From among the the more disturbing expressions of the supposedly unquestionable authority of “the founders” idea, often expressed by conservatives, is this one from the Claremont Institute (conservative “thinktank”):
“The mission of the Claremont Institute is to restore the principles of the American Founding [Fathers]* to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.”
There is so much that typifies the modern conservative worldview in that premise—the preference for the male gender as the “rightful” creator of the the nation; the revanchist notion that something essential respecting core principles has been lost and must be restored; and the respect for a supreme authority, naturally assumed to exist as an ancient rather than modern expression of the ideals of the nation.
This premise of course assumes a number of things, for example: that the Claremont Institute’s understanding of “the principles” is correct; that further these principles rate a return to their “rightful, preeminent authority in our national life;” and of course especially that “original” ideas are always preferable to ones expressing a modern need and interpretation.
Maybe instead the founding principles were made with a view that they could be changed, and their understanding amended, as the needs of the people evolved over time.
Thomas Jefferson spoke to this:
“[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”
In fact, that is the very reason the Constitution of the United States comes with an “amend” button, allowing it to be changed. Now, obviously these changes are not made easily, but they can be made; and so the hallowed document is not a religious text, but a human one, and one which can be rightly viewed by later generations as being defective, and outdated, and in need of a fundamental change or amendment.
Nevertheless, there are certain ideas, such as freedom of speech and religion, and the idea of government being best which is kept to as small a size as is necessary, which do seem to have relevance still today. But the key consideration is the answering of the question what is “necessary”?
Whereas the United States at the time of the writing of the Constitution had three million people, today the population is over 100 times that, and the complexity of governing the nation is immensely greater than the founders could have ever imagined. In fact, this is a real problem for the people who want to treat the Constitution as a religious document, and especially as one which the people should revere but not actually read and understand. Our times and our needs are so different from the 18th century, that the Constitution has to be reinterpreted constantly in light of these immense differences, and rapidly-changing circumstances. Thus, it has to be interpreted flexibly, or it has to be amended to make it modernly relevant.
Moreover, addressing the above question about “necessity” regarding the size of the US government, even allowing for the great increase in the sophistication of modern technology, and its ability to process so much more data about so many more people than was the case in the era of feather pens and candlelight, the needs of a third of a billion modern Americans in a global economic and military empire demand a far more complex, larger, and fundamentally essential government than three million pre-industrial Americans required in 1789.
And, if their opinions should preeminently matter, the Founders intended this modern necessity to be successfully addressed! It was part of their plan and understanding that, regardless of their limited ability to project the exact nature of the differences of the world more than two centuries later, Americans of 2010 would need to adapt their founding document to the times and needs they faced.
Thus, there is no “rightful, preeminent authority” of the principles of the founders, even if you could reach a consensus on what those principles should be, except perhaps that change and necessity were matters best left to the determination of each generation of Americans, in accord with their particular needs and understandings.
*—Readers should note that the odd-sounding term “American Founding” is a phrase often used by Claremont writers, that is redacted to make it less egregious respecting the promotion of male gender superiority than what it actually means, “American Founding Fathers.”