Looking back 236 years ago, the Founders’ actions look like inevitable steps in a reasonable progression. It’s good to remember that they were mostly making it up as they went along. They argued principles and practical interests, but when the good of the country depended on moving forward, they compromised.

We celebrate the nation’s founders every year on this day, as well we should, and praise their virtues, perhaps a little too much.


We evoke the Founding Fathers at a specific moment of their lives –– July 4, 1776 –– when they came together to invoke high principles, to challenge the king, to put their lives on the line, to give birth to a nation.


But we do them a disservice by ignoring what they did before and after that crucial moment. They weren’t always so united. They were rivals more than they were teammates. Their personal interests sometimes informed their principles. Once the Constitution established a government, they fell into partisanship at least as bitter as what we see today.


Looking back 236 years ago, the Founders’ actions look like inevitable steps in a reasonable progression. It’s good to remember that they were mostly making it up as they went along.


They argued principles and practical interests, but when the good of the country depended on moving forward, they compromised. They created a bicameral legislature to empower both the states (in the Senate) and the populace (the House). They compromised on slavery, mostly kicking the can down the road.


And they made mistakes. The Articles of Confederation didn’t work out. John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts violated founding principles. The original plan to have the loser of the presidential election serve as vice president was a disaster quickly reversed.


There’s a line between honoring the Founders and deifying them. When the Supreme Court speaks, our debate falls into a kind of ancestor worship, as we try to understand not just the rules they laid down but what they were thinking at that moment.  


“If the Founders wanted to make health care a right, they’d have put in the Constitution,” we hear. 


Maybe so. But access to health insurance wasn’t an issue back then. Their decision not to address it then doesn’t mean that we, their descendents, cannot address it now.


We’re just making it up as we go along, too, and while the Founders’ legal guidance is appreciated, so is the examples they set grappling with differences, compromising for the sake of progress and finding unity in both principles and a common destiny.


We honor the Founders best by remembering that their thoughts, their compromises and their improvisations were the first words in the nation’s development and not the last.


-- MetroWest Daily News (Mass.)