I spoke with author J.R. Norton in June of this year about his book, Saving General Washington: The Right Wing Assault on America's Founding Principles. The following excerpts are from an interview on "A Public Affair" on WORT (89.9 FM), community radio in Madison, WI, and from a follow up in-person interview.
J.R. Norton: Well, it's a bit of metaphor. It's in part aimed at rehabilitating and reintroducing these founding figures of American history, but on a broader level, on a more important level, it's about reintroducing the values that these guys stood for. Certainly over the last five or six years, I think we've really lost sight of those virtues.
As I researched the book it struck me that these guys shared a lot of the values that I find to be really important. There were a lot of progressive values inherent in the way this country was founded. I would say a lot of libertarian values as well. The thing that you don't see is an interest in being authoritarian. The founding of America was a giant step away from authoritarianism, and I think we are stepping back towards it in the modern day.
JSP: You call the Founding Fathers – reverently, I would say, not irreverently – the Founding Bad Asses. Why?
J.R. Norton: Well, these guys really put their lives on the line. If you look at the commitment that was required to fight in the American Revolution, this wasn't a situation where you're running for president and if you lose, well, you write a book. Or you go and work in corporate America, or you do whatever you want. If they lost that struggle there was a good chance they'd end up swinging from a gallows. So these were people who were literally willing to put their lives on the line for an idea or for a set of ideas.
On War and Peace
JSP: Let's talk about war and peace. The Founding Fathers were coming out of a revolution that took a huge toll on this new country, and were faced with both trying to rebuild and build a new nation. It seems in your book that they were really focused on maintaining peace, and saw it as critical to give this nascent nation a chance to grow. How would you compare that with the current administration seeming eager to be drawn into any conflict that presents itself?
J.R. Norton: There does seem to be a real willingness to go to war and that very much conflicts with the way that the Founding Fathers approached it. I think part of that lies in personal stake. By going to war in the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers had everything to lose – they could have lost their lives very easily on the battle field or swinging from the gallows, they could have lost their property, had it burned down or confiscated by the British authorities. It was a very dangerous situation for them to be in. No one wants their family killed or have to be a fugitive from justice for years and years.
You can draw a contrast with the current administration and look at a situation like Iraq, where not only is no one from the administration personally in danger, and neither are their family members, but they actually stand in many cases to gain property and money as a result of this shift toward war. Everyone knows about Dick Cheney's connections with Halliburton, KBR, and the shadiness surrounding that. Richard Perle did very well for himself while serving on the Defense Policy board advising the Pentagon and helping push for the war there. So these are guys for whom war is not a bad thing and don't have much personally to lose.
The Founding Fathers were very conscious of the fragility of their new country and its relatively small size compared to the European powers. There was a very pragmatic interest in not revisiting war if they could avoid it. But there were also moral objections to it. Tom Paine wrote very articulately on the horrors of war and why it should be avoided. James Madison, in 1795 in his Political Observations, was reflecting on war and said, "No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." He saw the danger that war presented to civil liberties and that's something that the Founding Fathers were certainly cognizant of. If you look at what's happened since September 11th and the invasion of Iraq, and civil liberties in the U.S., there's been a real relationship between government programs that rescind civil liberties and this rhetoric that the nation is under attack, the nation is under threat.
You keep hearing from this administration over and over again that the war on terror may never end. Future presidents will have to decide what to do with Iraq – there's this idea that this is just going to be an endless situation. Combine this with the idea put forth by [Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, and other people in the Justice Department, that the Executive has basically unchecked powers during a time of war because he's the Commander in Chief – welcome to the military dictatorship! Welcome to a situation where the Chief Executive has unchecked powers forever. Are we there yet? No, of course not, there are still some checks, there are still some balances, there are still some restraints. But the fact that they were able to advance this argument and not get shouted down or impeached is a sign that we're living in dangerous times in terms of maintaining American liberty.
JSP: The founding fathers have been invoked to support many of what I would call the co-opted or twisted uses of religion by the current administration. Were the Founding Fathers, as a whole, men of faith? How did faith play into their writing of the constitution and their structuring this new country?
J.R. Norton: The majority of the Founding Fathers had intense personal relationships with, if not religion, then with God. This was not a group of atheists. They were what would best be classified as deists, who believe in some sort of god, but not necessarily in a religious system that stems from that god. So they were respectful of people who had faith, but also were interested in putting together a government that worked, as opposed to a government that was just an arm of a church or worked hand in glove with the church. They had seen what happened in Europe in the preceding centuries, which is that religion essentially just became another way to make a power play, a way to gather money, and a way to gather military support. It touched off a string of horrific wars and they thought the best way to prevent this sort of situation, the best way to actually protect people who believe in religion and want to worship according to their own conscience, was to separate the Church and the State. The Constitution itself is a godless document – the only time religion and God really come into play is when it's suggested that religious oaths can't prevent you from taking office – which is almost a negative interpretation.
JSP: And that was a pretty radical idea ...
J.R. Norton: It was a very radical idea, and the 18th century equivalent of the Religious Right hated the Constitution. They said it disdained belief in a higher power, or in a heaven and a hell, and that's an accurate read – it's an extremely secular document and that was done with very deliberate intent. If you look at the way religion has flourished in America since the era of the country's founding, clearly, the Founding Fathers knew what they were doing. Religion has been very robust and very healthy, and it doesn't suffer from not being part of the State – it actually benefits. So do people who believe in anything other than what might be the majority, most powerful, religious perspective. I think the Founding Fathers were very far-sighted in how they handled the separation of Church and State and any attempt to say, "Well the Founding Fathers were Christians and they wanted this to be a Christian nation" is a flat-out lie and it is done for opportunistic reasons.
JSP: But that's exactly what has happened.
J.R. Norton: There is a quote from James Dobson of Focus on the Family, from a brochure, that says "The Constitution was designed to perpetuate a Christian Order." That is exactly wrong – they could not have possibly written that any more incorrectly than it was written in that pamphlet. Whether it was wishful ignorance or a deliberate lie, I'm not sure. Hamilton was asked why the document contained no reference to God except in the negative when it stated that a mandatory religious oath could not be used to prevent people from taking office and he said that the new nation was not in need of "foreign" aid. It's kind of an off the cuff joke, but it gets to the heart of it, that it was a secular document.
JSP: Didn't he also say in response to that another time, "We forgot"?
J.R. Norton: Yes, that's another remark he made.
JSP: How did the Founding Fathers think about science? And what about the unfortunate flipside of the current administration putting religious belief and religious conviction ahead of science in issues like AIDS prevention, stem cell research, or supporting the teaching of Intelligent Design?
J.R. Norton: The Enlightenment was a philosophy that was perfectly tailored for people who wanted to explore and push scientific boundaries. It's not an accident that Franklin was a leading natural scientist, Jefferson was a linguist, an architect, a naturalist, Washington was an agriculturalist, Hamilton was a very sophisticated economist. These guys respected trial and error, they respected looking at what the results were, controlling your experiments, thinking hard at what happened when you took a particular action.
I think we've swung all the way around into a realm where it's belief that counts, and if you believe that abstinence-only education, for example, is the religiously right thing to do, it doesn't really matter if it leads to more pregnancies, and more abortions, and more sexually transmitted diseases – that's not the point. The point is we shouldn't have sex before marriage. I think that kind of belief is fine in your own household, but if the idea is doing what's best for the public at large, as the Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers represented, we've gone very far from that indeed.