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An American Phenomenon?

WilliamJB

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Why is it that the "intentions of the Founders" is so often referenced as a guide to the formation of policy in 21st century America? Granted, this seems to happen more often on the right than on the left, but any debate from Healthcare, to the treatment of "enemy combatants" to same-sex marriage seems to inevitably end up as a discussion about "what the Founders intended"?

I grew up in Canada, and lived in Germany for awhile, and the politial debate there, at least, very rarely makes any reference to "what the Founders" (of those respective countries) would have wanted. Why are we, in the US, so obsessed with "The Founders"?
 

Edward_L._Sin

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Extremely happy am I that you asked this question, because I am sure foreigners have found this contrast between the United States of America and virtually every other country in the world. To understand the rationale for this profound respect for the Founding Fathers, you need to understand the culture of America. America was born during a time of imperialistic tyranny from countries such as Great Britain and Spain and the absolute monarchies of France and other European nations. After America broke away from Great Britain, the majority of the Founding Fathers, aside from a select few such as Alexander Hamilton, found that the root cause for all this tyranny was essentially that the governments no longer represented the people. The governments no longer represented the people, because corruption was too considerable, and, because corruption was too considerable, government had to be limited or restricted in scope, so that the people can always keep a chain around the necks of the government. To prove that this mindset was that of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, a central Founding Father, said this:

"The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first. "

Essentially, the Founding Fathers created America, so that they could minimize government and maximize liberty, under Thomas Jefferson's vision of the so-called, "Empire of Liberty." Therefore, the system of Constitutional Federalism was put into place, the Constitution being more powerful than a President, a Congress, or a Supreme Court would ever be, and, under the Constitution, the Federal Government, for the whole of America, can't just make any laws it wanted then and there, because the Founding Fathers feared that this would encourage corruption. Instead, the Founding Fathers designed a system that ensured that corruption would be minimized under the Constitution. Contrary to popular belief, this system is not reactionary in nature. The system only ensures that the government doesn't step over the boundaries set by the people without their fully knowledgeable consent -- so far so that the people would no longer be able to control the power and scope of the government. Universal health care would have been just fine for many of the people who oppose that legislation now, but we such People will never support that legislation now, because the current Administration did not follow protocol, the Constitution, nor the Rule of Law defined by the Founding Fathers. They defied the Constitution.

The Constitution states that, if the Federal Government wants to get into the business of things such as universal healthcare, they would have to make an Amendment into the Constitution. It's just that simple, but they wouldn't do it, because I am sure that it would offer up some bigger questions about the necessity of that universal healthcare. Why should the Federal Government have this power? Couldn't individual states have their own healthcare system? Didn't Hitler use his Federal healthcare system to inject eugenics into his population? Essentially, the Founding Fathers designed the Constitution, so that the US government couldn't make some 1,000-paged legislation that no one has read. It kept the US government in check, but, unfortunately, the US government isn't obeying the rules anymore. Now, I can understand why Canada, Germany, etc. wouldn't have such a focus on a concise, Constitutional, Supreme Law decided by their Father or Founding Fathers. It just shows the difference between the cultures between America and the other countries, and only history will show which system will last better under distress and in the good times.
 
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Deuce

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On the other hand, rich white men who died 200 years ago and didn't think women/black people/poor people/the irish should be able to vote might not have an opinion that is valuable in 2010. Their world didn't have electricity, cars, planes, radio, computers, or nuclear weapons.
 
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mac

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Why is it that the "intentions of the Founders" is so often referenced as a guide to the formation of policy in 21st century America? Granted, this seems to happen more often on the right than on the left, but any debate from Healthcare, to the treatment of "enemy combatants" to same-sex marriage seems to inevitably end up as a discussion about "what the Founders intended"?

I grew up in Canada, and lived in Germany for awhile, and the politial debate there, at least, very rarely makes any reference to "what the Founders" (of those respective countries) would have wanted. Why are we, in the US, so obsessed with "The Founders"?

"The founding fathers" is a personification of the US Constitution, the foundation of our Country. The founding father's created a system of government that was entirely unique to the world and. Their wisdom created a system of government that was both firm enough to protect and flexible enough to serve the people of the country it created.
 

mac

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On the other hand, rich white men who died 200 years ago and didn't think women/black people/poor people/the irish should be able to vote might not have an opinion that is valuable in 2010. Their world didn't have electricity, cars, planes, radio, computers, or nuclear weapons.

