Our Bickering Founding Fathers and their Messy, Imperfect, Inspired Constitution

Michael Austin is Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of English at Newman University in Wichita Kansas. In the secular world, he is known as a scholar of eighteenth-century literature and of cognitive narrative theory. In the Mormon world, he has published several books and articles on the portrayal of Mormon themes and characters in mainstream American literature. His first book for a non-academic audience, That’s Not What They Meant: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing will be released tomorrow (September 18th) from Prometheus Books.

I reverence the Constitution of the United States as a sacred document. To me its words are akin to the revelations of God, for God has placed His stamp of approval upon it. I testify that the God of heaven sent some of His choicest spirits to lay the foundation of this government, and He has now sent other choice spirits to help preserve it. –President Ezra Taft Benson, “Our Divine Constitution” (1987)

One should not expect perfection—one certainly should not expect all of his personal preferences—in a document that must represent a consensus. One should not sulk over a representative body’s failure to attain perfection. –Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution” (Feb. 1992)

As a collective mind, “the Framers of the Constitution” (like “the Founding Fathers”) carries immense rhetorical weight, which is why such a mind gets invoked so often in contemporary political debates. To oppose “the intention of the Framers”—by, say, supporting health-care reform, or by wanting to say prayers at a high school graduation—is to go against both history and the rule of law. And for Latter-day Saints, it is even worse, as we have been taught that the Constitution was divinely inspired and that its Framers were men of God. Who would want to be on the wrong side of history, the rule of law, and God?

All of this rhetorical force disappears, however, when we simply acknowledge that the Framers were actual individuals rather than a single hive mind. One cannot humiliate one’s enemies by saying that their positions would be opposed by some of the Framers, supported by others, and probably not even understood by the rest. But say “advocating X means trashing the Constitution and spitting on the grave of the Founding Fathers,” and all of a sudden you are a patriot and your opponent is a pig.

The problem is that the only proposition that we can substitute for X with any kind of historical coherence is that the 13 colonies should not be ruled by the British. Beyond that, we get disagreement everywhere we look. The 55 men who gathered in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution were as diverse a group of human beings as could have been assembled in 1787. Their ranks included anarchists, monarchists, nationalists, anti-nationalists, slave-owners, abolitionists, Christians, atheists, and everything in between. In the end, only 39 of the delegates signed the Constitution. Some of the non-signers—such as Robert Yates, Luther Martin, and George Mason—went to their home states to lead the fight against ratification.

Even among the signers, there was not a single man who approved of everything in the final product. Some found the national government under the Constitution overbearingly strong, while others found it insufferably weak. Nearly every delegate at the convention rejected Alexander Hamilton’s plan for an executive with lifetime tenure. And James Madison tried repeatedly to approve a federal veto on all state legislation, which was rejected each time that he brought it up. By the end of the convention both men felt that the document had serious, and perhaps fatal flaws. However, Hamilton and Madison went on to become unqualified supporters of the Constitution and the principal authors of the Federalist Papers written to support it.

After the convention, the Founders continued to fight with each other about almost everything. The first battle line was the Constitution itself. Some of the most respected heroes of the revolution (Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and others) lined up with the “Anti-Federalist” faction opposing ratification. And even after the Constitution was ratified, they continued to fight with each other about many of the same things we fight with each other about today, such as the powers of government, the necessity of taxation, the national debt, the use of military force, the place of religion in the public square, and the correct definition of a “human being.” Contention over these issues was so great that, five years into the new government, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were barely on speaking terms with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And it only got worse after that.

And yet, we have been taught that the Constitution was designed by divine inspiration and that it’s words are “akin to the revelations of God.” And I believe that they are. America’s founding was a messy, imperfect, contentious affair. But that does not mean that it was not a divinely inspired affair. The two are not at all incompatible. This is perhaps the main point of Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ 1992 Ensign article, “Our Divinely Inspired Constitution”:

That the Constitution was ratified is largely attributable to the fact that the principal leaders in the states were willing to vote for a document that failed to embody every one of their preferences.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In other words, one should not expect perfection—one certainly should not expect all of his personal preferences—in a document that must represent a consensus. One should not sulk over a representative body’s failure to attain perfection. Americans are well advised to support the best that can be obtained in the circumstances that prevail. That is sound advice not only for the drafting of a constitution but also for the adoption and administration of laws under it.

