History And Now

History and Now:

Did the Founders have all the answers?

If a "tea party" event is where the disaffected go to protest the present, his classes are where they go to ponder the past. Participants include members of "9.12" groups inspired by conservative commentator Glenn Beck, Republicans, home-school groups and people affiliated with militias.

Here in Springfield, the day's students sipped coffee and chewed on peppermints while seated at folding banquet-hall tables. They included a lawyer, a farmer, a local politician and a project manager for a construction company.
What I find most interesting about the courses is that they represent a return to history as it was taught some decades ago. That is, the focus on "the Founder's supposed immorality" that we find in modern histories is intentionally laid aside; and, perhaps because the founder of the course was a minister who was also an anti-Communist, there is instead a focus on the Founder's faith and spirituality.

On that subject, I think we might honestly say that the Founding was of two minds: there were quite a number of Deists and others for whom faith was not what we think of today when we ascribe devotion to someone. Yet that faith was not dead: Deists, if they did not believe in a God who intervened, they believed in a Creator who had some intentions in making the world (such that he 'endowed' humanity with 'certain inalienable rights,' such as life, liberty and the right to pursue happiness). If they did not believe that God would help us, they believed that God had made us free -- and had not done so for no reason.

There were also many Founders, particularly at the state and local level, who were intensely devout in a sense we would find more recognizable. The modern historians have lost that sense, in their focus on exploring Deism; Deism was important, and we should try to understand it, but much of the focus on it is a reflection of the modern scholar's taste. So too with the Founders' 'immorality,' some of which was certainly real; but the focus on it is mostly about the modern scholar, and not the real importance of the thing being described at such length and with such focus.

If these new/old classes go too far in playing down those things, that is the normal reaction in historiography. History as a discipline goes through waves of praising and condemning the same people or events, as the field cycles this way and that. Anyone who has followed historiography on any given topic knows the truth of this. This is why a truly balanced and sober history is such a gift, and so worthy of praise.

Of course, journalists are also guilty.
Today, reverence for the Constitution and the Founding Fathers is an important part of the militia movement. Taylor's work has been embraced, for instance, by members of Oath Keepers, a group of current and former police and military personnel who renew their oaths to the Constitution, and call themselves "guardians of the republic."
This strange detour into militias (and inability to recognize that the Oath Keepers are not a militia!) is plainly a product of the fears of the reporter. Citing the "milita movement," which is like five guys in Oregon, is just a weird hobby horse. Would the Washington Post endorse: "Today, reverence for the Koran is an important part of the terrorist movement"? Of course not; they would say that the statement slanders the Koran and the millions who reverence it without being connected to terrorism in any way.

Ultimately, the Founders weren't right about everything. Slavery is the obvious choice of an example of something they got very wrong, although it is also sui generis, and therefore has limited use as an example. Certainly, however, there were other things that they did not get right.

Too, there are other things that they got right for their time and place, but that we no longer find quite right for America as it exists today. For example, birthright citizenship made perfect sense for them at the time; but in an age when it is easy to get on a plane and fly around the world, so that anyone with a plane ticket can essentially purchase citizenship for their child by vacationing at the right time, it may no longer make sense. Another example is military appropriations; the Constitution hedges against a standing army by refusing to allow for more than a two-year appropriations of funds for one. The ship has sailed on the question of whether or not we'll have a standing army, however; and more, the army has proven to be not the fearsome force that the Founders worried about in their era, but one of the strongest pillars of our Republic.

Where the Founders weren't right, however, they gave us Article V to let us change the things that we need to change. Adjustments to our basic law that are approved in that mode enjoy broad support and legitimacy. More, the strength of the process prevents rapid alteration of society's shape, requiring careful deliberation over years before making major alterations. This prevents social instability, and ensures that momentary enthusiasms among the voting public do not undermine the fabric of the nation.

That's one lesson we need for today. The Constitution provides specific, limited powers to the Federal government. Any time it wants to do something new, it needs to ask for new authority. If we learn just one thing well, let us learn a way to require the Congress, the Executive and the Supreme Court to respect that principle.

No comments: