Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The 18th Century Liberals

On the 4th of July, you usually have a spate of articles discussing the Founders of the US, people that Americans all learned about as children. Most of us admire them and believe that we take them as role models.

I have to admit I find their writings stirring and powerful. I love the Declaration of Independence just for its rhetorical strength. It's more like a religious document to me than a political one.

However, I am starting to get seriously annoyed by modern people trying to claim the Founders as soul mates. Yesterday I read on some of my favorite liberal websites several of these "rant-counter-rant" things mocking Conservative screeds against Liberals, such as this insane Marine's thing that veers back and forth between ranting against Liberals and ranting against Muslims in the strongest possible terms of intolerant misanthropy. Yet the riposte, although it lacked the element of disgusting racism of the original, seemed to me to be equally lacking in truth.

In truth, the Founders were "18th Century Liberals". They were not anything like today's liberals or conservatives as the terms are usually understood in the US. They lived in a time before corporate personhood, government-sponsored research bodies, and many other things we absolutely take for granted now. They were interested in the landed, propertied, male class having full citizenship rights against the monarch, and they were interested in the view that monarchs had no divine right to rule but that all governors should have some sort of legitimacy through the consent of the governed, by whom they meant the landed, propertied, male (and white) elite class.

If they can truly be said to have a counterpart in modern political thought, it would be the more extreme forms of libertarianism - but again, I don't believe they were as ideologically rigid as the modern form is. They did not insist on their beliefs in the face of facts like overwhelming corporate power or government ability to contribute to scientific and intellectual progress. Those facts did not exist yet. Libertarians today seem to have their heads in the sand, wanting to believe that the supreme individual remains the same as he was back when Jefferson wrote the Declaration.

Their writings were inspirational. They bravely fought the greatest military and imperial power of the time, and they won. But they certainly were no closer to being like modern Liberals than they were like modern Conservatives. And such silly claims that are supposed to appeal to our emotions are starting to seriously annoy me. I am particularly annoyed when liberals get all teary eyed and start declaiming how they are wearing the mantle of Franklin or Jefferson.

I believe that you should be honest about people of the past and their political beliefs and how they are relevant or not relevant to the modern day. And I think this sort of posturing is really, really a big waste of time.


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