No, writes Newt Gin­grich, the coun­try’s founders were not above po­lit­i­cal par­ti­san­ship.

From Athens and Rome to the present day, all great so­ci­eties have found­ing myths — sto­ries they tell them­selves about who they are and where they came from. Per­haps be­cause the United States is younger than most na­tions (239 years old on Satur­day), our fo

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Newt Gin­grich Twit­ter: @newt­gin­grich Newt Gin­grich is a for­mer speaker of the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

1 They wanted a sec­u­lar na­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the ACLU’s Web site, the Found­ing Fathers “knew the best way to pro­tect re­li­gious lib­erty was to keep the gov­ern­ment out of re­li­gion.” And ac­cord­ing to’s Austin Cline, Thomas Jef­fer­son’s 1802 let­ter to the Dan­bury Bap­tists, de­scrib­ing “a wall of sep­a­ra­tion be­tween Church & State,” was merely a “mild ex­pres­sion” of Jef­fer­son’s — and other founders’— de­sire to achieve free­dom from re­li­gion, not just free­dom of re­li­gion. Not so. Jef­fer­son asked: “Can the lib­er­ties of a na­tion be thought se­cure when we have re­moved their only firm ba­sis, a con­vic­tion in the minds of the peo­ple that these lib­er­ties are the gift of God?” Ge­orge Washington thought re­li­gion es­sen­tial to curb­ing the in­flu­ence of despots and pro­vid­ing a higher au­thor­ity for the rule of law, pro­claim­ing in his Farewell Ad­dress that “of all the dis­po­si­tions and habits which lead to po­lit­i­cal pros­per­ity, re­li­gion and moral­ity are in­dis­pens­able sup­ports.” And Alexan­der Hamil­ton wrote, “The politi­cian who loves lib­erty . . . knows that moral­ity over­thrown (and moral­ity must fall with re­li­gion), the ter­rors of despo­tism can alone curb the im­petu­ous pas­sions of man.” Hardly the words of men seek­ing to drive faith from public life.

The mod­ern no­tion that moral­ity and re­li­gion can be dis­en­tan­gled from the re­pub­lic would have been alien to our founders. They in­scribed their belief inthe open­ing lines of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, writ­ing that “all men are cre­ated equal” and “en­dowed by their cre­ator with cer­tain un­alien­able rights,” ap­peal­ing ex­plic­itly to God as the source of the doc­u­ment’s — and the new gov­ern­ment’s — very le­git­i­macy.

To be sure, there was room in this phi­los­o­phy for peo­ple of all faiths. But to as­sert to­day that our founders left no space in the public sphere for God does a dis­ser­vice to history. They de­manded tol­er­ance, not sec­u­lar­ism.

2 They unan­i­mously sup­ported the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War.

We imag­ine our war for in­de­pen­dence as a straight-ahead clash be­tween pa­triot colonists and Bri­tish sol­diers. But the pa­tri­ots them­selves were Bri­tish, and they were deeply di­vided about war with their mother coun­try.

As late as July 1, 1776, John Dickinson, the Found­ing Fa­ther who had writ­ten the “Dec­la­ra­tion of the Causes and Ne­ces­sity of Tak­ing Up Arms” with Jef­fer­son the year be­fore, was still ar­gu­ing “against the In­de­pen­dence of these Colonies” in hopes of a pos­si­ble rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. It’s true that when the Con­ti­nen­tal Congress voted for in­de­pen­dence on July 2, the vote was unan­i­mous— 12 states in fa­vor, none op­posed. But then again, the en­tire New York del­e­ga­tion ab­stained be­cause its mem­bers were un­sure of the will of their con­stituents. (The state’s mer­chant class was es­pe­cially am­biva­lent about the rev­o­lu­tion­ary cause.)

Even af­ter the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, writes his­to­rian Robert M. Cal­hoon, fol­low­ing an ini­tial swell of sup­port, no more than 45 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion ac­tively par­tic­i­pated in the war ef­fort. His­to­ri­ans es­ti­mate that a fifth of the colo­nial pop­u­la­tion openly op­posed the pa­tri­ots dur­ing the war.

Which ex­plains why the fa­ble about Paul Re­vere shout­ing “The Bri­tish are com­ing!” on his mid­night ride could never have hap­pened. He was on a covert mis­sion and couldn’t know who among the pop­u­la­tion was a pa­triot and who was a roy­al­ist. (And since the colonists thought of them­selves as Bri­tish at the time, the phrase would have baf­fled them.)

3 The founders were iso­la­tion­ists.

In a widely read 2007Manch­ester Union-Leader op-ed, then-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), run­ning for pres­i­dent, at­tempted to re­brand his iso­la­tion­ist for­eign pol­icy stance — a call for Amer­ica to with­draw from its tra­di­tional role as a global power — by declar­ing that he ad­vo­cated “the same for­eign pol­icy the Found­ing Fathers would.”

