Aliens: that’s what our American Founders and Constitutional Framers really are to us.
They lived in a time we cannot comprehend, with a mindset shaped by realities we have long forgotten. They suffered without the benefit of a Progressive public school education…so they didn’t even know what a bunch of racist, bigoted, homophobic, elitist mysogynists they were.
History is a sloppy business. Only economics is worse.
A CSI team at least gets to gather primary evidence from a crime scene, but historians must typically rely on third-hand accounts penned years after the act, by people who have a vested interest in a particular telling of the tale. To further complicate matters, much of what “happened” actually occurred between the ears, in the inscrutable, unrecoverable minds of the actors. Even their personal writings are found wanting when we recognize that folks often don’t understand their own motivations, and sometimes engage in moral justification in hindsight.
Historians must impossibly set aside their own ideology and worldview to attempt to see through the eyes of these aliens, and then translate what they saw, from ancient Klingon into some contemporary tongue. Most give up on the fantasy of objectivity, and simply transport themselves back in time like Marty McFly, with his DeLorean, his faux goosedown vest, and his Jimi Hendrix riffs. In the process, they make a ripple in the space-time continuum that precludes future generations from ever understanding why our ancestors really did what they did. In defense of historians, their subjects often lacked that same understanding, or duped themselves into thinking that they had it. Who cares what the Framers meant?
Whatever your political proclivity, it’s hard to avoid using as a bludgeon the Constitution and its history and its makers. Generally, those on the progressive Left do this by denigrating the Framers. Those on the Right, by deifying them.
From the Right, the argument is particularly frustrating, since even if one can prove beyond a reasonable doubt the Framers’ original intent (something the Left will never concede), it doesn’t matter. That’s because the Left will eschew the shackles of those provincial, antiquarian hypocrites, heedless of tossing out the baby with the bathwater.
In many ways, the Constitution doesn’t settle the age-old argument, it merely provides a framework within which to have it — a cage for the match.
This came to mind after I had the honor of participating in a series for PJTV about the history lessons we didn’t learn in school, called “Setting the Record Straight.” My two episodes of this six-part series focused on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The shows featured three brilliant minds — constitutional law professor Glenn Reynolds, president of the Bill of Rights Institute David Bobb, moderator Bill Whittle, and also me…because I’m the creator of the 20-part video series ‘Freedom’s Charter’ for PJTV.
My interest in the Constitution was sparked by the Tea Party movement back in 2009, and the stunning realization that I knew virtually nothing about our framework of federal governance, and why it’s written the way it is. Of course, my ignorance never restrained my mouth.
My tutelage in the tax-funded, government-controlled school system left me with the vague sense that the Constitution is a document written by wealthy white men, who were really smart and yet didn’t seem to realize their own moral bankruptcy, at least in comparison to today’s enlightened public school teachers, textbook editors and college professors.
As my instructors saw it, the period from the Revolution through the crafting of the Constitution to the mid-1800s tells a story of a transition from aristocracy to democracy. The Framers, if they aided this transition at all, did so inadverently. They had no intention of expanding the electoral franchise, or of freeing the slaves, or of allowing ordinary people to grasp the reins of power.
We can’t be too hard on these bards, after all, history is a fuzzy cluttered mess unless you impose a storyline. Because the progressive worldview assumes man is ever ascendant, everything must move from worse to better as you approach our own generation…the zenith of historical achievement. And so, we pat the powdered wigs of our blinkered forefathers, and think how much better the Constitution would be if they knew then what we know now.
But there was another narrative out there that suggested the Framers were nearly-divine prophetic genii, made of marble, who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to await the tablets of stone which God wrote with his own finger (it was a digital version, you see). They were driven by virtuous principle alone to frame a Constitution that, in the famous words of John Adams, “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
History is not that easy. Would that it were.
However, while the Framers are aliens to us in many ways, human nature hasn’t changed all that much. The United States was, indeed, the first nation founded on an idea. But the idea of individual liberty protected by constraining government with enumerated powers, while it was a driving force behind the Constitution, did not arise in a vacuum.
Practical politics, factional rivalry, sectional distinctions, petty jealousy, finite intelligence, quotidian news and human sin all played a role. As several Framers noted (most notably Ben Franklin) the draft that emerged from the old Pennsylvania State House on September 17, 1787 had something to hate for everyone.
“I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them,” Franklin said.
James Madison, the so-called “Father of the Constitution,” lost nearly all of the key convention votes and left Philadelphia deeply disappointed in the outcome. Alexander Hamilton, likewise, got little of what he wanted (for which we may thank God). But Madison and Hamilton went on to pen the lion’s share of the Federalist Papers, a highly-organized and erudite enthusiastic sales pitch for ratification. No more cogent, ardent tribute to the Constitution ever was.
You see, the purity of their principles and the power of their biases, didn’t stand in the way of the realization that they were unlikely to get anything better, and they could quite likely do much worse. The Articles of Confederation, which had served as a league of friendship and a compact of ineffective governance, was an utter failure, and everyone knew it. It nearly cost them the war. The Framers knew they had to change, or face civil war, foreign conquest, economic collapse or all three.
Otto von Bismarck once said, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Our Constitution, while the best mankind has yet produced, is not perfect. But it was the best possible at the time, and has since been revised 27 times, in a zig-zag effort to continually “form a more perfect union.”
That work, though never done, is carried out in each generation by finite and flawed people like you and me.
The entire PJTV video series, “Setting the Record Straight: History Lessons You Never Learned in School,” is available for purchase in the PJ Store. Click here to get it for 25% off!