Artist Junius Brutus Stearns painted "Washington Addressing the Constitutional Convention" in 1856. The Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. (Associated Press)

The Senate should absolutely vote on President Obama's Supreme Court nomination. As you might have read, James Madison proposed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that a president's pick ought to be named to the bench automatically, barring a Senate veto. Senators should feel fortunate to have as much power as they do today.

But wait! Alexander Hamilton made clear in the Federalist Papers a year later that the Senate has no obligation to even vote on a president's Supreme Court nominee. So, as Seth Lipsky argued in the New York Post on Thursday, this idea that Republican senators are shirking their constitutional obligations by refusing to consider Merrick Garland is a total myth.

If you've followed coverage of presidential campaign issues — and the Supreme Court vacancy is most definitely a campaign issue — then you've almost certainly seen a Founding Father invoked to make a point recently. Sometimes, as in the case of Garland's nomination, they have been cited to support opposing arguments. In fact, once you perfect the art of cherry picking, you can use a Founding Father to advance almost any argument you like.

In one memorable example, the New Yorker's Feb. 1 cover featured an illustration of George Washington facepalming in horror as he watches Trump deliver a speech on television. (Washington was joined in artist Barry Blitt's rendering by presidents Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and both Roosevelts.) The implication was that Washington, were he alive to witness Trump's venomous campaign rhetoric, would be appalled.

However, as my high school classmate/Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy wisely pointed out, Washington was a slave-owner who, truth be told, probably wouldn't find the way Trump talks about racial minorities to be even remotely objectionable.


On Friday, the National Review's Kevin D. Williamson argued that Trump is democracy's worst nightmare come true. How does he know? Because, according to Williamson, "Trumpkin democracy is the democracy that John Adams warned us about" when he wrote this (obviously):

There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.

If Trump represents the fulfillment of Adams's grim prediction, then perhaps it is time for Republicans to nominate a modern-day Thomas Jefferson — Ted Cruz.

"Only Ted Cruz is speaking the language of Jefferson," D.C. McAllister contended in the conservative online magazine The Federalist on Feb. 29.

Yet I hear from my freedom-loving friends how Cruz is not electable (was Jefferson?), how he’s a purist, (so was Jefferson!), how he’s hated by his colleagues (wasn’t Jefferson?), and how he’s a purist and too extreme. The same was true of Jefferson. And, of course, there’s the litany of shallow excuses, including how he looks, how he speaks, and that he’s not likable.

There, see? If Jefferson were alive today, he would surely see himself in Cruz and urge us all to vote for the Texas senator.

I could go on, but you get the idea: Don't vote for Trump, because George Washington and John Adams wouldn't want you to. Vote on Merrick Garland because James Madison said you should — or don't because Alexander Hamilton said you don't have to. If I think hard enough, I'm sure I could come up with a reason why Washington would want you to vote for Bernie Sanders — perhaps because the Vermont senator has spent most of his career as an independent; Washington, too, was unaffiliated and warned against partisan politics.

The Founding Fathers still offer plenty of wisdom, but they weren't perfect, and they certainly didn't agree on everything. Historical parallels are often interesting and instructive, but they don't always provide clear answers to contemporary problems.

So let's not treat them like argument-ending authorities.