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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bachmann, Thomas, and John Quincy Adams

In this crazy, mixed-up world, at least all of us can agree on one thing: John Quincy Adams was not a Founding Father.  In attempting to justify her statement to the contrary, Michele Bachmann told an interviewer: “John Quincy Adams most certainly was a part of the Revolutionary War era. He was a young boy but he was actively involved.”

I don't mean to make too much fun of Bachmann for her defense of her statement.*  But I thought it would be fun to contrast Bachmann's views with those of another originalist, Clarence Thomas.  Writing in this week's Brown v. EMA decision, in a somewhat bizarre version of originalism, Thomas is at pains to argue that founding-era views concerning children, and parental authority over them, is such that the freedom of speech can't possibly be understood "to include a right to speak to minors (or a corresponding right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors' parents."  Children around the revolutionary era, Thomas opines, were viewed as "blank slates" who "lacked reason and decisionmaking ability," and the laws reflected the view that "children were not fit to govern themselves."

Since JQA was nine around the time the Revolutionary War broke out, I think it is fair to say that on Thomas's reading, Bachmann must be wrong.  A minor who lacks reason and decisionmaking ability and is not fit to govern himself can, at most, be said to be a founding child -- and one, at that, who should be seen and not heard -- but not a freely participating, autonomous founding father.  Q.E.D. 

* I do reserve the right to mock those who attempted to edit JQA's Wikipedia page to call him a "founding father."  And I do want to acknowledge that all politicians, of all political stripes, commit gaffes of this kind, and that figures like Palin and Bachmann might be subject to disproportionate public and media scrutiny and mockery for doing what everyone else does from time to time.  Of course, when Barack Obama mistakenly referred to the "57" states of the United States of America, he did not, unlike Bachmann, stubbornly insist on defending a proposition that was patently false.  Why it would have been harder simply to say "Oops!" is beyond me.   As Goldwater used to say, obstinacy in the defense of error is no virtue.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on June 29, 2011 at 03:22 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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Comments

In the spirit of compromise, maybe we could all just agree that John Quincy Adams was a Founding Son? Could we get Bachmann on board with that?

Posted by: MJT | Jun 30, 2011 11:56:22 AM

But Paul, your post states:

In this crazy, mixed-up world, at least all of us can agree on one thing: John Quincy Adams was not a Founding Father.


Nice pivot to:

I was bothered by what Bachmann said, it was not her error (as I see it) -- happens to all of us -- but her bothering to defend it, simultaneously confidently and weakly. I don't think the press should overfocus on gaffes, but I don't think the gaffe-makers ought to stand so fiercely by what appear to be casual errors or overstatements -- let alone, as in the case of her supporters, trying to make Wikipedia entries conform to these statements.

Posted by: anymouse | Jun 30, 2011 10:59:59 AM

Dear Sir or Madam:

It appears that we, indeed, don't know much about history.

Why is everybody - on both sides of this debate - missing the most famous example of the Founding Fathers' work to end slavery?

See 'Michele Bachmann: Est-elle faible? (Is she weak?)': http://t.co/74CIZZa

Sincerely,
Ronald Grey
http://ronaldgrey.com

Posted by: Ronald Grey | Jun 30, 2011 8:25:56 AM

Let me just briefly respond by saying that JQA's record as a young man was certainly impressive, and his service as a "secretary" put him at the center of many important developments. And we could parse our way to a justification of calling him a founding father. But I would find such parsing unpersuasive. For good reason we don't normally think of him as a founding father. In particular, Bachmann's saying that he was a founding father because he was "a part of the Revolutionary War era" as a "boy" is hardly the best defense of what seems to me to have been a simple, and quite forgivable, mistake. To the extent I was bothered by what Bachmann said, it was not her error (as I see it) -- happens to all of us -- but her bothering to defend it, simultaneously confidently and weakly. I don't think the press should overfocus on gaffes, but I don't think the gaffe-makers ought to stand so fiercely by what appear to be casual errors or overstatements -- let alone, as in the case of her supporters, trying to make Wikipedia entries conform to these statements.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jun 30, 2011 7:43:37 AM

I would not call JQA a founding father, but I would be much more forgiving of Bachmann's remark were it not for her trying to defend it based on JQA's activities during the "Revolutionary War." There is a lot of imprecision in what we mean by the "founding-era" --- the term can cover anything from before 1776 to somewhere around the end of the Madison presidency. I think it would be forgivably imprecise to say that JQA was an important figure during the founding era; during the Revolutionary War, not so much.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 30, 2011 12:27:36 AM

Involvement of substance implies policy-making input (with the further implication that "heavy" involvement requires some greater amount of input and, perhaps, effect). As a result, it's a bit of a stretch to conclude from the premise that John Quincy Adams served as a secretary to his father and Francis Dana during the Revolutionary War that he was "involved" at all. Of course, some secretaries have a greater role than others, but I suspect that John Quincy was exclusively a note taker and translator, rather than a civil servant expected to serve policy-making and policy-implementation roles.

Posted by: Patrick Luff | Jun 29, 2011 9:50:56 PM

"no-one assumes Newt Gingrich doesn't know his history in the same way"

I don't recall people caring much about her knowledge of history until she made a few amusing sounding gaffes. Did Newt make similar gaffes that were ignored? Don't recall. I do know that by now Newt is saying so many silly things that lots don't take him seriously.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 29, 2011 8:45:26 PM

I know it's a stretch, but JQA was an adult and admitted to the bar in 1789. Perhaps more salient, a mere 5 years later in 1794, JQA was appointed minister to the Netherlands.

Even before that though, JQA was heavily involved. When he was 14 (which would be 1781 or so), he was on a delegation which sought Russian recognition of the nascent United States. Even before that, from 1778 on, he was accompanying his father on his diplomatic postings in Europe.

I admit I don't have a terribly positive opinion of Bachmann either, and several gaffes (EG the John Wayne Gacy one) are just baffling. On the other hand, her statement about JQA ("John Quincy Adams most certainly was a part of the Revolutionary War era. He was a young boy but he was actively involved.") is factually right on the money.

The attitude of her critics seems to essentially be "she's so right wing, and she's flaky," she can't possibly know anything. In fact, like many extremists on both the ring and left wing, she's quite well read - she just doesn't have the sophistication that goes with that reading. Attempts to catch her on the facts largely devolve to "well, she's a flake and a crazy Christian conservative, she didn't actually mean to say something so knowledgeable, and is just trying to recover from her gaffe."

Seems rather patronizing. And dare I say it, no-one assumes Newt Gingrich doesn't know his history in the same way.

Posted by: Ubertrout | Jun 29, 2011 8:05:35 PM

Her comment is as stupid as saying that "Texas has always been a pretty Republican state, for, you know, historic reasons."

Posted by: anymouse | Jun 29, 2011 7:06:52 PM

Fair point, TJ! Although I take it you're not seriously arguing that JQA was a founding father.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jun 29, 2011 6:24:10 PM

OK, I buy that ordinary people usually (and accurately) talk about "the founding" as 1776. But in legal debates about constitutional meaning the relevant time is usually 1789, when Adams would have been an adult.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 29, 2011 6:08:26 PM

He quoted John Adams on the point. Now, quoting some letter he (not a Framer btw) wrote in 1776 seems to me of limited value, but for your purposes, that is a bit amusing. He also quotes Madison, but women didn't generally "vote" at the time too, so that proves a bit much.

If they were so unreasoned, btw, how could they be charged with crimes, liable in fact to be executed for them?

Posted by: Joe | Jun 29, 2011 3:41:32 PM

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