Wednesday, 6 July 2011

What would the Founding Fathers say?

[This post was written using some imagination and taking into account that the constitution was written centuries ago, tailored to the thinking and the accepted norms of the time. I'm not an expert in either the constitution or American history, but believe that times change, history changes the way people think. I credit the Founding Fathers with historical perspective and wonder if the country as it is now would correspond to what they had in mind. If they were alive today, would they like what they see?]

We have been discussing the uniqueness of the American Constitution for a while now. It guarantees many freedoms and rights for individuals and that's very commendable and desirable.

It was written when things were a lot simpler, the country had a sparse population and it was the land of opportunity for whomever got there first. People would venture from one extreme of the country to the other, seeking their fortune for years to come.

Initiative and hard work paid off, as expected. Whole families from all over the world were attracted by the promise of a better life, creating a very diverse society.

That's the one thing the constitution appears to have left out: Society. Whilst it protects the rights of individuals as separate entities, it makes no provision for the group as a whole, apart from organizing government bodies. The Founding Fathers couldn't have guessed that one day society would become so extremely complex, that the population would grow as it did and that the relationships between nations would become a lot more complicated than they were then. They couldn't have anticipated the Industrial Revolution and the impact the emerging capitalist ideology would have in the future, for example.

Illustration by Michael Hacker

It is this focus on the individual that puts the constitution at odds with social reform. If the Founding Fathers could have guessed that one day the majority of individuals they sought to protect were to be exploited by very few other individuals, that a society of haves and have-nots would emerge, perhaps they would have worked some other protections into their fine document.

But what did they know? They drafted the best possible charter for the reality of their times. The constitution of any country should be a living document. The American Constitution is changeable to a certain extent, and many amendments have been written since its inception. But each amendment is influenced by the politics of the day and I suspect many proposed amendments were never approved into law due to pressure from certain segments of society, from the few individuals that head the dreaded corporations and feel entitled to play with the lives of the majority of the people for their own gain.

The people who wrote the American Constitution would have been horrified to see their ideas and best intentions invoked by certain individuals and how much these people misunderstood them.

I imagine that when they wrote the constitution, the Founding Fathers expected to have planted the seeds of a civilized society, a society that would evolve into a caring one, where individuals would indeed be protected by the fine concepts of freedom and equality. If they could have anticipated the impact of Capitalism on an industrialized world and its attending inequalities, they would (very possibly) have included healthcare as an unalienable right, they would have made provision to prevent the very few holding the health of the nation into their greedy hands. Healthcare is but one example of a right the Founding Fathers could not have anticipated.

The Founding Fathers were intelligent people who had historical perspective and I don't believe they expected the country not to evolve or to have their words exploited and distorted by ignorant people a few centuries down the line. They would have been ashamed to see their great country lagging in matters of social justice and certain safety nets that ensure a minimum of dignity behind Europe and countries that didn't even exist in their time.

I don't expect they regarded selfishness and greed as time tested truths.

Their unique document, written to guide an exceptional country, doesn't exist in a vacuum. It was written to guide the nation into the future. They had dreams of greatness forever, they had dreams for a just and caring society that moved on with the times, that would use its enormous riches wisely. They never expected their great country to compare unfavourably to other nations.

They couldn't have guessed what the future held for the United States of America, but I'm sure they expected future generations to take their words wisely and kindly and to apply them to their own times, with the same compassion and understanding with which they were written.

They never imagined that "we the people" would one day become "we the corporations."

They must be rolling in their graves.

[Since the publication of this post, I have received a few e-mails correcting some of the historical context I used when developing my ideas. My train of thought was based on things not standing still and wondering what people who were considered enlightened back in the late 1700's would think of the shambles American politics has become these days. The Founding Fathers based the constitution on the progressive European thinking of their time and incorporated much of that thinking into a document they hoped would make the nation they were founding better than Europe. If I hope that they would have imagined a just and caring society today, that's based more on their competitive spirit than their actually held ideology. Would they have liked to be second best to any other country regarding social justice? What would the people who founded the nation think if they came across the Tea Party Movement? I took considerable poetic license when writing all this, but the premise is simple: The Founding Fathers were intelligent, if not politically correct. Times have changed and society evolved, or not, depending on how you look at it. If the Founding Fathers were still alive, I personally believe they would have seen things differently and would have written a different document today, provided their thinking had evolved as well. I've edited a few passages.]