Multiple Narratives in the Founders’ Legacies

Although incapable of articulating (much less defending) a single policy position, the conservative movement and the tea party groups that together pass for its intellectual core seem brilliantly capable of making sweeping appeals to (putatively) originalist values. The latest is a “Mount Vernon Declaration” — named for and dedicated to President Washington’s ideals, but signed fairly far away from the actual presidential residence. Mount Vernon wouldn’t have them.

The humor is obvious, but tea party “patriots” should take the hint. Any attempt to ground “Constitutional conservatism” (what is that?) in pathos-infused appeals to history must fail at the threshold, because on most subsidiary issues of consequence, the Founders never spoke with a unified voice.

I don’t mean to dispense with the idea that the Founders’ example should serve as a political and moral guide — it should, and does, speak a great deal about the importance of service, sacrifice, and the rule of law. But beyond these and other abstract values, the theory of a unified narrative decays. Members of the Founding generation, during and after the Constitutional Convention, disagreed sharply on what manner of government they’d created. Thomas Jefferson regarded Adams’ presidency — and, to a lesser extent, Washington’s — as imperial, almost monarchical. On some points he was even right: Adams’ conception of the freedom of speech leaves, ah, something to be desired by modern standards. Hamilton fought for (and won, briefly) a national bank, as a clearinghouse for state debt and a necessary tool to build American credit. Whole swaths of the country saw this, in turn, as the death of sovereign states.  Relatedly, John Calhoun, in living memory of the Founders, thought the Tenth Amendment permitted nullification of federal acts. Every President of the era, and most signatories to the Constitution, disagreed.

This should not be surprising. The drafting of the Constitution was a political act. We can attempt to discern the compromise on which the Founders settled — as we must, when determining legal controversies — but that’s a damn sight harder than looking at a complicated era of history and terming it “conservative,” especially when that word, as it’s used today, didn’t even exist at the time. Superficial answers to complicated questions will always fail: for example, “we’re a government of enumerated powers” is no answer to the question, “is healthcare reform constitutional?” Not, at least, with full knowledge of the fierce debate over the “necessary and proper” clause, and the context of its necessity after the Articles of Confederation — we rejected a form of government limited to enumerated powers. Questions like “what powers are ‘necessary and proper?'” are worth asking, but rarely asked, and notably avoided by appealing emotionally and exclusively to abstracted, simplistic theories of history.

Turning to Revolutionary War symbols to argue against discrete and identified policies is off point at best — an act of appropriation, not reverence — and insulting at worst. Our national symbols should remind us of who we are vis-à-vis the world, not each other. Put down the Gadsden flags; pick up a book.


  1. Ames, you missed a golden opportunity in the part of the Declaration that is quoted in Politico:

    In recent decades, America’s principles have been undermined and redefined in our culture, our universities and our politics. The self-evident truths of 1776 have been supplanted by the notion that no such truths exist. The federal government today ignores the limits of the Constitution, which is ncreasingly dismissed as obsolete and irrelevant.

    Some insist that America must change, cast off the old and put on the new. But where would this lead — forward or backward, up or down? Isn’t this idea of change an empty promise or even a dangerous deception?

    “The change we urgently need, a change consistent with the American ideal, is not movement away from but toward our founding principles. At this important time, we need a restatement of Constitutional conservatism grounded in the priceless principle of ordered liberty articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

    “The conservatism of the Declaration asserts self-evident truths based on the laws of nature and nature’s God. It defends life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It traces authority to the consent of the governed. It recognizes man’s self-interest but also his capacity for virtue.”

    The bolded sentence brilliantly highlights the absurdity of the declaration – the U.S. was CREAATED from a bold change, an illegal rebellion – that was neither an “empty promise” nor a “dangerous deception.” To now declare that the U.S., existing in a world so radically different then the one of the Founding Father’s day, must NOT CHANGE, is tantamount to siding with the Loyalists in the original War for Independence. Afterall, if there hadn’t been radical change 234 years ago, would Grover Nodrquist even be able to make his rancorous statements?

  2. Apparently I forgot to turn off the blockquote – the final paragraph is mine – not Politico’s

  3. I fixed it for you :). And you’re right, I did miss that! The spirit that fears gay marriage and healthcare reform for the ‘changes’ they bring is the same that feared independence.

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