J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

What the Founding Fathers Set Up

American politicians always try to evoke the “founders” or “founding fathers” of the U.S. of A. to argue for their policies, or simply to reinforce their patriotism. I think those eighteenth-century gentlemen would actually be struck speechless by today’s issues, not to mention today’s technology, clothing, and general egalitarianism. And if you don’t look too hard, it’s possible to invoke their words or actions to support nearly anything.

That said, politicians’ remarks on the founders can still be useful to judging how they think. Do they show a respect for historical facts? Do they show the ability to think logically and critically, to identify important principles and recognize difficult truths instead of easy falsehoods?

One cogent example of a reference to America’s founders appeared in this 8 Sept 2008 dispatch from the presidential campaign trail, written by Peter Slevin for the Washington Post:

Sen. Barack Obama delivered an impassioned defense of the Constitution and the rights of terrorism suspects tonight, striking back at one of the biggest applause lines in Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s speech to the GOP convention.

It was in St. Paul last week that Palin drew raucous cheers when she delivered this put-down of Obama: “Al-Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America and he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights.”

Obama had a few problems with that.

“First of all, you don’t even get to read them their rights until you catch ’em,” Obama said here, drawing laughs from 1,500 supporters in a high school gymnasium. “They should spend more time trying to catch Osama bin Laden and we can worry about the next steps later.”

If the plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks are in the government's sights, Obama went on, they should be targeted and killed.

“My position has always been clear: If you’ve got a terrorist, take him out,” Obama said. “Anybody who was involved in 9/11, take ’em out.”

But Obama, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for more than a decade, said captured suspects deserve to file writs of habeas corpus.

Calling it “the foundation of Anglo-American law,” he said the principle “says very simply: If the government grabs you, then you have the right to at least ask, ‘Why was I grabbed?’ And say, ‘Maybe you’ve got the wrong person.’” . . .

“The reason that you have this principle is not to be soft on terrorism. It’s because that’s who we are. That’s what we’re protecting,” Obama said, his voice growing louder and the crowd rising to its feet to cheer. “Don’t mock the Constitution. Don’t make fun of it. Don’t suggest that it’s not American to abide by what the founding fathers set up. It’s worked pretty well for over 200 years.”
As a contrast, here’s vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s invocation of the founders in a response to a questionnaire from the hard-right Eagle Forum Alaska during her run for governor in 2006. (After this exchange received national attention, the webpage was deleted, but it survives on an archive site.)
11. Are you offended by the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? Why or why not?

SP: Not on your life. If it was good enough for the founding fathers, its good enough for me and I’ll fight in defense of our Pledge of Allegiance.
The phrase “under God” was added to the pledge in 1954. Francis Bellamy wrote the rest of the pledge in 1892. The founding fathers never heard it.

Photo above by jimbowen0306 on Flickr. This one’s neat, too.


David B. Appleton said...

Ms. Palin's comment about "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance reminds me of the old saw that:

"If King James' English [in the Bible] was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!"

J. L. Bell said...

A classic joke indeed!

Robert S. Paul said...

Although I happen to agree with him in this instance, I don't think Obama support the Constitution as much as he likes to say he does.

He's certainly fairly anti-second amendment. And it's his party who sets up "Free Speech Zones".

J. L. Bell said...

I think both major American political parties have fenced off protesters, especially in 2004. The Democrats do seem to have been the first to do the empty lip service of calling the protest zones “free speech areas” (in Atlanta, in 1996).

At that time, Obama had just won his first term as a state senator, and Palin her first term as mayor. McCain and Biden were, of course, in the Senate and therefore in a much better position to influence their parties’ conventions.

Mark B. said...

I wouldn't be too quick to criticize Governor Palin on this one. The men of the revolution lived in a Christian world, and if they had known their words would have been used to proscribe regular Bible readings from public schools, they would probably have been explicit in their support for the teaching of Christian beliefs. Ask yourself - if the Founding Father could be resurrected and allowed to vote in this election, who do you think they'd vote for, the party of secularism, or the party of Christian values? If "under God" wasn't in the Pledge, it certainly was a fundamental assumption of the society at large.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m contrasting Obama and Palin on their command of historical facts, their ability to acknowledge difficult truths, and the sophistication of their thinking. And I didn’t criticize her, just presented her words and the facts and let people see the difference (or get defensive).

Your picture of the Founders, N.W.B., is one-sided and incomplete. Some (especially in New England) were indeed Christian fundamentalists, convinced of the rightness of their own faiths and disdainful of any non-Protestant form of worship. Others were for religious freedom, and recognized how that meant not using the power of government to enforce one creed—even the creed they believed in. Thomas Jefferson, for example, chose not to issue Thanksgiving proclamations as President because he felt that was outside his powers and duties.

One thing that hasn’t changed since the early republic is that religious partisans try to use church affiliation for political gain, to falsely paint a “party of secularism” and a “party of Christian values.” Your comment offers an example of that type of politicking.

In 1796 and 1800, the Federalists complained that Jefferson was a Unitarian, tantamount to a deist or atheist. In fact, his opponent, John Adams, had also come to adopt Unitarian beliefs. Neither man accepted the divinity of Jesus or the Bible as literal truth. But that didn’t stop the Federalists from trying to draw the same contrast you’ve tried to make.

mc said...

300 million people and these are the candidates the process vomited up.

God help us all...:(

J. L. Bell said...

To quote from Churchill, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

mc said...

Spot on, that.