Clearly, Elder Oaks does not see a fractured, imperfect, compromise-driven consensus as something incompatible with divine inspiration. And neither do I. And here’s the big question: what if this is the way that divine inspiration works? What if revelation is not a matter of transferring a thought or intention directly from God to the mind of a priesthood leader, but a proposition that involves discussion, debate, negotiation, and compromise among imperfect human beings? What if, in other words, revelation is a messy, communal, and participatory affair in which we have to negotiate with each other to reach an imperfect conclusion that will nonetheless merit God’s stamp of approval because it is “the best that can be obtained in the circumstances that prevail?”

Such an understanding of divine inspiration runs counter to the way that Latter-day Saints often understand God’s voice. We want our revelations to be clear, absolute, and otherworldly—perfect in the same way that God is perfect. But life is not a series of choices between the perfectly good and the irredeemably evil. It is a game of negotiations, tradeoffs, partial goods, lesser evils, and, well, a real mess. Thus, a messy revelation—one that takes into account our own strengths and weaknesses and our willingness to act—will often be much more valuable to us than a thin sliver of absolute truth. This is what the Framers of the Constitution discovered in the sweltering summer of 1787.

Understanding America’s founding as an act of divine inspiration does not require us to whitewash and homogenize our understanding of the Founding Fathers. It may, though require us to stop whitewashing and homogenizing our understanding of divine inspiration. It may be, in fact, that inspiration is always (or at least often) a matter of debate, discussion, and compromise among flawed human beings who are doing the best that they can in unbearably difficult situations—and who, guided by a divine master, can accomplish marvelous works and wonders that future generations will understand, correctly, as miracles.

Comments

  1. Happy Constitution Day!

  2. This was something the John Adam’s miniseries really hit home for me: seeing just how much disagreement there was, and how close we were to having a very different document. And I do believe that just because something involved discussion and debate does not mean it does not have divine approval.
    Great, thought-provoking post.

  3. That was an outstanding series, Jenn.

  4. Curious if you feel Elder Oaks disagrees with Pres. Benson. I don’t think he does, but rather I see them as each emphasizing different aspects of the same point. Surely Pres. Benson’s take is incomplete in describing how the constitution came forth, but I don’t think he or Elder Oaks would suggest that was the goal in the statement.

    The crux if your piece: What if, in other words, revelation is a messy, communal, and participatory affair in which we have to negotiate with each other to reach an imperfect conclusion that will nonetheless merit God’s stamp of approval because it is “the best that can be obtained in the circumstances that prevail?”

    Revelation can be that, as often as we or circumstances are “in the way”. However, there are many instances where revelation is as clear as a light coming on and knowledge pouring into the heart and mind of the individual. Maybe these instances aren’t as common place as described above (the messy process), but they are very profound and happen.

  5. I heartily agree. Thanks for this.

  6. Excellent post. I am definitely an advocate of life being messy. And for dealing with it as such. Far too often I feel like we try to explain the messy as neat, when it isn’t.

  7. “And here’s the big question: what if this is the way that divine inspiration works? What if revelation is not a matter of transferring a thought or intention directly from God to the mind of a priesthood leader, but a proposition that involves discussion, debate, negotiation, and compromise among imperfect human beings?”

    Last year there was a post on another blog that I thought was very informative on the way the Brethren interact, that woud indicate your postulation above it true. This took place in England at a YSA conference where Elder Bednar had a questionand answer session with the audience. The young man asked the question (essentially) “What keeps Apostles from getting a big head and exercisong unrighteous dominion?” Elder Bednar then described some of the things that keep them humble and focused, and one of them was the regular Quorum meetings with the rest of the 12:

    “He then told us what it was like being in a meeting with the rest of the apostles. He described them as speaking very candidly, forthrightly, directly, and boldly, that everyone expressed an opinion and that they often disagreed in a strong manner on certain points. He told an interesting story about when Elder Scott was made an apostle. The candor and directness of the discussion was so intimidating that Elder Scott avoided making a comment for the first three months. During one of the early meetings the intensity of the discussion was higher then normal, and a fellow apostle passed him a note saying: “welcome to the quorum; we play hard ball here.”

