This Week’s Mtg: What Did The Founding Fathers Think Of Government?

I wanted us to consider this topic in order to address a major facet of today’s political debate: The struggle over the meaning of the Constitution.  This fight is part and parcel of our larger struggle over basic principles of government that has grown so heated in recent years.  The Constitutional aspect has been a one-sided argument, and I want us to remedy that. 

Many conservatives (their leaders, not just the rank and file) have adopted a very narrow view of the Constitution.  Basically, they believe that everything they want government to do is sanctioned by the Constitution and blessed by the founding fathers, while everything they oppose is literally unconstitutional.  Thus, Obamacare is unconstitutional, as is the Clean Air Act, and, for many, even unemployment insurance.   

This Constitutional literalism has given conservatives a huge rhetorical advantage.  If the founding fathers were on your side and the other side wants to violate the “original intent” of the Constitution, what’s there to debate?   The other side’s preferences are literally illegitimate and illegal, and even unamerican. 

But, what did the founders really think of government?  How democratic a system did they intend to set up?  Did they favor “big” or “small” government?  Separation of church and state?  A weak presidency or an imperial one?  Etc., etc.  Did they even intend the Constitution to have a single, fixed, unchanging meaning or did they want future generations to apply a few basic, timeless principles to their own needs and circumstances?

I’m a little late preparing for this one, so in my opening I’ll probably just briefly discuss:

  1. How can we “know” what the founding fathers meant and intended, and what the Constitution means?  (The document doesn’t sanction a lot of liberal ideas any more than it does conservatives ones) 
  2. Based on what we do know, what did the founding fathers think of government– of democracy, of the State’s (and states’) proper size and reach, of the Bill Of Rights, etc.?
  3. So, what?  To what extent do the specific opinions of the founding fathers even matter; i.e., how should the “original meaning” of the Constitution apply to what we do as a nation today?


As to theories of how to interpret the Constitution, you don’t want to know.  It all gets very arcane very fast, and I only know a little bit.  So, no links, except for link #2, above) even though it’s the key issue.  Most of my knowledge is based on books on the subject plus a few legal-oriented blogs and thinktanks.

See you all there!


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