Debates concerning contentious social and political issues are often supported by an annoying crutch, stemming back to the 18th century: invoking the Founding Fathers. It’s especially common when it comes to the intractable partisanship that now defines Congress.
For a recent example, let’s look at a tweet from South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds, on the issue of statehood for Washington D.C., which is currently being discussed in Congress. To Rounds, a bunch of men who lived in a disjointed grouping of former colonies 300 years ago would have unanimously opposed adding a 51st state in the year 2021.
Similar references are often made to the Constitution when other high-profile debates ensue. In the wake of this month’s mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, renewed calls for gun control are inevitably falling on the deaf ears of Republicans, who, like many Second-Amendment fundamentalists, tend to invoke America’s early days to bolster their support of an unchecked gun culture.
After Monday’s shooting in Colorado, the National Rifle Association tweeted out the Second Amendment, in a recurring suggestion that the organization—not its critics—are beholden to the guiding national principles set forth by a small group of white, property-holding slave owners who lived before the advent of electricity.
Beyond being a reductive statement, these invocations don’t form the basis of a decent argument. It’s far more useful to employ other strategies that don’t involve bringing up speculative arguments about what Thomas Jefferson would have thought about abortion rights, or what Ben Franklin would say about a bump stock ban.
Why this argument is fundamentally racist
The Founders were staunch advocates of the militia as an institution meant to preserve social order. Every member of the militia was to be armed; however, the Founders advocated strict rules as to who could join the ranks. Black people and Native Americans were barred from entry. According to the 18th century notions of gun rights, firearm ownership was a privilege meant distinctly for white men.
As the historian Noah Shusterman wrote for the Washington Post in 2018:
Laws rarely allowed free blacks to have weapons. It was even rarer for African Americans living in slavery to be allowed them. In slave states, militias inspected slave quarters and confiscated weapons they found. (There were also laws against selling firearms to Native Americans, although these were more ambiguous.)
These restrictions were no mere footnote to the gun politics of 18th-century America. White Americans were armed so that they could maintain control over nonwhites. Nonwhites were disarmed so that they would not pose a threat to white control of American society.
With this in mind, a question emerges: Are present day Second Amendment absolutists championing a world in which gun ownership is a hallmark of racial superiority? Most would argue to the contrary—but invoking the halcyon days of 18th century gun ownership means you are directly valorizing America’s racist heritage.
Try grounding your argument in the present
Chances are you’re not a constitutional scholar. This country’s founding document and the motivations of the men who drafted it is an evolving field of study for historians, judges, lawyers and archivists, who are tasked with interpreting its relevance for 21st century social mores.
That said, if you’re going to gesture at the Constitution or America’s early days to prove your point, you have to understand the history inside and out. Instead, consider grounding your argument in present-day terms. If you feel strongly about depriving Washington D.C. of statehood, try speaking about your views in a practical sense, listing out what a 51st state would do to tip the balance of power in the Senate. If you feel strongly about corporate personhood, don’t invoke clichés about freedom of speech—talk about how you think lower corporate tax rates is good for the economy and job growth (if that’s what you believe).
It’s a lot more honest to discuss present day concerns, rather than invoke homages to a bygone era.
You’re only confirming your own biases
Given that the true intentions of the Founders—aside from now platitudinal notions of about freedom and all men being created equal—were debatable, you’re only cloaking your true intentions by invoking them. Will Wilkinson, a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, recently pointed this out on Twitter, writing: “The founders were not a corporate mind that could intend anything….It would be better if we’d just cut out the incoherent extra step and just say what we want and the real reasons we want it.”
It’s an important point. It’s far better to be honest about your intentions, instead hiding them behind a Constitutional straw man. To do so is to suggest that your views are unequivocally American and therefore correct, which couldn’t be more wrong.