GOP presidential candidates bring Founding Fathers back into political spotlight


Thomas Jefferson’s portrait was painted by Rembrandt Peale. Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, drafted the Declaration of Independence. (Courtesy Collection of The New-York Historical Society/Smithsonian Institution)
February 19, 2012

The Republican presidential campaign is breathing new life into the Founding Fathers.

In recent months, Republican candidates have invoked these original American statesmen to provide powerful political precedents on issues as diverse as the “Me Generation,” inequality, the legalization of marijuana, the policies of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, foreign military intervention, same-sex marriage and religion in public life. And although in real life they often bitterly disagreed with one another, the newly imagined Founding Fathers have reached a surprising degree of harmony in the minds of the GOP presidential candidates on these contemporary matters — many of which were unimaginable in an era of horse-drawn carriages, candle light and powdered wigs.

This year’s candidates are hoping to ride those two-centuries-old coattails into the Oval Office. And they are trying to turn issues on which reasonable people can disagree into battles over what it means to be an American and who is being true to a patriotic legacy.

Just listen to Newt Gingrich.

“I think [Thomas] Jefferson or George Washington would have rather strongly discouraged you from growing marijuana, and their techniques of dealing with it would have been rather more violent than the current government,” he said last month at a campaign stop.

Or Ron Paul.

“I happen to believe the founders were libertarians. They didn’t want to regulate the market nor did they want to regulate personal lifestyles. And they had a nonintervention foreign policy.”

And here’s what Mitt Romney had to say about Democrats in his biography, “No Apology.”

They “fundamentally reject the choice made by the Founders” by supporting “an ascendant role” for government. “They simply do not believe in America as it was shaped by the Founders,” he wrote.

Rewriting America’s myths

Every country has its political mythology, a set of tales told about the past to legitimize a regime, understand the present and define national character. Ancient Rome had Virgil’s tale of Aeneas as the city’s founder. In South Africa under apartheid, Afrikaners learned that the “great trek” and an 1838 victory over Zulu warriors was the fulfillment of a “covenant.” In China, Mao Zedong is still held up by the ruling Communist Party as “a great proletarian revolutionary, strategist and theorist.”

And this year’s presidential campaign is rewriting America’s myths.

“I’m not at all opposed to these exercises,” says Richard Brookhiser, a conservative columnist for National Review and author of several books about the founders, including “What Would the Founders Do?” He says the United States is a young country with relatively old institutions and founders who wrote on many issues. “That’s why people feel free to ransack these guys for bumper stickers — and principles too,” he says.

Many historians say, however, that the GOP candidates’ portrait of the past misrepresents it.

“You can’t ask what the framers would do without giving them the same information we have,” says Stanford University history professor Jack Rakove. “You can’t pluck them out of the past and put them down in the present. They were deeply empirical in their political thinking.”

Nonetheless, GOP presidential candidates have portrayed the Founding Fathers’ legacy as being under attack, and they frequently recite the Declaration of Independence — “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“I can’t begin to count how many times over my public life I have quoted this foundational statement,” former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) says on his campaign Web site. “It is the worldview that was held by and oriented our founders. It is a worldview that has been challenged for over two centuries, and even now is under attack.”

An old election tactic

Calling on the Founding Fathers during presidential election campaigns or moments of crisis isn’t new. In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln invoked the founders’ proposition “that all men are created equal” to bolster support for the Civil War and emancipation.

When questioned in 1960 about whether a Catholic could become president, John F. Kennedy said, “I believe the Founding Fathers meant it when they provided in Article VI of the Constitution that there should be no religious test for public office. And I believe that the American people mean to adhere to those principles today.”

But many historians believe that the GOP presidential candidates are summoning the Founding Fathers this year to divide as much as to unify. And the candidates frequently dig up the Founders to inject religion into the campaign rather than remove it from the debate.

“Literally, the Founding Fathers said . . . your rights come directly from God,” Gingrich said while campaigning last month in Charleston, S.C. “And they are unalienable. That means no judge, no president, no politician, no bureaucrat can take away your rights.”

On his campaign Web site, Santorum quotes a 1796 speech in which Washington said: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.”

