The Jefferson Rule: Why We Think the Founding Fathers Have all the Answers
Cue the broken record. From now until November of next year, we’re going to hear a lot about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and its authors’ intentions. You can be sure that Thomas Jefferson will be cited a time or two million. But be they coming from the right or the left, the middle or the fringe, all appeals to Revolutionary politics will have two things in common: they will be accurate and they will contradict each other.
The notion of the Founding Fathers as a single intellectual entity is post hoc myth-making, according to historian David Sehat. Though we have attached a unified set of principles onto the architects of our government, Sehat writes, “The founding era was, in reality, one of the most partisan periods of American history.”
In fact, it would be quite recognizable to the cable news generation. The Constitution was not a consensus of guiding principles, but rather a compromise, much like today’s Congress in which legislation that does manage to get passed is mutilated beyond recognition.
Likewise, there was dispute over the intention of the Constitution before the ink had dried on Rufus King’s signature.
“The Founders had agreed on the wording but did not necessarily agree on what it meant or even its purpose,” Sehat writes.
This was evidenced by the feud between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the former believing its intent was to limit federal power, the latter believing it emboldened a national government.
Jefferson won that battle, and with his presidential victory, “he rhetorically turned the founding era into one of political purity that he himself had channeled.” (Ironically, Jefferson eventually incorporated many of Hamilton’s ideas, and his Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country, was viewed by many at the time as unconstitutional.)
Though the myth was complete, the debate was not. The struggle between states’ rights and federal power festered until it went septic in the antebellum era.
The slavery issue was the litmus test for the Constitution. The Dred Scott ruling confirmed that the protections of the Constitution did not extend to slaves, who were considered property. A constructionist reading of the document would render the federal government powerless to intervene on slavery, and in addition to advocating for states’ rights, Jefferson himself had owned slaves, creating a challenge for Lincoln in his debates with Stephen Douglas.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Sehat writes, the litmus test was failed. “Constitutions are supposed to keep citizens from killing one another,” he writes. “But Americans killed Americans on a spectacular scale in the Civil War. And the Founders had left little guidance on what to do about it.”
The framers lost relevance for a time after the war, but like a pop group that invents a revolutionary sound, then falls out of favor, the Founding Fathers made a comeback in the 20th century. They have since become sacred cows — they are referenced on the campaign trail and their words wielded as weapons, but they are never questioned.
That’s an issue worth raising, Sehat writes. “Because the Founders do not offer a stable reference to make sense of the present, their presence in American political debate has long been problematic.”
The Jefferson Rule is a stellar work of historical research and narrative storytelling. Sehat’s prose flows with an uncommon ease, at times reminiscent of Nathaniel Philbrick. But he also digs into the philosophical ramifications of his subject. It’s not simply a revisitation of historical events, but a work that drops us into the Revolutionary era to see that the Founding Fathers were not a like-minded council of sages with all the answers.
The words of the Constitution were not etched on stone tablets from on high, but rather drafted by a group of headstrong men who clashed with one another, varied greatly in their viewpoints and were capable of the same grandstanding, short-sightedness and pettiness as today’s politicians.
This book brought to mind the timeless essay by Stephen Jay Gould, “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” which studies the psychological need for origin stories. It’s an issue worth exploring, both in Gould’s classic essay and in Sehat’s book.
If you’re at all interested in political debate or American history, The Jefferson Rule is required reading.