  8. Fantastic. I’ve always loved Benjamin Franklin’s concluding remarks as the Convention was coming to a close:

    “I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment, and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others…Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The Opinions I have had of its Errors, I sacrifice to the Public Good. I have never whisper’d a Syllable of them abroad. Within these Walls they were born, and here they shall die.”

  9. Michael Austin says:

    kaphor, I did not select the introductory quotations because I thought that they disagreed with each other. I wanted one fairly authoritative source saying that the Constitution was inspired and another saying that it was messy–thus showing that inspiration and messiness were not mutually exclusive. That said, I would not be disappointed if it turns out that Elder Oaks and President Benson did disagree about this particular issue. Nor would such a revelation challenge my belief in both men’s prophetic calling.

  10. I think it is also important to note that this view of revelation–of convening, debating, and compromise–became the standard in the Church even while Joseph Smith was at the head. It is not a coincidence that when councils began to make the decisions for the church (around 1834/5), the amount of “Thus Saith the Lord” revelations dramatically decreased. JS viewed these council decisions as the word of God, and they too represented the messy, fallible, and complex elements you outline wonderfully in the post.

  11. Michael, I like your conclusion here….

    It may be, in fact, that inspiration is always (or at least often) a matter of debate, discussion, and compromise among flawed human beings who are doing the best that they can in unbearably difficult situations—and who, guided by a divine master, can accomplish marvelous works and wonders that future generations will understand, correctly, as miracles.

    ….but I fear it still gives too much away, both to revelation and to the U.S. Constitution. Because if something–the Constitution, the Word of Wisdom, whatever–was indisputably a creation of multiple historically and culturally dependent inputs and negotiations, but is accepted as having resulted in a “marvelous work” which at a later point is called a “miracle,” then where is the incentive to continue to with the aforementioned “debate, discussion, and compromise”? Wouldn’t it be perfectly reasonable, on the basis of your analysis, to conclude: “Yes, perhaps this particularly revelation traveled a difficult road to turn into what it is today, but now that it is that wondrous thing, we’re done with it”? I think if we’re going to connect revelation to “flawed human beings who are doing the best that they can,” then we need to also admit to ourselves that, so long human beings remained flawed, then there’s no reason to assume that “doing” has come to an end. Your book is a strong argument against the too-easy reification of the opinions of the Constitution’s many authors into a single ideological message; it seems to me that dispensing with the language of miracles–and with it the suggestions of a conclusion, an arrival, a totality–here might be an important part of that argument as well.

  12. Russell, I fear that this might be an unbridgeable gap between faculty and administration. You guys have the luxury of thinking about things perpetually. We on the dark side, however, usually have to declare the arrival of totality and go on with the implementation.

  13. Well played, Michael.

  14. #6 – Snyderman, “Far too often I feel like we try to explain the messy as neat, when it isn’t.”

    I do agree with this. But…

    Increasingly often it seems we try to explain away the fact that we aren’t receiving the promised blessings because life is messy, rather than we’ve just messed up.

  15. Yep, that is the Elder Oaks approach. Good, at least, for those who respect Oaks.

  16. I see revelation as something like the creative process. There are times when the ideas just seem to flow (just wrote an advertisement in about 5 minutes that just about everyone liked) and there are times when it’s a painstaking series of revisions and compromises (such as 5 minutes ago when the CEO didn’t like a major element of the copy, and it turns out he was right).

    I think the brethren seem to have a lot of trust in the Latter — they’ve talked about how all the Apostles get to speak and that it can take a long time for them to achieve consensus on some subjects. I certain that other times, President Monson or another just says something, everyone in the room feels that God’s will has been spoken, and that is what is done.

