An Age of Enlightenment for 21st Century America
An Age of Enlightenment for 21st Century America
The men who collaborated to create the United States Constitution were far from unanimous in their beliefs.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were a diverse group of individuals. The dominant power brokers of the day – New England merchants and Virginia plantation owners – were represented. The interests of small states and large states were both represented. These men had diverse religious beliefs, and diverse beliefs on how power should be shared among various levels of government.
Today, we contribute to the dumbing-down of America when we cherry-pick statements from some of these founders in order to project their words into today’s political, economic, social, and technological realities. These men were a diverse group, but they had two very important things in common:
- They were thinkers. Nearly all of them were men of the Enlightenment.
- They took a practical approach to government. They were interested in creating something that would work in the real world. They were less interested in conforming to a particular political philosophy.
We, on the other hand, live in an age in which – much too often – ignorance is considered to be a political virtue. People today are scoring political points by rewriting history to fit a political agenda; by denying scientific evidence; by downplaying the contributions of education and educators; and by ignoring practical economics in favor of disproven economic theories. People are ignoring real evidence that doesn’t fit their political agenda, while accepting misinformation and outright untruths without question or evidence. At the same time, the words of the founders and the Constitution itself are often cherry-picked and twisted as justification for a political agenda.
This is NOT the approach that the founders took. We desperately need a new Age of Enlightenment in 21st century America. We need leaders who respect knowledge instead of mocking it. We need leaders who accept scientific evidence instead of mocking it. We need leaders who learn from history instead of re-writing it to fit an agenda. We need leaders who have a higher regard for education itself.
Before we get the leaders we need, we have to elect them. We have to be practical about doing this, however. We can’t stop willfully ignorant citizens from voting, but perhaps we can do a much better job of organizing a counterattack against ignorance and misinformation. We already have advocates for scientific evidence. We have advocates for historical accuracy. We have advocates for education. We have advocates for reality-based politics and economics. In my mind, these advocates should unite but alter their messages.
Currently, the messages from these advocates tend to take the form of “we are right, and you are wrong,” or perhaps “my political party is better than your political party.” Regardless of the amount of truth in such statements, this is precisely the method used by opponents. As a result, advocates on each side end up “preaching to the choir.” People on both sides dig in, and few minds are changed. I would suggest that an important step is missing from these types of arguments. Before the discussion turns to specific issues and party differences, advocates for truth and knowledge should focus on truth and knowledge as their primary talking points. Create a large bloc of individuals whose main uniting principle is truth and knowledge. If this could be accomplished, the talking points on specific issues would follow along.
Without this step, we will continue to preach to the choir and suffer from ignorance and division. With this step – assuming advocates are united enough and vocal enough – perhaps fewer people would consider ignorance to be a virtue.
In short, we need a new Age of Enlightenment to take hold. We can start by understanding the unifying principles of our founding fathers.
Men of the Enlightenment
The founding fathers were not united by a belief in a specific structure of government. They were not united by a common religious belief. Here is what the founders WERE united on, by general consensus:
- The founding fathers believed that knowledge was a virtue, and ignorance was not. They welcomed scientific knowledge and would never think of mocking science in order to make political statements. They would never mock educated people as being somehow inferior to the uneducated. The founders were some of the most educated of Americans, but they did not believe that education belonged to an elite few. They did not wish to control the masses through ignorance, but instead they believed that widespread knowledge and education were vital to the survival of our system of representative government.
- The founders built upon the knowledge of others, and did not hesitate to study whatever sources were available. They studied philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau; they studied the ancient Greeks and Romans; they learned about governments in other countries; they studied the Magna Carta and the entire known world history of governing constitutions (including our own state constitutions); they studied theology and theocracies; they studied religious documents, including the Bible.
- The founders were united in opposition to state-sponsored religion. This did not prevent them from gaining knowledge through the study of religious documents. They were interested in knowledge from all available sources. Opposition to state-sponsored religion did not prevent them from exercising their personal beliefs. They simply did not use concepts such as “because God said so in the Bible” in order to rationalize their ideas for government.
- The founders were united in favor of representative government, with politicians answerable to the people. As part of this, they were united in favor of a free press which held government officials accountable.
- The founders were united in mistrust of powerful corporations and political parties.
Those who signed the Constitution, and those who voted to ratify it, knew that they were creating a stronger central government; doing so was the only reason for the Constitutional Convention in the first place.
Above all, the founders took a practical approach to government. They were interested in what worked and why. They learned from the great philosophers, but they did so from a distance and considered the practicality of what the philosophers had to say. They studied what had worked and hadn’t worked in the history of government. They built on the knowledge of others, but they had a lot to say about what they had learned through their own experiences of being British subjects, of fighting a war of independence and of running the governments of newly free states.
As a result of this practical experience…
- The founders insisted that people subject to laws be represented in the legislative process.
- They did not trust political parties.
- They did not trust powerful corporations.
- They opposed a standing army in American towns and streets.
- They knew that ratification would be extremely problematic, and they compromised whenever necessary. Rather than ending up with a Constitution that coincided with anybody’s wishes, the “final product” was filled with numerous compromises, based on the delegates’ practical experience and the prospects for ratification. A couple of these compromises stand out as being particularly noteworthy: The Great Compromise, which settled the biggest stumbling block of the convention by creating a bicameral legislature in which the states would have equal representation in the Senate but proportional representation in the House of Representatives; and the 3/5 Rule, which allowed the process to proceed without permanently settling the issue of slavery. Without these compromises, there would have been no possibility of ratification. The Union likely would have failed under the Articles of Confederation, and there never would have been a United States Constitution to serve as a blueprint for future constitutions around the world. The United States as we know it would not exist.
The founding fathers were far from perfect human beings. Individually, they often failed to live up to their own ideals (for example, while in office they sometimes resorted to degrading political rhetoric instead of rational debate); some of them lived a life that would be considered morally reprehensible by today’s standards (for example, owning slaves). Collectively, they failed to foresee some political developments which they most certainly would not approve of (for example the rise of dominant political parties and powerful corporations). They could not settle the issue of slavery. They would not consider allowing women to participate in the political process, including the right to vote.
In spite of these shortcomings, they gave themselves a chance to succeed – within the political realities of their day – because they used an approach based on an appreciation of knowledge and practical governing. They did not sneer at knowledge in order to appeal to mankind’s baser instincts; they welcomed their position as men of the Enlightenment.
We live in an era of different political realities. We have the advantage of being able to learn from the experiences of our founding fathers. Yet our hands are tied by political polarization which we have created ourselves. We mock education, scientific knowledge, historical facts, and economic reality instead of welcoming them. We have given ourselves no chance to succeed in the ways our founders succeeded.
In order to move forward, we desperately need to usher in a new Age of Enlightenment.
Many good books about the Constitutional Convention and the founding of the United States of America are available. For an easy-to-read volume aimed at readers who are non-historians, may I suggest “Miracle at Philadelphia, the Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787”, by Catherine Drinker Bowen.
A version of this essay is included as a chapter in the book Common Misconceptions of Economic Policy by Jerry Wyant. You can purchase this book in paperback form from Amazon and other online book distributors. The list price is $12.99 (only $9.99 using discount code TA9GTK7E when ordering, depending on the distribution channel). Or if you prefer, you can download a digital version on your device (Kindle, Nook, etc.) for $4.99.
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