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18.8.03

Ordinary People


Confidence in the genius of the Founders and the conviction that their blueprint for our nation is infallible can lend a patriot a rare sense of security, even in troubled times.

... Although [H.W.] Brands admires the Founders, he argues that their most remarkable quality was their boldness in the face of great risk and uncertainty—the very quality that excessive reverence for previous generations stifles. Through their impressive feat of creating a structure of stability for their political descendants, the Founders created a leadership class with a genuine respect for the status quo, and bequeathed to these new leaders a complicated set of problems, both ideological and practical. Today's leadership class, Brands suggests, would do well to take a page out of the Founders' book and apply all their ingenuity to the nation's needs, reworking the Constitution when necessary to address the issues of the day. He argues that the confidence to do this would be a more important inheritance from the Founders than the particulars of the Constitution, a document produced by a small group of men during three months in 1787.


The Founders' boldness in social experimentation is certainly something to keep in mind. But X doesn't mention another way in which reverence for the Founders betrays them: the epistemological. Founder-reverence in its extreme form ammounts to an argument from authority -- such-and-such is true because Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson said it, not because of the inherent worth of the idea. That's quite an odd thing to do to the ideas of men who signed off on a document that opened "We hold these truths to be self-evident" -- i.e., that their ideas were endorsed by reason and evidence rather than tradition or authority.

On the other hand, I think there are some positive functions served by a degree of reverence for the Founders. The Founders give us a shared ideal. Both liberals and conservatives will tell you that they are trying to uphold the core values of America, values which are frequently legitimated by reference to the Founders. Even something like the abolitionist movement, which brought about two constitutional amendments and eliminated a practice carried on by many Founders, justified itself as purifying the Founders' own vision that "all men are created equal." This gives politics a degree of stability that it wouldn't have if our major factions self-identified as wanting to throw out America's founding principles in favor of communism or theocracy.

Adherence to exegesis of Founder-derived principles also opens a greater possibility for one side of a debate to win over its opponents, because the sides share at least some basic principles. It's analagous to what would happen if a Catholic were to debate the doctrine of the Trinity with a Muslim and one of Jehovah's Witnesses. In the Catholic vs. Muslim debate, the issue would remain unresolved, because their arguments are based on different axioms (the authority of the Bible vs. the Qur'an). But the Catholic and the Witness may be able to come to some agreement, because they both assert that their stance is based on the Bible.

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