Some members of today's Congress, paralyzed in the face of a self-inflicted fiscal crisis, could learn from the real history of the fashioning of the Constitution. The essence of compromise is not just practicality - an imperfect solution is better than no solution at all - but humility. That idea was expressed well by the young nation's senior statesman on the final day of the Constitutional Convention.
Politicians have been enlisting the Founding Fathers in support of their causes for 200 years. To hear some people talk, it is truly amazing how contemporary these long dead men in their powdered wigs can be.
They do this because most Americans have only a passing knowledge of history. To them, all the "Founding Fathers" wear halos. They were all on the same team, working with God's blessing to free America from British rule and forge the perfect blueprint for governance, the Constitution.
At best, marshaling this mytho-history in support of current political debates requires a selective memory. We remember Thomas Jefferson for his genius, his many achievements in public and private life, and for the high principles and soaring prose in his Declaration of Independence.
We forget that he was as nasty a partisan as anyone on the current scene, whose below-the-belt attacks on fellow Founders - John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and even George Washington - helped create a divisiveness that threatened the survival of the American experiment.
We remember Patrick Henry for his courage and determination in rousing Virginians to support the revolution against the crown with his exhortation to "give me liberty or give me death." We forget that he was equally rabid in his opposition to ratifying the Constitution.
We remember James Madison as an essential author and advocate for the Constitution, and ignore his disastrous presidency, which included the conquest of Washington and the burning of the White House by British soldiers.
We hold the Constitution up as something just short of a sacred text, with conservatives and tea party-types especially dedicated to hewing to its original language. We forget that not every provision worked out as intended. After the election of 1800 nearly tore the young republic apart, Congress quickly removed a poorly-thought-out provision under which the losing presidential candidate became vice-president.
At worst, the invocation of the infallible Founders leads people to promiscuously rewrite history. Thus, presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann told an Iowa rally that "the very founders who wrote these documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States."
Actually, no. Many of the founders, Washington and Jefferson included, owned and traded in slaves. The document they crafted, far from ending slavery, established it in law and gave a political advantage to slave states by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation in Congress.
The thoughts and actions of the Founders should continue to inform current policy. Today's leaders do stand on their shoulders. But we can learn more from reality than from myths. Respect for the human fallibility of our most exalted historical figures should bestow a much-needed humility on those who follow in their footsteps.
Some members of today's Congress, paralyzed in the face of a self-inflicted fiscal crisis, could learn from the real history of the fashioning of the Constitution. As chairman of the Constitutional Convention, Washington kept its deliberations secret, but we know there were fierce debates and painful compromises.
The essence of compromise is not just practicality - an imperfect solution is better than no solution at all - but humility. As Tom Driscoll noted on our Holmes & Co. blog, that idea was expressed well by the young nation's senior statesman on the final day of the Constitutional Convention.
"Mr. President," Benjamin Franklin told the assembly, "I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged 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."
Not only did Franklin recognize that he might be wrong on the particulars, he understood that it would be unreasonable to expect any convention could enact a perfect Constitution:
"I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us... I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?
"Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better," Franklin concluded, "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."
Nothing would sound as strange to today's Washington - not to mention today's cable TV shout-fests - as the idea that one should consider sacrificing his opinions, or even his principles, to "the public good."
But that is exactly what is required of our leaders today. Politicians should stop exploiting the Founding Fathers and start learning from them.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at email@example.com.