The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

80° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Who cares what the Founding Fathers thought?

    The easiest way to derail any serious discussion about American law remains the old trump card: “”The Founding Fathers wanted it that way.”” At this point, such arguments turn into discussions about what the Founding Fathers “”really wanted.”” It’s the legal discourse equivalent of Godwin’s Law.

    Please, can we all stop this insanity?

    It hardly needs to be said that many of the Founders held opinions which we now know to be morally reprehensible, such as support for slavery.

    And it shouldn’t bear repeating that they didn’t agree on everything. Treating American patriarchs as though they were one body and always acted with one voice and purpose is simply disingenuous.

    Debates about the First Amendment are most guilty of this sin. Does the Establishment Clause forbid teacher-led prayer in public schools? Does freedom of speech include the right to produce pornography? Is a “”right to privacy”” implied, and does it include a woman’s right to an abortion? The only correct answer to these questions is “”it depends on which Founding Father you ask.””

    But even this response is inferior to the simplest answer: “”So what? Who cares about the Founding Fathers?””

    Take a look at the Second Amendment. From an objective point of view, the sentence simply is not very well-written; its meaning totally changes depending on whether or not the second clause (“”the right of the people to keep and bear Arms … “”) is meant to be dependent on the first (“”a well-regulated Militia, being necessary … “”), as well as whether the first comma is omitted or not.

    Consequently, there is a great deal of debate regarding the structure of this one-sentence amendment. I’m not making this up: Some people seriously think that there is deep moral and ethical truth to be found in arguments about English grammar and comma placement. If that sounds absurd, that’s because it is.

    A sane individual should note that the

    Founding Fathers were products of their time. If they knew what we knew today – that it’s possible to produce firearms which can kill lots of people with minimal effort, that gun violence would become a serious problem in the United States, and that gun ownership is not usually an effective form of self-defense – it’s possible they would have changed their minds about the amendment.

    Similarly, if they knew what we know today about how badly capitalism fails at safeguarding the environment or ensuring universal access to health care, or if they had any awareness of minority rights movements, they might have been a bit more proactive about these things, too.

    Just as importantly, it’s also possible they wouldn’t have changed their minds at all. Who knows? And who cares?

    If gun ownership is a good thing and an essential right, it remains so regardless of what 55 rich, dead white men think. Likewise, if this right should be waived in favor of public safety, we don’t need to exhume the corpses of these men to get their approval. And so it is with any other issue: If there’s a “”correct”” path, it’s correct regardless of what they thought.

    The Founding Fathers were not gods. They were mostly pretty smart, they were far ahead of their times on some issues and they created a system of government which is flawed, but could be much worse.

    But even people who, like President Bush, think that the Constitution is “”just a goddamned piece of paper”” continue to act as though the Founders’ writings are holy texts. This is

    disrespectful at best and dangerous at worst.

    Like holy texts, the writings of the Founders can be interpreted to mean almost anything you want. Conservatives and liberals alike are guilty of this; they both use arcane, mystical and inscrutable methods to glean the original intent from a given passage without inserting their own biases or presuppositions.

    This process is very similar to so-called exegesis, where religious scholars

    attempt to let holy texts speak for themselves rather than reading their own meaning into the passages.

    Of course, no one ever actually succeeds in this endeavor. So-called “”originalists”” like Antonin Scalia, as well as “”paleoconservatives”” like Ron Paul, are like Biblical literalists: They claim to be unbiased and to have a magical, direct conduit to the writers’ intent, but they don’t.

    What they really do is what the rest of us do; formulate a worldview, then blindly pretend that the relevant text is consistent with it. This allows us to validate our worldview, because then we get to point at the historical figures we’re all taught to idolize and say, “”See! They agreed with me!”” Liberals and conservatives alike are guilty of this.

    The writings of the Founders still have an important place in American society, and they always will. But it’s time we took them down a few pegs by abandoning the pretense that morality somehow depends on what a group of men two hundred years ago thought. The mere fact that the Constitution has had to be amended at all beyond the Bill of Rights is evidence that they didn’t get everything right.

    Taylor Kessinger is a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, math and physics. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

    More to Discover
    Activate Search