A dispute broke out recently over a post of a political nature I placed on my personal profile. As the inevitable conflict erupted between someone who disagreed with my statement and someone who supported it, the detractor decided to cite the Constitution and the Federalist Papers as supporting his argument, case closed. I found this a dishonest and weak approach, partly because I doubted the individual’s insinuation that he’d read the Federalist Papers, but mainly because invoking them implied a mythical clairvoyance possessed by political thinkers more than two centuries ago.
This approach, popular among many political writers, bloggers, pundits, and arm-chair scholars today takes the words of an early American politician (typically Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, or Thomas Paine) and selectively applies out-of-context quotes to modern dilemmas. The tactic’s effectiveness comes from our general acceptance that these men were unquestionably wise, and from our lazy subconscious preference for prescient saviors who knew all along what we should do so we need not make the effort to solve our own problems. The employer of the selective quote comes across as educated and informed, and nearly every reader will accept the platitude without making the effort to seek the source, consider context, or evaluate relevancy.
But these quotes don’t originate in modern mouths. Because their positions and opinions grew from the historical information available to them, our forefathers crafted laws which were not, and could not be, fully adequate for modern society. Democracy, separation of powers, and presumption of innocence until tried by one’s peers all deserve commendation and recognition as timeless hallmarks of America. They are undiluted principles. However, not every word enshrined at the National Archives is worthy of reverence. Criticism might begin, for instance, with the Articles of Confederation. The United States operated under this government document for twelve years before the weakness of its federal power proved unsustainable, demonstrating the fallibility of those wise men.
Once the need to replace the Articles became evident, the framers of our Constitution devised a better, more durable system of national government with stronger powers over the states. Still that national government was designed to benefit their own interests as wealthy, educated, land-owning white males, sometimes to the detriment of actual liberty and democracy. Evidence of the founders’ error on that point can begin and end with their hypocritical ownership of other human beings through slavery or the apportionment of representation defined in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3. Our founders were flawed.
They believed in the power of the people, but did not put it directly in the people’s hands. The small communities and widely spaced family farms which made up most of the country in the late 1700s made representative democracy far more practical than direct democracy. The nature of those small communities and the barriers to broader participation in national politics made local politics more important and vital than national concerns. Except for voting into power those whom they hoped would represent their interests, the public of early America had no ability to shape national policy and for the most part didn’t have need or interest in doing so. The founding fathers placed the decision-making power one step away from the general public for several reasons, including expediency and literacy. But all of those barriers have evaporated in ways they couldn’t know would come. Communication is instant. Most Americans can read. Information on national and even global politics is available on command and a citizen is empowered to find all of the information or disinformation they desire. Representative democracy in the current American form serves only to limit the power of the people rather than the power of the government, and reduces the number of targets corrupt special interests must influence to subvert the law. We need a change that the revolutionaries might not have foreseen, for reasons they could not have imagined.
Like the Bible, our Constitution ages further and further away from its creation and the true intent of its writers becomes obscured by questionable interpretation. Those writers were very smart. The founders of our nation crafted a government of wonderful balance and careful complexity. But to revere their work and hold them up as all-knowing gods of democratic idealism fails that very work. Their statements and ideas are not holy, not perfect, not necessarily applicable to modern society, and we should stop trying to peddle their words as support for current political stances. We need new ideas, not old ones. We need new thoughts from new thinkers, not the brainstorms of colonial rebels. We need to tread confidently on the dirt beneath our feet and stop digging into it to find the bones of past glory.
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Jake Negovan drives Red Brown and Blue to be an outlet for progressive political opinion that leads to the betterment of life for the real, multicultural population of the U.S. and the rest of the world. His columns address the issues faced by our country as we continue growing toward a society of equality. More about Jake can be found on the web at jakejots.com or on Twitter@jakenegovan.