That’s Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing, by Michael Austin (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2012, ISBN 978-1-61614-670-2) 285 pp. Paperback, $19.00.
The Founding Fathers these days are a bit like Silly Putty – they can be stretched into just about any position. Political commentators on the Right and the Left frequently press the Founders into service to buttress their political beliefs.
This isn’t surprising. The Founding Fathers loom large over the American imagination and are generally revered as the secular saints of American politics. Besides, who wouldn’t want to have George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others on his/her side?
But, as Michael Austin points out in his thought-provoking new book, That’s Not What They Meant! Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing, there are a few difficulties with tying today’s political arguments to the powdered-wig crowd from the Revolutionary days.
For starters, who exactly were the Founding Fathers? Many Americans can name the most prominent ones, but dozens of men signed the Constitution. Who makes the cut? (By the way, did you know that the term Founding Fathers was coined by President Warren G. Harding in 1916 when he was still a U.S. senator? And I thought the only word he came up with was “normalcy”!)
Also, is it likely that the Founders spoke with one voice on any issue? Of course not. As Austin points out, the Founders were all over the map on core matters. And, being human, they were sometimes inconsistent.
An additional problem arises when comments by Founders are wrenched from context or used as partial quotes. The result, Austin wittily asserts, is a monster called “Founderstein,” a horrifying beast that all too frequently runs amok over the U.S. political landscape.
Austin describes “Founderstein” as “an ideological monstrosity that, like Frankenstein’s monster, borrows bits and pieces from those safely dead – from, that is, the speeches, published essays, letters, and journals of any number of different Founding Fathers slapped together with absolutely no concern for context, rhetorical intent or the tremendous differences between the individual Founders.”
Sometimes, the quotes attributed to certain Founders are misinterpreted; in other cases, they may simply be made up. Austin illustrates this with a particularly egregious example of how Glenn Beck summarizes Federalist No.1 as an argument for American exceptionalism and the deity’s alleged preference for our nation. In fact, Federalist No. 1, penned by Alexander Hamilton, says nothing about God and does not argue for American exceptionalism. Hamilton merely states that other nations have an interest in the American experiment because it will prove if self-government (that is, non-monarchical rule) is possible. It was Beck’s fervid imagination that converted “interest” into “exceptionalism.”
Asks Austin, “The real question here is, how can someone who claims to revere the Founding Fathers justify such an utter disregard for the integrity of their words?” It’s a good question that someone should ask Beck.
Others create their “Founderstein” by stitching together quotes from disparate sources. In one case, a history professor wanted to prove that Hamilton opposed deficit spending. But Hamilton did not uniformly oppose such debt, so the professor had to get creative. He mashed together quotes from several Hamilton writings that spanned many years, giving the appearance that the quotes all came from the same source. They did not. Worse, they applied to different circumstances over different times. Austin rightly calls this an “intellectually dishonest” passage. He’s being rather polite here.
While the brunt of That’s Not What They Meant! concerns right-wing abuses of the Founders, Austin, to his credit, points out that those on the Left can be guilty of creating “Foundersteins” as well. Still, the problem does seem to be more common among the Right, hence the book’s subtitle. The reason for this may be that conservatives continue to look at the Constitution as a set-in-stone document and hold on the words (or certain words) of the Founding Fathers as holy writ while liberals have embraced the theory of the “living Constitution.”
This, of course, raises a raft of interesting questions about the Founders’ vision and its application to modern-day America. Can we really expect a group of aristocrats from an eighteenth-century agrarian nation to provide us with answers for a rapidly urbanizing country of 311 million people marked by mass transit, instant communication, and interlinked global markets?
Probably not. The genius of the Founders is not that that provided an answer to every issue we might face in the twenty-first century. It’s that they gave us a framework–the Constitution–that is flexible enough to meet our needs. That document can also be amended, a process that we’ve taken advantage of several times since 1788. The fact that the Founders built an amendment process into the document is pretty good evidence that they were smart enough to know that things might change–and that our parchment pal would have to change too.
Austin, an English professor at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, writes with a refreshing clarity that helps make even dusty old debates over the national debt feel lively. His prose is jaunty, and the book is thoroughly sourced. He ends the book on an optimistic note, pointing out that the same Founders who are so often dragooned into supporting just about any conceivable far-right opinion actually did something pretty remarkable: they gave us a governing structure that has endured. Because of this, he concludes, “America has not yet seen its best days. The Founding Fathers did their job well, and the system they created remains as robust an engine for liberty and human progress as the world has ever seen.”
Hear, hear! Austin also reminds us that the Founders were not demi-gods. They were living and breathing beings who sharply disagreed with one another and were capable of being wrong. They did, however, lay the groundwork for a great democracy; it remains up to us to keep forging it.
Right-wing historical revisionists have hit something of a rough patch lately. Witness the travails of David Barton, a Texas-based activist who insists, against all available evidence, that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation.” Barton’s recent book on Thomas Jefferson was so riddled with errors that the publisher pulled it.
A new era of critical analysis of the Founders may be at hand. If so, it makes That’s Not What They Meant! all the more important. The book deserves to find a wide audience.
Rob Boston is senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Washington, D.C.