Our founder’s messy truths
Armstrong Williams | 7/11/2019, 6:48 p.m.
As we enter the 243rd year since our nation’s founding, there are signs of decline. One of the most pernicious symbols of our nation’s fall from grace is our inability to confront the truth when it conflicts with our politics. But even more damningly, we seem to even believe our own lies.
In his last letter, after a long illness and on the precipice of death, Thomas Jefferson wrote of the pursuit of truth: “All eyes are opened to opening to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves let the annual return of this day, forever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them.”
For Jefferson, the light of science proved the truth of mankind’s inherent freedom. He embraced what at the time was a fashionable trend in enlightenment philosophy and empiricism. It assumed that enlightened societies could be produced when democratic governments ruled with the consent of the governed and—critically—the populations of those societies had unfettered access to the truth. It is fundamentally about such objectivity and pursuit for truth that the founding fathers enshrined freedom of the press within the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution popularly known as the Bill of Rights. These rights were instituted by James Madison based on the experience the colonists had endured in Virginia, Jefferson’s home state.
It was evident that without enough information—enough truth that is—it was impossible even for a free people under a democratic government to intelligently exercise their freedoms. And without the enlightened exercise of democracy, the people might find themselves effectively re-enslaved.
It turns out Jefferson and the founders were wrong; well not so much wrong as naively hopeful. In today’s America, we do not necessarily rely upon objective truth in the process of making political decisions. The notion that people would act in accordance with the truth when faced with the facts has proven to be false. Instead, our political process has devolved to the point where even ‘facts’ have become the creatures of subjectivity. In order to construct convenient truths, one must erect “alternative facts.”
There are a host of critical issues affecting our nation’s progress. They range from immigration, to climate change, to health care, to international relations, to trade. These issues are not only complex in themselves, but inextricably intertwined with each other. They are intertwined because of the limits of our resources. Prioritizing one of these issues necessarily entails giving short shrift to another. The question as to whether we should uphold the promises of prior administrations—on treaties or amnesty for undocumented immigrants—poses challenges to the priorities of our current administration. There is a fundamental democratic question to be asked. Should our government yield to the consent of the governed? Or should it endure the strictures of prior governments?