Founding Fathers Discussion

According to an AmericanCulturalAssumption, anything the FoundingFathers did or thought is immensely clever and inherently good.

The AmericanCulturalAssumption has nothing whatsoever to do with a view of America, from America, for America; the assumption you note operates on all except that which is American. The FoundingFathers did produce something immensely clever and inherently good for America, but regrettably America has long since lost contact with the ideals. Most Americans do not appreciate nor understand what the Founding fathers did and said. I would, however, wholeheartedly agree the FoundingFathers ideas may not travel well. -- DaveSteffe

Just as KarlMarx could not foresee today's world, the FoundingFathers could not foresee today's UnitedStates. -- OleAndersen

But some of them did, and tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent it...

Two things the FoundingFathers couldn't have foreseen: Isn't the UnitedStates in remarkably good shape today, and don't we have the FoundingFathers to thank, in part, for the basic framework that all this grew from?

Only if you are looking on a very short time scale. The current 'model' is clearly not sustainable, as we require far too much energy and resources from outside. This works for as long as we can maintain the imbalance of power --- but to suggest that is permanent is naive. What comes next?

Yes, we have disturbingly high taxes, SuburbanSprawl? that requires everyone to pollute the atmosphere for an hour or two a day, and a certain amount of racial friction, but compare the UnitedStates to virtually all other countries in all other periods in history, and we're doing very well. People keep immigrating here, even after they find out that the streets aren't paved with gold. The best comparison would be with other countries that have lots of different ethnic groups living together.

-- BenKovitz

The UnitedStates may be in "remarkably good shape today" measured against the value systems that have shaped the US - fair enough. But please keep in mind that other people, especially with a different cultural background, can have very different value systems, and _may_ come to a different conclusion.

To give you an example - to me, as a (among other things) left-leaning, environmentalist atheist, the US does _not_ look to be in such a good shape, and I wouldn't want to live there, either. But those are only my strange views, and YMMV. Which is my point ;-).

-- FalkBruegmann (no offense - personal or otherwise - intended)

I don't think any of the Founding Fathers did or could have been expected to foresee how history has unfolded, but I would say that the United States has ended up closest to the vision of AlexanderHamilton?, and I suspect he would be the least dismayed to see how things have turned out. In my opinion, the creation of a representative government, a generally vague, federal Constitution, and the provision (not necessarily envisioned by the Founders) of an ultimate interpretation mechanism in the Supreme Court has provided a framework within which a modern society could evolve. If I were feeling assertive, I might claim that the success of Canada, with an even more decentralized federal system and similar constitutional review mechanism, but rather different political mechanisms, might indicate that the general structure is more important than the implementation details -- maybe this is a Constitutional Pattern. Germany might be a third example, but despite its federal structure it seems more centralized, either de jure or de facto (I'd be very interested to know if I am wrong about Germany). -- MatthewWilbert

It's amazing how powerful this basic technique of "vague constitution + checks and balances" has been. It seems to trump a purely democratic system, a purely aristocratic system, a system designed super-carefully to ensure equality, or any other purist approach. However, it's also worth noting that it may well not be the most important factor in the success of the various countries that have adopted it. Cultural factors may be the most important, and a highly evolved common law may also be more important than the constitution. Americans are mostly law-abiding, though they'll often break laws that they think are stupid or just not applicable to the situation at hand. And of course the ProtestantWorkEthic is a big factor, along with lots of other things, such as American optimism, anti-intellectualism, and willingness to jury-rig. The American common law is just a branch off the British common law, and is extremely pragmatic and realistic, mainly letting people fend for themselves (very different from the RomanLaw?, or so I'm told). -- BenKovitz

Many Americans believe that the FoundingFathers were extremely wise men possessed of astounding foresight -- so astounding that they actually anticipated many uniquely modern problems (such as teenage gangs with easy access to guns), and planned ways to prevent them, which would work if only we did exactly what the FoundingFathers told us. Many Americans sincerely believe that the UnitedStatesConstitution was divinely inspired -- God Himself dictating it through the hands of the FoundingFathers. (I am not making this up.)

The theory, then, is that the success of the UnitedStates is due mainly to the foresight of its creators.

On this view, nearly all current problems result from violations of the UnitedStatesConstitution. For example, our regulatory red tape is all Unconstitutional, because the Constitution does not enable Congress to delegate its legislative power -- and therefore not to create regulatory agencies that pass their own laws. And we wouldn't be plagued with an income tax if they hadn't passed that nasty 16th Amendment in 1913.

However, the reality is that even in their own time, the lack of foresight of the FoundingFathers showed itself quite clearly. ThomasJefferson made the LouisianaPurchase? even though he didn't have Constitutional authority do so. (Without that, the UnitedStates would probably not be a world power today.) And wasn't the power of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution -- so critical to the successful working of the system -- established by some famous early court decision, in which this all-important power got put in rather sneakily?

I understand that the FoundingFathers were actually led to a lot of their decisions on the basis of (a) reading a lot about many schemes tried in the RomanEmpire and AncientGreece?, (b) the relatively recent experiences of the BritishEmpire, and (c) the political theories of JohnLocke, an empiricist who was mostly attempting to explain the successes and failures of governments and societies that he knew about. (I don't know any of this first-hand, so more-knowledgeable people please step in and correct me -- or post to FoundingFathers.)

The FoundingFathers were also aware of the Great Binding Law of the Iroquois Confederation, as an example of a union of equals. -- RobertField

In other words, the FoundingFathers had great hindsight, not foresight. Even armed with this rich hindsight, as soon as they set up the new country, they were in uncharted territory, where many things did not work as planned. Many of the successes of the UnitedStates have indeed resulted from the clever system of ChecksAndBalances, but not in ways that the FoundingFathers anticipated (for example, the bland two-party system that makes it hard for extremists or minority ethnic groups to acquire much national power).

So while we have the Constitution to thank for a good part of the success of the UnitedStates, and the FoundingFathers to thank for the Constitution, we don't have the foresight of the FoundingFathers to thank, because they really didn't have that much.

-- BenKovitz

You may be right. However, the Federalist papers suggest the (or some)FoundingFathers did possess some intriguing foresight.

"[s]ome men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. . .laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. . . as that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, institutions must advance also, to keep pace with the times. . . We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilised society to remain forever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - ThomasJefferson

I think the point here is that if we don't want to follow the Constitution we should get rid of it. Jefferson wanted us to revise the Constitution every generation. That's not the same as interpreting it any way we please. If we want to change the Constitution we can pass amendments. But there's no point if we don't even make sure the government follows it.

Isn't this TheBeautyOfWiki?? We went from ProtestVote via GoreVsBush? to ElectoralCollege and ElectoralCollegeDiscussion and into FoundingFathers and this page, and now we are back at patterns with a ConstitutionalPattern, and in the process we learned a lot. -- OleAndersen


And it went very fast, too, with very little effort on the part of any one person.

Three signs of a healthy Wiki.

Agreed, however, we didn't learn anything about programming/XP and so these pages seem destined for WhyClublet or simply deletion; at least that's the way it's starting to sound lately. -- AndyPierce (hopes he's wrong)

Andy, I can reassure you on the first option. WhyClublet is not a repository for any and all WikiWiki pages not relating to programming. This page, those leading up to it (and thanks, Ole, for recording that path, very interesting) might become candidates for a move to some other wiki (not Why), but only if, like the "Christian" pages, they formed the nucleus of some community within Wiki that clearly needs to have the space to grow into something new. -- KeithBraithwaite.

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