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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Newt Gingrich on the Founding Fathers: Ugh...Here We Go Again!

Over at one of my favorite blogs, Historiann comments on the ongoing (and never ending) "custody battle" over the legacy of the founding fathers. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's comments that the founders of this nation "would all be appalled" by the Obama Administration's spending spree has caused some historians and fans of early America to cry, "foul!"

Yes, these two intellectual "heavy hitters" (Hannity and Gingrich) have succumbed to that ageless American tradition of proclaiming to one and all that early America was a perfect Utopian world free from political strife, where all Americans embraced political unity and shared in the superior intellect and understanding that was exclusively unique to only that generation of Americans.

Only one problem: early America wasn't all a "happy, happy, joy joy" time. As Historiann points out:
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.
And though I certainly do not share her utterly depressing view of early America (I am probably biased...it's my favorite era of history to study) I do agree that the founding era of this country is often misrepresented in our current pop-culture. Life wasn't pure bliss for many women, poor families, Native Americans, Blacks (free and slave), immigrants, etc. Now, with that said I also agree with historian Gordon Wood who states in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, that of all the places to live on planet earth in the 18th century, the American colonies/early America was probably at or near the top of the list. Let's just be careful with assuming that it was a PERFECT society, shall we!

And then of course there is Newt's "brilliant" statement that ALL the founding fathers would be united in their disgust for the current Obama Administration. Now, perhaps Newt is right in part. The founders would be utterly shocked to see a Black man as president. After all, they lived in an era where African Americans had zero say in government affairs, so I guess Newt is right in a roundabout way. However, if we put the racism of early America aside, I think Newt gets this one wrong.

Sure, several of the founders would be appalled at the current economic plan of the Obama Administration (and the Bush Administration before him). Thomas Jefferson and James Madison certainly come to mind. Jefferson was, among other things, passionately against government involvement in almost every facet of life. He strongly believed that government intervention in the affairs of man could be equated to slavery. In essence, Jefferson was very much a Libertarian. However, there are others who would be extremely happy with America's massive bureaucracy and federal involvement with the economy. To be certain, Alexander Hamilton is probably not be rolling over in his grave with anger but is instead smiling with glee. After all, this is the man who essentially proposed America's first ever "bail out" (a topic I have written on before and which you can read by clicking here). In addition, most of the Federalists would probably be close to as happy with things as Hamilton.

And this brings me to an important point: this whole argument over government intervention v. individual autonomy is far from new in the American experience. In fact, it's as old as is the nation itself. It was this debate which caused Vice President Jefferson to openly attack his "superior," President John Adams, who in return passed the unconstitutional Alien & Sedition Acts which he hoped would squash any and all of his critics. It was this basic issue that caused Jefferson to dramatically reduce federal spending in virtually all arenas during his presidency, and which caused his successor, James Madison, to confront the British in the War of 1812 with almost zero military of any kind. It is this basic issue that even caused the "father" of our nation, George Washington, to create the unpopular but economically driven Jay Treaty with Britain; a treaty that cost Washington a great deal of political support as his critics (again, led by Jefferson) openly questioned the president's bold decision.

In conclusion, I have no problem with Gingrich's questioning of Obama. I myself am against massive government spending. With that said, whenever I hear someone exclaim "What would our founding fathers do if..." or "I'm sure the founding fathers would be flipping in their graves over..." it tends to get my blood boiling. Like today, there was no consensus in early America over these and other issues. In reality, early America was arguably one of the most contentious eras we have ever seen (with an obvious exception being made for the Civil War of course).

So, let's quit "hijacking" the legacy of the founders just to make us feel better or to garner support for our respective positions. Chances are, no matter what you believe, that there are SEVERAL founders out there who would disagree.

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