Tea Party: The Founding Fathers aren’t Yours

It seems anytime anti-government rhetoric, or even partisan rhetoric to an extent, ratchets up one side always claims the Founding Fathers. They say we have  gotten away from our roots. We are taking the country down the wrong path. This is not what they wanted for us. So you should really ask: “What DID the Founding Fathers want?”

That answer is far from clear.  My first question is which Founding Fathers? Washington, Franklin, Jefferson? How about Madison, Hamilton, or Adams. Try these, Bartlett, Sherman, Gerry, Livingston, or Wolcott.  Never heard of them? Don’t feel bad. I had to look them up. Those are all signers of the Declaration of Independence.  There are a number of people who can be named as Founding Fathers. Those who participated in the Continental Congress, those whose framed and signed the Articles of Confederation, and those at the Constitutional Convention all qualify as the people who formed this country. Even if we look at merely the men who wrote the Constitution and served in the government you find little agreement and much argument. Ron Chernow wrote  a wonderful piece in the New York Times about this very issue. You can find it here.  After reading it, I realized something about the Tea Party movement. Like many other anti-government movements they think they know what this country is supposed to be and the rest of us are wrong. It’s the belief that “I’m right, you’re wrong”  that characterizes them. That belief is what steers them off track.

The Founding Fathers didn’t know what they meant exactly.  As Chernow points out Hamilton immediately believed the Constitution gave the government the right to form a central bank even though it wasn’t explicitly written. Jefferson and Madison thought he was crazy. Not a day after the ink was dry, they were debating the interpretation of the document they wrote.  That basic argument of how to interpret the text is still being had today.

The simple fact is that the Constitution was a framework not for a country of 18th century, but a country of any century. That’s why they added the amendment process.  They wanted to plan for the future. The Founders didn’t anticipate a country of multinational corporations, or of global trade or certainly a nuclear bomb.  They didn’t give us a country. They gave us the framework to have a country that develops through the unknowable changes of time.

If the Tea Party wants to get back to what the Founders considered in the late 1780s, we need a time machine.  What we know is they gave us the unending debate. We shouldn’t focus on what America was supposed to be, but what we can be.  What the Founders truly wanted was to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,”

What that means is  221 years ago they debated how to best govern this nation. The argued, they persuaded and they voted. Today, we are still having that debate.  I hope we are still having that debate 221 years from now.


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