The Culture of Mythology: American Origins and Perceptions
[24 November 2008]
Mythology is often a convenient substitution for understanding; simplicity a preferable alternative to complexity. One of the most prevalent and pervasive myths that dominates American political culture is that the ‘founding fathers,’ as they are so endearingly labeled, were a monolith of men who shared uniform cultural, political, religious, economic and philosophical orientations. Too often, modern understandings of the Constitution and its conception assume that the document represents a compilation of the absolute, unanimous dictates of a group of ideologically homogenous men rather than the composite product of spirited discourse and difficult compromises forged by men with vastly different ideas, conflicting interests and contrasting visions for the future of the newly-independent American nation. This paper will explore the origins of this faulty interpretation of early American history and its implications for the evolution of American political culture, dispelling the notion that the founders all subscribed to a singular ideology. It will analyze extensively the various disagreements that existed among the founders, the origins of these disputes and their resolution. It will investigate the different philosophies that dominated American political culture in the late eighteenth century and how these divergent ideas converged at Independence Hall in the summer of 1787, molding the document that would provide the enduring framework for governing the United States of America. The paper will review the origins and intent of the Electoral College, the doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances among the three branches of America’s federal government, the conception and evolution of federalism as the watchword of relations between the federal and state governments, and conflicting views among the founders on the wisdom of public opinion and popular rule. Further, the paper will survey the contrasts between those delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 who emphasized pragmatism in the public sphere and those who embodied rigid ideological entrenchment. The paper will discuss the importance of political compromise, then and today, to the progress of a nation and stability of its institutions. Finally, the paper will offer insight into the effect of these disagreements upon America’s evolving political culture, with a special emphasis on the importance of applying the same spirit of compromise and practicality that the founders exhibited to modern political discourse.
Mythologizing the founders is certainly nothing new. “Americans in the nineteenth century,” notes Stanley Elkins, “whenever they reviewed the events of the founding, made reference to an Olympian gathering of wise and virtuous men who stood splendidly above all faction, ignored petty self-interest and concerned themselves only with the freedom and well-being of their fellow countrymen” (Elkins 181). Among most contemporaries, indeed even within circles of so-called “academics,” this view not only continues to exist, but is effectively cemented, perhaps permanently, into the American cultural cannon. It remains inconceivable to most that not only did the founders disagree, but indeed they did so vociferously and often quite viciously. Americans continue to cling to “an old-fashioned, immensely oversimplified, and rather dewy-eyed view of the Founding Fathers and their work” (Elkins 181). But make no mistake, this flawed understanding is not just an error in historical comprehension, but has very real and meaningful implications for the conduct of American politics and the evolution of American culture. The reverent mythologizing of the founders as the perpetual arbiters of all political disputes – past, present and future – produces a staunch conservatism and aversion to change that has prevailed through the centuries of America’s existence. The United States fought a war, at least in part, to settle the matter of whether one man is entitled to enslave another. Yet even with the end of this war, which robbed hundreds of thousands of their lives and secured, by constitutional amendment, an end to the wretched institution of slavery, black Americans were free only in name, not in practice. The United States continued to violate those rights which, ironically, the founders they so passionately idolized proclaimed to be afforded by God to all men. America took at least one hundred and sixty years to abolish racial wrongs in its law, and some would say that the United States continues to struggle with this in its heart. This example is mentioned because it is, in this author’s view, a direct consequence of the conservative inclinations that developed as a result from general understanding of the founders. “Of course slavery and racial injustice are proper,” one can imagine some nineteenth century politician proclaiming; “the founders allowed it.” This understanding ignores, as will be discussed later in this paper, that there were a number of founders who detested slavery.
Blind reverence for the founders and the Constitution, argues Elkins, fulfilled “multiple functions for a society that lacked tradition, folk-memory, a sovereign, and a body of legend” (Elkins 184). It is not the intention of this paper to argue against the Constitution, but rather to attack an understanding of the document that is frozen in time and saturated with mythology. Because the Constitution is perceived to be of unquestionable virtue, so too are its authors. To acknowledge that these were men of flaws, men of competing and often selfish interests and conflicting, and in some cases perverse, philosophies would tarnish the myth of infallibility and remove American political culture from the safe, unchallengeable refuge of legend. “There were interests to be served, political or economic, and they were hard,” writes Elkins. “They were pursued rationally and without sentimentality; men came down where they did because their hard, immediate, specific interests brought them there” (Elkins 199). These men made no efforts at concealing these interests, either. They were open and honest about their ideological predispositions, and indeed honest about the flaws of the document they worked to create and fully aware of the divisions which existed. “We may of course expect to see,” writes Alexander Hamilton, “in any body of men … very different combinations of the parts upon different points. Many of those who form a majority on one question may become the minority on a second, and an association dissimilar to either may constitute the majority on a third” (Hamilton 525). Hamilton also acknowledged the imperfection of the document, noting that he did not feel “an entire confidence in the arguments which have recommended the proposed system for … adoption.” Hamilton was, however “persuaded that it is the best which [the] political situation, habits and opinions will admit, and superior to any the revolution has produced” (Hamilton 522). Such pragmatism was among the central tenets of early American political culture, suggesting perhaps that while overdue reverence has been afforded to the founders personally and the document they produced, insufficient regard has been afforded to the process by which their achievement was rendered. The Constitution of the United States is not the product of one singular ideology, but rather an intersection of various ideologies. More lessons should be learned and applied from the process than the product, for although times have changed and policies must follow suit, the nature of political discourse and personal interest remain the same. The Constitution’s conception was the product of practical, difficult compromise and thus its interpretation should be approached with prudent flexibility, with due appreciation for its contributions but realistic recognition of its limitations.
