Founding fathers did [fill in the blank], so it must be OK! That’s the logic senate candidate uses to defend… cockfighting

This is absurd, of course, but in a way very telling.  Matt Bevin, who is challenging Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky Republican senatorial primary, here defends his appearance at a rally promoting, I kid you not dear readers, cockfighting.

when you look at cockfighting and dogfighting as well…This isn’t something new, it wasn’t invented in Kentucky for example. I mean the Founding Fathers were all many of them very involved in this and always have been.

Look, I’m as much into watching two animals trained only for killing senselessly tear each other gruesomely apart for no apparent reason, and betting on the results, as much as the next guy (that is, assuming the next guy is a member of the ASPCA).  And of course Bevin’s suggestion that “all” of the founders participated in cockfighting or dogfighting in some way is preposterous.   But let’s let to the more relevant point here: the idea that anything done by the founders, ipso facto, must at the very least not be completely reprehensible.  Let’s unpack that just a bit on a busy Friday.

It’s absolutely true that Virginia folk loved horseracing (fun fact: in the picture in that article, taken around 1997, you can see yours truly in costume, toward the back of the picture, holding my tricorn in the air).  Nonetheless, no reputable historian can even imagine John Adams or John Witherspoon putting hard cash on animal fighting of any kind.

First and most obviously, this kind of thinking, that the founders’ actions always set a positive precedent, could be (and has been) used to defend pretty much any sort of retrograde racial or gendered policy, including racial profiling all the way to slavery. Just as insidiously, it can lead to all sorts of mental gymnastics to excuse the founders for their reprehensible behaviors that we decide are not praiseworthy.  That’s why we’ve seen the spectacle of Glenn Beck claiming that the Constitution’s 3/5th clause, which allowed for counting of every five slaves as three people for the purpose of determining representation in Congress, was a measure designed with an eye toward eliminating slavery.  Even the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation seems to know better.  So where does this kind of thinking come from?  From Cleon Skousen’s The Making of America, which Beck touted on his TV show.  Scary stuff.

Remember folks, and this comes from your friendly neighborhood historian: when politicians invoke the founding fathers, always ask yourself, is it to make an historical analogy, is it for a rhetorical flourish, or is it to claim authority for something that, on second thought, could or should not be justified using relevant evidence and logic.

Whatcha thinkin'?

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