Mt. Rushmore Myth

The following is an article I wrote for

Two million people travel annually to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. The imposing sculptures of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln have become a symbol of the American spirit. The artist in charge of the project, Gutzon Borglum, intended his work to be a summary of the first 150 years of American history, but the choice of figures has helped create a lasting problem in American history: who owns the founding tradition? Borglum has led many Americans to believe that Lincoln and Roosevelt constitute the bridge between the founding generation and the modern era. While there were certainly times Lincoln and Roosevelt could rhetorically sound like the Founders, their actions do not mesh with the principles of that generation. Lincoln and Roosevelt helped create a “new” United States, perverted the founding documents and ruined the founding principles of limited government and state sovereignty.

The true expositors of the founding tradition are not the sectional president, Lincoln, or the first progressive president, Roosevelt; they are two Unionists who are often classified as Southern extremists: John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia. These men were on the cusp of the founding generation. Calhoun was born in 1782 and Randolph in 1773. They were too young to participate in first events of the early republic but knew many of the participants. Most importantly, they understood what the founding generation meant by “union.”

The Founders forged a union based on the consent of the States – a compact among them – for their benefit through defense and commerce. They recognized sectional differences and knew that these differences should be respected. Thus, many in this generation, Northerners and Southerners alike, cautiously guarded the interests of their communities through the sovereignty of the states. As long as the benefits and burdens of the union were distributed equally, they suffered and prospered together. Such had been the case in the War for Independence. No one conceived that one section or one faction should have the right to plunder the other. Madison insisted in Federalist No. 10 that the Constitution was written to protect against such infractions. Early American documents are littered with statements in defense of a mutually beneficial union. All that ceased in the following two generations.

In an 1833 speech, Calhoun made the following observation:

“In the same spirit, we are told that the Union must be preserved, without regard to the means. And how is it proposed to preserve the Union? By force! Does any man in his senses believe that this beautiful structure – this harmonious aggregate of States, produced by the join consent of all – can be preserved by force? Its very introduction will be certain destruction of this Federal Union. No, no. You cannot keep the States united in their constitutional and federal bonds by force. Force may, indeed, hold the parts together, but such union would be the bond between master and slave: a union of exaction on one side, and of unqualified obedience on the other.”

Such is what Lincoln accomplished through the War Between the States. The South was forced to remain “loyal” under the yoke of the federal government. He preserved the “union,” but not the union of the Founders. It was a union of Lincoln’s and the Republican Party’s creation.

Randolph, in similar fashion, lectured Northern secessionists during the War of 1812 for their stand against the good of the whole. He reminded them that the South had stood shoulder to shoulder with the North during the Revolution and that Virginia had sacrificed far more for the good of the Union by ceding her western lands to the central government than any Northern state in the history of the confederation. Each section suffered due to British hostility, and though Randolph personally opposed the war and foreign alliances, he believed secession during a time of war damaged the prospects of opposition. New England had its chance to secede in 1807 following the Embargo Act, a time of peace, but 1814 was a different story. He said, “Our Constitution is an affair of compromise between the States, and this is the master-key which unlocks all its difficulties.”

Randolph was the consistent defender of state sovereignty throughout his career, and he clung to the union of the “good old thirteen states.” Likewise, Calhoun insisted that state’s rights was the traditional policy of the founding generation. He called Jefferson “the true and faithful expositor of the relation between the States and General Government,” and labeled the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 “the rock of our political salvation” in a letter to the citizens of Philadelphia. Only through a firm reliance on state’s rights could the government be brought “back…to where it was, when it commenced.”

It must be noted that Randolph did not trust Calhoun, and he considered nullification a foolish doctrine (he preferred secession, and did not see how a state could remain in the Union after it nullified a federal law), but when Andrew Jackson as president threatened to use force to coerce South Carolina during the Nullification Controversy of 1832, Randolph said he would strap his “dying body” to his horse “Radical” and enter the field of battle rather than see a sovereign state threatened by the bayonet.

From the 1880 through the 1908 presidential election, there was consistently a clear divide between the North and South. The South voted one way, the North another. Both sections implicitly recognized that the Union was dominated by the North, and no election showcased this more clearly than Roosevelt’s victory over Alton Parker in the 1904 election. Roosevelt was not a “national” candidate; he was a sectional one with sectional support. He was not the heir of the Founding Fathers and the founding principles of limited government, state’s rights, neutrality, and peaceful trade. He was a bully, an imperialist, and a man who used executive power in a way the founding generation consistently warned against.

Why does this matter? Because Americans are still burdened by factional government and the tyranny of elected despots. We now witness a rural/urban conflict along with a North/South split. Half the population can take from the other half and Americans feel helpless in wake of the political onslaught of “progressivism.” But there is hope. Americans still have power in their state and local communities. The states are still sovereign, and Americans have more control over their state and local representatives than those in congress or the executive branch. If Americans recognize that the Union must burden and benefit all equally, as the founding generation, Calhoun, and Randolph emphasized, than there is still hope to salvage the founding principles of the United States. Otherwise, the Founding Fathers will continue to be eliminated from our historical consciousness or will be perverted by progressives such as Barack Obama who invoke their name but know nothing of the founding principles. Mount Rushmore should be split between Jefferson and Roosevelt. That way, Americans could see the canyon – not the bridge – between them.

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