What Would The Founders Do Today?

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From the ridiculous to mass murder. After the destruction of the World Trade Center, exhausted firefighters, cops, and rescue workers snatched scattered hours of rest on the pews of St. Paul’s Chapel, an eighteenth-century Episcopalian church across the street from the hellhole. Among the pews they rested on is the one where George Washington worshiped after his first inauguration as President in 1789. Washington knew New York City well. It was there, in July 1776, that he had the Declaration of Independence read to his troops. And it was there, a few months later, that he tried to beat off a British invasion—the last time, before 9/11, that New York was attacked. Washington had a worse time of it than we did. The enemy chased him from the city, occupied it for seven years, and let 11,000 American soldiers die in filthy prison ships moored in the East River.

In moments of struggle, farce, or disaster, the Founders are still with us. We look to them for slogans, cheap shots, inspiration, and instruction. We seize on them for sleazy advantage and for moral guidance. We ransack what they said and did for clues to what they would, and what we should, do.

The Founders knew they were making history. John Adams believed that the day of independence “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival… . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Like every other country, we honor our heroes, celebrate our holidays, remember our defeats, and regret our failings. But we do more. We engage the Founders in a continuing dialogue about the present. It is an imaginary dialogue, for the Founders are dead. Yet they are not entirely dead, for they live on in our minds. Parades and fireworks commemorate American independence, as Adams predicted. But The New York Times also commemorates it every year by reprinting the Declaration of Independence. We are not content to remember what the Founders did; we must read, or at least see, their explanation of it. Having read it, we feel that we can engage it. The Declaration is a position paper and an action memo that is always in our mailbox; we believe we can hit the reply button for further elaboration.

Our feelings about these historical figures seem more religious than historical. Evangelical Christians put the bumper sticker wwjd on their cars: “What Would Jesus Do?” The phrase comes from a religious novel, In His Steps , in which a minister in a Middle American city asks his congregation to reform their lives by doing nothing “without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’” The phrasing is borrowed, tongue in cheek, for the divinities of lesser faiths (wwmd—What Would Martha [Stewart] Do?). Yet the Founders are not gods. Their specialness comes from being human creators of a human thing, America. We, their successor Americans, feel simultaneously awed by them and like them. They built the country, they wrote the user manuals—Declaration, Constitution, the Federalist papers—and they ran it while it could still be returned to the manufacturer. We assume that if anyone knows how the U.S.A. should work, it must be them. In that spirit, we ask, “WWFD—What Would the Founders Do?”

The question makes sense to us because the United States is still a relatively new country. Europe as we know it took shape in the Dark Ages: Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, Germans hammering at the Roman Empire. The Middle East looks back to Muhammad, and could look back to the Sphinx if it chose. India was old when Alexander the Great invaded it. China is older still. The maps are always changing, but the continuities go back a dozen centuries, or millennia. Our founding, by contrast, is only just beyond our fingertips. Our Founders are close by, and they cast long shadows.

We are pleased with the shadows they cast. The Founders as a group are intelligent, well spoken, and good company. Few of them were truly funny, but most of them appreciated a joke. When they joined together to accomplish some task, the talent level could be humiliatingly high (humiliating to us, that is). George Washington’s first cabinet was the strongest cabinet there has ever been, with Jefferson as Secretary of State, Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, and Henry Knox as Secretary of War. At a time when the population of the country was less than four million and everything west of the Alleghenies was bison, if you scraped the bottom of the barrel of the Washington administration, you found Henry Knox. Some barrel. The Founders earn our affection, not only for who they were but also for what they were not. No Founder died on a scaffold or in prison, the victim of some other Founder’s extralegal wrath or revenge. There were no coups or putsches in the founding, no guillotines, no purges, no devouring of its own.

We admire the Founders most for their handiwork. The country they left seems to offer freedom, order, prosperity, and hope. If it doesn’t offer these things, they are assumed as a promise—a promissory note, as King put it— that can be demanded. The resulting complacency of Americans, their satisfaction with their institutions or with the potential of their institutions, is of course the very thing that drives America’s critics and enemies wild. Even American radicals can strike foreign radicals as cozy fakers: Karl Marx dismissed his American followers as “middle class humbugs and worn-out Yankee swindlers in the Reform business” (they wanted to push for women’s rights ahead of workers’ power).