The Founding Fathers — yes, they were cool in many ways. Some were excellent writers; most were well educated. But even apart from the fact that they were all white males and many were slave holders — putting that aside, no matter how wonderful they may have been, they were vastly ignorant of a great number of things that educated people know about today.
Here are just a few of the things that they did not know about.
They did not know about evolution. They did not know about DNA. These are not mere details in modern day biology. They are foundational. Not only was their knowledge of the basic science of biology woefully lacking; they were also ignorant of many of the practical implications. They did not see people who had hip joint replacements or knee replacements or organ transplants. They had no idea that life began 4 billion years ago. They did not know about how to prevent or treat many diseases that we have now conquered. They did not know about proper maternal or prenatal care. They did not even know that a woman’s brains is just as good as a man’s. They did not know that the mitochondrial DNA is passed on only from the mother. They did not know what mitochondria were. They did not know much at all about the “family tree” of humanity. They did not know how to use DNA analysis in solving crimes or predicting susceptibility to disease.
Their ignorance was not just about biological sciences. They knew very little about physics or chemistry. They only knew of twenty-three elements! Now, we know 118. They did not know about electron shells and types of bonds. There were huge fields of human knowledge such as physical chemistry and biochemistry that did not even exist. Again, it was not just theoretical chemistry and physics that they didn’t know about. They didn’t have cured rubber or any plastics whatsoever. There were no gasoline engines.
They did not know about atomic energy or the theory of relativity. They had no idea how large the universe was; the existence of planets orbiting around distant stars. These distant planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets were completely unknown. Today we have confirmed the existence of over 5000 of these exoplanets. They did not know how our own sun generated its power.
They did not know about the destructive potential of an atomic bomb. They did not know that atomic energy existed or that it could be used in practical ways such as killing cancerous tumors, or generating electricity. There were no atomic submarines — or indeed, any submarines at all.
Their ignorance was not limited to science. Since these events had not yet occurred, they obviously knew nothing about the First World War and nothing about The Second World War in which at least 50 million people were killed. They did not know about Hitler or the Holocaust. They did not know about Stalin or Mao killing tens of millions of their own people in order to stay in power.
The did not know about automobiles or airplanes. Traveling across the (much smaller) fledgling nation or America would take days or weeks, not hours. They did not know about the telephone or the telegraph. They had no idea about computers, the web, or the Internet.
Their ignorance of the physical sciences and of many of the lessons of history is overmatched by their profound ignorance about what has been learned in the social sciences in the last few hundred years. They had never heard of Freud, or Skinner, or Chomsky, or Herbert Simon. They did not even realize that social science was possible to study empirically. They did not know how important early childhood stimulation was. Typical practices of education were to have people learn by rote. They did not teach people the scientific method because they themselves did not really know it.
So, however much you may respect their courage or their foresight or ethics, the fact is that, by today’s standards, they were colossally ignorant. That is not a “put down.” That is just a fact. Humanity collectively knows thousands of times as much as they did. Being ignorant doesn’t mean stupid. And, because they were not stupid, they realized that however hard they worked to forge a new nation’s foundation in law, there had to be a way to update that foundation.
There are today, a group of folks who want to keep all the wealth and power in the hands of the few and steal wealth and power from the many. In order to do this, however, they don’t come right out and say, “Hey, we’re better than you and we want all your stuff and we want you to all do what we say.” No.
Instead, they try to make you think that what they want for their own selfish reasons, just so happens to be what the founding fathers wanted as well.
For two reasons:
First, because you and I can’t even reliably read the mind of the person sitting across the card table from you. Reading the mind of someone who lived over 200 years ago is absurd. Sure, you can look at their writings and gain some clues. But any adult who’s done a fair amount of writing has changed their opinions over time; has sometimes said things that are ambiguous or vague or mistaken. The attempt to infer the intentions and thoughts of the “Founding Fathers” is often just a fishing expedition to find the pieces of the writing of some Founding Fathers that can be framed so as to rationalize the viewpoint you happen to have. In the case of the Ultra-Greedy, the nuggets of writing chosen are used to rationalize taking from others. instead of owning up to the out-sized greed, the originalists are saying in effect, “Hey, it’s not me. It’s these guys who lived a few centuries ago.”
Second, even if you could read the minds of all the Founding Fathers, so what? They were profoundly ignorant. We know a lot more now. Moreover, the world we live in is vastly different. We are vastly more interconnected and independent than was the case 200 years ago. In 1776, the population of America was 2.1 million. Today, it is over 330 million. Not only that, despite our much more extensive size, we can physically traverse the space much more quickly. And we can traverse it electronically as well — and do it almost instantaneously! Our destructive power is also much larger. We can kill our fellow human beings with chemical, atomic, and biological weapons and even our “conventional” weapons are much more deadly.
I understand it could be somewhat comforting to think that all the answers to today’s issues and problems can be found in the invisible inner workings of the minds of the Founding Fathers. But at some point, you have to understand (Spoiler Alert!) that it was indeed your parents and not the Tooth Fairy who put money under your pillow in exchange for your baby teeth.
Similarly, the answers to today’s problems require that we modern humans use our knowledge to propose ideas and come to reasonable ideas to try out and honestly look at the outcomes. Of course, there are some important things that remain constant: It’s a bad idea to steal or to kill people. But when it comes to how to govern a nation of 330 million people in today’s world, we need today’s people to use today’s knowledge to figure out the best methods. Sure, our laws are founded on The Constitution and it has mainly served us well. It was made to be amended, not to be worshipped as a golden idol whose meaning is divined by people, some of whom still want to burn witches at the stake. The reason the Constitution has served us well is precisely that we’ve changed it as we’ve learned more.
As I’ve said, although by today’s standards, the Founding Fathers were ignorant, they were not stupid; they knew that the world would change; that the nation would change; and they themselves did not say: “Our Constitution is perfect for all time and should never be changed!” No. Not at all. They said: “Our Constitution is the best we can do right now. But we know things will change. So, we include a way to change the Constitution when necessary.”
We can best honor that good sense they displayed; that humility; that foresight; by continuing to question and change the Constitution, not by trying to insist that we know what they intended and those intentions should never be questioned in the light of current knowledge and conditions.