For many, the Fourth of July is a time to celebrate the birthday of this great nation and honor the memory of those who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause of liberty. Or, if you’re Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman, you may have decided to pen an opinion piece titled, “This July 4, let’s declare our independence from the Founding Fathers.”
After that provocative headline, Waldman immediately specifies his argument:
This is not a call to repudiate the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and crafted the Constitution. . .But we need to liberate ourselves from the toxic belief that those men were perfect in all things, vessels of sacred wisdom that must bind our society today no matter how much damage it might cause.
Of course, what Waldman means by “damage” is the recent series of landmark Supreme Court decisions pushing back against the excesses of American progressivism, “As we’ve seen recently, the American right has found in the framers an extraordinarily effective tool with which they can roll back social progress and undermine our democracy.”
Originalism — a favorite target of the left now — was particularly in Waldman’s sights, “Imagine you could travel back and describe to them the idea that hundreds of years hence we’d all be bound to their utterances and the condition of their society. They’d probably say, ‘That sounds insane.’”
Waldman answers his own hypothetical scenario in his next paragraph, where he tries to use the fact that many of the Founders owned slaves to discredit the admiration many conservatives hold for them:
So what do you do about a figure such as Thomas Jefferson? He had one of the most extraordinary minds of his age, capable of crafting brilliant works of political philosophy we read to this day and designing structures that still stand. Yet he also owned other human beings.
We don’t honor the Founding Fathers because they were slave owners, we honor them in their capacity as “designing structures that still stand,” the structure, mind you, that ultimately rid America of many of the societal contradictions and inequalities present at America’s founding, including slavery.
Funnily enough, you never see this type of whataboutism applied to figures like Karl Marx, whose sordid personal life and vicious racism are consistently swept under the rug. Probably just a coincidence.
Waldman tries and fails to end his article on a more qualified note:
So we need to liberate ourselves from those men. We should study them, and understand them, and honor the great things they did. But they were not gods. They can’t take us to a future of freedom and justice. We have to do it for ourselves.
This entire article is ultimately a strawman argument. Nobody thinks the Founders were gods. Waldman himself admits they did great things, and yet also wants his audience to believe that, after establishing the Constitutional Republic that has served America well for 246 years, we should stop looking to the Founders for guidance because their vision of “ordered liberty” no longer complies with the demands of radical 21st-century progressivism.
If America shouldn’t be honoring the legacy of her Founding Fathers and see them as a guiding light for the preservation of liberty, then this begs the question: who does Waldman think our guide should be?
It is a question he — distressingly — does not answer.