Americans are awfully good at name-dropping. We spit out the names of Founding Fathers and other important people–people we hardly know at all–and hope it makes what we have to say somehow sound more important.

It doesn’t. In fact, a single misuse of some important person’s name can make you sound like a pretentious wannabe highbrow more than an accurate use will make you sound like an actual highbrow.

But I digress. My point, in short, is that in a culture that practically trembles at the name of Jefferson or Madison or Hamilton, we perhaps try a little too hard to attach those names to our favored political dogmas.

In truth, none of us can say for certain what Jefferson would think of America in the 21st century. We really don’t know what Madison would say about the present-day Republican Party. Or Hamilton about the Democratic Party. We can make educated guesses. But to make nuanced, multi-faceted, often-inconsistent men from hundreds of years ago into the spokespeople for our modern movements is amateurish.

We can still learn from what they had to say, of course. But most of us don’t–we don’t even try. Instead, we sloppily throw out their names because they demand attention and impress audiences.

During the Trump presidency, for example, progressives took a sudden liking to James Madison. The fourth President of the United States famously feared majority rule and unbridled populism. Apparently, this made him anti-Trump

Progressives seemed to forget, however, that Madison also advocated for a fairly rigid interpretation of the Constitution and abhorred the idea of a national bank on the merits of its unconstitutionality. The power to create a national bank was, in his words, “not expressly delegated” to the government.

SEE ALSO: We stand in the shadow of heroes. Let’s act worthy of them.

As he told George Washington, “it is an essential principle… that powers not delegated by the Constitution cannot [emphasis added] be rightfully exercised . . . .” (How many progressive-sponsored programs have violated this principle?)

Ironically, the Democratic Party also took a liking to big-government guru Alexander Hamilton (and no, I’m not just talking about Hillary Clinton’s obsession with the Broadway musical). Yet both men came to disagree markedly about the intended relationship between the government and Constitution. It was, after all, Hamilton who championed the bank Madison so ardently despised.

Did progressives know about these complicated differences? Or did they just assume that “Madison and Hamilton would agree…” because it lent merit to their modern political talking points?

This doesn’t mean small government folks can claim Madison as their own, either. Most people in that camp would be shocked at just how powerful the central government Madison pushed for at the Constitutional Convention really would have been.

The fact is these men may be on our side in some ways but certainly not in others. I can’t imagine many of the Founders would agree with progressive luminary Woodrow Wilson’s assessment that the “chief greatness” of the Constitution lies in its “elasticity.” Nor can I imagine they’d be overfond of Trump.

So what’s my point?

Get to know the Founders. The men who built our nation were unusually brilliant intellectuals who shouldn’t be made into our image; their intricate, complicated ideas shouldn’t be reduced to pithy platitudes. Don’t appropriate their names to score political points against your opponents. Actually learn from them.

There’s nothing wrong with name-dropping a few Founders every now and then. But before we invoke their weighty memory and wisdom, we owe it to them to at least know who they really were.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

About The Author