As election season approaches, the occasional appeal to the “founding fathers” – more accurately, the “founding generation,” since women played essential roles as well – in political speeches seems to become more frequent and more pronounced.
If the problem of politicians making broad references to the “founding generation” to support their party or position is not readily apparent, consider how you would fairly and accurately answer the following question.
What does the Republican Party or Democratic Party stand for or believe?
The problem of sweeping appeals to the beliefs of the “founding generation” should be more obvious when attempting to answer this question.
These groups have believed (and continue to believe) many things. Thus, to speak as if every Republican or every Democrat thinks alike is erroneous.
The various sub-groups within (conservative, moderate, liberal) and off-shoots of (Tea Party, Green Party, Libertarians) these two parties should be evidence of the great diversity that exists within generally like-minded groups.
Many areas of common ground exist, otherwise no one would claim the label “Republican” or “Democrat.”
Nevertheless, there are also many areas in which widely divergent perspectives exist within these parties, much less between them. The same is true of the “founding fathers” or “founding generation.”
Therefore, referencing the “founding generation” as a collective group in support of a political party or politician’s stance on an issue is to ignore the historical reality.
The foolishness of such an assertion is most clearly revealed if one envisions a U.S. politician 200 years from now speaking as if our contemporary politicians all thought like his or her party or position.
A 2011 article published in the Penn Political Review provides an excellent sampling of the diversity of the “founding generation,” while historian and author Joseph P. Ellis sets forth a similar perspective in a 2007 article on Britannica online.
What these articles suggest is that the old Baptist joke – if you put three Baptists in a room, you’ll come out with four opinions – could aptly be applied to the “founders” of the United States of America.
The “founders” agreed on some issues, to be sure, but disagreed on many more issues.
Therefore, to align one’s position or party with the “founding generation” is foolish, at best, and insidious, at worst, because such statements can only be made from either a lack of historical knowledge or an intentional effort to mislead.
The “founders” engaged in passionate debate due, in large part, to a profound disagreement about the role of the federal government vis-Ã -vis the state governments.
Some – such as Washington, Adams and Hamilton – sought a stronger federal government. Others – such as Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – sought a weaker federal government.
In most cases, it would be more historically accurate for a politician or party to assert that it is following some of the founders, while another politician or party is following others of the founders.
Therefore, politicians should attempt to be more accurate (and ethical) in their speeches by choosing to reference particular members of the “founding generation” with whose ideology they agree.
Doing so avoids the historical inaccuracy of suggesting that the “founders” were not a diverse group who disagreed passionately and profoundly on both tangential and core issues.
Doing so also avoids unethically misleading one’s audience, which would be the case if one were aware of the profound diversity within the “founding generation” and yet spoke as if they were unified in thought.
Neither historical ignorance nor unethical misrepresentation is appropriate for the leaders of our nation.
Again, the historical record of the “founders” shows diversity, not unanimity, of perspective, as well as constant discussion about their divergent views.
This means that to engage in passionate debate about governance is to follow the example of the “founding generation.”
Politicians and pundits should maintain this “founding tradition,” while abandoning the unhistorical and, potentially, unethical tradition of speaking as if the “founding generation” shared a common mind.