On a rare opportunity for consensus in 2020.
With impeachment looming, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently encouraged Americans to look to the past before the future. Hearkening back to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, she stated during a press conference on December 12 that a failure to charge President Donald Trump with “high crimes and misdemeanors” risked all that the Founders built. Speaker Pelosi reminded Congress that it has an obligation to heed Benjamin Franklin’s warning that America would remain a republic only “if [we] can keep it.”
It’s interesting that the Founders are being called upon during such a crucial moment in American history, as we live in a time when the people who built America are under constant barrage. Only months ago, a mural in a San Francisco high school depicting the life of George Washington was covered after being labeled a symbol of the “racist history of America,” and more recently The New York Times declared that “our democracy’s founding ideals were false” in their controversial 1619 Project. It’s evidently trendy to vilify and scoff at this group and all that they accomplished by focusing on their failures. That is, until you actually need them.
At this pivotal moment of national crisis, politicians seem to have accepted that the Founders are essential, even if they disagree on their interpretation of the Founders’ beliefs. Let the record show it: the Founders, their beliefs, and their institutions matter. America exists and is preserved as a republic based on the norms the Founders created and the power that they willingly gave up. Their ideas and words are still clearly in play, with major stakes for the presidency and the nation. Even the most vocal detractions illustrate how central the Founders remain.
Though Pelosi presented the Founders as would-be anti-Trump champions, Republicans certainly had a different viewpoint. During the hearing process, Representative Doug Collins (R–Georgia) of the House Judiciary Committee pushed back: “I think we just put in the jury pool the Founding Fathers . . . but I don’t think we have any idea what they would think, with all due respect.” President Trump was more direct and roared back (in print) at Pelosi, “You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers in pursuit of this election-nullification scheme?” He went further, alleging that Pelosi’s “spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding and [her] egregious conduct threatens to destroy that which our Founders pledged their very lives to build.”
The next day, Pelosi, in symbolic black mourning dress, opened the impeachment vote on the floor of Congress by transitioning from the Pledge of Allegiance’s “the republic for which it stands” to Franklin’s “a republic, if we can keep it” (again) to the Declaration of Independence. Mere moments after, she (and later other Democrats) used George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address to warn of Ukrainian (or possibly Russian) election interference. History and the Founders had their eye on the House: “As George Washington, our nation’s patriot under whose gaze we stand today warned, history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of Republican government.” Building upon Pelosi, Representative Shelia Jackson Lee (D–Texas) insisted Trump needed to be charged based on Alexander Hamilton’s assertion in The Federalist Papers that “the misconduct of public men” was a viable and serious offense.
On December 18, names from James Madison and George Mason to John and Abigail Adams were mentioned on both sides of the House of Representatives: in eight hours of spirited debate, there were more than one hundred references to “the Founders,” “Founding Fathers,” or “Framers” (with more to specific individuals). And Founders were pitted against each other (and themselves), with varying interpretations and quotations, for political effect. Impeachment, despite being literally created by the Founders, was simultaneously portrayed as both for and against their ideals. Trump was both defended and ultimately impeached on the basis of the Founders.
The opposition promptly flipped those same founders to fight back. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy complained that Pelosi “skipped” over Hamilton’s warning in The Federalist Papers (mentioning the same paragraph as Jackson Lee), which he then slightly altered: “There will always be the greatest danger, that the decision to use the impeachment power would be driven by partisan animosity instead of ‘real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.’” Four others also quoted from the same passage. Representative Ted Yoho (R–Florida) similarly returned to Washington’s Farwell Address, but focused on anti-partisanship instead of foreign entanglements, warning that party allegiances would lead to “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” being “enabled to subvert the power of the people to usurp for themselves the reins of government.’’ “How wise [Washington] was,” Yoho declared. On this point there was bipartisan agreement, but on which Washington lines to read, there was not.
Asking the Founders to speak out of context on modern issues is not the best practice, and perhaps politicians aren’t the best judges. This is certainly why many academics have made headlines for their public support of impeachment, since their actions are bolstered by greater intellectual authority. Illustrative of this point, Representative Jerry Nadler (D–New York) even introduced a letter signed by over seven hundred historians and scholars as evidence for impeachment. Since expanded to include fifteen hundred signers, the letter demanded Trump’s impeachment in accordance with historians’ professional understanding of the Founders. Organized by the Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz, these signers also decried Trump’s alleged misdeeds as fitting Hamilton’s definition of “the misconduct of public men” and “the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
Yet, almost concurrently, Wilentz also organized a second letter to combat what he saw as the “significant factual errors” of the Times’s 1619 Project which, “driven by ideology,” asserted that the Founders declared independence not for liberty but “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” It garnered only five signatures and a fury from many of the same historians who endorsed his anti-Trump declaration. Both letters seek to illustrate the centrality of the Founders, their ideas, and the impact of the American Revolution, “pivotal to any account of our history.” The discrepancy (combined with a number of public anti-Founders comments, especially on Twitter) illustrates that, for many academics at least, engagement with the Founders is a burden.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, the historian Karin Wulf correctly invited all Americans to “read for themselves how the delegates debated and voted on every clause pertaining to impeachment” and ignore the “commentator[s]” who “are raising these points daily.” In order to understand the Founders and the Constitution, you need context. You can’t simply grab a line and repeat it to advance your cause. Whether you are an originalist or support a “living” Constitution, you need to know what the Founders meant to understand and properly use it.
Historians, politicians, and all citizens need more study of the Founders to better inform themselves about the benefits and duties of citizenship. Criticism of the Founders is fair, valid, and healthy for our republic and our history. A failure to engage with their thinking is not. It’s time to stop the tide of dismissal of the Founders as outdated “dead white men.” If these past few weeks have shown anything, it is that how we interpret them has a tangible impact. The Founders established the underpinnings of this nation, and if you invoke the Constitution, you are also invoking the Founders. In attempting to use our systems of government, you are inherently referencing the nation’s origins. The wisdom of the Founders is not that they gave us all of the answers, but rather that they anticipated all of the problems.
Regardless of what you think of George Washington or James Madison or Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump, one fact is consistent: the Founders’ ideas matter, whether you like it or not.
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