Saturday, April 6, 2013

Founded By Geniuses?

This week I was exposed to the limited thinking of some, more-so than at any time I can remember. It came in the form of a series of statements trying to link current circumstances to the nation the Founding Fathers lay down over two hundred years ago. Each circumstance ended with the phrase: "You may live in a nation founded by geniuses but run by idiots."

Rather than reproduce any of them, and thereby lend them credence, let me focus solely on that last portion of each phrase, for it points out a complete and abject failure on the part of the educational systems of our nation that such diatribes could be thought of as some sort of truth. For on neither side of the ledger is the assertion strictly true: most of the Founding Fathers were not geniuses, nor are many of our legislators idiots. That is only a surface appearance that has been spun in to some sort of earthy, down-home "logic" that holds no basis in fact.

It comes from a place of worship and veneration for the founding of the United States of America, based on fractured, incomplete, and often misinterpreted information about the Founders and the state of the Colonies at the time of the Revolutionary War. Some in our nation conflate the Constitution of the United States with the Declaration of Independence, and draw the conclusion that somehow those men who founded our nation -- and yes, they were all men -- were paragons of virtue and thought, which could not be further from the truth. Tarring current legislators with the epithet "idiot" only further seeks to create an undue comparison between past and present, as if they could be compared on some kind of equal footing.

If we take a cold, clear, critical look at the Founding Fathers, we see only two who could roundly be described as "geniuses," and only one of them could be said to be an actual genius: Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Franklin is certainly a bona fide genius in terms we might relate to Newton, Einstein, or the like; he was a scientist, scholar, inventor, and visionary, and foresaw what it would take for the American Revolution to be successful, trying his utmost to pull the strings quietly but firmly to push everyone in the correct direction. Washington was a genius in a more limited but still highly important role, as leader of troops and a nation. He was confident that Colonial troops, properly trained and equipped, could be a match for the British, and was more than willing to employ unique and unorthodox tactics to gain advantage over his foes. Once made President of the nation he helped forge, he saw how the future would need the nation and its leaders to follow a certain path, to bear good comportment, but be willing to use the power of the nation to quell the more radical elements still extant within it.

As for the rest of the Founding Fathers, many were virtuous in their own ways, men of The Enlightenment, willing to think a few steps outside their comfortable box, but not the geniuses many would now portray them as. Thomas Jefferson wrote stirring prose and helped launch a war of independence, but he thought only men were created equal, not people, and at that, black people were not even considered. He was a slave-owner who took full advantage of his property, even as he expounded on the necessity of his nation to be free. John Adams was a very smart, very clever man, and excellent jurist, but not a leader, not able see much beyond his own inadequate vision. It could be said his wife Abigail often saw what he could not, and perhaps it was she who made him a better man than he could have been alone. Alexander Hamilton was wedded to economics more than people, and while we might applaud for his efforts in trying to establish a collective and regulated financial structure, we have to wonder at how he went about it.

The fact is, they were no better than we are now, these captains of the foundation of our nation. In only one aspect of their forethought can we see true genius: the idea that the people of the United States must be able to govern themselves. But even in that, they did not quite do the most complete job of laying groundwork, riddling the Constitution with firm assurances and vagaries of comprehension we are still teasing out today. Perhaps this was a way to make future generations think, but it's more likely that it was simply the end product of the squabbling and bickering of a group of men who had anointed themselves the smartest people in the room. Whatever the case, the crafted an adequate framework, but left so much undone or in a muddle, that the nation is still trying to tease it our centuries later.

If they were said to be wise in letting We, The People, choose who will govern us from among our peers, it may be said that we have failed the Founding Fathers in that area, by allowing a class of politicians to enmesh themselves in the inner workings of government at all levels. Governance is gone, replaced by style and popularity and money. Rather than sweeping the halls of Congress clean occasionally and allowing for new blood and new life to pervade them, we simply allow the same weak, forlorn, outmoded thinking to persist. If those in positions of governance can be said to be idiots, we are the idiots for putting them there and leaving them there. The great body that is America suffers, for not being allowed to breathe.

Naturally, the "idiocy" we see is not always thus, for much that many would malign is simply the product of ancient ways fighting modern times. In over two hundred years, our nation and world have changed, are no longer the familiar grounds that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and the like strolled in their day. As these things change, so must we, and we must realize that new ways of think are not of necessity bad ways of thinking, even where they challenge what has held true for centuries. Enslavement of blacks, the denigration and patronization of women, religious and sexual intolerance... these might have been the order of the day one thousand years ago, even two hundred years ago, but they are not now. Change is inevitable, change is constant, and even the Founding Fathers, as men of The Enlightenment  knew this, hence allowing the Constitution to be re-written and providing for a central government that could redress issues unknown to them and alter law to match the times.

The nation we have now is the nation we have wrought from more than two centuries of anguish, triumph, pain, and grief. Founded in imperfection, it was the wish of those founders that we take their work and improve upon it. If we are unhappy with the current results, perhaps that is more an issue with our lack of forethought and courage, than it is with the competence of our current legislators compared with the "genius" of our founders.