Stop Asking the Founding Fathers
In 1787, our Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and, after months of intense debate, hammered out a complex and incomplete document. The United States Constitution was the basis for governance in what would become the most powerful nation in history. Today, the Constitution represents one of the oldest continuous regimes still in existence. But, while these men, flawed though they might have been, deserve our reverence and respect, the time has come to stop asking for their interpretation of that same document they wrote.
1787 was 232 years ago. Between the Constitutional Convention and today, this nation has been dramatically changed in ways even the great minds of the nascent state could not have foreseen. The country doubled in size, TWICE, then violently split in half before stitching itself together on the backs on millions newly emancipated and enfranchised former slaves. We gave women the right to vote, something the Founders considered utterly ridiculous. A policy of neutrality and isolationism, all the Founders ever knew, was torn asunder after two earthshaking world wars.
Cars, superhighways, telephones, television, manned flight and the Internet have brought the corners of the globe together, leading to new philosophies the Framers were not even capable of anticipating. Their America was agrarian, our America is a major industrial and technological economy center of the world.
These aren’t just two different centuries, they’re two different worlds.
Bluntly, the interpretations of government and its relation to the people, held by the likes of George Washington and John Adams, are no longer relevant. We have the benefit and burden of over two centuries worth of knowledge, precedent and understanding. Theories and disciplines now considered vital to understanding government were not even in existence during the Framers’ lifetimes. Centuries of progress in countless social and geopolitical problems all came long after the Founders were gone. Washington died before humans had even discovered the first dinosaur bones and yet there is an insistence that his views from the 18th century ring true in the 21st, an idea void of any logic.
What the Founders intended when ink met parchment, no longer has bearing on governance when the Constitution is applied today. They could not, not were they expected to, predict what events or ideas would shape our society and our views on government. They most certainly could not have prepared for the dramatic upheaval of norms and ideology which preceded the Great Depression and World War II.
And yet, in a way, they did.
The Constitution is a living document, thanks to the Necessary and Proper Clause, also known as the “Elastic Clause” (Article I, Section 8). It is meant to breathe, expanding and contracting with the times. It is this clause that allows for changes to the government to be made, for the Constitution to work in whatever time it exists in. There is no Constitution without the Necessary and Proper Clause; without it, America never would have survived into the 21st Century. The Constitution is meant to be adaptable, not rigid and we have proven it to be such 27 times, each amendment giving more power to the people, each the result of something the Founders didn’t originally think necessary.
As such, we Americans need to be more open to more contemporary interpretations, ones that have the benefit of taking the last quarter millennium of human existence into account. Really, we need to thank the Founders for what they did but keep their opinions on it in the back of our minds until a time machine can make them applicable once again. We need to be open to making changes when necessary (looking at you, Electoral College).
We need to take action and remove obsolete ideas that once made sense but now hinder progress from marching forward. We have the need, and the power by which to act upon it, to make the Constitution work for the many in 2019, not the few in 1787. As Benjamin Franklin said, “We are all born ignorant, but one must work to remain stupid.”