By ALAN TAYLOR OCT. 17, 2016, New York Times
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Charlottesville, Va. — Politicians praise America’s founders for having set guiding
and enduring principles. Donald J. Trump declares that global free trade “is a direct
affront to our founding fathers, who wanted America to be strong, independent and
free.” Hillary Clinton counters, “Our founders embraced the enduring truth that we
are stronger together.”
But that raises questions: Which founders, and which principles? For in history,
unlike in mythic memory, they fought like cats and dogs over every major issue,
foreign and domestic.
Thomas Jefferson’s followers called themselves Republicans, but their enemies
called them Democrats — just to confuse us today. They battled the Federalists, led
by Alexander Hamilton, of later musical fame. Where Jefferson wanted to construct
the Constitution narrowly and favored a decentralized country with a weak federal
government, Hamilton and his allies favored a broad interpretation, with a powerful,
centralized state that promoted economic development and exercised global power.
Instead of offering a single, cohesive and enduring vision for America, the
founders were diverse and squabbling. They generated contradictory political
principles that persist to our own day. Instead of offering us an antidote to our
divisions, those clashing founders created them.
Our early politics were so edgy and shrill because the stakes involved were so
high, as leaders and their followers struggled to define the revolution and
Constitution. The union of states and the republican form of government were new,
tenuous, vulnerable and open to debate. It was easy to imagine one’s political rivals
as ominous threats to free government. When Mr. Trump accuses Mrs. Clinton of
cofounding the Islamic State, he echoes the recklessness with which Hamilton
associated Jefferson with the bloody Jacobins of the French Revolution.
We often hear pundits declare that our politics have never been more polarized.
In fact, politics were even more divided and violent in the era of the founders, when
one minister worried that the “parties hate each other as much as the French and
English hate” each other in time of war. In one town, when a Republican neighbor
died, a Federalist declared, “Another God Damned Democrat has gone to Hell, and I
wish they were all there.”
Political partisans and journalists shot one another in duels over insults. A
South Carolinian noted, “Three-fourths of the duels which have been fought in the
United States were produced by political disputes.”
Hamilton’s death from Aaron Burr’s pistol shot in a duel in Weehawken, N.J.,
was unusual only in its mortality. It was considered better form to shoot a rival in a
leg rather than through the heart. The early Congress was full of limping gentlemen.
When not dueling, the political rivals brawled. In 1807 in Albany, a Federalist
confronted an insulting Republican in the street, beating him bloody with a heavy
cane. The fight attracted dozens of angry partisans from both sides. A witness
recalled that they turned the street into “a tumultuous sea of heads, over which
clattered a forest of canes; the vast body, now surging this way, now that, as the tide
of combat ebbed or flowed.”
The harmonious and united founders are our myth rather than their history.
But myths have their purpose. More than mere lies, myths simplify the past,
smoothing away contradictions to offer reassurance to the present. Every nation
seeks guiding principles from an imagined set of wiser and nobler ancestors. At their
best, mythic heroes can, as Abraham Lincoln put it, help us seek “the better angels of our nature.”
But myths become dysfunctional when they cripple instead of inspire. The cult
of the founding fathers has become masochistic, as we invoke them to rebuke
ourselves for having such petty politicians. We put the founders on an imaginary
pedestal to look down on our own politics as beneath their contempt. It is all too
easy to pick on Mrs. Clinton as no Jefferson or to denigrate Mr. Trump as a sad
declension from Hamilton’s lofty heights. We castigate ourselves for not risking our
lives, or property, for some higher ideal.
And that’s a good thing. We don’t have to make the sacrifices demanded by a
bloody revolutionary war waged against our loyalist neighbors and a mighty
overseas empire. We need to preserve our free institutions and values rather than
create them in the first place. We have to manage a superpower rather than struggle
to endure as a third-rate country in the midst of rival empires. We cannot repeat the
founders’ showy performances, for we must play less heroic political roles far
downstream in the flow of time and events.
Our politics are not always worse than theirs were. The revolutionary era was no
golden age. To preserve the union, the founding fathers felt compelled to preserve
slavery. Today, women can vote and lead. In the founders’ era, a husband could beat
his wife provided the stick was no thicker than his thumb. And despite the
multiplying insults of modern politics, we have not yet resumed shooting one
another in duels. We distort the past and discredit the present by inflating the
founders’ virtues and denying our own.
While the mythic founders can inspire us to do better, we should be wary of
inviting them to make us feel small. We are not to blame for clashing over the
diverse principles that the founders invented. No generation will resolve our
revolution and define our Constitution once and for all. We honor the founders best
by sustaining their debates over core principles of government, rather than by
pretending that they resolved everything for us.
Alan Taylor is a professor of history at the University of Virginia and
the author, most recently, of “American Revolutions: A Continental