Opinion | This 4th of July, let us declare our independence from the Founding Fathers

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Two hundred and forty-six years ago, Americans did an extraordinary thing by declaring their independence from a colonial government imposed from a great distance by the cruel and arbitrary hand of oppression. And now is the time for us to declare our own independence, from the fetishism of the Founding Father.

This is not a call to repudiate the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and wrote the Constitution. We don’t have to tear down every statue of them (although, frankly, statues don’t do anyone much good), or present them only as villains in our national story.

But we need to break free of the toxic belief that these men were perfect in all things, vessels of sacred wisdom that must unite our society today, no matter how much harm it may cause.

As we have seen recently, the American right has found in the framers of the Constitution an extraordinarily effective tool with which they can roll back social progress and undermine our democracy. It may have found its most ridiculous manifestation in the Tea Party movement that arose when Barack Obama was president, when people started strutting around in tricorn hats and all the Republicans were is supposed to have a favorite Founder. But today it has gone from an affectation to a weapon, and a brutally effective one at that.

We saw it in the recent Supreme Court decisions that overloaded the legal philosophy of “originalism” on abortion and guns. Reproductive rights, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. said, are not found in the explicit words of the Constitution nor are they “deeply rooted in the history and traditions of the Nation,” so they do not exist as rights. As for states that want to regulate guns, Justice Clarence Thomas said, only regulations that have “clearly similar historical regulation” from the 18th century will be allowed. The America of 1789 becomes a prison where conservative judges can lock us all up whenever it suits them.

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Originalism was a scam from the start, a sure-fire methodology for conservatives to arrive at any judicial outcome that matches their political preferences: Pick a few quotes from the Federalist Papers, cite an obscure 1740 Virginia colony ordinance that one of his employees unearthed, then assert that the Scriptures lead us inexorably to a single result.

By happy coincidence, that outcome is always what Republicans seek. Anyone who disagrees, or shows how absurd the right-wing historical analysis is, even on its own terms, is simply not respecting the divine will of the artificers.

I am not a medium, able to communicate with redactors through the mists of time, and neither is anyone on the Supreme Court. But I suspect that they themselves would find the originalist project as practiced by the right to be absolutely absurd. Imagine if you could go back in time and describe to them the idea that, hundreds of years from now, we would all be subject to their statements and the condition of their society. They would probably say, “That sounds crazy.”

But this is the concept of the right today: the Founders were essentially perfect, and only we conservatives are capable of interpreting their will.

One of the lies conservatives tell—and cling to even more fiercely in the face of new interpretations of history—is that the foundation and the men behind it were simple and easy to understand.

But like the country they shaped, they were complicated. They were bright and visionary, and weak and compromised. It does not diminish their achievements to see that they were human beings.

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So what do you do with a figure like Thomas Jefferson? He had one of the most extraordinary minds of his time, capable of crafting brilliant works of political philosophy that we read to this day and designing structures that still stand today. However, he too property of other human beings.

The answer conservatives have is that we must shield our eyes from Jefferson’s shortcomings (along with those of the other enslavers among the Founders). If you’re Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, you take public school teachers to a “civics education” seminar where they’re said to instruct children that Jefferson and George Washington were principled in their opposition to slavery; perhaps the children don’t bother to ask why that opposition was never so firmly held that it extended to the men, women, and children they held captive.

But trust me, kids can handle complexity. They want complexity. They walk through a rapidly changing world every day and deal with that change much better than adults.

That’s the thing about the United States: it’s all about change, and always has been. At its best, it’s about imagination, dynamism and progress. So it was in 1776, and so it is now.

We are a country full of achievements and shortcomings, virtues and vices. We have more Nobel Prize winners than any other nation, and yet we are the only highly developed country that does not provide health coverage to all of its citizens. We invent new sports and music genres and watch them spread across the world, but alarmingly few of us speak more than one language. People everywhere have a thirst for American culture and dream of coming here, but they see our unrealistic levels of carnage and don’t understand how we can live in a society drowning in guns.

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I have never been more afraid for the future of America than I am now; there are good reasons to believe that the democracy we began to forge two and a half centuries ago may not survive the next decade. And the people most willing to strangle her are the very ones who most loudly proclaim their devotion to the Founders.

So we have to get rid of those men. We must study them, understand them and honor the great things they did. But they were not gods. They cannot lead us to a future of freedom and justice. We have to do it for ourselves.