Friday, February 26, 2010

The Founding Father Wars

Let me open by saying I'm pretty darn proud of this one. Please enjoy.


Let’s be honest: a lot of Americans treat the Founding Fathers with the same level of mild divinity that they treat the characters of the Bible (Peter, Paul, Moses, Elijah, etc.).

In that same vein, a lot of folks also treat and quote the Constitution in the same way they treat and quote the Bible – as a kind of inspired, infallible text.

I like to call this “Founding Father Worship” and “The Doctrine of Constitutional Infallibility.” I hope you’ll forgive my cynicism.

In any case, this sort of treatment of the Founding Fathers and the constitutional document they gave us tends to get under my skin. The Constitution was designed as a fluid document, a document to serve as a roadmap rather than an infallible truth. The court system was given the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution, and a lot of the wording of the Constitution is intentionally vague and open to different possibilities for that very reason. The Constitution was also designed to be amended, illustrated by the fact that its own writers amended it ten times, giving us the Bill of Rights.


In recent years – thanks, in large part, to the Internet – a new phenomenon seems to be sweeping popular culture. I call it the Founding Father Wars. Everyone has their pet quote from a Founding Father that they use to support their own perspectives and opinions. You see them in profile signatures on Internet message boards. You see them on bumper stickers. You see them on various “quotation” websites. You see them in email signatures from friends and co-workers. You see them on social networking sites as status updates. Sometimes you even hear a politician, journalist, or media mouthpiece repeat one.

The problem, of course, is that like the Bible, one can find a Founding Father quote to support just about any perspective under the sun. Consider someone arguing against women’s rights:

John Adams: “As to your extraordinary code of laws [for women’s rights], I cannot but laugh. Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”

Thomas Jefferson: “The happiness of [a woman’s] life depends on continuing to please a single [male] person. To this all other objects must be secondary.”

Clearly, Founding Father quotes can be found to support just about any peculiar belief system you can come up with.

One such quote that seems to be making the rounds recently is one attributed to John Adams (he of the “masculine system”). It goes like this: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

As one can surmise from the content, this quote is frequently used by religious conservatives to support a blurring of the lines between the separation of Church and State. I found references to it on a number of websites, including the site of Coral Ridge Ministries, which was founded by Dr. James Kennedy, a prominent televangelist, and the website of Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh’s site included a transcript of Limbaugh providing an analysis of the quote on air in 2009. I also found it listed on a site dedicated to legislating prayer in schools. This site, called “Free To Pray” includes this gem on its main page: “A Nation [their own capitalization] that refuses to teach its children right from wrong, good from evil, will become a corrupt nation, where sin prevails, evil abounds, and children do as they please!” This site also includes a topic called “The Myth: Separation of Church and State.” I hope you’ll click on this link, because the picture at the top of the page is priceless.

In any case, this quotation is a good illustration of everything that is wrong with the phenomenon of the Founding Father Wars.

John Adams delivered this line during his presidency, in a short letter he sent to a military brigade in the Massachusetts militia in 1798. Here’s the paragraph that precedes the quote in question:
But should the people of America once become capable [of dignity] towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practicing iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world.
Written in dense 18th century prose, this passage might be tough to comprehend without reading it through a few times. Here’s what he’s saying: if we pretend to believe in justice and moderation, and we charm the world with images of sincerity, while in reality we are practicing “iniquity” and “extravagance,” then America will be a “miserable” place to live.

He goes on to say:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
In other words, we cannot be barbarians and expect to have any legitimate place in international society. Remember, he is writing these words to a military unit – he is not delivering them to the general public or the houses of Congress. The clear implication is that Adams is encouraging the military to behave honorably, and not to engage in activity that is dishonorable and hypocritical (“rioting in rapine and insolence”).

Notice that phrase immediately preceding the quote in question. “Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.” In other words, the “moral” and “religious” lifestyle Adams is supporting is a lifestyle that rejects avarice (greed) and ambition, revenge and gallantry. That last word – gallantry – seems odd at first glance, but I believe Adams was talking about soldiers engaging in risky behavior for the sake of being a hero. It may also have been a reference to the 18th (and early 19th) century love of the duel. If a man felt his honor (or the honor of his woman) had been offended, he would often challenge the offender to a duel. This sort of "gallantry" - which is really just vigilantism - may be what Adams was talking about.

In any case, it is worth noting that none of the sources I could find for Adams’ quote ever mentioned this preceding sentence. And that is including several sites that quoted the sentence before the one about greed and ambition. Consider the version analyzed by Rush Limbaugh: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and true religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” He includes the entire final paragraph except for that phrase about greed, ambition, revenge, and gallantry.

What could be the possible reason for such a unanimous exclusion among those citing this quote to support a blurring of the separation of Church and State? (Picture me with a finger poised thoughtfully upon my lips.)

The answer is obvious: Neo-conservatism is built on these principles, particularly the first two – greed and ambition.

Adams asserted that our Constitution was made for moral and religious people. But he also made clear that religious morality, for him, was humility and justice, dignity and fairness, moderation and honesty. None of those ideals defines modern America very well, and particularly the powerful neo-conservative wing of the Republican party.

How could someone like Rush Limbaugh possibly quote a Founding Father speaking negatively against ambition and the pursuit of wealth?

He couldn’t, of course, which is why he conveniently omitted that part of the quote.


The Founding Father Wars are built on the idea of Founding Father Worship, which is one half of a two-sided coin with The Doctrine of Constitutional Infallibility on the other side.

As we have seen here, quotes by the Founding Fathers can be dug up to support just about any kind of peculiar viewpoint a person might adhere to. In most cases (if not in every case), they do very little to provide a genuine insight into what said Founding Father actually meant or actually believed on the topic in question. Instead, they function as stand-alone quips with an authoritative name attached to them, allowing them to be used almost willy-nilly in whatever way seems most appropriate for the person repeating the words.

In that sense, they are about as valuable as a fart directed upwind of a manure pile. They don’t add anything new to the conversation, but they certainly reinforce the stink.

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