The Founders vs. Donald J. Trump

Where are the principled leaders who can help us through the crisis in which our Republic is flailing?

A few years ago, Nation Books published my little handbook, Fighting Words: A Toolkit For Combating The Religious Right, a compilation of quotes and documents from this country’s Founders and a cross-section of other intelligent Americans on the central importance of a secular, pluralistic society. The book is still in wide use, in both print and digital forms. Today, I want to return to the Framers of our Constitution in a broader context. Rather than spend space sourcing each quote, I assure you that some can be found in Fighting Words, many in the public record, and more in fine biographies on various Founders by Joseph Ellis, David McCullough, and others; most can easily be found online.

Let me state firmly that the Framers were not gods, sages, or fusty old men in powdered wigs. They were certainly imperfect—all of them white, male, and creatures of their times. But they were also complex human beings deeply influenced by the Enlightenment. Some were slaveholders; some were abolitionists; and some were actually, shockingly, both. They used the words man and men (and the thinking behind them) as the generic—although a few glimpsed this as wrong. Most were sexist and racist and some even leaned pro monarchist. Yet they were radicals to even imagine the idea of a secular, pluralistic republic, which they regarded as a Great Experiment. Benjamin Franklin, when asked what form of government had finally been decided on, replied, “We have given you a Republic—if you can keep it.” These flawed men shared an audacious, glorious vision. We—you and I—are it.

The readership of this blog probably includes some of the best-educated people in the country, and therefore possibly the world. Yet I’m continually surprised by the emails you send to my website, expressing your kind gratitude for learning facts from these posts—facts which, frankly, Americans (and all world citizens, actually) should already know as part of our common heritage. Except that such facts are not taught in schools, and they’re buried in history books. (These days we’re reading less anyway and using emoticons more; soon we’ll be back to hieroglyphics.)

What we don’t know includes such facts as these:
* The Constitution contains not a single reference to a deity—on purpose.
* Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence did not mention that men were “endowed by the Creator” but simply read that men were “created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derived in rights inherent and unalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty and pursuit of happiness.” He was forced to revise it by theocrats from the Southern states.
* We assume that US law has Judeo-Christian roots. It doesn’t. We think that “In God we trust” was stamped on our coinage from the start, yet that began as late as 1908, after a long campaign by the religious right, over strong objections by then president Theodore Roosevelt who threatened to veto, and finally by an overriding act of Congress. The insertion of ”Under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance does not date from the pledge’s origin in 1892, but was inserted while Joe McCarthy raved against “Godless communism” in the 1950s.

As for the Framers themselves:

“The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” That’s George Washington, initiating the Treaty of Tripoli.

Here’s John Adams: “The United States of America have exhibited perhaps the first example of governments directed on the simple principles of nature, and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history . . . these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses, founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery.”

Thomas Jefferson’s strongest influences were reason and science, so much so that his enemies publicly denounced him as an infidel. He advised: “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.”

James Madison, called the father of the Constitution, denounced the use of religion as an “engine of civil policy,” and wrote, “religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind.” The wording in his own draft of the First Amendment, delivered in his speech in the House of Representatives in 1789, was more specific and more inclusive than the final version: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner or on any pretext infringed.” That wording also protected atheism and agnosticism—fitting, since most of the framers were atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, or deists who believed in divinity as a force of nature.

And here is Madison, who after all wrote the Second Amendment, clarifying its meaning for all time—despite the NRA’s powerful lobby. In a letter written at the same time he was drafting the Amendment and in very similar wording, he wrote, ”a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained in arms, is the best most natural defense of a free country.” (Italics mine.) Nothing about the individual right to bear arms—and when he was pressured to change the actual amendment, he also changed country to state, meaning literally state. But we haven’t been taught that, or that the amendment was forced in as a demand of the slaveholding states, where “militia” was synonymous with posses that hunted escaping enslaved persons and put down slave revolts. Without that amendment, the Southern states were refusing to join the nation. For more details, check out my March 5, 2018 blogpost The Hidden History of the Second Amendment in the online blog archives.

