What would Jefferson do?

Two hundred and thirty-four years after the members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, the question of how the founding fathers of 1776 would have governed the America of 2010 is suddenly front and center in our political discourse.

A dominant view among conservatives is that the Supreme Court confirmation process underway in the Senate should turn on how closely nominee Elena Kagan hews to the doctrine of "originalism," or the belief that we must interpret the Constitution exactly as its authors understood it. The tea party movement takes its symbolism and rhetoric from the events that preceded the separation from Great Britain. Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada suggested a return to the Spirit of '76 when she suggested that Americans might have to resort to "2nd Amendment remedies" to reverse the course of politics in Washington. Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck sells T-shirts with pictures of Sam Adams, Ben Franklin and George Washington on his website.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with admiring the founding fathers or considering how current ideas of policy fit with the principles they set forth. This has been a celebrated tradition of American politics and has produced some of its greatest moments — the Gettysburg Address' "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," or its echo in Martin Luther King's "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

The problem with the way our founding fathers are now being used in political discourse is the underlying assumption that we can know exactly how they would have reacted to, say, the rising costs of health care, and that they would have spoken about it with a unified voice. Sarah Palin summed up this attitude when Mr. Beck asked her in an interview which was her favorite founding father and she initially responded, "Um, all of 'em," as if there were no differences between them and one was as good as another.

On the contrary, the genius of our founding documents stems from the fact that those who drafted them did not see the world the same way, did not agree with each other about everything, and in some cases, didn't like one another. The decision to declare independence took months of debate and was not unanimously supported among the members of the Continental Congress. And even after voting to support the resolution of independence, the congress debated the actual text of the declaration for two more days. If the declaration was, as Mr. Beck said in a commencement address this year at Liberty University, written by the finger of God, it was certainly edited by men; among the changes made to Jefferson's draft was the removal of passages critical to the slave trade.

The Constitution, written some 11 years later, was even more explicitly the product of fundamental disagreements about what kind of nation we would have, a loose confederation of states or a strong federal government. And that debate didn't end when the states ratified the Constitution but rather ran throughout the presidencies of founding fathers George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. If the meaning of the Constitution as envisioned by the founding fathers was fixed, clear and unchanging, it was unapparent to them.

In fact, the hot-button issues of today have analogues of a sort in the debates that embroiled the new American government when the founding fathers were still running the show. For example, the issues that so animated the tea party movement last summer — the belief that the health care reform bill would entail an unprecedented expansion of the federal government, that it would bankrupt the nation and that it was all being pushed through Congress by way of secret backroom deals — is reminiscent of the debate over Alexander Hamilton's financial reform plan, which brought the brand new federal government to deadlock in 1790.

Hamilton, an advocate for a strong central government and aligned with Northern merchant and financial interests, wanted the federal government to assume the debts the states had incurred during the Revolutionary War. Southerners, led by Madison — co-author with Hamilton of many of the Federalist Papers — fiercely opposed the idea on the grounds that it would rob the states of autonomy and enshrine an all-powerful federal government.

The matter was supposedly settled in the ultimate smoke-filled room. By Jefferson's account, he arranged a dinner between Hamilton and Madison at his home in New York (where the federal government was seated at the time) and brokered a compromise in which Madison would ensure that opposition to the financial plan evaporated in Congress in exchange for Hamilton's support for a Southern location for the permanent national capital. Call it the Potomac Payback.

There are plenty of other examples of founding father disagreement about the meaning of the Constitution in the early days of the republic. Adams signed the Alien and Sedition acts, which gave the president significant, and Jefferson argued, unconstitutional, powers to prosecute and detain political enemies.

Jefferson pushed through the Louisiana Purchase, the constitutional authority for which was completely unclear, in a move that he, the original originalist, would surely have argued against if it had been proposed by the Federalist Party. The Federalist Party, of course, fought against it. Although the purchase was in accord with the Federalists' desire for a powerful national government, it reduced the influence of the Eastern states that were the party's base.

As a member of Congress, Madison strenuously opposed Hamilton's plans to create the Bank of the United States and a system of federal taxation through tariffs; 20 years later, as president, he supported both, along with a standing army.

The implication of America's current habit of referring to the founding fathers in discussing contemporary politics is that the nation was somehow purer and more noble then — notwithstanding minor inconsistencies such as slavery and the inability of women to vote or exercise other basic rights. But the habit of pining for a previous golden age is as old as America itself. Just eight years into the new government, Washington warned in his farewell address of the growing danger of political parties, entities he warned would "distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration" and lead to "riot and insurrection." Even the founding fathers worried that we had betrayed the spirit of the founding fathers.

That's politics, and it's a rough business. It has always been and always will be so. On Independence Day, it is that we should be celebrating — our right to disagree with one another, even to accuse each other of forgetting the principles on which this nation was founded, as part of an ingenious system that cements our union not by stamping out dissenting views but by forcing them into vigorous opposition. How would the founding fathers have voted on the stimulus bill or the financial reform package? Every which way, just like our representatives did today. They wouldn't have wanted anything else.

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