Austin’s book is: THAT’S NOT WHAT THEY MEANT!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing.It is due out in August and we have scheduled the author to be our Constitution Day speaker on September 19. Mike asked me to write the foreword to the book and I was happy to do so after reading this clear, concise book that sets the record straight. My entire Foreword can be found at the end of this posting.
While Austin focuses his criticism on writers and commentators like Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, and others, he recognizes that both sides of the political spectrum have played fast and loose with the words of the Founders and those who drafted the U. S. Constitution. But right now—in 2012—there is a growing consensus among thoughtful people on both sides of the political spectrum that the worst and most consistent abusers of American history are on the far right. Republicans are as alarmed by this development as are Democrats.
Regardless of where you place yourself on the political spectrum of 2012, I encourage you to read Austin’s book. He has something to tell all of us about what we need to do to recapture the art of civil political dialogue in this country and what we need to do to better understand American history by keeping the story of the founding of this nation in the context of the 18th century, not in some made-up history written in our own times. By doing this we can still find great inspiration from the Founders without forcing them to jump through 21st century hoops or stand for issues they never stood for.
Michael Austin has done us all a great service in this book because he writes from the perspective of a concerned American who is not a zealot of the right or the left. He wants our understanding of the Founding Fathers to be based on what they said in the context in which they said it. We should not make up American history to suit a political party or any political or religious cause. In a more perfect union, we should be able to at least agree on the same facts.
Yet, as Austin demonstrates, mythmaking about the Founders is not a new phenomenon. It began almost as soon as the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution. Austin coins the new and very useful word “Founderstein” to describe those on the right and the left who take snippets of quotations from various Founders to create a mythical ideal Founder as if the Founders could be made into one person with one set of ideas. This is the same process of “prooftexting” that has been used to take quotations from the Bible to fit various political or religious purposes. What results is a political monstrosity very much like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. It is simply wrong to meld the thoughts of a group of independent individuals from the 18th and early 19th centuries, who were frequently at odds with one another over major constitutional issues, into a single all-purpose abstraction to fit a particular agenda of 21st century zealots.
“Founders” is not a singular word, it is plural. Yet today’s right-wing political discourse would have us believe that one Founder can be substituted for all. A decade ago, I had the pleasure of serving as historical adviser to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia when this new museum was established as the first to be dedicated to telling the story of the U. S. Constitution. My assignments was to do historical research on the physical appearances and personalities of the Signers of the Constitution and to work with artists and sculptors to create 42 life-size bronze statues of the men who were in the room at Independence Hall on September 17, 1787, the day the U. S. Constitution was approved by the Federal Convention.
The power of this exhibit rests with the fact that these Signers (and three dissenters in the room that day who refused to sign), are rendered as accurately as we could make them on a human scale. It is art inspired by the historical record. This group of Founders is not raised up on pedestals; they are not ten feet tall. Our goal was to make them to look like people not demigods. James Madison at 5 feet 4 inches tall was so small that one of his contemporaries called him “a half a bar of soap.” In Signers Hall he stands close to George Washington, the tall, regal, athletic general, who was almost a foot taller than Madison. Alexander Hamilton, a very small man, about the size of Madison, stands alone in the center of the room. His diminutive physical appearance seems out of character for the large role he played in American history. They did not call Hamilton the Little Lion for nothing. Benjamin Franklin, the oldest delegate at age 83, is seated in this display because he was ill during the Convention and had to be carried into the hall. When you see the individual Founders, as close to the way they looked physically as we could make them (even though in bronze), you cannot help but realize that they were not one entity with interchangeable parts or ideas that can be manipulated to suit a 21st century political agenda.
Walking among these statues gives visitors a sense that these were ordinary people who had been called upon to do an extraordinary job. They represented various interests, usually of their own states and regions of the country. Some delegates left the convention altogether because they did not like the direction of the deliberations. One who left in a huff was Robert Yates of New York, who became a leading Anti-federalist. Yates fought against ratification of the Constitution through essays signed with the name Brutus. This prompted the remarkable response of Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay, in essays of their own signed Publius, which are revered in our time as theFederalist essays, the most powerful statements ever written on the meaning and purpose of government.