    I believe that’s why the brethren have been trying to move church administration to the Ward Council model on the local level. I like the idea that when the ward council comes up with something, it’s as much the Primary President’s inspiration as it is the bishop’s. And I’ve been in meetings where that’s how it’s worked. But it’s usually happened after a lot of discussion and revision.

    (Incidentally, It’s good to be serving on a council with a bishop who is so ready to respond to everyone’s inspiration on a topic — and who will readily abandon an idea if the sister Presidents in the room don’t like it. I tend to trust inspiration that comes from ALL the people who have been called and set apart to run the ward, rather than just do whatever the bishop thinks is right. It’s been my experience that he receives a lot of inspiration about which problems should be tackled, but that everyone receives a measure of inspiration regarding how it that problem should be addressed.)

  17. I don’t know where the scripture is that says something like ‘the word of God hisses forth from generation to generation’, but that or something like it is in there somewhere. What this says to me is that even when we are illuminated, the Spirit within us and outside us, in force, the word of God is still only coming to us a ‘hisses': difficult to understand, ourselves only allowing into our own personalities and systems those things that happen to fall into the places where we are open and prepared. Those few things that are just over our personal horizons. In every possible way, the revelations are filtered (too weak a word) through the person(s) receiving the revelation, with all their limits, prejudices, assumptions, hopes and fears. So that the Book or Mormon is full of the idiosyncratic pseudo-protestant language of Joseph trying to translate with his strictly limited experience. (It is indeed a miracle that anything worthwhile comes through at all!) Indeed, all the scriptures – as well as other ‘inspired’ texts, like the Constitution, and the better part of world literature – are more useful to me as a means of watching men struggle _ahead_ in coming to understand God and other aspects of reality than they are as some kind of perfectly illuminated guide. I think people expecting a unequivocal guide, easily read and easily understood, will ultimately be disappointed as reality forces them to be truthful, at last.

    The gospel itself guides a gradual and beset struggle forward.

    It seems to me that where we are seeking collectively – as of course we must since we are not isolated agents – all of this is multiplied. As long as we are seeking, though, we will also be finding. Hence, the Constitution, in spite of ourselves.

    Just some thoughts that I’ve been thinking that this super dooper post released.

  18. I think the danger of the bright and shining moment is that we will tend to think that we have an ultimate answer where we actually only have a partial and contingent answer that will come to show different aspects when placed under further light and knowledge.

  19. I understand why we use terms like “founders” and “framers” as a shorthand for the political elites who helped shape the country’s government, but those terms can disguise the forces that actually shaped early America. For example, you could make a strong argument that Revolutionary War outbreak was sparked by local non-importation agreements and anti-British sermonizing as much as anything else; after all, the Declaration of Independence was signed well after fighting began. And as much as men like Madison, Washington, and Jefferson deserve credit for establishing the structure and customs of government (as the OP suggests, bickering all the while), were they really any more influential than, say, tens of thousands of farmers who, much to the chagrin of British and American elites, constantly moved westward in violation of Indian, French, and Spanish land claims? Or what about New England merchants whose working-class culture defined revolutionary republicanism as the ideology of “doffing your cap to no man” and other anti-aristocratic ideas that helped destroy the gentrified worldview many framers held? Jefferson wasn’t popular because he invented those ideas himself! Anyway, as I see it, for better or worse America was shaped far more by regular people than by its founding documents. The Constitution is great and all, but I think studying people tells you a lot more about what America is :)

  20. Or rather, I should have said, laborers and journeymen who eventually became proto-capitalist merchants, since around the Revolution a merchant was more of an international trader than a local shop-owner…but you get my drift.

  21. kaphor,
    While I hate to continue the threadjack, I’d just like to point out that we’ve all fallen short of God and yet he stills keeps blessing us. It’s a mystery.

  22. While I agree that council government was an important development in the church, I think many felt it was also dangerous, Brigham Young among them, which is why he became the man he was in Utah – safety for the church, and himself. And, \end{threadjack}!

    And thanks for the great post Stapley Michael!

