By Shelli Dawdy
This is the second of a three part piece examining an article in the Lincoln Journal Star on July 4 entitled “Whose side are the Founding Fathers on?” Just click the title to read the first part: “The Founding? Move Along Folks, Nothing to See There. Onward Progress!“
There is a related piece in the works which focuses in more detail on a couple of specific issues raised by the LJS piece.
Why so much focus on the article? GiN’s primary mission is to promote a return to limited Constitutional governance as originally intended by the Founders. The LJS is a study in why a return is necessary and how we've gone so far astray.
Whatever the motivations, those who wish to render the basic philosophies of the Founding irrelevant for today employ mostly the same arguments and methods. Prime among them is the muddling of up of history.
The events between the Continental Congress' Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the convening of the Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 that produced the Constitution are of critical importance. Further, events that occurred from the end of the convention through the ratification period provide vital insights into the thinking of those men who were involved in shaping the Constitution. Important original sources from this period include the series of letters published in newspapers by those advocating for and against ratifying the Constitution (Federalists and Anti-Federalists), personal diaries and letters.
The author of the article compressed the time line he labels "the Founding" as if it all happened in a short span, thereby disregarding the important intervening years altogether. The article is dated July 4, a national holiday commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, yet that document only gets passing references. Instead the Constitution was the focus. The Constitutional Convention did not take place until eleven years after the Declaration, and four years after the end of the Revolutionary War.
If the author had space constraints, what aspect of the Founding should be the focus on July 4? The document commemorated or one resulting over a decade later? And if the obvious choice is avoided, the question should be, why?
This muddling of the Founding's timeline is typical of those who argue that the U.S. was not founded on any spiritual basis. In order to make that point, The Declaration must be avoided - it's basis is Natural Law and includes "God" and "Creator". Avoiding the Declaration's contents allows the writer to give the impression there was no influence from a higher power; he points out that the Constitution does not mention the word "God" anywhere. In so doing, the author engages in what he himself calls "cherry picking". He fails to mention that the First Amendment specifically references "religion".
But more than the Bill of Rights is overlooked. The article makes it appear as if George Washington was the only man involved with the Founding of the country who believed morality was a necessity for the new Republic, which in turn necessitated religion. There's ample evidence that the there were many involved in both the Congress of the Confederation government (the governing body during the Revolutionary War through the ratification of the Constitution) and U.S. Congress who thought morality and even religion necessary to the health of the country and its future. Examples include a declaration in the creation of the Northwest Territory stating, "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government..." and the approval by both the U.S. House and Senate to conduct regular church services in the Capitol building - several years before it was regularly used by Congress.
The author attempted to create the impression he is just a side-line observer in what is permanent debate. However, taking on that position is an adoption of a particular point of view - it is the one that dominates in education and in most books written about the Founding by the most popular historians for decades. This view point subscribes to the notion that there are essentially two positions taken about the Founding; either the ideas found in the Declaration or the Constitution dominate. One must choose.
By adopting the "perpetual debate" position, these theorists discard the possibility that an entirely different view point could exist; it is the one that believes it isn't a matter of choosing either document - it embraces both. It embraces the available evidence that there were a number of important philosophical concepts about which the Founders agreed.
Chief among them was the source of man's rights. There is simply no evidence in the primary source materials to support the idea that between the writing of the Declaration and the Constitution that the men engaged in these discussions were attempting to excise spiritual influence or to substitute powerful government as the source of rights. There is no evidence of disagreement on that point. In fact, lack of evidence of the notion being discarded, couple with no inclusion of it in the Constitution gives weight to the belief this principle was so dominating, it didn't even need to be stated. Primary source material, particularly as pertains to the debate over including a bill of rights, bears this out. People like James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, were concerned any overt statements about specific rights would result later in limitations on them.
Among the philosophies dominating the Founding one is very clear; government exists only to protect man's natural rights. The goal in both establishing the Articles of Confederation and the effort to correct that structure's deficits was to provide the most limited federal government that could be contrived while providing the colonies with particular needs virtually impossible attain on their own.
To be concluded in part three, which will be released tomorrow. It focuses on the results of thinking that the Founding can be rendered irrelevant.