How very narrow minded and uniformed a statement. They were wise enough to build in flexibility that would serve the future needs of Americans rather than mire them in the societal ideals of their time. Your statement is a judgement of past people using present ideals.
 

Edward_L._Sin

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On the other hand, rich white men who died 200 years ago and didn't think women/black people/poor people/the irish should be able to vote might not have an opinion that is valuable in 2010. Their world didn't have electricity, cars, planes, radio, computers, or nuclear weapons.

A popular argument against the credibility of the Founding Fathers is actually what you just stated. The Founding Fathers did discriminate against minorities during their time, but Mary Wollstonecraft, the first feminist, also did radically discriminate against men during her time, and yet no one denies how good or influential she was to the development of natural and civil rights for women in contemporary history. People don't praise the Founding Fathers in retrospect for their discrimination against many minorities during their time, nor do I think anybody would truly expect them to be totally nondiscriminatory to those people, when the American people, whom they represented at the time, had not yet accepted those minorities into their society. What people do praise the Founding Fathers, however, is what they intended to do and whether they succeeded or not. The Founding Fathers intended to recognize natural rights and grant civil rights for the men in American society at that time, and they succeeded in those aspects, which people generally agree were positive actions in American history. They also designed a system that allowed those natural rights and civil rights to be distributed to minorities, as they were assimilated into American society over time, and that's really the best that could have been expected from the Founding Fathers, because, for example, if they had outlawed slavery then and there, America would have never come into being.
 
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Goshin

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The Constitution is the chief instrument standing between liberty, and unlimited government. Unlimited government tends to lead to tyranny of one sort or another.

The Founders established something all but unique in the history of the world, and did so exceptionally well. The Constitution has to mean something or it means nothing, and the original intent of the Founders is one of the various viewpoints about the Constitution.
 

Aunt Spiker

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Why is it that the "intentions of the Founders" is so often referenced as a guide to the formation of policy in 21st century America? Granted, this seems to happen more often on the right than on the left, but any debate from Healthcare, to the treatment of "enemy combatants" to same-sex marriage seems to inevitably end up as a discussion about "what the Founders intended"?

I grew up in Canada, and lived in Germany for awhile, and the politial debate there, at least, very rarely makes any reference to "what the Founders" (of those respective countries) would have wanted. Why are we, in the US, so obsessed with "The Founders"?

Someone brought up the exact same question last year sometime - the debate got rather interesting. . . but I can't find it (sorry)

#1 - I think it depends on WHERE you are reading/getting your information.
Do people walking around the grocery store discuss such things, now? No, they often don't.
But in the world of politics (here on the forum, on 24/7 news channels) it just makes sense that it will come up - politics and the founding of this country is tightly wound together and vital to how we live, now, and how we will continue to live - and how government functions, etc.

I've seen similar discussions in other countries when I'm reading certain political-type sources just like this forum - so ti happens there, too. There is a difference though . . . which leads to point

#2 - Our country was "discovered" - and then existed in various ways for a while - and then they decided to create it *new* (by *they* I mean "the Founding Fathers" of course)

Very few countries in the world have been deliberately created with a group of people getting together and debating their ideas, figuring out what they want and trying their best to make it happen - WITHOUT the victor of a war declaring submission of the people and staking out their new law.

Countries that I can think of which fall into this category are: Germany (after it was reunited post WWII). And the USA.
Really - I can't think of any other country off the top of my head where people sat down and figured it out, decided what country they wanted to have - and *then* made it happen. (I know there are others but they elude me . . . and I'm barring current Middle East countries - because they haven't figured it out, yet, they're still at war over these exact issues).

Most other countries have been around for a *long* time - they've gone through wars, the changing of land possession and all sorts of articles, royal decrees, national-changes, religious-movements, signed agreements and land reparations and so on which govern their people. In that type of constantly changing political and social climate most countries have slowly taken shape. Was there one particular moment in time in which France *became* France? What about England being England, is that easy to pin down - how many people went into making it what it is?
These things happened over a long period of time - a little here, a little there.