James Madison is, in fact, quite a surprising treasure to someone first looking into the Framers after focusing on the usual big three: Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. For example, Madison volunteered, “I should not regret it a fair and full trial of the entire evolution of capital punishment.” Madison was short, quiet, brilliant, and married to Dorothea “Dolley” Dandridge Payne Todd, today known mainly for enduring having an ice cream named after her, who was herself a canny politician at whose dinner tables and teas the revolution was plotted and then the presidencies thereafter negotiated (with her present and speaking up, too). Probably this is why James Madison wrote, “The capacity of the female mind for studies of the highest order cannot be doubted, having been sufficiently illustrated by its works of genius, of erudition, and of science.” Pretty good, especially since John Adams was replying to Abigail that he would in fact not “Remember the ladies” in encoding rights: “I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government everywhere. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient, that schools and colleges were grown turbulent, that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. . . . Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”

Most of all, the Founders were startlingly prescient about this moment in our history.

Trump calls the press the greatest enemy of the people. As if in reply, Madison wrote, “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” Jefferson, writing to Lafayette, empasized that “The only security of all is in a Free Press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.” On the same subject, here is James Monroe: “It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty.”

They bequeathed their counsels, these Framers, as if in a time capsule, against the future threats we face now. So the next time someone says you’re exaggerating the danger, let Madison answer for you: “We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties.” And let Washington back you up: “The domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, . . . is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads to a more formal and permanent despotism.” He also warned us to “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

And in Washington’s great Farewell Address of 1796, stepping down despite others’ urging that he serve a third term or even be crowned king, he seemed to be foreseeing Trump and populism, and again warned about factions that have “an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of the party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community . . . . However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have listed them to unjust dominion.”

Samuel Adams said it more succinctly: “How strangely will the tools of a tyrant pervert the plain meaning of words!”

But wouldn’t the original authors of and signatories to the Constitution agree with the Supreme Court conservatives’ “originalist” argument for interpreting the Constitution only in terms of the era during which it was penned? No. Jefferson, among other Founders, took that one on. In an 1810 letter, he wrote, “Laws and institutions must go hand-in-hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. Might as well require a man to wear still the same coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” That quotation alone should silence those who insist that the Constitution is a static, not evolving, document.

On fear-mongering against Muslims, Mexicans, “aliens,” and “The Other,” Madison wrote, “If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” And Ben Franklin warned that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

But on real and malevolent foreign influences, they were quite clear. As if he had been privy with foresight into the Russia probe and even into hired trolls manufacturing false news, Washington pleaded, “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake.” He asked rhetorically how many opportunities are afforded foreign influence “to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the art of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence public councils?” Alexander Hamilton weighed in, in Federalist Papers Number 22: “One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption.” So the Framers gave us a specific clause in the Constitution, one that Trump ignores but on which the Republican-controlled Congress refuses to call him: The Foreign Emoluments Clause, Article I, Section 9, Clause 8: No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

Washington was preoccupied with concern about divide-and-conquer tactics that set us against one another: “It is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your mind the conviction of unity, as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often and covertly and insidiously) directed.” And again, “factionalism agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”

On corruption, Jefferson minced no words: “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which today are all ready to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” And “Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours its own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general preying of the rich on the poor.”

The Framers weren’t big on war and militarism, much less the military parades for which Trump hungers. Washington, a lifelong military man (who, by the way, inveighed against chaplains in the military), also said, “Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to a republic’s liberty.” And James Monroe counseled, “Preparation for war is a constant stimulus to suspicion and ill will.”

As for Trump’s congenital lying individually and in policy, the Founders decried individual mendacity and were horrified at the idea of a nation breaking treaties and agreements: Jefferson noted that for those who would hold office, “the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest”; in his second Inaugural Address, he warned “We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations, as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated, will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties; and history bears witness to the fact that a just nation is taken on its word.” Were the people to suffer manipulation into misconceiving the importance of the facts, he cautioned, “If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.” And, as if in direct address to Trump and Trumpists, “He who knows nothing is closer to the truth then he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”

For the time being, let’s give Madison the last word, and let it be about the way the Framers regarded immigrants, among whom they counted themselves: ”America was indebted to immigration for her very settlement and prosperity. That part of America which has encouraged them most has advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture, and the arts.”

Friends, these quotes are mere samples of the guidance the Framers left us. I hope this whets your thirst for more. This is our heritage. Such voices can still serve to lead us through these wretched times, so let’s use these words against the profoundly anti-American statements and policies of the current regime: use these quotations in arguments, in political campaigns, when canvassing, when organizing, on social media, in op ed pieces and town meetings, in letters to the editor and emails to our elected representatives. These words tell us how enraged the Founders would be if they could witness our present political crisis. But remember that those Founders also would be awed and gratified that we still had a Republic at all—and they would be on our side fighting to keep it.