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The Founding

Founders: Historians versus Politicians

This WaPo account of how various Republicans (why only them, one might ask) use/ransack the founding fathers pits the politicians against historians who criticize this alleged naievete.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology history professor Pauline Maier, author of several books about the period from the 1760s to the writing of the Constitution, says: "It is interesting why so many politicians and even judges today want to show that their ideas had firm foundations among the founders. In some ways, I suppose that defines a new phase in the culture wars over 'who is most American.' "

But, she adds, "that can also be very regressive: No founder ever embraced abortion or endorsed affirmative action. Eight­eenth-century Americans did take rights seriously, but their rank list of rights was probably different than those of rights-conscious people today. They lived, after all, over two centuries ago and on the rights front can seem pretty dated."

Like another fine historian of the Declaration, Carl Becker, Maier falls prey to historicism, the notion that one's historical circumstances poses an absolute barrier to finding transcendent truth. Evidently, to judge just from the professors cited in this article (Jack Rakove, among others), it's the scholars versus divisive Republican politicians.

But the contrast shows how much the defense of the Constitution resides in ordinary citizens and the politicians who reflect their concern. As the Progressives predicted and urged they would, intellectuals take the side of progress and history against the people's pride in their country as founded. Of course, not all thinkers agree with those consumed by Progressivism. Here's a shorter piece.

Categories > The Founding

Discussions - 3 Comments

A close reading of Maier's book on the Declaration makes this hardly surprising. Yet, I am still a bit shocked that an author of a book on the Declaration would state that the Founders are "dated" on the rights front. Dated? It seems to me that the universal truths of the Declaration hold much truer across time and space than abortion or affirmative action. Or, perhaps she foolishly thinks that the universal, axiomatic truths of equality and natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness somehow don't apply to questions such as abortion or affirmative action when clearly they still apply to questions of race and life as MLK affirmed on the steps of the LIncoln Memorial. Living Declaration to complement the view of the Living Constitution? I shudder and hope not.

Why limit the list of rights? Men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." In a sense, Maier has a point if we consider that "among these rights" suggests that we have other rights not mentioned. Everything is allowed, except when it is not, because we must govern ourselves. Therefore, there are suitable limits to the list we make of our rights; if we willfully add unsuitable items over time, those are like impulse buys added to a shopping list made to fit a budget; that's profligacy.

People have the hardest time with "pursuit of happiness" as if it justified everything they will. "Government owes me birth control pills so I can pursue my happiness" is a recent example. What else does government owe you, my dear, if it owes you everything you think will make you happy? Government comes to have many obligations trying to please everyone. Then it is not a guardian of the means to an end, but an endless provider of the end and somehow no one is happy.

The defense of the Constitution resides in ordinary citizens and those with blogs. I'd say there should or must be more written about the greatest theft to this Republic - that of representation in the House.

This great and troubling usurpation of the citizen's representation is directly responsible for our diminished ability in controlling our Federal government.

Playing these political party games undermines the Republic. There's been ample time for this issue to have been discussed during the last 100 years. Instead neither political party is willing to discuss this fundamental part of the Republic's stability.

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