Historians say, however, that the Founders had divergent views on religion. “What Santorum and Gingrich are doing is typical: using history as civic religion, creating a mythology of the Founding Fathers in order to rationalize their present-day political beliefs,” George Mason University history professor Rosemarie Zagarri wrote in an e-mail. “By wrenching a quote out of context (Santorum) or making wild assertions based on uncorroborated speculation (Gingrich) the Founding Fathers can be used for almost any purpose.”

“Neither one of them is really interested in history. Because it gets much harder and more complicated when you are,” she added.

Zagarri says John Adams believed that the state should provide support for ministers and that religion was the key to maintaining civic virtue among its citizens. “At the other end of the spectrum, you had Jefferson and Madison,” she says, “who wrote and got passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty of 1786, which ensured not just a separation of church and state but complete freedom of conscience for believers and non-believers alike. Washington was probably someplace in the middle of this spectrum, but closer to Madison and Jefferson’s views than to Adams.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology history professor Pauline Maier, author of several books about the period from the 1760s to the writing of the Constitution, says: “It is interesting why so many politicians and even judges today want to show that their ideas had firm foundations among the founders. In some ways, I suppose that defines a new phase in the culture wars over ‘who is most American.’ ”

But, she adds, “that can also be very regressive: No founder ever embraced abortion or endorsed affirmative action. Eight­eenth-century Americans did take rights seriously, but their rank list of rights was probably different than those of rights-conscious people today. They lived, after all, over two centuries ago and on the rights front can seem pretty dated.”

Don’t tell that to Romney or Santorum. During the ABC-sponsored Republican debate in January, Romney told Diane Sawyer that “I was in a state where the Supreme Court stepped in and said, marriage is a relationship required under the Constitution for — for people of the same sex to be able to marry. And John Adams, who wrote the Constitution, would be surprised.”

In the same debate, Santorum also cited the founders in opposing abortion.

“I am for overturning Roe versus Wade,” Santorum said. “I do not believe that we have a right in this country in the Constitution to take a human life. I don’t think that’s — I don’t think our founders envisioned that.”

Alternate views

Enter the historians, proving Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “admiration is the daughter of ignorance.”

Brookhiser says that the founders, who wrote on countless issues, were silent on abortion. “The closest thing I could find is that [Alexander] Hamilton once gave a speech at New York State Assembly against a bill that said that a woman whose out-of-wedlock child died needed to be able to present two witnesses to it,” Brookhiser says. The measure was designed to prevent unwed mothers from killing their newborns. Hamilton, whose mother was not married to his father, said the measure would subject women to shame.

The Federal Reserve has also become embroiled in the founders fetish. Paul wants to abolish it. Gingrich wants to rein in its independence and oust the Fed chairman.

“Since I’m a historian who’s written a whole series of books about the Founding Fathers, I would think that they had the better grasp consistently and that’s why I would substantially reduce the power of the Federal Reserve,” Gingrich said in January. “I would audit it annually; I would call for Bernanke to resign or ask that he be fired the first week I’m president.”

Maier said in an e-mail that if the founders “were opposed to a national bank, why did they found the Bank of North America during the Confederation and then the First Bank of the United States?” Noting that Hamilton and Washington supported a national bank, she said, “maybe [Gingrich] doesn’t think Hamilton and Washington were FFs. Madison was opposed but came around by 1816 and approved of the Second Bank of the U.S. Maybe he wasn’t an FF either.”

Then there is foreign policy. Washington’s Farewell Address — with its warnings “to steer clear of permanent alliances” and not to “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice” — provides material for isolationists such as Paul.

But one of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s blogs has argued vigorously against that interpretation. It cites a line in Washington’s address that says, “If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off . . . when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.”

“To me, he’s saying we should stay out of things now, but a time will come when we will call our own shots,” Brookhiser says.

Zagarri has a different interpretation: “It surprises me that someone would argue that the Farewell Address was not isolationist. But once again, that is not to say that all the other Founding Fathers shared Washington’s views. In fact, there were many members of Washington’s own party who wanted him to get more involved in international conflicts.”

As Zagarri points out, “It’s all a matter of whom you are appropriating for what purpose.”

Steven Mufson covers the White House. Since joining The Post, he has covered economics, China, foreign policy and energy.
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