First of all, I want to point out that I swiped this headline from a book by a former Wyoming governor, Jack Gage.
You have to be old to remember when Mr. Gage was the governor, an office he assumed sort of by accident. It all happened because Wyoming voters in 1958 were sort of peeved at a governor with a name rather familiar to Park County people, Milward Simpson.
I was only 14 at the time, so I don't remember exactly why people were mad at Mr. Simpson, although I'm pretty sure it didn't have anything to do with bovine metaphors regarding Social Security. It must have been something, though, because the people went to the polls that fall and elected a Democrat, Joe Hickey. Mr. Gage, also a Democrat, was elected Secretary of State.
Mr. Hickey was, like most Wyomingites, always upset at the federal government, despite his being a Democrat. As I remember, his particular beef with the feds was over what color the stripe down the middle of the highway should be.
A couple of years later, Wyoming elected a Republican senator, but he died a few weeks later and never took office. Mr. Hickey then decided to go to Washington to carry on the fight, so he resigned, thereby making Mr. Gage the acting governor. Mr. Gage promptly appointed Mr. Hickey to fill the senator's empty seat. Whether Mr. Gage did that because he wanted to reward Mr. Hickey or get even with him isn't clear.
But back to the book.
Outside of being a governor, Mr. Gage was something of a humorist, and he was quite interested in Wyoming history. That led him to write a book about some of the early explorers and mountain men who preceded the rest of us immigrants to the state. The title of the book was, “Wyoming Afoot and by Horseback, or, History Mostly Ain't True.”
Now the history mostly ain't true thing was a reference to the legends surrounding those early explorers. Some of them were actually true; others had a kernel of truth that was stretched, and some were pure fantasy.
Well, that untruthfulness of history isn't confined to legendary mountain men. We Americans have a lot of romantic notions about our history that aren't quite accurate. Chief among them is that our founding fathers were a collection of demi-gods who wrote a perfect Constitution, and all our troubles are because we are disobeying God by not following their directions to the letter.
Well, how much God had to do with the writing of the Constitution is debatable. George Washington, et. al. were, no doubt, influenced by Christianity, but they were also familiar with the ideas of prominent polytheists such as Plato, who, along with the Romans, gave us the concept of a republic. The Greeks also gave us the idea of democracy, and many, if not most, of the people who worked on the Constitution, including Washington, were influenced by Freemasonry, as well, and they were also influenced by the philosophies of The Enlightenment, a movement that emphasized reason and often questioned religion.
Moreover, these guys almost immediately began arguing about what the Constitution really meant. There was a big controversy over the creation of a national bank, for example, and the philosophical clashes between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams over the role of government are well known. James Madison, who prior to the Constitutional Convention envisioned a nation in which the states would become administrative districts, flip-flopped in later years and became a vehement states' rights supporter.
Sometimes these guys knowingly bent the Constitution. The most notable example is Jefferson, who agreed to purchase the Louisiana Territory, even though he himself thought it was an unconstitutional action. Apparently he considered asking for an amendment before submitting his proposal to Congress, but, in the interests of completing the sale before Napoleon changed his mind, decided to let the Congress decide whether he could do it or not. Congress, of course, agreed, and the precedent was set for buying Alaska and a chunk of Mexico in later years.
Today it is popular to say we should revert back to government as the founding fathers designed it, but which vision should we follow, that of the Federalists — Adams and Washington — or the Republicans — Jefferson and Madison?
In short, the notion that we can turn back the clock and reverse 200 years of history is misguided. The founding fathers, after all, could never have foreseen most of our current problems. Frankly, if they were as smart as we think they were, they certainly would have adjusted their view of government in the light of jet travel, electronic media and multi-national corporations.
Our government certainly needs to be reformed, but the solution is not found in glib slogans about the golden past through a fundamentalist interpretation of the Constitution and a rosy vision of our history.
That rosy history, after all, mostly ain't true.