The Washington Post is running a story on a series of classes being held around the country; the classes are based on the premise that the wisdom of the Founders contains the answers to the problems we face today. Here's the story: Conservative class on Founding Fathers' answers to current woes gains popularity. (Hat tip to The Western Confucian.)
While the background and content of the courses looks more than a little dodgy, the impulse behind looking to the wisdom of the Founders is a recurring phenomena in American civic life, and is one of the reasons why balanced historical scholarship on the Founding period is so important. Bad scholarship can lead us to draw the wrong conclusions about the past, and when we look to the past to guide us in future behavior, bad scholarship can lead us seriously astray. While the idea of having civic groups meet to study the Founders' ideas and their relevance for today is a great one -- I wish these sorts of study groups were very common across the country -- they really won't do much good if all they offer is a candy-coated and ideologically-driven presentation of the Founders' ideas.
And of course, this isn't just a problem that bedevils conservative groups that are getting all the attention today. The ideological manipulation of American history is as much a part of the tradition of the Left as it is of the Right. And in either case, it isn't helpful. Again, this doesn't mean that history can be presented in a completely neutral fashion -- but it does mean that a white-washed view of history, one that overlooks aspects of of the Founding period that is uncongenial to one's own ideological views, isn't being honest to the Founders as they actually were.
So, along with the good things about the Founders (however me might define those things), we need to address the bad things about them as well. For every scrappy Alexander Hamilton working his way up from poverty to influence based on his wits and the sweat of his brow, there is an aristocrat like Thomas Jefferson propounding the principles of liberty while his slaves toil by the sweat of their brows to afford him the luxury of his principles. We need to tell the full story, to see the Founders as great men, but like all men limited and frail and (if I am allowed to use some religious language) sinful. Otherwise, in our ideological narrowness, we will miss some of the most important lessons that the Founders' have to teach us.