So I think the fact that our country's debates were had, things were agreed on, the ideas were written onto paper and then signed - and then ratified - all within a relatively short amount of time (a lifetime of many of our country's founders) made it quite momentous. It wasn't, one day - and then it was.

This also makes it much easier to grasp when learning of US history. . . and much easier to pounce on in a debate.
 
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WilliamJB

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Extremely happy am I that you asked this question, because I am sure foreigners have found this contrast between the United States of America and virtually every other country in the world. To understand the rationale for this profound respect for the Founding Fathers, you need to understand the culture of America. America was born during a time of imperialistic tyranny from countries such as Great Britain and Spain and the absolute monarchies of France and other European nations. After America broke away from Great Britain, the majority of the Founding Fathers, aside from a select few such as Alexander Hamilton, found that the root cause for all this tyranny was essentially that the governments no longer represented the people. The governments no longer represented the people, because corruption was too considerable, and, because corruption was too considerable, government had to be limited or restricted in scope, so that the people can always keep a chain around the necks of the government. To prove that this mindset was that of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, a central Founding Father, said this:

"The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first. "

Essentially, the Founding Fathers created America, so that they could minimize government and maximize liberty, under Thomas Jefferson's vision of the so-called, "Empire of Liberty." Therefore, the system of Constitutional Federalism was put into place, the Constitution being more powerful than a President, a Congress, or a Supreme Court would ever be, and, under the Constitution, the Federal Government, for the whole of America, can't just make any laws it wanted then and there, because the Founding Fathers feared that this would encourage corruption. Instead, the Founding Fathers designed a system that ensured that corruption would be minimized under the Constitution. Contrary to popular belief, this system is not reactionary in nature. The system only ensures that the government doesn't step over the boundaries set by the people without their fully knowledgeable consent -- so far so that the people would no longer be able to control the power and scope of the government. Universal health care would have been just fine for many of the people who oppose that legislation now, but we such People will never support that legislation now, because the current Administration did not follow protocol, the Constitution, nor the Rule of Law defined by the Founding Fathers. They defied the Constitution.

The Constitution states that, if the Federal Government wants to get into the business of things such as universal healthcare, they would have to make an Amendment into the Constitution. It's just that simple, but they wouldn't do it, because I am sure that it would offer up some bigger questions about the necessity of that universal healthcare. Why should the Federal Government have this power? Couldn't individual states have their own healthcare system? Didn't Hitler use his Federal healthcare system to inject eugenics into his population? Essentially, the Founding Fathers designed the Constitution, so that the US government couldn't make some 1,000-paged legislation that no one has read. It kept the US government in check, but, unfortunately, the US government isn't obeying the rules anymore. Now, I can understand why Canada, Germany, etc. wouldn't have such a focus on a concise, Constitutional, Supreme Law decided by their Father or Founding Fathers. It just shows the difference between the cultures between America and the other countries, and only history will show which system will last better under distress and in the good times.

So, if I understand your argument correctly, you're putting forward a case of American exceptionalism, with the emphasis being on the idea that the Constitution places limits on the power of the federal government, as a bulwark against tyranny?

I don't disagree with this, though I'm not sure the idea of a constitutionally limited government is a uniquely American invention. You could make the case that the Magna Carta was the first such proposition, though it was by no means as strictly articulated as the US Constitution. As well, the ideas that influenced the founders had previously been articulated by Hobbes, Locke, Paine, and Rousseau, so, strictly speaking, the true founders of limited government as an idea is a French/British idea coming out of the Enlightenment. In any event, the rule of law itself goes back to the Roman Republic, but we similarly don't semi-deify the ancient Romans.

I also find it odd that the Constitution is so often hailed as an almost flawless document that has held the country together for centuries, provided prosperity, etc. This reading seems to omit the fact that a mere 80 years after it's adoption, the country was in a Civil War that proved the bloodiest in American history. And as much as I hate to keep harping on the issue, the constitution was essentially a pro-slavery document. My point being that it seems problematic to rely on a 200 year old document as our source for the proper role of government that was written by, as Deuce points out, upper class, white, slave-holding Englishmen.

As for your point regarding healthcare legislation, I would argue that Congress most definately has the power to enact such laws, on the basis of:

1. The General Welfare Clause, which states that Congreess may pass legislation "to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States."
2. The Interstate Commerce Clause, which allows for legislation: "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes."