  23. Excellent comments, Casey; well said.

  24. Reading about inspiration as a messy, communal, and participatory business that must be negotiated in council before God will approve it as “the best that can be obtained in the circumstances” is heady and exciting stuff for us in the observer galleries. Just think how much better a representative consensus would be if the councils included not just a token woman, but women in all their many varieties…! Then I remember, this is BCC, not the Quorum (or even a quorum) and those quorums rarely include men in all their varieties. And never are female voices part of the messy process. If this is a process the Lord desires, we have far to go.

    Please feel free to overlook this if you feel it is a threadjack, and continue on with your guys’ academic discussion. Which, by the way, is fun to read; but, not being an academician, I won’t contribute in that way.

  25. In reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the proclamation on the family. Certainly this is an example of carefully-drafted legalistic document, born of divergent opinions, perhaps out of a “fractured, imperfect, and ultimately a compromise-driven consensus.” I hope that Elder Oaks would acknowledge that we “should not expect perfection…in a document [the PoF] that must represent a consensus.” I hope that we as a church can realize that not every revelation, proclamation, doctrine or policy should be taken as eternal truth – or the complete and final word of God. Maybe it’s the best that inspired mortals could do in that particular time and place, but I hope to see continued reaching, seeking and questioning.

  26. The textual history of the LDS Church would suggest that this type of a multivocal approach to revelation was relevant even then. The History of the Church, Smith’s public writings, and many other documents bear the marks of collaborative authorship. There are roots for this notion in the common Mormon image of a confidant turning to Smith with an important question that occasioned a revelation. While this is the simplest version of collaborative revelation, I think it provides a foundation for models of revelation that are more collaborative or communal.

  27. I’m not sure whether MDearest’s comment constitutes a threadjack, but her blanket defamation of all women who serve in church councils as “tokens” and her false statement that “never are female voices part of the messy process” suggest that we needn’t look to her for a worthwhile contribution to the discussion.

  28. Mark, it’s not a condemnation of those women, but of the structure that limits their numbers and their participation. And she’s right.

  29. I was speaking about quorums in general and the Quorum of the 12 where it was capitalized, so yes, my dear, quorums never include female voices, but some councils do when the priesthood leaders wish to invite them. It’s better than nothing but not as good as full participation.

    Conversation is a good thing Mark; I don’t know you, but I think your contributions are just as important as mine. For the record, I don’t think I defamed women at all, and if you read that in my comment, a more careful reading might help.

    I loved the way Bryce #25 tied this notion to the PoF, it makes me feel like I can be more accepting of that document by looking at it from his perspective.

  30. Now everyone, quit your bickering. Oh, wait. I’m the pro-bickering guy. Carry on.

  31. MDearest, brava to you for your classy response to Mark B.’s dismissal of your comment.

  32. Meh. Bickering is an old and venerable way to get to know someone. But I do feel bad about derailing the academic guys’ commenting. I was learning good stuff.

  33. My mother was one of Pres. McKay’s secretaries for a little while, and I grew up understanding that the apostles disagreed about lots of things. It was a good thing to me then, and it remains a good thing to me now. I sustain them as apostles, not as scientists, sociologists, historians, engineers, etc.

    I also find the wording of the following instructive:

    “Whether by mine own voice or the voice (singular) of my servants (plural), it is the same.”

    I don’t take that to mean that the collective voice of the apostles automatically is the “will” of God, but rather that the organizational authority behind a statement of a single apostle (or even multiple apostles) does not constitute the voice of God for the Church collectively. What constitutes the united voice of “my servants” is open to debate (currently living servants – whatever that means, only apostles, only apostles since the restoration, etc.), but I find the implication in that sentence comforting when it comes to many conversations that occur in the Church.

  34. “The 55 men who gathered in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution were as diverse a group of human beings as could have been assembled in 1787. …This is what the Framers of the Constitution discovered in the sweltering summer of 1887.”

    You can understand why many of the framers became bitter political rivals when you consider that it took over 100 years for the Constitution to be adopted. That’s a long time to bicker.

