The Jefferson Rule
How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and the Our Politics Inflexible
Simon and Schuster 2015
David Sehat is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. His book The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and the Our Politics Inflexible (Simon and Schuster, 2015) is part narrative history, part political analysis. Beginning with George Washington’s administration to the 2012 Congressional budgetary crisis, Sehat provides a long sweep of the continual conflicts over the meaning of the U.S. constitution and the intent of the founders. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton represented two different interpretations and set the course for subsequent debates over first principles that by Lincoln’s time escalated into civil war. The differences revolved largely on the role of the federal government, states rights and the limits of economic freedom. After the Civil War and as America faced becoming a modern nation the founders as a standard of ideals went into eclipse. The oppositional rhetoric of the American Liberty League to Roosevelt’s New Deal, and constitutional reinterpretation, once again turned to the founders. Modern political rivals have continued to call on the legacy of the founders to support their arguments and making them a test of political orthodoxy. Martin Luther King’s civil rights campaign, the Reagan Revolution, and the Tea Party movement drew from the founders with radically different understandings of the past and the future. Liberals pointed to changing nature of constitutional governance arguing for context and adaptation. Conservatives held to a static and binding view of the constitution asserting original intent. Arguments that found their way to the Supreme Court. Sehat argues that conflict over the intent of the founders, and the meaning of the constitution, has kept the nation paralyzed in dealing with the present. By asking what the founder’s would do, we foreclose productive debate.