Greg Gauthier has a thoughtful and thought-provoking post up at the Daily Anarchist titled “Who’s Your Daddy?”, wherein he questions the propensity to quote the Founding Fathers in support of this, that, and the other, and suggests it’s symptomatic of a juvenile lack of confidence in our own powers of intellect and judgment. As someone who’s quoted more than his fair share of Thomas Jefferson around here, I see his point, but have a slightly different take on the matter.
I’ve noted before that I interpret the trajectory of my life, from my enlistment in the Navy at age 17, to my early interest in the so-called Great Books of the Western World, to my conversion to Roman Catholicism, to my decision to go to law school, to my conversion to Quakerism, as a quest to understand and participate more deeply in the common sense and common wisdom of the society in which I live and from which I grew. Indeed, I can directly trace my gradual conversion to philosophical anarchism back to a conscious decision I made about 7 or so years ago to study and consider more closely the American Revolution and the establishment of the Constitution. As I recall, the first book I read in this endeavor was Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and the second book I read was Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser.
It’s been said that everything worth saying has already been said. There is nothing new under the sun. Our thoughts aren’t as original as we think. If I quote some luminary from the past, as I quoted Thoreau in my previous post, it’s probably partly because he’s said what I think better than I ever could and partly because I value and wish to invoke a tradition that unites us. I remember our class being assigned to read Thoreau (and not just Walden) by a public school teacher in the public high school I attended. My instincts are the opposite of heretical. I regard myself as a true disciple of the one true and self-evident religion. A “radical,” etymologically, is simply one who is drawn to the “root” of the matter. Where are the branches united if not at the root?
A note on Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts,” which I quoted at length in my last post: A modern reader might be inclined to think Thoreau’s essay not relevant today, since he was writing about the Fugitive Slave Law, and we have abolished Slavery. To the contrary, Thoreau was writing about an enormity committed by the State against a single man:
For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many per cent less since Massachusetts last deliberately sent back an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery.
We are fools if we cannot point to similar enormities deliberately and openly in the light of day committed against innocent men by the State and with our “consent” in the past year. Do we really imagine ourselves to be so much better than Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, or than the citizens of Massachusetts who suffered Anthony Burns to be robbed by a judge of his very freedom?