Substantial differences existed among the founders. Demographically, most delegates from the Mid-Atlantic and northern states practiced law, while the majority of southern delegates were planters (Brown 467). This is significant, as the convention “was seen as an enterprise particularly suited to lawyers” (Brown 468). Though not entirely detached from parochial interests, lawyers had much less of a direct stake in the social and economic implications of the decisions made in Philadelphia. Their allegiances were poorly defined; some viewed the convention as the opportunity to test the viability of legal theories in the public square, others as a chance to ensure the perpetual relevancy of the legal profession by producing a delicate, complex body of constitutional law. Further, there was much less regional or state allegiance among the lawyer-delegates than among the planter-farmer group due to the phenomenon of geographic mobility. According to Richard Brown’s study of the demographical breakdown of delegates, approximately half of the lawyers and career politicians who attended the convention “were not natives of the colonies or states they represented” (Brown 468). “Among the merchants, farmer-planters and landowners,” Brown notes, “such mobility was unusual; two out of three were natives of the colony or state that sent them to the Congress of the Convention” (Brown 468). Southern delegates, thus, had both an economic and cultural interest in the outcome of the deliberations at Independence Hall. They were, notes Brown, “more 'deeply-rooted than lawyers in their particular states” (Brown 468). This is very important because regional loyalties and economic interests likely influenced delegate positions on representation, commerce and slavery in particular. The distinction between the parochial and national interest was a difficult one to maintain in 1787, and a difficult one to comprehend in 2008. ‘Special interests’ were every bit as influential and prevalent then as they are today, and their influence, while less publicized, strongly consequential to the political outcome. However, the politics of interest is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, the input of experience and the views of various constituencies can potentially strengthen the efficacy of political processes. A successful political institution must strike a proper balance between parochial and national interests to establish its legitimacy, ensure its credibility and maintain its relevancy.
Strong ideological conflicts existed in Independence Hall, but ironically, one of the few unifying principles to which most delegates – federalist and anti-federalist – subscribed was a varying degree of distrust in pure democratic impulses. The cultural myth is that the founders all believed passionately in the wisdom of popular opinion, but, as Stanley Elkins notes, the “centralizing tendencies [of the Constitution] all reflected the Fathers' distrust of the local and popular rule which had been too little restrained under the Articles of Confederation” (Elkins 181). Pure “democracy,” according to Elkins, “was not the object which the framers of the American Constitution had in view, but the very thing they wished to avoid” (Elkins 187). This near unanimous distrust of popular rule motivated most actions taken by the framers; indeed, most disputes stemmed from the extent of government power over the people, not its necessity. The establishment of the Electoral College as the means of electing the Executive exemplifies the founders’ general distrust of popular opinion and the constitutional concept most glaringly abhorrent to democratic principles. “The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States,” writes Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 68, “is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents” (Hamilton 410). Hamilton warns directly of the danger of popular selection of the presidency, writing that presidential accountability to the public in the form of direct election may tempt him “to sacrifice his duty to his complaisance for those whose favor [is] necessary to the duration of his official consequence” (Hamilton 412). The Electoral College, argued Hamilton, “affords a moral certainty that the office of President will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications,” excluding those “talents for low intrigue and little arts of popularity” that the public would most certainly select (Hamilton 412). Similar rationale was utilized for the selection of United States senators by state legislatures, as provided for by Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution of the United States (“Constitution”). The founders were mostly united in their conviction that subjecting governmental action to popular passion would produce irrational, dangerous policy, and “accordingly the efforts of the Constitutional Convention were directed to the task of devising a system of government which was just popular enough not to excite popular opposition and which at the same time gave the people as little as possible of the substance of political power” (Elkins 187).
