When I appear at book festivals or give readings, lots of folks want to know what the Founding Fathers would do or say about our currently dysfunctional Congress.
There seems to be an unspoken but widely shared assumption that the most prominent members of the founding generation represent the gold standard in political leadership, and our contemporary politicians are the epitome of debased currency. As one commentator put it, “Once you compare then and now, you’ve got to believe that Darwin got it exactly backward.”
My standard response to all such comments is to warn the audience that making historical comparisons in such a straightforward then-and-now fashion is misguided, and that bringing the founders into the present is like trying to plant cut flowers.
Moreover, canonizing and capitalizing the Founding Fathers is more hagiography than history.
For example, once you understand how the Constitution was created, all rosy myths evaporate. Fifty-five white males gathered in Philadelphia, imposed complete censorship over the deliberations, regarded slavery as the ghost at the banquet (it could not be openly debated) and then had the audacity to send the document to the states under the rhetorical mantle “We, the people.” If our modern values of inclusiveness, transparency and diversity were imposed on the founders, the Constitution would never have happened.
Lately, however, I have been having some second thoughts, prompted by recent arguments linking the gridlock in Congress with the purportedly outdated and anachronistic character of the Constitution itself. Those arguments lead to the conclusion that we need a second constitutional convention to rectify the problem.
In truth, most of the prominent founders, including Jefferson, Madison and Adams, would probably not object to such a proposal — indeed would be surprised that their 18th-century creation had lasted as long as it has. Jefferson thought that the Constitution should be redone every generation, meaning every 20 years or so.