inertia. If it was good enough for the people of 1788, it should be good enough from here to eternity.

To these folks, the Constitution is not something that should reflect the evolution of society. It is something akin to the Ten Commandments, something written in stone. I think the Founding Fathers (I think Joseph Ellis' phrase Founding Brothers is more accurate but that's another debate) were a bunch of fairly intelligent and very wise men who deftly negotiated a document to address the particular problems facing the country in the late 18th century. But the strict constitutionalists think the Founding Fathers [FFs] were a group of secular saints, whose every word shall be revered and taken as Gospel now and forever more. Preachers may quote from the book of Luke, strict constitutionalists from the book of Madison.

Yet this canonization of the FFs is dangerous. It prevents the Constitution from evolving. Now, the document shouldn't be changed willy nilly to incorporate every fad du jour. But the document is designed to be extremely hard to change. It seems like we should be able to debate certain things on their merits. But some people simply invoke the words of an FF as though merely mentioning a name is enough to trump the argument. Saint Jefferson wanted it, therefore it is so. The end.

For example, I've long argued for the elimination of the Electoral College [EC]. I believe is archaic and un-democratic. But the FFs knew it was un-democratic when they designed it. THAT was the point. To be a check on the democratic will off the population. It may have served a useful purpose in 1788, but is it still relevant today? The trouble is that canonization of the FFs makes it so we can't even ask the question! No one would ask if Jesus' Good Samaritan tale was still relevant today because, after all, he was Jesus. No one (save a few people deemed 'sore losers of the 2000 election') questions the continuing validity of the EC.

I believe the EC promotes divisive regionalism. I doubt it even accomplishes its primary (original) goal of getting attention for small states. Yet some people won't even engage in a debate of this nature. If it was good enough for Jefferson and Madison, it is good enough for them. That the EC was a last minute compromise to save the Constitutional Convention, many of these people probably aren't aware of and probably wouldn't care if they were.

The point of the Constitution, our Constitution, is to serve the country and its people. It was designed in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Nothing was said about it being the final draft. They weren't trying a perfect union, but a MORE perfect union. The FFs were wise enough to know they didn't know everything. They were wise enough to know that their solutions were the best they could do for current problems but they trusted their children and grandchildren to be able to deal with future problems as they arose. They knew the Constitution needed the flexibility to adapt to a changing America; that's why they gave it provisions for amendment.

And I leave you with the following words:


Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them . . . too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment . . . [As] manners and opinions change with the change of circumstance, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilised society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
--Thomas Jefferson.

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