Healthcare would seem to pretty clearly fall under the category of "general welfare," and the insurance industry is certainly involved in "interstate commerce."
 

deltabtry

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On the other hand, rich white men who died 200 years ago and didn't think women/black people/poor people/the irish should be able to vote might not have an opinion that is valuable in 2010. Their world didn't have electricity, cars, planes, radio, computers, or nuclear weapons.
Yes your right about this but, the constitution does state all (man) people are all equal, also the constitution does have a avenue to correct lets say glinches (20th century term), which it has. It's not the constitution that has faults is those who interpret it, the constitution BTW also has avenues to correct this..
 

Orion

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The intentions of the founders... you might as well be saying the intentions of God, because it gets misconstrued just as much. The only thing we have to go on is the documents they left us and maybe some of their official speeches and writings during the times of their lives. But their era is so far behind us now that I don't think it's possible for the common people to even know the context anymore, only the historians.

Luckily, they made the language of their works quite plain and clear.
 

WilliamJB

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The Constitution is the chief instrument standing between liberty, and unlimited government. Unlimited government tends to lead to tyranny of one sort or another.

The Founders established something all but unique in the history of the world, and did so exceptionally well. The Constitution has to mean something or it means nothing, and the original intent of the Founders is one of the various viewpoints about the Constitution.

Let me suggest an alternative meaning for the Constitution: Not the intent of the Founders, but the idea of a government that:

1. Adheres to its own laws, regardless of who's in power, and, in my opinion, the true genious of the Constitution;
2. Protects against the dictatorship of the majority.

The second function is truly unique (at the time; other constitutions around the world have followed suit since) and important, as it recognizes that certain things are simply wrong and unjust, even if a majority of the people support it.
 

Aunt Spiker

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The intentions of the founders... you might as well be saying the intentions of God, because it gets misconstrued just as much. The only thing we have to go on is the documents they left us and maybe some of their official speeches and writings during the times of their lives. But their era is so far behind us now that I don't think it's possible for the common people to even know the context anymore, only the historians.

Luckily, they made the language of their works quite plain and clear.

We have letters - private and otherwise - from them and their families which let us into their lives.
Personal accounts from a variety of people.

Enough to piece together an accurate picture, actually, of who they were and how they thought and so on - interpreted and investigated by historians and then written for us to understand and read about if we choose.

I think people are perfectly capable of grasping the differences in our times - people only need to want to know these things and take the time to learn about them.
 

WilliamJB

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Yes your right about this but, the constitution does state all (man) people are all equal, also the constitution does have a avenue to correct lets say glinches (20th century term), which it has. It's not the constitution that has faults is those who interpret it, the constitution BTW also has avenues to correct this..

This really gets at the heart of the matter. Ultimately, the Constitution means exactly what a judge says it means. It is not self-interpreting or self-enforcing. You can say, "follow the language," but terms such as "establish a religion," "necessary and proper," "full faith and credit," etc., can mean any number of things. For example, at the time of the founding, the Full Faith and Credit Clause was clearly meant to protect the rights of slaveholders in free states, but no one today would interpret it that way.

As well, the Founders were a diverse group of people, some of whom were fundamentalist Christians, some abolitionists, some Deists, etc. There is no one "intention of the Founders" to follow.
 
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Edward_L._Sin

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So, if I understand your argument correctly, you're putting forward a case of American exceptionalism, with the emphasis being on the idea that the Constitution places limits on the power of the federal government, as a bulwark against tyranny?

I don't disagree with this, though I'm not sure the idea of a constitutionally limited government is a uniquely American invention. You could make the case that the Magna Carta was the first such proposition, though it was by no means as strictly articulated as the US Constitution. As well, the ideas that influenced the founders had previously been articulated by Hobbes, Locke, Paine, and Rousseau, so, strictly speaking, the true founders of limited government as an idea is a French/British idea coming out of the Enlightenment. In any event, the rule of law itself goes back to the Roman Republic, but we similarly don't semi-deify the ancient Romans.

