But we must free ourselves from the toxic belief that these men were perfect in all things, vessels of sacred wisdom that must bind our society today, no matter what damage it might cause.
As we have seen recently, the American right has found in the editors an extraordinarily effective tool with which to roll back social progress and undermine our democracy. It found perhaps its most ridiculous manifestation in the Tea Party movement that emerged when Barack Obama was president, when people started strutting around in tricorn hats and every Republican was supposed to have a favorite founder. But today, he’s gone from an assignment to a weapon, and brutally effective.
We have seen this in recent Supreme Court decisions that have supercharged the legal philosophy of “originalism” on abortion and guns. Reproductive rights, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. said, are neither found in the explicit terms of the Constitution nor “deeply rooted in the history and traditions of the nation,” so they do not exist as a than rights. As for states that want to regulate guns, Justice Clarence Thomas said, only regulations that have “distinctly similar historical regulation” from the 18th century will be permitted. The America of 1789 becomes a prison in which conservative judges can lock us all up whenever they want.
Originalism was a hoax from the start, a foolproof methodology for conservatives to arrive at any legal outcome to suit their political preferences: pick a few quotes from the Federalist Papers, quote an obscure 1740 ordinance from the Colony of Virginia that one of your clerks unearthed, then assert that Scripture leads us inexorably to a single result.
By a happy coincidence, this result is still what the Republicans are looking for. Anyone who disagrees, or points out how absurd the historical analysis of the right is, even on their own terms, is simply not respecting the divine will of the authors.
I am not a spiritual medium, able to communicate with editors throughout the mists of time, and no one in the Supreme Court either. But I suspect that they themselves would find the originalist project as it is practiced on the law completely absurd. Imagine being able to go back and describe to them the idea that hundreds of years from now we would all be tied to their words and the state of their society. They would probably say, “That sounds crazy.”
But that’s the smugness of today’s right: the Founders were essentially perfect, and only we conservatives can interpret their will.
One of the lies uttered by conservatives – and to which they cling all the more fiercely in the face of new understandings of history – is that the foundation and the men who led it were simple and easy to understand.
But like the country they shaped, they were complicated. They were brilliant and visionary, weak and compromised. It in no way diminishes their accomplishments to see that they were human beings.
So what do you do with a character like Thomas Jefferson? He had one of the most extraordinary minds of his time, capable of crafting brilliant works of political philosophy that we read to this day and designing structures that still exist. Yet he also has possessed other human beings.
The conservative response is that we need to shield our eyes from Jefferson’s shortcomings (as well as those of other slavers among the Founders). If you’re Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, you bring public school teachers to a “civics” seminar where they’re told to educate children that Jefferson and George Washington were principled in their opposition to slavery ; perhaps the children will not bother to ask why this opposition was never so firmly entrenched that it extended to the men, women and children they held in bondage.
But trust me, kids can handle the complexity. They want to complexity. They walk every day in a rapidly changing world, and they handle this change much better than adults.
That’s the thing with America: it’s everything on change, and always has. At best, it is about imagination, dynamism and progress. It was like that in 1776, and it’s like that now.
We are a country full of accomplishments and shortcomings, virtues and vices. We have more Nobel laureates than any other country, yet we are the only highly developed country that does not provide health coverage to all of its citizens. We invent new sports and music genres and see them spread around the world, but it’s alarming that few of us speak more than one language. People everywhere crave American culture and dream of coming here, but they look at our unreal levels of carnage and don’t understand how we can live in a society that is drowning in arms.
I have never been more afraid for America’s future than I am today; there are good reasons to believe that the democracy we began to shape two and a half centuries ago may not survive the next decade. And the people most eager to strangle him are the very people who loudly proclaim their devotion to the Founders.
We must therefore free ourselves from these men. We should study them, understand them and honor the great things they have done. But they were not gods. They cannot lead us to a future of freedom and justice. We have to do it for ourselves.