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Ancestor Worship

The phrase “wisdom of the founding fathers” appears on the Internet about 620,000 times according to Google; about 25 million times according to Bing. That is a lot of patriarchal respect. It is a phrase typically invoked in discussions of the Constitution. Supreme Court nominees, for example, are pressed to give their obeisance to the Founding Fathers. (Elena Kagan waffled a bit when she referred to “the Founding Fathers, who left us with a brilliant but slightly flawed Constitution.”) Conservative web sites, of course, are full of the wisdom phrase (e.g., here) and sometimes suggest that there was a divine hand in the writing of the Constitution. (James Madison himself – although probably a Deist – wrote in Federalist No. 37: “It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in [the Constitution] a finger of that Almighty hand . . . .” But, then again, the Federalist papers  he helped pen were pamphlets in a p.r. campaign to ratify the Constitution.)

Such ancestor worship is odd in a society that has been noted since its birth for dismissing tradition, breaking with old ways,  and instead forging original paths, valuing the new, the newer, and the newest. Yet, we were reminded this week, when a federal judge ruled that the constitution’s authors did not intend that there be a federal mandate for health insurance, of how much weight Americans put on what we think those men thought so long ago.

The 2009 book about the Constitutional Convention by Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, provides a brief, accessible, and realistic picture of the convention with its hard-nosed horse-trading, personalities both noble and irascible, and accidents. The resulting organizational manual has served the nation amazingly well, especially by being so plastic, but it is much a human product.

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