Lines of the Day (Calling on the Founders Edition)

“You can’t ask what the framers would do without giving them the same information we have.  You can’t pluck them out of the past and put them down in the present. They were deeply empirical in their political thinking.”–Stanford University history professor Jack Rakove. ”

“What Santorum and Gingrich are doing is typical: using history as civic religion, creating a mythology of the Founding Fathers in order to rationalize their present-day political beliefs.  By wrenching a quote out of context (Santorum) or making wild assertions based on uncorroborated speculation (Gingrich) the Founding Fathers can be used for almost any purpose. Neither one of them is really interested in history. Because it gets much harder and more complicated when you are.”–George Mason University history professor Rosemarie Zagarri.

Indeed on both counts.

Source:  WaPo.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Political Theory, Religion, US Politics, , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. JohnMcC says:

    The ‘Founders’ and their works (the Federalist Papers, the Declaration, the Constitution, maybe some others) have become a sort of secular equivalent to the Prophets and Church Founders and the Holy Scriptures. The are the divinely inspired, once written always true foundation. Anything that strays from them is ipso facto a corruption.

    And just like the Scriptures, that use of them requires bending and twisting the original people and documents out of their real meanings.

    But remember, those people doing this are fundamentalists by inclination. They have no subtlety. Nothing can be grey or shaded. Everything black or white. If they weren’t making such a mess out of everything we could feel pity for them; they miss the real story of both their nation’s history and their religion.

  2. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    But, but…Obama…umm…secular humanism…ummmm…Kenyan Jihadist father, umm…

  3. PD Shaw says:

    “As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor…. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap–let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;–let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.”

    –A. Lincoln (1838)

  4. @PD Shaw: Indeed, it is nothing new (and the linked piece cites Lincoln).

  5. Eric says:

    Thank You!!!

  6. Ron Beasley says:

    History isn’t always written by the winners – the losers are obviously writing it now.

  7. @PD Shaw:

    to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor…

    Keep in mind this is the same president that unconstitutionally suspended habeus corpus, imprisoned legislators from the opposing party without charge, and ignored lawful orders from the Supreme Court.

  8. mbailey says:

    @PD Shaw: I love Lincoln’s Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield speech. Delivered at age 29. But I don’t understand how a quote from this speech taken out of context and addressed to the subject of obeying the law, has anything to do with founder worship apart from demonstrating, um, mid-19th century founder worship. Unless its point is that questioning the founders is lawless. Or that there have been founder worshippers for quite some time, as Young Abe seems to reveal.

  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    All true of course Steven. The founding fathers were by and large well educated, landowning, aristocratic, slave holding, enlightenment politicians engaged in trying to square all manner of circles most notably the notion that all men were created equal while a quarter of the population were slaves. They did a fairly good but by no means perfect job of producing the constitutional and legal mechanisms required for an immense, isolated, primarily agrarian society. But many of their central tenets were under attack or being amended from day one onwards and they notably failed to prevent a major civil war that is still the most costly Americans have ever fought so the notion that these were models of perfection doesn’t really bear too close examination. And of course none of these men had any idea of what continental expansion, technology, industrialisation, world wars and mass immigration would cause America to look like 225 years later. Against this background the right and their cheap demagogues like Gingrich constantly invoke aspects of our founding docs not on their merits but as a kind of last ditch defense against modernity or as a defense of their own positions.

  10. JohnMcC says:

    @Stormy Dragon: What a shame that a little thing like the armies of treason and disunion being within gunshot of our nation’s capital should make Mr Lincoln so….rash! Not what good people would expect at all.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    @mbailey: Lincoln spoke at a time when the best and brightest sought to identify the character of the nation as Anglo-Saxon, if not WASP. The promotion of quasi-religious worship of the founders and the sacred documents has provided the vehicle for national unity. No matter if you are left or right, something must supply the common identity in order for consensus-building.

  12. I’m not sure that’s a logical argument.
    If people who have obtained their beliefs from studying the lives and debates of the founders hold those political beliefs today, there is no reason to suspect that the founders would not hold them also.

    We have become precisely what they despised the european states for. Our people have become precisely what they were concerned they would become were we unable to protect the republic from democracy.

    The only reason to believe your argument is at all logical is your own cognitive bias. The founders were not emotive. They were conservative. they felt that they were restoring their rights as englishmen against a progressive king.

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Curt Doolittle:

    The founders were not emotive. They were conservative.

    Heh. Heehee. BwahahahahaahaahaaHAWHAHAWHAHAW…. Gasp……WHeez…..

    Jeez Curt, are you trying to kill me with such cognitive dissonance? Talk about bending the founding fathers into ones own belief systems in a thread about bending the FFs into belief systems…

    Say what you want about the Founding Fathers, but their ideals were extremely radical at the time and they were so emotive the rallied an entire nation of people to throw off the existing system of gov’t….

