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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Founding Fathers Are Dead — Can We Stop Using Them To Settle Every Argument?

WASHINGTON — It’s entirely appropriate that the week of our July Fourth celebrations should coincide with a moment when the Supreme Court’s health care decision has prompted intense debate over the purpose of our government and what the Constitution allows it to do.

We are a more philosophical people than we give ourselves credit for. Constitutional questions enter the political conversation in the United States more than in most countries because our diverse nation is bound by our founding principles, not by blood, race or ethnicity.

This has advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantages are our openness and the fact that we tend to argue on the basis of high principles. The biggest disadvantage is that differences over policy are often disguised as differences over whether a preferred choice is constitutional or not. When we should be addressing pragmatic questions — Will this approach work? Will it solve the problem it’s designed to solve? Is this a problem government should do something about? — we instead fall back on rather abstract discussions of whether a given idea violates the Constitution.

It’s not a recent habit. When Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed that the federal government establish a Bank of the United States in 1790, his idea was strongly opposed by James Madison, his partner in writing both the Constitution and the Federalist Papers that defended it.

  • William Deutschlander

    AHMEN, E J!

    • onedonewong

      He much prefers ginnisbook and sodajerk’s idea that we should be using other countries judicial decision to make our rulings

  • Virginia51

    It’s remarks like this that lose elections.

  • We need to be as brave and creative as they were, instead of carping that they did not give us enough.

  • A little while go Iwas reading three cases when the US Supreme Court approved three laws that were unconstitutional….can someone please enlighten me as to which they were?

  • sigrid28

    On the dangers of turning “the Founders into quasi-religious prophets,” E. J. Dionne taps a strain of American individualism Ralph Waldo Emerson famously articulated in his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841):

    A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today–“Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.”–Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

    Shall we then say that Mitt Romney, when we call him a flip-flopper, is misunderstood in a way that stems from this kind of greatness? Only if he speaks what he THINKS to begin with, and speaks what he thinks when he changes his opinion later, based on a reasoning process, on thought. To say what voters want to hear one day, and say something else simply to appease his constituents the next, is not the kind of greatness to which Emerson referred, because in the final analysis, there is no conviction at the basis of this speech. Mitt Romney has been set upon a zigzag course, chasing back-and-forth, uphill and down, the “hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” those who have laid waste the greatness of the Republican Party with their foolish consistencies.

  • Brave and creative they were, but they didn’t go far enough. They had an opportunity to elminiate the most grievious acts this nation was noted for in the begining! And that was to abolish slavery once and for all. When they wrote “all men are creeate equal” was it just meant for certain men?

  • tokoloshi27

    With apologies for those who may feel due them; EJD seems to have missed the dynamic part of the Constitution. What was written 220 odd years ago was agreed with a process for amendment (which itself was revised several times) by which it continues and maintains (albeit sometimes controversially) currency.

    So it may be disingenuous to bash the founding fathers for not having had their valid, dynamic document reflect the writer’s pet issues. They lived in different times and did their best; for which we all should be grateful. I know I am, I was proud to study it in grade school and later proud to swear an oath to defend it when joining a service.

    If we don’t like what it says there are avenues to update it. If we haven’t done so, then it really only proves that the position taken may be in a minority vis a vis our fellow citizens.

  • MethMouthMary

    Great point to this article.