Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Ghosts of the Past

With Independence Day looming, it's probably a good time to talk about, well, the Founding of the American Republic. In this regard, there are two overlapping groups of DWM (Dead White Men) who dominate the conversation, and rightly so: the Founders (or Founding Fathers) and the Framers.

The Founders is actually the less precise--though larger--group. In fact, the Framers (of the Constitution) is properly seen as a subset of the Founders: all Framers are Founders, but not all Founders are Framers. Aside from the Framers, the Founders can also includes all of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence and to the Articles of Confederation, along with the Sons of Liberty, various other Colonial leaders, and significant players in the Revolutionary War. I say "can include" because there is no definitive list of Founders; different historians have different criteria for establishing membership in the legendary group.

The Framers is not subject to such arbitrary standards. For at the very least, to be a Framer means to have taken part in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The National Archives website gives a brief overview of these 55 men. From the Library of Congress, here are brief sketches of each Delegate, as authored by one of the Delegates, William Pierce. Not all of these men were in attendance throughout the Convention, nor did all of them contribute significantly to the actual production of the Constitution. But it is difficult to say--with any certainty--that one or another should not be included, since we are not privy to all that was said, both privately and publicly.

Nonetheless, certain individuals stand out. In both groups. And to be a prominent Framer is to be a prominent Founder, that much is certain. In this regard, we have--as Framers and Founders, both--the usual culprits (in no particular order): George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Charles Pinckney, James Wilson, William Paterson, Gouverneur Morris, George Mason (who refused to sign the final document), John Rutledge, and Elbridge Gerry (who also refused to sign). Certainly, there are others who could be included here, but these are the men--by my own reckoning--who played the larger roles.

Looking at this list and thinking of the Founders in general, there are notable personages missing, chief among them being Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Indeed, these two, along with the Federalist authors-- Madison, Jay, Hamilton--plus Franklin and of course Washington compose what some historians see as the core group of Founding Fathers. Seven men whose contributions were so great that without anyone one of them, the American Republic would not have assumed it's present form.

But the histories of the period abound with other names as key players, as well: Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, Ethan Allen, Nathan Hale (mostly for uttering one line), Thomas Payne, and John Hancock (mostly for signing his name in huge letters), to name but a few. Some of them live much larger in legend than they did in life. Others--like Payne and Henry--have been relegated (wrongly, in my opinion) to the fringes of the American experience, called upon now and again by outliers from the common narrative.

Still, they are--as a group and individually--summoned again and again by politicians, pundits, and everyday citizens, in response to every issue imaginable. How many times have we heard how this law or that decision would cause the Founders (or Framers) to "roll over in their graves" or some such thing? And within specific ideological orientations, Founders are often named specifically, though occasionally to contrast one from the other, as in "this something Hamilton would have liked, but Jefferson (or maybe Henry or Payne) would have hated." Madison--as the "father of the Constitution--appears in conversations whenever there is an issue with the Constitution, as do the the other Federalist Papers authors, though not as frequently.

As we move forward, as the world around us changes and our government seeks to adapt (or we seek to adapt to our changing government), we are beset by the spirits of these men, the ghosts of the past. While we judge what is done by the consequences of the here and now, we judge it too through the eyes of these ghosts; we hope--most of us, at any rate--that our choices and actions measure up to the standards they set, so long ago. Because, no matter how effective these men were as statesmen and politicians, they were idealists in the best sense of the word.

And no matter how often someone claims to not care about the ghosts, the truth is that they sit in judgment of us all, for such is the cornerstone of the American Experience, of the Noble Experiment, of the intent to build a Shining City on the Hill. It is not enough for the government to simply achieve goals, to be effective, to govern well. It must do so within the paradigm established by the vision of these men, with an eye towards the primacy of the individual, the maintenance of liberty, and the limiting of government interference. For the ghosts--our ghosts--of the past will settle for nothing less.

Cheers, all. And happy Independence Day.

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