All those yesterdays
Philosophy, the Constitution, and respect for the Founding Fathers
According to a report by the Associated Press, Republicans have proposed forty-two amendments to the Constitution during the current Congress, compared to twenty-seven such proposals by the Democrats (one third of which are part of a package from a single member).
This is surprising because many Republicans won their seats as strict defenders of the Constitution’s “plain language.” One of these politicians, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, explains away the discrepancy.
He said the Founding Fathers never imagined the size and scope of today's federal government and that he's simply resurrecting their vision by trying to amend it. “It's not picking and choosing,” he said. “We need to do a lot of tweaking to make the Constitution as it was originally intended, instead of some perverse idea of what the Constitution says and does.”
Apparently, politicians like Rep. Broun appeal to the intentions of the Founding Fathers as their political philosophy, not the Constitution itself. Variations of this “Founding Father-ism” exist across the political spectrum, yet there are several problems with this position.
First, the Founding Fathers are not one person but several people with divergent political opinions and well documented political disputes. Documents like the Constitution are the results of compromise between competing parties. Given this historical fact, it would be difficult to adjudicate between these different views in order to find the “intent” of the Founding Fathers behind each document.
Even if this problem was solved, there are still many issues that the Founding Fathers probably never had an opinion about. For example, modern environmental or technological concerns did not exist during the country’s founding, making it difficult to know what the
Founding Fathers would have thought. Dedicated students of history could make educated guesses, but these guesses could never have any degree of certainty, and would probably be affected by personal biases.
One might argue that the Founding Fathers generally believed in a specific political ideology – small government libertarianism, perhaps. This ideology was their intention, and it is what our country was founded upon. Therefore, we should follow it as well. But this use of historical facts to support a certain philosophy is misguided. We should follow the political philosophy that is correct, not the one that has been prescribed to by specific historical figures.
For example, what if a politician was faced with clear historical evidence that the Founding Fathers disagreed with some opinion of his, would he see this as evidence enough to change his mind? I do not suspect any politician would – nor should he.
The bottom line is that the Founding Fathers were not omniscient. Brilliant, perhaps, but even the smartest persons can be mistaken, even wildly so. Aristotle, perhaps the most influential figure in the history of science and philosophy, also thought men have more teeth than women. Certainly you can respect Aristotle while still disagreeing with his dentistry. In fact, you can respect Aristotle while completely disagreeing with all of his substantial beliefs (as I suspect most scientists and philosophers do today). And certainly you can respect the Founding Fathers without subscribing to Founding Father-ism.
If Broun and his colleagues are looking for a consistent ideology to tie together their specific beliefs, there are many out there – read some Nozick or Gauthier. If they’re looking for warrants to support their positions, they should use argumentation instead of historical mimicry. The best politics come from philosophy, not history books.
Photo by Flickr user INeedCoffee/CoffeeHero used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.