The American founding was imperfect. America’s founders weren’t just aware of the point, they insisted on it: “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.” This bit of wisdom was central to the founding. In contrast, today, Republicans, continuing their departure from any serious understanding of American ideas and history, have taken to insisting that teaching about a flawed founding threatens the very foundations of the republic.
That would be news to the founders, who were often the Constitution’s most perceptive critics. In his closing speech at the Constitutional Convention, the only speech from the Convention to be published at the time, Benjamin Franklin confessed that he “did not entirely approve of this Constitution at the present.” Yet he acknowledged his own fallibility, noting that in time he might come to change his mind, and, given the circumstances, it wasn’t clear the Convention could “do better” than it had. This is no small thing, but inherent in the political philosophy of leading founders. To insist on a perfect founding is to misapprehend the thought of the founders themselves. The founders rejected the notion of a perfect political order. They built from low but solid ground by insisting on imperfection as an inescapable feature of political institutions crafted by human beings. And they built from experience, learning from the past, but knowing full well that the future was likely to require adjustments and improvements to our political institutions.