Frankly, unless one is an anti-government anarchist at one end of the great ideological divide, or a totalitarian fascist on the other, it is always a matter of degree as to how much we have in common. Moreover, most persons’ rhetoric is more purist and extremist than where they stand in reality. There is a theory that says that rhetoric and semantics trends toward extremism, so that the great irony of pulling away from philosophical absolutes (embracing a relativist culture that puts opinion over truth) is that we veer away from diversity and pluralism and closer to divisive demagoguery on the left and the right in our civic politics.
Part of the difficulty in comparing the Founding Fathers’ positions with our own is the fact that we differ so much from them on a wide variety of religious, political, and cultural matters.
Of course, “the Law of Nature and of Nature’s God,” as Jefferson very carefully wrote in the Declaration of Independence, is by definition an unchanging absolute. Today, we may be more inclined to speak of this reality as “human nature” and as “divine revelation.” Regardless, what the Founding Fathers may have said about those matters must be as pertinent today as then, simply because “human nature” and “divine revelation” are today what they were then.
We are not speaking about higher law, though. Instead, we are talking about policies then and now that are comparable in a very limited and analogous sense. For example, I mention the British Empire as a kind of predecessor to the global superstate model. Still, King George III’s empire existed before Napoleon, before Metternich, before Bismarck, before the League of Nations, before the United Nations, before the Bretton Woods Agreement, before the World Trade Organization, and before the internet connected people instantly from the Congo to the Shangri La. Now, I can try to extrapolate from their arguments at the time to make an educated guess as to what they would have argued today, but in the end it will be an educated guess colored as much by my own interpretative bias as by any objective methodology.
I do not mean to suggest that we cannot learn anything from the past. Nor am I saying that all comparisons between past and present can be relegated to the level of opinion. I respect the historical method. I contend that the opinion of a man well studied in history and in the historical method will develop an opinion that is likely closer to truth than the opinion of a man not so well studied. The same holds true of all the many social sciences, such as political science, sociology, and economics.
Nevertheless, the kernels of truth to be found in the historical analysis of even the most respected of historians must be carefully separated from his own biases. That is not easy to do. Like the economist, the historian must be willing always to test his own findings and to take in with an open mind the opinions of his peers, so long as his peers also have employed the historical method like in their own deliberations.
The task would be easier if we could consider an example closer to home. If a British colony declared its independence from the UK in more recent times, and if those revolutionaries penned a similar set of documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and if those revolutionaries had retained, more or less, the moral and cultural outlook of our own Founding Fathers (meaning, of course, this theoretical colony would have had to have existed in a cocoon from the late eighteenth to the mid twentieth centuries), then we would be better able to speculate as to how our Founding Fathers would have responded to the policy questions of our time.
Nevertheless, the colonies that declared their independence from the UK in the mid twentieth century consisted mostly of areas where the Anglos were an ethnic and a cultural minority. Ghandi is a great man, but he is about as far from Washington as the Dalai Lama. There is no real modern day comparison, therefore, to our own Founding Fathers.
As a result, the Founding Fathers are more iconic than illustrative. By that I mean that we can and should celebrate them; but on the level of modern day policy questions they tell us less than what our pre-existing biases insist that they will tell us.
Does that mean that the Founding Fathers no longer matter to us? I would say that indeed they still very much matter to us, but that is the case because several of them had something to say about the higher law (human nature and divine revelation) that remains as profound and as relevant then as now. In other words, for me the Founding Fathers remain relevant because I am interested in what they have to say to us about first principles.
Tariff policies then versus now are too remote from one another to be very illustrative as to what tariffs, if any, we should have today. On the other hand, the Book of Genesis allusions that Jefferson clearly makes in the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence really mattered then, and matter just as much today, with respect to higher questions of man’s nature, of man’s capacity for self-governance, of man’s necessity to some degree to be governed, and of the necessity of that same government to be limited.