But the founders weren’t iso­la­tion­ists. Washington coun­seled that “it is our true pol­icy to steer clear of per­ma­nent al­liances with any por­tion of the for­eign world” — a pas­sage of­ten cited by those look­ing to pull back Amer­ica’s draw­bridges. But he was re­spond­ing par­tic­u­larly to the ex­pi­ra­tion of our 1778 treaty with France, not ar­gu­ing that Amer­ica should with­draw from world af­fairs. In fact, Washington and the Con­ti­nen­tal Congress had pre­vi­ously pleaded— through Ben­jamin Franklin, the Amer­i­can am­bas­sador— for then-Bour­bon France to in­ter­vene on be­half of the colonists dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War.

Jef­fer­son’s en­treaty, in his first inau­gu­ral ad­dress, to seek “peace, com­merce, and hon­est friend­ship with all na­tions, en­tan­gling al­liances with none” is another fa­vorite of to­day’s iso­la­tion­ists. But it was he who launched the Bar­bary Wars to se­cure free mar­itime pas­sage for com­merce, one of Amer­ica’s first mil­i­tary ex­cur­sions abroad.

4 They were above par­ti­san­ship.

In 2004, USA To­day’s Chuck Raasch wrote, “So much for the vi­sion of the founders,” lament­ing the machi­na­tions of party pol­i­tics on dis­play dur­ing that year’s pres­i­den­tial race. This past week, ABC News’s Matthew Dowd in­voked the founders while call­ing for “pol­i­tics that puts coun­try first and not party.” Who, af­ter all, could ar­gue with putting coun­try first?

In­deed, John Adams and James Madi­son pro­fessed dis­dain for par­ti­san­ship. Adams said par­ties were “the great­est po­lit­i­cal evil un­der our Con­sti­tu­tion.” Madi­son warned in “The Fed­er­al­ist No. 10” that “so strong is this propen­sity of mankind to fall into mu­tual an­i­mosi­ties, that where no sub­stan­tial oc­ca­sion presents it­self, the most friv­o­lous and fan­ci­ful dis­tinc­tions have been suf­fi­cient to kin­dle their un­friendly pas­sions and ex­cite their most vi­o­lent con­flicts.”

But Madi­son wrote this as a leader of one dis­tinct fac­tion, the Fed­er­al­ists, who ar­gued vo­cif­er­ously in fa­vor of con­sti­tu­tional rat­i­fi­ca­tion while their anti-Fed­er­al­ist op­po­nents, among them Pa­trick Henry, at­tacked their ideas in terms that were, for their day, far from po­lite. Madi­son later aligned him­self with Jef­fer­son and James Monroe in the op­po­si­tion Demo­cratic-Repub­li­can Party, mov­ing away from Fed­er­al­ists Washington and Hamil­ton.

Madi­son was right about “vi­o­lent con­flicts,” though: Jef­fer­son ally Aaron Burr so re­viled Hamil­ton (their en­mity was both per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal) that Burr chal­lenged Hamil­ton to, then killed him in, a duel. The founders might have bal­ly­hooed par­ti­san­ship— as our lead­ers do to­day — but they were just as guilty, if not more so, of par­ti­san fight­ing.

5 They thought the Con­sti­tu­tion would “evolve.”

“The pro­vi­sions of the Con­sti­tu­tion are not math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­las,” Jus­tice Oliver Wen­dell Holmes said. “. . . They are or­ganic, liv­ing in­sti­tu­tions.” His words pre­fig­ured Woodrow Wil­son’s “liv­ing” con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism — the no­tion that the Con­sti­tu­tion evolves over time. Even Jus­tice An­thony Kennedy, writ­ing last month’s Supreme Court de­ci­sion le­gal­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage, claimed that the founders “en­trusted to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions a char­ter pro­tect­ing the right of all per­sons to en­joy lib­erty as we learn its mean­ing. When new in­sight re­veals dis­cord be­tween the Con­sti­tu­tion’s cen­tral pro­tec­tions and a re­ceived le­gal stric­ture, a claim to lib­erty must be ad­dressed.”

But while there’s no ques­tion the framers be­lieved that the Con­sti­tu­tion could be changed — through the amend­ment process they care­fully out­lined — an evolv­ing doc­u­ment wasn’t what they had in mind. “Our pe­cu­liar se­cu­rity,” Jef­fer­son wrote in 1803, “is in pos­ses­sion of a writ­ten Con­sti­tu­tion. Let us not make it a blank pa­per by con­struc­tion.” Washington af­firmed that the Con­sti­tu­tion was un­chang­ing “till changed by an ex­plicit and au­then­tic act of the whole peo­ple.”

“If in the opin­ion of the peo­ple,” he added, “the dis­tri­bu­tion or mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the con­sti­tu­tional pow­ers be in any par­tic­u­lar wrong, let it be cor­rected by an amend­ment in the way which the Con­sti­tu­tion des­ig­nates. But let there be no change by usurpa­tion; for though this in one in­stance may be the in­stru­ment of good, it is the cus­tom­ary weapon by which free gov­ern­ments are de­stroyed.”



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