While mostly united in their distrust of popular opinion, there was little unanimity about the composition of government, the nature of its responsibilities and the extent of its power. The most suitable division relied upon by historians is that of federalists and anti-federalists. Stanley Elkins sums up the division between the two camps nicely, positing that the conviction of the Federalists was that there existed “such a thing as national interest and that a government could be established to care for it which was fully in keeping with republican principles” (Elkins 202). The Federalists viewed this sort of government as “not only possible but absolutely necessary if the nation was to avoid a future of political impotence [and] internal discord” (Elkins 202). Anti-federalists, by contrast, emphasized “state sovereignty rather than national efficiency” (Elkins 202). The Articles of Confederation ultimately proved inadequate to the challenges of the time because it did not provide for a government of sufficient strength or authority to provide stability preserve the union (“The Articles”). Anti-federalists conceded the flaws of the Articles of Confederation but feared the prospect of a strong central government, subscribing instead to “the small republic argument, which was derived from a certain understanding of Montesquieu's teaching on republics” (Wolfe 98). Wolfe describes the anti-federalist fear that larger republics by design must resort to tyranny to retain their power. Smaller republics (or, in this case, state governments) remain attuned to local interests and avoid the more insidious inclinations of larger governments (Wolfe 99). These differences were motivated at least in part by the different backgrounds and experiences of the delegates. Federalist delegates to the Convention were on average ten years younger than their anti-federalist counterparts, and a large number of the Federalist delegates had served in the Continental Army (Elkins 202-03). They were men of inherently revolutionary impulse, viewing the convention as an opportunity to embark on a bold new experimentation in republican government. The more conservative anti-federalists feared that this experiment represented little more than a substitution for the tyranny of the crown (McGuire 492).
Although for the purposes of convenience most prefer to stick to federalist versus anti-federalist delineations of political thought among the framers, even these classifications do not adequately express the vast differences – fueled largely by different experiences and competing interests – that existed even within these camps. There is an almost viral temptation to imprison constitutional interpretation in a cell of simplicity by dividing the founders into these two camps. This tendency had pervaded American political culture since then; even today, it is more convenient to box candidates into camps of Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative rather than exploring the excruciatingly nuanced positions that they hold. “Perhaps the time has come,” argues John Roche, “to raise the Framers from immortality to mortality, to give them credit for their magnificent demonstration of the art of democratic politics” (Roche 799). Their most notable contribution, Roche argues, is that “they made history and did it within the limits of consensus” (Roche 800). Rather than cling helplessly to outmoded, inflexible ideologies, most delegates, holding the “belief that the nation's health, perhaps even its survival, depended upon producing a broadly acceptable Constitution,” sought to compromise” (Jillson 603). As Calvin Jillson describes, “whenever they were faced with a conflict that seemed to be insoluble under normal decision procedures, the convention delegates would deliberately select a compromise committee composed of moderates on the issue” (Jillson 603). This process produced several notable constitutional provisions that are major tenets of the document’s prescriptions for America’s institutional arrangements.
The issue of federalism and its treatment at the Convention exemplifies both the prominence of compromise and the diversity of opinion at the Convention. “There were at least six rather distinct versions of federalism” articulated at the Convention, notes Michael Zuckert, with most finding “embodiment in one or another of the major plants before the Convention” (Zuckert 166). The roles of the state legislatures in the selection of presidential electors and United States senators, for example, demonstrate the importance the Convention attached to providing a sufficiently prominent role for the states in the conduct of the nation’s political activities. This represented no concession on the part of the Federalists that state governments should supplant or substitute an active national government, but rather that their practical objectives were best-served by a strong cooperation and coordination of effort that enjoyed the support of all levels of government and all quarters of the public. It also fulfilled their determination that parochial and national interests must be tended to in equal measure in order for a political system to survive; the state governments, as those maintaining closest proximity to the wishes and needs of the people, would represent those interests with great vigor, while the national government would temper those interests and mold national policy to achieve national goals that would serve the interests of all.
The development of the doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government provides for an interesting case study in political compromise. Anti-federalists, conceding that a national government was necessary, insisted that the three branches of government remain separate. As John Dickinson argued on June 2, “the critical problem posed by government in a free society was the danger that authority might concentrate and become tyrannical. To minimize this constant danger, Dickinson argued, the national government should remain weak and ‘the Legislative, Executive & Judiciary departments ought to be made as independent [separate] as possible” (Eubanks 441). Alexander Hamilton disagreed, arguing “that a mere demarcation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands” (Hamilton 310). Hamilton and his Federalist allies instead advocated a system of checks and balances, with Madison famously arguing the position in Federalist 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” he wrote. “The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place” (Hamilton 319). Madison added, “The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others” (Hamilton 318-319). The final product incorporated both views. The Constitution of the United States establishes three distinct, separate branches of government with clear responsibilities, and provides for institutional checks on the powers of each by the others. The President, for example, has the power of appointment but many of his appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. The President can veto legislation passed by the Congress. The Judiciary can declare legislation passed by the Congress and signed by the President unconstitutional. This institutional design was not universally and enthusiastically endorsed by every delegate; instead, it was accepted as a reasonable compromise between two preferred extremes.
