Happy Independence Day
(And an Ode to Petty Political Squabbling)
By Ken K. Gourdin
I am a lawyer by training, if not by profession (I have a law degree, but am not licensed). Something students learn quickly in law school (if they don’t learn it before getting there, in—for example—classes about rhetoric and debate) is how to advocate for positions with which they might not necessarily agree. When I was in college, I was assigned to write a paper on the mythical version of a historical figure; that is, not to examine the person himself, but rather to examine “mythology,” if you will, that sprung up around the person.
I selected the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I have always admired Dr. King. I have always been fascinated both by the civil rights era and by Dr. King’s role in it. I don’t know his mind, but if I had been he, I would not have felt equal to the mantle which fell upon him by virtue of the key role he played in the civil rights movement. Still, I believe he was a great man. He certainly was one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century. (In fact, for a drama class I took in college, when we were assigned to prepare a piece for single-actor dramatic presentation I chose Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech). Every Martin Luther King Day, I try to read his Letter From Birmingham Jail. As great a man as he was, however, he was not perfect. He had flaws and made mistakes, just as we all do.
As with all public figures, there were those—even within his own race—who were critical of the occasional differences between Dr. King’s public persona and his private behavior, and who were critical of stances he took on issues which, arguably, were only tangentially related (if they were related at all) to civil rights. In order to deconstruct the myth that has arisen around Dr. King, I deliberately consulted sources which, due to his private flaws and his stances on arguably-tangential issues, were critical of him. My professor’s comment (after he found out I wrote the paper—I had forgotten to put my name on it, and he wrote, “Sharon, find out whose this is”; Oops!) when he returned it to me was, “Personally, I reverence the mythical version of King.” I was quick to reply, “I do, too.”
Given my title, you’ve probably long since begun asking yourself, “Why the long diversion about Dr. King? What does this have to do with Independence Day?” (And what does either have to do with petty political squabbling?) The short answer is, I feel the same way about the Founding Fathers as I feel about Dr. King: I reverence them as mythological, heroic, larger-than-life figures. At the same time, I know they weren’t perfect (to say the least!). A frequent lament is embodied in a question most often asked by conservatives: “Where have all the Statesmen gone? If only our politicians of today were more like the Founding Fathers of yesterday!”
Yes, the Founders laid the foundation of a government which has endured for 225 years now. Yes, they were acutely aware that if the experiment in federalism on which they had embarked had failed, it was not likely to be tried again anytime soon anywhere else. Yes, when they began their Revolt, they were prepared to “all hang together,” lest they “all hang separately.” Yes, Patrick Henry did say, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
But guess what? The more I look into the history of founding events such as the Constitutional Convention, the more I realize that if many of the Founding Fathers were Statesmen, they were Statesmen unwittingly (and perhaps even unwillingly). They were politicians (be sure to say that as though it were an epithet!) almost as much (if not as much) as anyone holding office today. They were nearly as prone to petty political squabbling then as are the politicians of today. If you were to poll the fifty-odd delegates to the Constitutional Convention about any given issue, you might (just as with the politicians of today) get a hundred and fifty different opinions! Perhaps, to quote Shakespeare, the Founders had greatness “thrust upon them” more than they were “born” to it or than they “achieve[d]” it.
It’s said that law is like sausage: one doesn’t necessarily want to watch either one of them get made! (It isn’t pretty!) And just because the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land doesn’t mean that it was exempt from that adage. (Supreme sausage is still sausage, after all!) Just as with the political issues being debated today, a good deal of compromise was necessary in order to make the Constitution a reality. Did all of the delegates get everything they wanted? No, of course not. (If they’d tried, the Convention would still be in session today.) But enough of them got enough of what they wanted to make the Constitution a reality.
Perhaps it’s unseemly even to ponder the possibility that something as noble as the Constitution could have arisen from “horse trading and wheeling-and-dealing.” But you know what? Petty political squabbling and base politicking notwithstanding, human foibles notwithstanding, unwitting-ness (and perhaps unwillingness) of statesmanship notwithstanding, “horse trading and wheeling-and-dealing” notwithstanding, just as I do with Dr. King, I do reverence the mythic version of the Founding Fathers and of the Constitution they created. I do think they were great men, imperfections notwithstanding. I know that they did a great thing in establishing the foundation of the government under which I live today—and that’s a great accomplishment almost as much (if not more) because of their humanity as because of their greatness.
And so I say, long live unwitting and unwilling statesmen. Long live multiple opinions in the same person about the same issue. Long live having greatness thrust upon one, even if he neither was born to it, nor sought it out, nor achieved it precisely of his own will. Long live sausage making. Long live “horse trading and wheeling-and-dealing.” Long live human foibles. Long live petty political squabbling. God bless America (because we need all of the help we can get with people like this in charge)! But if something as great as the Constitution can arise (even out of all of this), I’m all for it!
 I have discussed my admiration for Dr. King elsewhere. See Ken K. Gourdin (January 24, 1992), “The King legend lives on,” The Dixie Sun (St. George, Utah: Dixie College [now Dixie State]) 10. Also available on this blog at http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/in-praise-of-mlk-jr