'Founding Father' Doesn't Know Best

October 24, 1994|By LINDA R. MONK

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA — Alexandria, Virginia.--If, without violating the First Amendment, I could eliminate two words from the American vocabulary, it would be these: ''Founding Fathers.'' For one thing, they never really existed. More importantly, their invocation robs the U.S. constitutional system of its true vigor.

In current American mythology, a single group of visionary men -- the ''Founding Fathers'' -- created our democratic form of government along with the rights that it protects. But during the republic's infancy, there never was a cohesive group of solons with a united vision of America. Instead, different people played different roles to fulfill different purposes.

George Washington, for example, had no part in drafting the Declaration of Independence because he was too busy leading the Continental Army. But as president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he gave the nation's second charter credibility. (The first one, remember, didn't work out.) Yet as a Federalist, Washington opposed adding a bill of rights to the Constitution. In fact, he severed his longstanding friendship with fellow Virginia planter George Mason because Mason refused to sign the Constitution unless a bill of rights came with it.

George Mason doesn't usually make the top 10 list of Founding Fathers, but he played a critical part in the creation of the U.S. Bill of Rights. Author of the Virginia constitution's Declaration of Rights in 1776 (the prototype for the federal Bill of Rights in 1791), Mason helped lead the Anti- Federalist charge against the Constitution. The document was ratified by key states only upon the promise that a bill of rights would be added when the first Congress convened.

Like Washington, James Madison -- the Constitution's principal author -- also opposed a bill of rights. Madison believed along with other Federalists that a national bill of rights was unnecessary because the Constitution created a federal government of limited powers. But Madison changed his mind, as much due to pragmatism as principle. To win a seat in the new Congress, Madison pledged to the voters of Virginia that he would introduce a bill of rights if elected -- and he kept his campaign promise.

Thomas Jefferson, having done his duty by drafting the Declaration of Independence, was eagerly sampling wine in Paris as U.S. minister to France during the debate about the Constitution and its proposed bill of rights. But in letters to Madison, Jefferson convinced him that, under a strong judiciary, a bill of rights would be more than a mere ''parchment barrier'' to the will of the majority. Said Jefferson: ''A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth . . . and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.''

Our nation's most important founding documents -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights -- were all created by committees, not demigods. Even Jefferson said of his Declaration of Independence that it had no original ideas in it, but was intended to be a summary of other political philosophers. The Constitutional Convention might now be regarded -- and was then -- as a naked grasp for power by ambitious politicians, had not its product been successful.

DTC And the Bill of Rights began, of all things, as a piece of legislation -- complete with multiple rewrites and prolonged delays. Madison's draft of the Bill of Rights was essentially an edited version of state proposals, which the House and the Senate trimmed and reshuffled. Indeed, Madison found the first Congress just as difficult to navigate as today's 103rd. After months of ''extremely wearisome'' debate, Madison wrote a friend that the Bill of Rights had become a ''nauseous project.''

Yet the temptation for modern Americans is to imagine that the founding generation was fundamentally different from us -- that they had a depth of vision we lack and a unity of purpose we cannot muster. We tend to suffer from a kind of nostalgia that one legal scholar aptly characterizes as ''Founding Father Knows Best.'' But the Founding Fathers are no more real than television's Anderson family.

Believing in the Founding Fathers is like believing in Santa Claus; a mythical creation gets the credit for real people's hard work. Such a sentimental belief undermines the true power of America's constitutional system because it lets citizens off the hook: We don't have to struggle with fundamental issues of liberty -- the Founding Fathers did it for us.

But the truth is that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were not handed down from on high to a select few, like the law of Moses. Rather, they are the imperfect products of imperfect people -- a fact that increases, not lessens, their value. For what Washington, Madison, Jefferson and thousands of others in the founding generation gave Americans today is not a divine

solution but a human framework in which we can continue the work they merely began and could never fully comprehend. We honor them by shouldering our own load, not by pretending that they had capacities we don't.

Linda R. Monk is the author of "The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide," which won the American Bar Association's Gavel Award.

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