For several years, right wing activists have turned to the Founding Fathers to justify their extreme political positions. The most popular is a quote from Thomas Jefferson that has been taken out of context, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Even Jefferson admitted that he had resorted to hyperbole in penning that statement in a letter to a friend. Jefferson was reacting to the Shays Rebellion which resulted from the fledgling government being unable to pay Revolutionary soldiers.
This is but one example. The right has selectively taken quotes from the framers of the Constitution to support their political positions. In many cases, the left has resorted to the same tactic.
To learn the truth about the Founding Fathers, Democratic Perspective turned to Michael Austin, author of “That’s Not What They Meant! Reclaiming The Founding Fathers From America’s Right Wing.”
Mr. Austin has written numerous other books and is Provost, Vice-President for Academic Affairs, and professor of English at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. We began by asking him to describe the political atmosphere and debates that led to the creation of the Constitution.
“They agreed on one thing,” said Austin, “that America should not be governed by the British. And that’s about all they agreed on. They disagreed violently on the most important issues of their day. Only about half of them supported the Constitution,” he continued. “They disagreed on whether the states should be more powerful than the federal government. They disagreed on the role of religion…they disagreed on whether we should balance the budget on austerity or increased taxes.”
Austin refers to the use of quotes from the Founders as proof texting. “Proof texting is a term that comes from Biblical criticism…it’s how a lot of people read the Bible,” he said. “It’s finding a quote that justifies your agenda, whether or not the context justifies it.”
“There were 55 different people, all of whom lived a long time and wrote an enormous amount…going through those [writings], you can support just about any proposition. You can prove that they were liberals or that they were conservatives or that they were atheists or that they were evangelical Christians…”
In his book, Austin summarizes attempts to unify the beliefs of the Founders with a term he coined…Founderstein. “It’s where you combine quotations from the works of a half a dozen different people and assert that this is what the Founding Fathers meant with no sensitivity to original context,” said Austin.
Austin stated, “There are two concepts we have to consider when looking at the Constitution. One is original intent and the other is original public meaning. The original public meaning I think is a very legitimate interpretive technique, and that is you try to find out what the words on the page meant in their original context; how somebody reading this document in 1787 would have understood the meaning of the terms. The other is to try to figure out what people were thinking when they wrote it by looking at what they said in other contexts….a sort of telepathy; a historical mind-reading to try to figure out what people were really thinking. Not only is it impossible, it misrepresents almost everything about the Constitutional Convention when you try to do that.”
There is much more to learn from the interview, so please listen to the podcast. Look for Austin’s book at a bookstore near you, or purchase it online here.