What would the “Founding Fathers” think? Newt Gingrich thinks they’re all rolling over in their graves because of President Barack Obama’s policies:
Says Gingrich (via The Daily Beast): “I think all of the ‘Founding Fathers’ would have said, if you have government this big, it’s going to be really dumb, it’s going to have large sections of corruption, it’s going to waste a lot of money, and it’s going to be a threat to your freedom, and I think all of the ‘Founding Fathers’ would be appalled.”
I get it that Gingrich is making a political point rather than a serious point in a graduate seminar, but it really grinds my gears to hear comments like these that denature and flatten the early Republic to a period of ideological and political consensus, rather than the vicious brawl that it was (with some duels tossed in for good measure). “I think all of the ‘Founding Fathers’ would be appalled.” As if. Isn’t this the guy who’s supposed to have a Pee Aitch Dee in History?
My bet is that Alexander Hamilton and most of the Federalists would be well pleased by the firehose of government money flooding Wall Street in the past year under both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. (Hamilton might be rubbing his hands with glee, but even he might be embarassed by this scale of looting of the treasury.) And although a fellow Federalist, President George Washington might well ask why we “quit our own to stand upon foreign ground,” vis-a-vis our two ongoing foreign wars. The Antifederalists like Thomas Jefferson, whose electoral strength was in the South and West, would probably be appalled by these modern times–but it would be hard to say which would shock these slaveowners more: the close alignment of the federal government with moneyed interests, or the fact that an African American man is president. They probably wouldn’t be too impressed by either Presidents Bush’s or Obama’s records on defending the Bill of Rights–although there is good news to report back to the eighteenth century: at least the Third Amendment is safe!
This brings me to the second reason to be skeptical of grand political arguments that begin with the expression, “The Founding Fathers would have thought . . .” Let’s not romanticize the early Republic, m’kay? This is a period in which the modest revolutionary promise of the 1770s was thoroughly and utterly strangled. Maybe this is why I’ve never been drawn to do research in this period: I find it to be an utterly depressing and demoralizing period in American history, but many people like to pretend it was totally awesome for every American, when clearly, it wasn’t: there’s ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in the Northwest Territory and later in Cherokee country, Anglo-American women are being told to shut up and sing louder about how awesome things are, and get this: slavery is going to become even more dehumanizing and unendurable! More African American families will be further destabilized because of the invention of the Cotton Gin and the expansion of cotton culture into the Old Southwest. States like Maryland and Virginia that have been aggressively farmed since the seventeenth century discovered that their most profitable export crop would be slaves. (Yes, I know things sucked before 1770, too–but don’t stop me, I’m on a roll.)
It’s not just Newt Gingrich and guys like him who romanticize the period–the dominant historiography of the early Republic is largely celebratory because it’s still focused on the white, elite, male minority and their politics. Ah, Ça Ira! Ça Ira! Ça Ira! Ça Ira! (Loose translation: Hope!)