With the rising tide of conservatism in this country comes, inevitably, a resurgence of discussions about ‘getting back to basics’ and ‘integrating the intent of the Founders’ into our approach to the political process, to law, to the judiciary. I hear rumblings here and there and I know you do too, whether it’s dog whistling at political events or outright calls for this sort of thing. The underlying idea seems to be that we need to return to a simpler, plainer, happier time when the Founders were framing the Constitution and being, you know. Just terrific.
Yes. A happier time. A time when Black people and Native Americans were slaves! That was a happy time! A time when women couldn’t vote! When, in fact, anyone who was not a white, property-owning man did not have the right to vote. That was definitely a happier time. It was a terrific era. I know all of you are chomping at the bit to return to those halcyon days, waiting for them to invent the time machine so you can return to your true home.
Here’s the thing about the Founders: They lived, and were products, of an era with some very specific values. I hear people saying we want to bring those values back, and I really, really don’t. Those values primarily centred around keeping power in the hands of a limited few, in a highly paternalistic society where people genuinely believed that many people lacked the capacity to make decisions, and thus needed to have their lives ordered for them. By white, property-owning men. Whether forcing Christianity on slaves or marrying off sisters without their consent, people were very invested in making decisions for other people, and in making sure that those decisions were never challenged.
It’s interesting, I see people talking about, say, racist texts with things like ‘well, they’re a product of their time,’ as though this is some kind of excuse, like, ok, we can forgive the author for being a racist asshole because he lived in 1822. But, here’s the thing, the Founders lived during an era when a lot of things we do not agree with were commonly believed, supported, and enshrined in law. The Founders lived in an era when racism and sexism were heavily institutionalised, and this is clearly reflected in the documents they generated. I trust no one needs me to draw their attention to the 3/5s compromise, yes?
Many conservatives arguing for a ‘return to basics’ share those beliefs and values, as we know; they want to control the lives of others, and to live in a world where they are freely allowed to be racist. This is what they want to return to.
People say they want to return to the era of the Founders? The Constitution, as a document, was clearly designed to enshrine power in the hands of the few and keep it there. That heavy focus on state’s rights many conservatives seem to be so fond of is the direct result of white property owners wanting to be able to do whatever they wanted, and knowing well that centralised government would undermine their ability to do that. People may want to tell you that I want to say ‘would undermine their property rights,’ but that’s not what I mean.
And let’s not forget, please, that ‘property’ in this era included human beings.
People talk about the Bill of Rights like it’s such a great, progressive thing, and it certainly made some important strides for its time. But it wasn’t entirely a bed of roses and it, too, was the result of moral and ethical compromises. The Founders worked very hard to compromise as little as possible while holding on to the reins of their power. And this is what people want back, when they talk about ‘returning to better days.’ They mean that power should be concentrated in the hands of wealthy white property owners who will have complete authority and control over the lives of everyone else.
They mean that they think people should be allowed to do whatever they want with their ‘property,’ to pollute it and abuse it without any oversight or control from centralised government, because that is bad. They mean that basic measures implemented for public health and safety are deeply offensive; the Founders would have sneered at some of the things we take for granted these days, and would have decried some of the things we accept as unreasonable levels of control by the government.
People talk about returning to small government and giving states more autonomy, and what they mean, here, is that they want white property owning men to have more autonomy. They already effectively control the government, but that’s not enough, they want to make sure their ownership and power is enshrined in the law, after all these years we have spent chipping away at that in a vain attempt to reach some kind of equality.
The Founders wanted equality, they say. No, the Founders wanted the ruling classes to retain power while everyone else could go take a long walk off a short pier and enjoy the swim. They didn’t give a fig for social equality, unless you meant equality among the people in power. The Founder worship in this country makes me feel ill, the level to which so many people buy into it, and the hero worship of the Constitution and the people who wrote it I encounter, even in circles where I really feel like people should know better, makes me want to start hurling things at the walls.
You don’t have to dig far to know who the Founders were, to critically examine how they thought, behaved, and worked. They were pretty transparent. You do have to read a little beyond the thoughtless adulation you encounter in a lot of history books, but, really, you don’t have to look that hard.