Anybody who spends enough time digging around in the graveyards of American political theory knows about “Founderstein”—an ideological monstrosity that, like Frankenstein’s monster, borrows bits and pieces from those safely dead—from, that is, the the speeches, published essays, letters, and journals of any number of different Founding Fathers slapped together with absolutely no concern for context, rhetorical intent, or the tremendous differences between the individual Founders.
The most common Modern version of Founderstein looks something like this:
· Thomas Paine’s belief in small government
· Patrick Henry’s religious devotion
· Benjamin Franklin’s scientific mind
· Thomas Jefferson’s classical learning
· Alexander Hamilton’s rhetorical power
· George Washington’s leadership vision
· John Adams’ incorruptible integrity
· James Madison’s love of the Constitution
One could certainly be forgiven a bit of idolatry in the face of such a political saint! That such a fellow never existed might dampen our enthusiasm a little bit, but this is pretty much the central-casting version of all of the “Founding Fathers” in books like Tim Lahay’s Faith of Our Founding Fathers, Larry Schweikart’s What Would the Founders Say? And just about anything by Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, or Sean Hannity.
However, if we take these same eight men and combine another set of characteristics, we end up with a very different Founderstein—one just as monstrous as the first but designed for a different kind of political argument:
· Thomas Paine’s strident atheism
· Patrick Henry’s implacable opposition to the Constitution
· Benjamin Franklin’s sexual adventurism
· Thomas Jefferson’s deism
· Alexander Hamilton’s desire for large, centralized governments
· George Washington’s lifelong ownership of slaves
· John Adams’ naïveté
· James Madison’s shifting political allegiances
But this creature never existed either. “The Founding Fathers” were not all well-educated, devout Christians who sought to limit the power of government any more than they were slave-owning atheists who wanted to expand the power of government. They were actual human beings with insights and moral lapses, virtues and vices, and, perhapsm most importantly, little ability to agree with each other about much of anything. That is how human beings operate in this world.
The Founderstein phenomenon, however, does not come from this world. It comes from the world of myth, where virtues are amplified and disagreements are suppressed. And it is only by invoking the world of myth that anybody can say “the Founding Fathers believed. . . .” and end up with anything like a coherent argument. Other than a vague feeling that the American colonies were better off ruling themselves than being ruled by the British, there is not a single belief that can be attributed to everybody who can be reasonably termed a “Founding Father.”
The fallacy in the Founderstein phenomenon lies in the fact that it relies entirely on three false assumptions:
1. That the term “Founders” represents a specific group of men (women need not apply) who have been universally recognized as the framers of the Constitution and the designers of the government that has endured for more than 230 years.
2. That these men agreed with each other on all, or even some, of the major political issues of their day, thereby making a quote by any one of them adequate proof of “what the Founders believed.”
3. That these men—some of whom lived into their 90s—held consistent opinions about important issues during their entire public lives.
These assumptions are not just false; they are all profoundly wrong. Together, they create an ahistorical, one-dimensional version of the Founding Fathers that is good only for creating proof-text arguments—strings of quotations that pay no attention to the ideological differences of the Founders or the rhetorical contexts of their words. Want to prove that the Founding Fathers were orthodox Christians? Easy. Quote a line from one of Hamilton’s youthful love sonnets, a phrase from one of George Washington’s ghostwritten speeches, and something that ended up in the Kentucky Constitution that may have been put there by Madison. Want to prove that they were all non-Christian deists? Grab Franklin’s autobiography, Jefferson’s letters to Joseph Priestley, and quote liberally from Paine’s The Age of Reason. It’s easy, it’s fun, and no matter which way you decide to go, somebody else has already looked up the quotes. All you you have to do is Google.
And reading is hard work.