I also find it odd that the Constitution is so often hailed as an almost flawless document that has held the country together for centuries, provided prosperity, etc. This reading seems to omit the fact that a mere 80 years after it's adoption, the country was in a Civil War that proved the bloodiest in American history. And as much as I hate to keep harping on the issue, the constitution was essentially a pro-slavery document. My point being that it seems problematic to rely on a 200 year old document as our source for the proper role of government that was written by, as Deuce points out, upper class, white, slave-holding Englishmen.

As for your point regarding healthcare legislation, I would argue that Congress most definately has the power to enact such laws, on the basis of:

1. The General Welfare Clause, which states that Congreess may pass legislation "to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States."
2. The Interstate Commerce Clause, which allows for legislation: "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes."

Healthcare would seem to pretty clearly fall under the category of "general welfare," and the insurance industry is certainly involved in "interstate commerce."

Good insight. Although I do agree that the Magna Carta was essentially the first constitution in the world, and the Magna Carta did make England especially special in the whole of Europe because of its higher upholding of civil rights, precisely because the Constitution was made after the Age of Enlightenment, it had a much wider impact on the world than the Magna Carta did. A primary proponent of the French Revolution and the subsequent French Constitutions until Napoleon was, after all, the Constitution developed by the Founding Fathers. Now, I also agree that the Founding Fathers adopted many of the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of the Independence, was, after all, incredibly influenced by the works of John Locke. Now, I'm not denying that the Founding Fathers were influenced by the European Enlightenment philosophers, but I do argue that the Founding Fathers adapted the, essentially, liberal theories that came about during the Age of Enlightenment into the American philosophy of libertarianism, which was what the Founding Fathers subscribed, when the country began in its new form as the United States. Although the difference between liberalism and libertarianism might not be instantly present to some people, the essential difference is that liberalism advocates Democracy, whereas libertarianism advocates Federalism over several Republics, which was distinctly an American ideal because of the want of the integration of the several States into a single nation in matters of foreign policy, like the European Union today.

Now, the furthest thing from the Founding Fathers' minds was that the Constitution was at all perfect, when they wrote it. The Constitution was handwritten by some guy the Founding Fathers found working in Independence Hall for $5 to $10. Ten Amendments for the Bill of Rights had to be passed two years after the original Constitution was adopted. There were multiple spelling mistakes in the Constitution at the times it was written, but the Constitution still endures, as an imperfect document, exactly because the Founding Fathers did not believe it was a perfect document. The Constitution could be Amended without a revolution, and that was a central aspect of the Constitution that was revolutionary in and of itself. Of course, it would be difficult to Amend the Constitution, but the Founding Fathers intentionally made that difficulty so, so that the people always knew what they were getting and could prevent corruption. Yes, the Constitution made it difficult to outlaw slavery, and it does slow progress downwards, but, as a Supreme Court Judge once said, "Progress goes both ways." I'm sure many people against the restrictions of the Constitution wouldn't be too happy that, after 9-11, the majority of the people decided that they wanted to label all people who criticized the US government as, "terrorists."

To slow progress, it is also necessary to slow good progress as well. I made my point of view on the credibility of the Founding Fathers in a previous post, and I also made a post in another thread detailing what I believe of the general welfare clause in the Constitution.

The general welfare quote seems to be the most controversial line for all Constitutional discussions with respect to contemporary politics, but whether the line was actually to provide or to promote actually seems to be quite irrelevant, because I don't believe that either one would give the Federal Government more or less authority from the original Constitution. People forget that the general welfare quote was made in the Preamble. The Preamble says that the Federal Government must establish Justice, but it can't just overrule a decision by a State Supreme Court just because it felt that it wasn't establishing Justice. The Federal Government must try to meet the prospects of the Preamble, but it should only do so in the manner allowed by the enumerated powers in the Constitution or by Amendments, if they should get passed. That is the reason that James Madison, the Father of the Constitution I believe, said the following:

"With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators."
 
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WilliamJB

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To slow progress, it is also necessary to slow good progress as well. I made my point of view on the credibility of the Founding Fathers in a previous post, and I also made a post in another thread detailing what I believe of the general welfare clause in the Constitution.

The General Welfare Clause actually appears twice in the Constitution, once in the Preamble, and once in Article I, Section 8.

Also, do you disagree that the Interstate Commerce Clause gives Congress the authority to pass healthcare legislation?
 
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