The Republican Party has lost its monopoly on the Founding Fathers. It is common practice for Republican supporters and politicians to invoke the Founding Fathers when they debate those on the left. The left seemed quite content ceding this ground to the right until recently. With Rachel Maddow’s new book, Drift, the left is seeking to resurrect the Founding Fathers on their own behalf. This is good for American politics. Not because the left has the Founding Fathers right, but because debate about our foundational principles helps to clarify and strengthen what it is our country stands for.
In Drift, Maddow draws on Founding Father and third President Thomas Jefferson, who was not at the Constitutional Convention, to bolster her argument that the power of the executive has exceeded its constitutionally authorized power with regard to war and foreign affairs. Strikingly, as Maddow admits, Republicans who support an expansive reading of the president’s war powers also draw on the Founding Fathers; just different ones than she chooses to focus on.
The Founding Fathers were not a homogenous group. In fact, there was great disagreement about what the Constitution meant and even over whether there should have even been a new constitution adopted to replace the Articles of Confederation. Founding Father Patrick Henry, famous for his statement, “Give me liberty, or give me Death,” opposed the ratification of the Constitution and even refused to go to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia because he, “smelt a rat in Philadelphia.”
If we recognize that there was disagreement during the Founding era, and even among those who shaped the new nation and whom we consider Founding Fathers, there is no doubt that no single contemporary political party should have a monopoly on the Founding Fathers.
Disagreement about the meaning of the Constitution did not take place on the periphery. When Alexander Hamilton (the sole delegate to the Constitutional Convention from New York to put his name to the document), acting as Secretary of Treasury under George Washington, began pushing the idea of a national bank, he ran into opposition from James Madison, widely recognized as the chief architect of the Constitution. Madison opposed a national bank on constitutional grounds, while Hamilton argued for its constitutionality. A conflict between these two so early in the nation’s development is shocking for two reasons: They cooperated quite a bit during the constitutional convention, and they collaborated on writing the Federalist Papers, a work that sought to clarify what the Constitution meant prior to its ratification, under the shared pen name Publius. If any two people were supposed to see eye-to-eye about the meaning of the Constitution we would assume it would be these two.
But they disagreed over the proper extent of congressional power and the Supreme Court sided with Hamilton in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). The disagreement between Hamilton and Madison did not end with the national bank. In the Pacificus-Helvidius debates, Hamilton and Madison, at the urging of Thomas Jefferson, again argued over the proper meaning of the Constitution; this time over the proper extent of the president’s power in foreign affairs. Hamilton favored a unitary executive theory in which the president could act unilaterally in matters of war and international relations and Madison adopted the position that Congress should have a more prominent role in such matters. Both men grounded their arguments in the Constitution.
So with obvious disagreement among the Founding Fathers about the true meaning of the Constitution it seems odd that they are now understood as a homogenous group who stood for a single vision. But this is the danger of allowing one party to claim the Founding Fathers as their own. History gets glossed over.
If one party is left to declare themselves the heirs to the Founding Fathers, without challenge to the claim or their interpretation of the founding, they could remake the founding in their own image and for their own purposes. This ignores the reality of the founding generation.
Debate about our foundational principles is a good thing. It forces us to question who we are as a nation and what it is we want from government. It is not a settled question as to whether the left or right is correct about today’s political questions or about which side has the founding correct, but what we can know, is that an open debate about those things is certainly the correct path forward. That is at least one indisputable teaching the founders handed down to us.