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The Founders in Today’s Politics

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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.

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About Kyle Scott

  • I’m not calling it a draw only that the new Maddow book is an interesting break from the methods utilized by the left, that is, a direct reference to the founding fathers and arguing that what we have now, with regard to the military, is a growth of government far beyond what the founding generation would have wanted. That’s usually a Republican tactic, one that she uses against them on one of their bedrock issues–national defense. Both parties are for expansive government, but in different areas. According to the rhetoric, Republicans want in your bedroom and out of your wallets, and Democrats what the opposite. Neither is necessarily for limited government. I made a similar argument in the Houston Chronicle a few days ago.

    I like your reference to the Anti-Feds. I spend a lot of time with them in my first book. I think you are right that they were for more limited government than the Federalists and they lost.

    My position is pretty skeptical. Both parties are willing to use the founders when it is politically expedient to do so, but only the Republicans have been willing to do it far more frequently. I think this gives the wrong impression that because they reference it, the Republicans are the only ones who want to provide what the founders wanted. The founders were not a homogenous group, so it is nice that someone on the left has taken up the founders. Is it a draw? No. But it is an interesting development.
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  • Baronius

    Kyle, I could accept that more easily if Democrats and Republicans were both referring to Founders’ arguments in their discussion of different issues. But your article presents the opposite story, that one journalist is beginning the process of breaking the GOP’s monopoly on the Founders. On the one hand, there’s all the Republicans, on the other hand, there’s Rachel Maddow, so we might as well call this a draw? Personally, I think you could have made a stronger argument that the Democrats invoke the Constitution, if not the Founders.

    I called up the Democratic and Republican platforms of 2008. I did a search and discovered that the word “constitutioon” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Democratic platform. Then I typed in “constitution” and found more hits; ditto with the Republicans. The references were to the issues you’d expect. But the Republican document referred more often to specific articles and amendments.

    Also, the Republicans called for specific amendments; I don’t remember the Democratic platform doing the same. I think it speaks to the Republicans taking the document more seriously. I think about the health care debate, and the Republicans have argued against the law’s constitutionality in general as well as with regard to the mandate. During the passage of the PATRIOT Act I remember lively debates in both parties. I’ve heard a lot more against the use of drones against American citizens from the right than from the left. I’m left with the feeling that the Democrats just don’t think as much about Constitutional limits on their own issues.

    One last point. You mentioned the anti-Federalists. They were a faction among the Founders who opposed the Constitution (at least initially) because they didn’t see it as having enough limits on government. They were opposed, and beaten, by the Federalists who believed that the Constitution had enough limits on government. No one at the time argued for an expansive federal government except Hamilton to some extent. I just don’t see anything in the original debates that would support a national government with as much power as ours has now. If the Democrats aren’t talking as much about the Founders, it could be because they can’t.

  • I think Dreadful #1 restates the article’s argument nicely. (Also, it is nice to see a reasoned discussion going here where everyone is addressing one another rather than talking around the central points.) To Baronius #11, my concern is do the founders mean anything if they can mean everything just depending upon which one(s) you decide to go to. I understand the point of couching an argument in historical terms for the rhetorical benefit, but why not address first principles, then look to see if there is anyone else who shares your opinion in the historical record? Utilizing the founders the way most politicians do has cheapened the founding generation’s contribution to political theory and practice.

  • Baronius


  • Not suggesting deception, Baronius. (Deceptive? Politicians? Surely not!) More like confirmation bias.

    It’s a bit like the phenomenon of how “what Jesus would do” is always what we want to do.

  • Baronius

    Agreed. But that doesn’t mean it always is. Just like earlier, you said that a movement always finds Constitutional support for its positions. That doesn’t mean it’s playing a game though. That may really be the way they see things. You can learn something by what positions they do defend with reference to the Constitution and what positions they don’t.

    It seems lazily cynical to assume that a politician or movement is being deceptive.

  • Agreed, Baronius, but that can always be used as an excuse.

  • Baronius

    Dread, there’s a lot to be said for political compromise, and it doesn’t get said enough these days. But there are different reasons for walking away from the table. If you’re walking away because you’re not getting what you want, or because you don’t want the other side to get what it wants, that’s wrong. But if you think the ultimate deal makes things worse, then you’re obligated to walk away. Compromise is not in and of itself always the right (or wrong) thing to do.

  • @ #6: I do acknowledge that (the gun control lobby is a good example), although I find (for psychological reasons which we’ve discussed at length elsewhere) that the unwillingness to cede ground is far more prevalent on the political right than in the centre or on the left.

  • …See, the problem with a lot of modern pols is they tend to regard “compromise” as a synonym for “defeat”, which it isn’t. Compromise means you go along with some of your opponents’ wishes as a way of getting at least some of what you want now and leaving the door open to the possibility of getting more (or the rest) of it in the future.

    So when Madison, for example, put his signature to the Constitution even though it contained things he wasn’t happy about, chances are he was fairly hopeful that the bits he thought were a bad idea could be fixed later on.

  • Clavos

    As long as you acknowledge that the TEA Party (and the right wing in general) by no means have a monopoly on that attitude (as you do in #3) absolutely yes, Doc.

  • Indeed, Clav.

    And would you Q me another FT if I were to add that these alleged close correlations between the Founders’ intent and the Tea Party (e.g.) platform are used as justification for why the faction shouldn’t budge even an inch?

  • Clavos

    At least, they pretend to, but it’s always striking how closely the Founders’ intent just happens to match their particular party’s or faction’s platform.


  • I don’t know if any of them do, Baronius.

    At least, they pretend to, but it’s always striking how closely the Founders’ intent just happens to match their particular party’s or faction’s platform.

  • Baronius

    Kyle – There’s one problem. Just because there were different understandings of the Constitution at the time doesn’t mean that today’s political parties reflect those different ideas. By all means, today’s political parties should try to ground themselves in a historical understanding of our governmental structure, but do they all equally do so?

  • Neat reminder that the Founding Dads disagreed about important stuff as much as any set of political thinkers.

    One thing they did seem to be better at. The Constitution is a result of that process most dreaded and abhorred by at least one band of modern pols:

    [warning: cover your eyes now if you are squeamish]