What Would The Founders Do Today?

PrintPrintEmailEmailWho cares what the founders would do? Who believes that the experiences, opinions, or plans of men who lived 200 years ago could have any relevance to our problems? Who imagines that the Founders could answer our questions?

We do. I have heard it with my own ears. Over the past decade I have given hundreds of talks about the Founding Fathers, on radio and TV, and to live audiences. Every time there is an opportunity for Q-and-A, there is at least one question of the form, “What would Founder X think about current event or living person Y ?” No subject is too trivial, no problem too difficult. Audiences want to know what the Founders would do about guns, taxes, race, the war on drugs, the war in Iraq; about Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush. A recent talk about Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary and the first (and so far only) former Treasury Secretary to be shot, was typical. The host was a financial services firm on Park Avenue. The crowd was young to middle-aged, white collar–white shirtsleeve, on their lunch break. Out of 200 people, a dozen asked questions. Four wanted Hamilton’s opinion about a contemporary issue: the balance of trade, recent decisions of the Supreme Court on federalism, the New York Stock Exchange, and the tone of modern politics (the presidential campaigns of 2000 and 2004 were fresh in everyone’s mind). The man had been dead for two centuries; the duel he died in is still the most familiar thing about him (that, and his rather GQ -ish portrait on the $10 bill). Yet a crowd whose business is to anticipate tomorrow’s business wanted to know what he would think about the stories that were on that day’s Bloomberg.

Americans have been asking what the Founders would do since the Founders died. In 1860 Abraham Lincoln kicked off his first presidential campaign with a speech at Cooper Union in New York City, a combined equivalent of an Iowa caucus and an appearance on “Oprah.” Lincoln’s issue was whether the federal government could regulate slavery in the territories—the unsettled interior of the continent, not yet divided into states. The Supreme Court (in the Dred Scott decision) had said no; Lincoln said yes. At Cooper Union he spent half his debut talk examining what the 39 signers of the Constitution thought about federal regulation of territorial slavery. He concluded that 21 of them, including George Washington, agreed with him (perhaps 2 disagreed, and 16 had no provable opinion). He wrapped himself in Washington. We “sustain his policy … you [that is, the supporters of slavery] repudiate it.”

Lincoln won the election; the Civil War began. In 1863, in the Gettysburg Address, he wrapped the Union cause in two founding documents. The first was the Declaration of Independence, the moment (1863 minus four score and seven equals 1776) when Congress stated that “all men are created equal.” The second was the Constitution, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” which Lincoln hoped would not perish from the earth, echoing “We the People” who had established that government in the first place.

In the 1930s, with the world mired in the Depression, and various fascisms on the march, Franklin Roosevelt turned to Thomas Jefferson as to a touchstone. In 1938 Jefferson went on the nickel, in place of the Indian brave; Monticello went on the reverse, in place of the buffalo. FDR laid the cornerstone of the Jefferson Memorial the following year. The completed structure was dedicated in 1943, in the midst of World War II (the cherry trees on the Tidal Basin that so beautifully frame it in the spring had been a gift from the city of Tokyo in better times).

Twenty years after the Jefferson Memorial was finished, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He not surprisingly held up Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation as models for future black progress. But he also held up Lincoln’s predecessors, “the architects of our republic,” who, when they “wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence … sign[ed] a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” Many of the architects of the Republic, he knew, owned black men; some of them slept with black women they owned. But King laid claim to their words, not as a clever debater stealing rhetorical bases but as a family member presenting a keepsake. He did not put the Founders’ words to his purposes; he found their purposes anticipating his words.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. When Bill Clinton was being impeached, for lying under oath about his affair with an intern, his defenders claimed the Founders as his role models, for DNA tests had just revealed that a Jefferson fathered one of the children of Thomas Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings, a tale that had been whispered about since Jefferson’s years in the White House, while Alexander Hamilton, during his years as Treasury Secretary, had carried on an affair with Maria Reynolds, the wife of a common crook, to whom Hamilton had paid blackmail—a tale on which whispering ceased the moment Hamilton revealed it in a 95-page pamphlet, with the deceptively dull title Observations on Certain Documents . What was a little obstruction of justice next to paying blackmail and fathering a child on one’s property? Clinton’s enemies complained that Hamilton at least had told the truth about what he had done.