  14. mattb says:

    @Curt Doolittle:

    The founders were not emotive. They were conservative. they felt that they were restoring their rights as englishmen against a progressive king.

    I’m not sure you really know what progressive or conservative mean based on this context.

    Especially if your goal was to say that the founder’s conservatism was the same as movement conservatism today or that the kings progressivness some how equals today’s liberalism.

  15. merl says:

    @PD Shaw: that sounds nothing at all like a con of today would say. they would have been bitching about those liberal founding fathers and informing on them to the British.

  16. @mattb:

    Conservative: “con SERV uh tiv.”
    1) (Formal definition) General reaction to the use of political power to alter the status quo.
    2) (Technical Definition) Short for “Anglo-American Classical-Liberal Aristocratic Christian Manorialsim.” Consisting in contemporary form largely in three different demographic sets with overlapping class structures: Social and Religious conservatives primarily from the middle and lower classes, financial conservatives, primarily from the upper middle classes, and martial conservatives primarily in the working classes.
    3) Properties unique to anglo conservatism: a) the manorial system served to monopolize property and serve as the first corporations – this required the ability to rent land, which led to late marriage, and the breaking of consanguineous reproduction. b) the rule of common law, and property rights remained pervasive and inviolate until the era of nation states. c) the western war tactics required equestrian nobility to train incessantly, become literate, use independent tactical initiative, supply it’s own equipment, fight, and raise and train its own infantry, run its manorial estates as if they were corporations. This economic system retained the uniquely western political system of the balance of powers. d) The manorial system served to constrain the malthusian reproduction of the peasantry, and across the Hajnal line, appears to have created an improvement in IQ that is located almost entirely in the middle and upper middle classes.

    Well, I’ll stop now…. I could go on for pages… 🙂

  17. @merl:

    The founding fathers did not want to separate from England. The Crown was nearly bankrupt from fighting the war to protect the colonies, and wanted to raise taxes to pay for it. The colonies objected. Had George given them representation they would have taken it rather than separate.

    I have come to expect illiterate nonsense from the left. Thanks for meeting my expectations. 🙂

  18. Dazedandconfused says:

    Curt, I think you are missing the point, this is about a tendency to view America as a religion. Here’s an unintentionally comical rendition of the condition:

    There is nothing conservative about this kind of view of the constitution.

  19. mattb says:

    @Curt Doolittle:
    But don’t you see how definitions 1, 2, and 3 are each fundamentally different things? Especially in the case that you are using them in your statement.

    The Founding Fathers it is true did not want to necessarily go to war with England. But the choice to break away was in part based on classical liberal (different from modern progressive) post enlightenment thought.

    So, at the time, they were acting in the third capacity, not the first two. Today, when people invoke conservatism on a blog like this or within populist conservative media, they are fundamentally talking about a combination between 1 & 2.

    Nor is the move of comparing George to so called “modern progressives” any good either.

    Had George given them representation they would have taken it rather than separate.

    Sure… because England had historically allowed all of it’s settlements that sort of representation… oh, wait, it didn’t. Please name any of the other British settlements that had that sort of representation at the time. Pretty sure there were none.

    So what George (and Parliament) were doing was fundamentally a conservative move — conservative in terms of a traditionalist imagination of political power and empire — as per your definition 1. There was absolutely nothing “progressive” about George/Parliament’s decision.

  20. mattb says:

    crud, that should have been enlightenment not post enlightenment.

    additionally not olny does your definition “c” and “d” not really make much sense on rereading, the assumptions you make in d are subjective concepts/definitions masquarading as “fatcs.”

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    2) (Technical Definition) Short for “Anglo-American Classical-Liberal Aristocratic Christian Manorialsim.”

    long for “I can come up with a word soup to suit my preconceived posittion.

    Curt, you are an idiot who knows some big words (but not the meaning thereof)… I repeat,

    Say what you want about the Founding Fathers, but their ideals were extremely radical at the time and they were so emotive they rallied an entire nation of people to throw off the existing system of gov’t….

    Reply to my statement…. please.

  22. PD Shaw says:

    King George as a proto-Progressive? I think that is the sort of anachronism that tends to turn people off of study of the founders.

    My worship is more akin to Greek/Roman polytheism; there is no single belief structure that the founders all exhibitted. Some would have went gladly back to Britain with the most slender of changes, even at the last moments of the Revolution. Others never.

    I also view the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment as founders of the Second American Revolution, and while its true that the original founders were emersed in a philosophy of government restraint, the Constitution was amended to provide Congress with the power to enforce certain positive rights against the states.