  35. You can imagine the intensity of the differences they had over the Revelation on the Priesthood in 1978

  36. Justice Anthony Kennedy once spoke to the BYU Management Society and told of meeting with Canadian officials who had drafted that country’s 1982 constitution because he wanted to understand this question of intent. He was amazed to find that none of them could agree on what they intended. The clear meaning of Kennedy’s remarks was that anyone who thinks they know exactly what the framers intended is in error.

  37. For me one way the spirit affected the development of the constitution was in helping these highly opinionated, powerful people to compromise at all. It’s amazing to me that they didn’t all walk out at various moments.

  38. There you go, fixing the OP without a strikethrough to make me look like a doofus and ruin the joke.

  39. Messy, indeed – and yet another interesting angle on how “inspiration” actually occurs.

    http://www.thefix.com/content/who-were-drunkest-founding-fathers-july-4th7789

    “Contrary to the subdued oil paintings depicting the signing of the Constitution, the birth of our country was actually far from a sober affair. In fact, according to documents, in the days before the Founding Fathers signed the document in 1787, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention found themselves at a Philadelphia tavern, where, for lack of a better phrase, they partied their asses off. The bar tab included: 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer and seven bowls of alcoholic punch.” By the calculus of historian Stanton Peele, that’s “more than two bottles of fruit of the vine, plus a few shots and a lot of punch and beer, for every delegate.”

  40. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    I like what Neal said (#7) about how the Brethren are candid about their opinions when discussing complex issues. They get their views out on the floor and then try to see if there is a way to reconcile them. They strive for unanimity, which usually requires some coompromise, but that compromise means that the values that each apostle sees as important are respected. Some people who think an ideal rule is one that they personally craft with no compromises would call this form of decision making imperfect and messy, a typical committee product, but I think a better analogy is the process of engineers seeking an optimal design in the multi-dimensional world of trying to produce a single, integrated mechanism or system that produces an optimal mix of successes, so that the overall success is higher than if any single value were allowed to control the outcome.

    For example, the design of an automobile has to balance considerations of cost and affordability, durability, horsepower, fuel efficiency and power sources, safety, weight, capacity for passengers and cargo, and various technological features like skid prevention and backup cameras. No one vehicle has the most of any one of these features, but a car that is a good value has a balance of all of them. There are formal ways of expressing this kind of balance, with a way of translating each feature of a car into a simple number without dimensions (like miles per hour, miles per gallon, etc.), and assigning to each feature a coefficient (multiplier) that varies with its assigned importance.

    So there is a positive value in having many people with different viewpoints sharing responsibility for designing a system or process, in order to ensure that many different values are incorporated into the design of the end product. Furthermore, a process of design that gives each interested party an opportunity to affect the result, and to make quid-pro-quo agreements that insert his own interests while allowing another participant to do the same, helps to buy the loyalty and support of each of the participants. Each one has invested into the result because part of what he most wanted is included in the product they created, and they will support the result to others going forward. Thus, designs that are the result of consensus building among disparate viewpoint holders are much more likely to survive and thrive and be adopted widely by other people.

    Elder Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency said that when he first became involved with the Brethren as Church Commissioner of Education, he was impressed by the way the Brethren reached their decisions. Eyring was a professor of organizational management. He did not see this method of decision making as chaotic, but rather as very effective in putting the most intelligence possible into the final outcome.

    We often ridicule Congress and state legislatures for the silly decisions they sometimes waste energy on. But the fact is that such bodies are ABLE to make decisions, and arrive at agreement, on very difficult questions, like war and peace, not in an instant, but after there have been many oportunities to exchange views. The collective judgment of legislative bodies can sometimes be much more superior to the decision of a single expert, no matter how smart he thinks he is. That is one of the reasons that it is tragic when judges take it upon themselves to substitute their own judgment for that of legislative bodies, by ruling legislation unconstitutional, with no room at all for compromise. When judges venture beyond their field of expertise, in interpreting laws and contracts, and substitute their personal single judgment for the collective wisdom of the legislature that created a law, or even worse substitute their own personal judgment for the Congress that proposed the Constitutional Amendment that is ostensibly permanent in meaning and effect.

    Let’s hear three cheers for Congress and states with messy deliberative processes.

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