What's with conservatives' fetish for the Founding Fathers?

Guys, the 1790s were mainly not an awesome time

Published May 11, 2010 1:12PM (EDT)

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich addresses the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Thursday, April 8, 2010. This is the opening session of the four day conference.   (AP Photo/Bill Haber)  (AP)
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich addresses the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Thursday, April 8, 2010. This is the opening session of the four day conference. (AP Photo/Bill Haber) (AP)

It's pretty revealing that, when casting about for a plan to oppose Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, the Republican National Committee decided to accuse her of not loving the Constitution enough. The item that the RNC thought was so dynamite? Kagan had quoted her mentor, Justice Thurgood Marshall, on the subject of the "defective" Constitution -- that is, the document that allowed slavery, denied women the vote, etc.

Mike Madden already took the RNC to the woodshed yesterday over this ridiculous argument. (Even in backtracking, the RNC seemed to dismiss, or not know about, Marshall's crucial role in overturning segregation, as lawyer for the NAACP.)

But this is just the latest in a long line of incidents in weird fetishism for the Constitution on the right. Just yesterday, the National Organization for Marriage put out a weird statement about our "beloved Constitution" -- as if it's the family golden retriever.

But that's not the half of it. Back in February, a number of prominent conservatives got together in Mount Vernon, Va., near George Washington's old estate, to release the "Mount Vernon Statement." Mainly, it was pablum like this: "We recommit ourselves to the ideas of the American Founding. Through the Constitution, the Founders created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law." Still, you can't miss the strain of historical fantasy.

Or, in case you can, check out Newt Gingrich play-acting like he’s George Washington crossing the Delaware. Or see Glenn Beck asking Sarah Palin which Founding Father was her favorite. (And her classic reply, about a fractious generation of men who spent most of their lives fighting each other? "Well, all of them.") Really, just about any episode of Beck's show makes the point.

But this fantasy for the 18th century is probably at its most unadorned among Tea Partiers. After all, their very name is borrowed from the prelude to the Revolutionary War, and it's not uncommon to see them in mock-up Revolutionary-era garb. And how often have we heard people from the Tea Party insist that healthcare reform is unconstitutional because, after all, healthcare is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution?

This is not so much a school of legal thought as it is a wish to escape the modern world. The Constitution in its original form stands in for all that was once good, but has been lost under the attacks of whoever the convenient enemy is: "progressives," if Beck is talking, "activist judges," if it's a Supreme Court fight.

There is something upsetting about how eager folks on the right have been to say it's all been downhill since the 1780s. Sure, if called on it, as in the Marshall-Kagan business, they’ll backtrack and say that they obviously think emancipation and women's suffrage were good things. But they appear mainly unperturbed about the fact that in 1792, the percentage of the population with full citizenship was probably less than one-fourth. It's an afterthought.

I can come up with two different ways of understanding this. One's more charitable, one’s less, but neither is that great.

Here's number one: Maybe the right wing loves the 1700s because government was smaller. The point isn't that there was no civil rights law -- that’s an unfortunate side issue. The point is that there was no income tax, and America was a paradise of free enterprise. This is, unfortunately, an ass-backward misreading of history. In the early days, the big government debate worked much differently. Back then, if you wanted free market capitalism, you were for big government. Lots of people were just living off their land and not doing much buying or selling, and to drag them into the market required using state power. This was the stance of the northern, Federalist "Founders," mainly -- John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, etc. Small government was the populist stance, and was in particular a Thomas Jefferson specialty.

But here's Beck: "Do you believe that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Madison, Adams, do you believe those men were enlightened men? I do. Well, their crazy idea was to allow men to be free and free in their own business to allow them to be able to engage in capitalism."

So that's option one: an uninformed nostalgia for the 1790s as a mythical time when we were a nation of Ayn Rand characters, all six-foot-five, straight-backed, square-jawed, and buying and selling free of encumbrance.

This brings us to option two, however. Even if the past had been a free market paradise, it still only would've applied to the small fraction who were seen as full human beings and allowed rights as such. It's hardly a free market if you're forced to work in the fields for no pay, or forbidden from owning property. Casually dismissing these things because they get in the way of worship of the original Constitution seems revealing of something worse than being uninformed. It's almost as if the crucial rights enshrined in the Constitution only matter for white guys.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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