In the last few months, an increasing number of politicians have made arguments that start with “The Founders never intended…”. While Americans have been appealing to the founding generation to bolster their positions since the founding generation, there seems to be an uptick of this rhetoric in political dialogue. I’ve spent over a decade deeply immersed in the founding generation and let me tell you, almost any argument that starts with those dreaded words is usually made in bad faith.
There are two instances in which it’s acceptable and appropriate to consider the founders’ intentions. First, you can ask what the founders intended if you are exploring how those expectations immediately met with resistance and evolved once they took office. Second, you can ask what the founders intended to understand what people were thinking at that time. Any attempt to apply 18th century ideology or values to the 21st century is inherently problematic. Here’s why.
1. The Founders almost never agreed. On anything. While they certainly agreed that things like liberty and republican virtue were important, they rarely could come to a consensus about how to define those principles. They certainly didn’t agree about what the federal government should look like, and they didn’t even agree how to remember the Constitutional Convention just a few short years after the ink dried.
A few examples for clarification. If the framers (the men that wrote the Constitution) had agreed on everything, they would have all signed the document. They didn’t. George Mason refused to sign the Constitution and published a pamphlet after the Convention arguing that the states should refuse to ratify the proposed document. George Washington took Mason’s objections so personally that their disagreement drove a significant wedge between the longtime friends. In November 1787, as Mason continued his rabble-rousing against the Constitution, Washington complained about him in a letter to David Stuart:
“If the Convention was such a tumultuous, & disorderly body as a certain Gentleman has represented it to be, it may be ascribed, in a great degree to some dissatisfied characters [i.e. Mason] who would not submit to the decisions of a majority thereof.”