Only a handful of the delegates to the Federal Convention did most of the talking and debating at the Convention, but each played a role in the process. They were men of various backgrounds, intellectual attainments, and dispositions who managed to come together and find ways to compromise and create a new nation. They were not perfect and neither was their work. But what they did in 1787, and what the states did in ratifying the Constitution, represented a remarkable advance in the concept of a republic that would be governed by leaders elected democratically by the people. We are still engaged in the constitutional process they started and gave to their generation and to all generations to follow.
This book is a clarion call that it is time for Americans to find ways to renew and revive civil discourse in our nation’s affairs. This discourse can only be improved if we learn to solve the pressing issues of our time in a civil manner based on a fair understanding of history. The problems of this nation and the world are now ours to solve. We can still find great inspiration from the Founders, but it is our world now, not theirs.
Out of respect to the millions of men and women who have sacrificed blood and treasure to create and maintain this nation, those of us alive today must find ways to come together to build a vibrant and responsible political process.
Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, one of the delegates to the Federal Convention who refused to sign the Constitution, was fearful of the excesses of too much democracy. He thought it would be too easy for people to be whipped into frenzy with false information. According to James Madison’s notes at the Federal Convention, Gerry said, “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are dupes of pretended patriots.”
Today we have Tea Party Patriots representing a groundswell of disenchantment with various aspects of government and public policy. While the Tea Party poses as a grass roots effort, and certainly has elements of a grass roots movement, a good deal of this has been orchestrated by right-wing groups from inside the Beltway. The far right seeks to establish a monopoly on American patriotism. Their technique is to co-opt the words of the Founders and twist them to fit their agenda. If you are not with them, you are part of the problem and you may not be a patriotic American. Newt Gingrich calls President Obama’s energy policy “anti-American.” Can’t we discuss the complex issue of energy without questioning the patriotism of the President? Name calling may help in a political campaign, but it does not help one bit to govern the nation. We could elect a demagogue as president of the United States. Demagogic tactics work in elections. But demagogues cannot govern.
This is the thing that Gerry warned us about. It is too easy to dupe the public with extreme rhetoric and charges against the patriotism of fellow Americans. The real heroes of America, from all walks of life, do not go around wearing their patriotism on their sleeves and accusing others of being less patriotic or unpatriotic. They find ways to get the job done, whether that job is upholding justice, putting out a fire, defending the nation, educating our children, feeding the poor, healing the sick, building a bridge, or governing through pragmatic means and compromise. Our civil discourse will improve when we can see one another again as honest Americans, who may disagree with one another on the issues of the day.
Partisanship is part of politics. It always has been and it always will be. George Washington didn’t like “factions” as he called them, but he recognized they were part of human nature. Washington also said in his Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” This concept has been essential to the success of the nation. This does not translate, however, into the idea that any one religion should hold more sway that any other in the governance of the nation.
This is not the place to enter into the long debate over whether the United States is a Christian nation and should be governed as such. But it is the place to say that separation of church and state is an essential concept too. Once God tells you the answer there is no debating it and there is no room for compromise with those of differing views. It is compromise which makes governance possible. Citizens and those holding government office should be informed by their religious beliefs and use them to act humanely, something all religions teach. But religion in politics far too often leads to intolerance and the loss of liberty.
We can be partisans. We can bring our religious beliefs and our sense of morally to civil discourse if we do it without demonizing those who disagree with us and without questioning the patriotism or the godliness of fellow Americans who have different views. The nation has survived by avoiding the extremes of the right or the left and it has survived by keeping any single religious belief from having a monopoly on national politics.
While both sides of the political spectrum have tried to cast the Founders in roles to suit today’s political, social, and religious agendas, right now it is the far right fringe that is the worst offender. From talk radio to political screeds in print, from cable news to the Internet, our national dialogue strongly resembles a form of political insanity. This book is part of the cure.
From That’s Not What They Meant!: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing (Prometheus Books, September 2012). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.