Rick Buchanan, a Tea Party activist, recently pontificated to a reporter with the Washington Post: “The founding fathers were very afraid of a central government.” This from a man organizing a twelve week class for the public on the Constitution — of course, the document that established our central government and even strengthened that from the failure that was a weaker version under the Articles of Confederation. Less ironically, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia considers himself an “originalist” or one who reads the Constitution according to its original meaning for the founding generation (as he determines it). Some other unnamed “patriot” who sponsors foundingfathers.com claims to voice the founders’ intent — particularly promoting your right to have a gun in this country. These few examples illustrate the fervor with which conservative elements in our society promote the importance of the founding fathers’ positions and claim of the primacy of the same. This rhetoric dominates much of the political conversation these days, and it’s pretty much become heresy to reject this mythic founders’ intent and/or suggest that they were wrong in their stands. Citing the founders settles all arguments. Even the ACLU has resorted to this tactic in its attack on government surveillance practices.
A good part of the problem with this veneration of the founders’ intent is that it perpetuates the historical inequalities in our society and fails to recognize that these men were elitists who oppressed others and established a government that protected their ability to do that. Originally, the only citizens with any political standing were white men of property. Blacks, Indians, and other minorities were powerless in this system. They had no civil rights, no recourse to the courts when done wrong, or ability to challenge the status quo. Women too had no rights. Like black slaves, they were prohibited from making a contract with others and were the property of their husbands. Initially, the law even recognized their husbands’ right to beat them — as long as they did not use a stick larger than their thumbs or cause permanent disability. Women had no claim to their own children and no money of their own. Things were equally miserable for the disabled and homosexuals. They were shut away in institutions or punished publicly — humiliated for their “crime.” Even poor white men were excluded under the system. They couldn’t vote or run for office and functioned at the mercy of the wealthy men whose personal power dominated society. The system was designed to give these “best men” the authority to run their communities as they saw fit, and limiting government freed them from restrictions or oversight in doing that. This practice was born of the belief that wealthy white men were better than others and should be the ones to run society then. Others were to be neutralized by the law to prevent any threat to their power.
Then, history happened. The founders’ words were turned against them. “All men are created equal” came to literally mean all men. And then, “men” was read figuratively to include women. Civil rights movements made truth of the democracy the founders established. Women, minorities, the disabled, and the poor came to have equal footing under the law and in the political system. While inequities certainly persist, our efforts have gone in the right direction and continue. Our founding fathers were wrong to exclude the vast majority of Americans and we have rejected their racist, sexist, elitist ways. We should not be ashamed of this; we should be proud. This talk about the intent of our founders is an insult to our history and an offense to our people — including those who were beaten, abused, force fed, and murdered fighting for their equal rights. The original intent was to discriminate and oppress. There can be no celebration of that and no call to return to it. Those who engage in such are the enemies of democracy and the foes of history. We must want no part of our founders’ aim.