This is not to argue, however, that compromise is always worthy of glorification. It was cold, hard compromise, after all, that permitted slavery to continue to exist in the new nation until it was eventually abolished by the sword. “If the Founding Fathers unquestionably dreamed of universal American freedom,” writes William Freehling, “their ideological posture was weighed down equally unquestionably with conceptions of priorities, profits and prejudices that would long make the dream utopian” (Freehling 83). The glorious declaration that “all men are created equal, [are] endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” specifically “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” sounded the call of political revolution while its cheerleaders sanctioned the evil of slavery (“Declaration”). There is no denying that America’s noblest exhortations were betrayed by its most wretched inclinations; that compromise and political maneuvering perpetuated an institution that by definition was abhorrent to the principle of individual liberty. Where then should one draw the line? When is it appropriate to compromise and necessary to stand firm? To be sure, the founders coped with a number of complex issues – issues of commerce, issues of structure, issues of law – but no issue was as fundamental as that of slavery. No concept was as blatantly antithetical to the principle of liberty. It may be true that accepting slavery ensured the union’s formation, but it also fostered its near destruction. Compromise, thus, becomes evil when it produces a situation that blatantly contradicts the founding principles of a society. If a nation is founded on the basis of individual liberty, then no compromise which sanctions slavery should ever be accepted. American political culture must overcome its simplistic understanding of the founders, but this must not be traded for an equally simplistic reverence for compromise. That is not the intent of this paper. The danger of unscrupulous compromise can easily exceed the harm inflicted by blind adherence to cultural mythology.
The events of 1787 set in motion a bold experiment in republican government that continues today. But to fully recognize its promise, America must understand its history. The achievement of the framers was not rendered without difficult compromise and few would call it perfect, but the legacy of the Constitutional Convention is that these differences were overcome and a new nation was formed. The framers provided their posterity with a framework for government that demands frequent reinterpretation and reapplication in the context of new circumstances, but their greatest contribution was modeling a democratic deliberation in which, ultimately, practical considerations took precedence over ideological doctrine. No particular ideology achieved victory in the summer of 1787, but rather pragmatism emerged victorious over ideology itself. The lesson to be drawn from the framers ultimately must not be a blind adulation for their words and political prescriptions, but an enduring understanding of and appreciation for the deliberative and peaceful process by which they formed a nation and changed the course of human history. They bequeathed to future generations the awesome responsibility of forming a more perfect union, of perfecting their creation, of fulfilling their promise. America must understand its history to comprehend its purpose, and once reality overcomes myth, the Republic can proceed with the perpetual task of forming the more perfect union of its founders’ dreams.
Brown, Richard D. “The Founding Fathers of 1776 and 1787: A Collective View.”
The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 33.3 (1976): 465-480.
“Constitution of the United States.” Our Documents. 01 November 2008
“Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.” Our Documents.
01 November 2008 < http://www.ourdocuments.go
Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick. “The Founding Fathers: Young Men of the Revolution.”
Political Science Quarterly 76.2 (1961): 181-216.
Eubanks, Cecil L, and Calvin C. Jillson. “The Political Structure of Constitution Making: The
Federal Convention of 1787.” American Journal of Political Science 28.3 (1984):
Freehling, William W. “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.” The American Historical Review
77.1 (1972): 81-93.
Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers. New York:
Penguin Group, 1961.
Jillson, Calvin C. “Constitutional-Making: Alignment and Realignment in the Federal
Convention of 1787.” The American Political Science Review 75.3 (1981): 598-612.
McGuire, Robert A. “Constitution Making: A Rational Choice Model of the Federal Convention
of 1787.” American Journal of Political Science 32.2 (1988): 483-520.
Roche, John P. “The Founding Fathers: A Reform Caucus in Action.”
The American Political Science Review 55.4 (1961): 799-816.
“The Articles of Confederation.” Our Documents. 01 November 2008
Wolfe, Christopher. “On Understanding the Constitutional Convention of 1787.”
The Journal of Politics 39.1 (1977): 97-118.
Zuckert, Michael P. “Federalism and the Founding: Toward a Reinterpretation of the
Constitutional Convention.” The Review of Politics 48.2 (1986): 166-210.