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The “Founding Fathers” Did Not Own a Crystal Ball

Recently, a couple of Diaries appeared arguing whether about whether or not the US Senate should be abolished. While defending his argument that the Senate should not be abolished,   the author of one of those diaries made what he obviously regarded  as the utterly self-evident claim that the authors of the US Constitution were far wiser and more experienced than he was.

Praising the enormous wisdom of the “Founding Fathers” is, of course, something that almost every American who even mentions the possibility that  the US Constitution might be changed feels compelled to do.  And despite some major flaws that were obvious even when the Constitution was written, like the fact that many of them were in favor of slavery,   I’m not going to deny the fact that many of the authors were enormously impressive and intelligent men. But we all know they didn’t have a crystal ball.  They couldn’t foresee how the US and the world would develop over the coming centuries, which is why in many ways, their constitution has failed to achieve the goals they hoped for when they wrote it.

The truth is that the “Founding Fathers” were not wiser and more knowledgeable than we are today.  Anyone who has studied the history of the last two centuries knows far, far more about the strengths and weaknesses of the US constitution than the authors of that document could have ever dreamed. And the fact that it does have many weaknesses should be obvious to anyone who has ever asked themselves why so few other countries have chosen to incorporate elements of the US constitution into their own constitutions.

Imagine for a moment that WE were writing the US constitution. Based on what we know, would we do ANYTHING in exactly the same way that the Founders did? The single most “sacred” part of the constitution is, at least arguably, the First Amendment.  If we were now deciding what the legal relationship between the media, the government, and the public should be,  would we say,  “Obviously, we want a constitution that will allow the creation of Fox News”?

When the “Founding Fathers” decided that “Freedom of the Press” was a good idea, they did not envision the creation of giant media oligarchies which would spread lies and false information to hundreds of millions of people.  They lived in a world which had not yet invented the telegraph or photography, much less television and the internet. They did not know how the laws governing corporations would develop, much less know that corporations would someday be given the legal rights of persons.

What would they have done differently if they had had the slightest inkling of how the world would change over the coming centuries? What would WE do, if we writing the US constitution today, and had a time machine ready to send our document back to 1776?

This diary’s starting to edge into the territory of science fiction, but I don’t find it implausible that if the Founders had imagined that the media would someday be controlled by a handful of corrupt billionaires,  they would have tried to do something about it. Perhaps they might have said something in the First Amendment about how every town had to have a least one newspaper owned  by people who lived in that town. They might even have added something to the First Amendment which would discouraged lies being published in those newspapers, some sort of “fairness doctrine” or something. Who knows how radical the constitution might have been, if only the Founders had  been “wiser than we are today”.

But alas, the Founders weren’t demigods and we don’t have a time machine. And because we don’t have one, is America doomed to limp along with an increasingly dysfunctional constitution, until eventually your entire political system collapses?

Unfortunately, I suspect you probably are. I hate to say it, but it may be that the American political system is so ossified and corrupt that it can’t be changed, until after it completely collapses. But there would be a least a chance of avoiding that fate if more Americans really understood two important things about their “Founding Fathers.”

FIRST, they weren’t more knowledgeable than you are,  so the fact that they thought some part of the constitution was a good idea IS NOT by itself a sufficient argument for claiming that it shouldn’t be changed. If you want to defend the US constitution, defend it based on what we know, and not what the Founders knew.

SECOND, remember that while your Founders weren’t more knowledgeable than we are, they were  arguably far, far more courageous than we are. They understood that they had the power and the obligation to remake the world, and they weren’t afraid to try new ideas that hadn’t been tried before.  They weren’t the devoted followers of a bunch of dead lawyers and politicians, the way so many Americans are today. They thought for themselves, and didn’t worship at the alter of any “Founding Fathers”.   And I think America today would be much better off if more Americans emulated them in that respect.

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