Principles, principles, principles

I have been a bit surprised, in this chaotic, fascinating, maddening, terrifying election cycle, how infrequently the principles of the founding fathers have been invoked on the republican side of the house.  Usually, a class focusing on religion and the revolution can count on a good collection of material from a presidential election, or at least a few entertainingly inaccurate historical statements about the founding era that can provoke some good methodological discussions along the lines of “how would we know if that broad generalization was true about some group of men we’d choose as founding fathers?”

This time the threads have been looser, but the connections between the classroom and the public debate have been there nonetheless.  Right now in class the students are hard at work culling early American newspapers between 1764 and 1789 for subjects that have to do with religion.  There are two criteria – either the article in question has the word “religion” in it, or it focuses around a subject that the student feels has something to do with religion.  They have generated a list of tags to code these articles, and our analysis of these roughly 265 articles will proceed accordingly.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the students talked about values and principles in their midterm exams, though the subject faded a bit when we selected topics.  It re-emerged – I’m hypothesizing – in our keywords, which include liberty, morals, freedom, and tyranny, as well as a freedom/slavery nexus keyword.  Liberty and freedom are, as the students recognized, blank conceptual spaces that writers then and now fill with all kinds of images.  But they are also the kinds of “principles” that a political observer would expect to hear a conservative candidate using to describe the nation and its founding era.

As the students are following that thread, the word principles has come back in another form.  The well-funded anti-Trump super pac run by a former Romney aide has taken as its name “Our Principles Pac.” Its splash page starts, unsurprisingly, with a quote from Thomas Jefferson. Conservatives have long embraced the notion that principles, particularly when they are enumerated and analyzed in the abstract, for the core of their movement.  Examples of this practice can be found here and here.  Sometimes, as here at the American Conservative Union, they’re merely invoked, without enumeration. Conservative Christian leaders use the same language, and so do conservative politicians.

The threads between these discussions, one in the classroom and one in the public sphere, are untied, and they both reflect a general, non-partisan interest in the meaning of the founding era as somehow transcendent.  (Republicans have no corner on the market of invoking the founding, as Andrew Schocket has explained.)  My students (of whose politics and religious perspectives I am entirely ignorant) are engaged in an effort to find religion in historical sources, and they put principles under the category of religion.  Yet I believe the two discussions are also linked in another way.  For two generations, conservative Christians and conservative political groups have hammered away at the word principles, and continually reengaged the process of seeking principles.  As I’ve written elsewhere, in this effort it’s the process of engaging principles that’s meaningful, not the specific principles that emerge, about which there is only generalized agreement.  But different lists of principles don’t tear apart conservatives any more than the distinctions over minor points of theology divide mainline protestants.  When my students look for “principles,” whether on an exam or in a research project, they are moving into conceptual territory that has been dominated by particular communities.

Those communities in no way determine the outcomes my bright, investigative students will come to.  I am continually impressed by the creative and fascinating things students come up with.   More over, my own agenda is to remain faithful to the eighteenth century.  If I have a dog in this fight, it’s methodological.  Disputes about the twenty-first century don’t need to do violence to the eighteenth.  Let’s learn about history, acknowledge it for what it was, be grateful we have modern conveniences, and attack our current problems with thoughtful vigor.

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