What Would The Founders Do Today?


The purpose of Jefferson’s petition was poignant: He was a hundred thousand dollars in debt (almost two million dollars today). He wanted the legislature to permit him to hold a lottery to liquidate part of his estate, in order to save the rest. He was asking for special treatment, and he knew it. One cause of his troubles was the depressed condition of agriculture in Virginia, but every farmer suffered from that. (Another cause of his troubles, his inability to economize, was not something he cared to face—hence, perhaps, his insistence that all economic pursuits are games of chance.) The legislature balked, then relented. Jefferson died in July 1826, hopeful that his heirs would keep something, but the lottery was not a success. His estate was auctioned off six months later.

What would the Founders do about terrorism?

Eighteenth-century warfare was supposed to be a civilized affair, with elaborate rules for how prisoners should be treated, exchanged, and paroled. These rules were often honored during the Revolution, but nonetheless the war moved into terror, especially when it was fought in remote or chaotic areas. Frontier warfare, involving Indian allies and enemies, was brutal on both sides. Joseph Brant, a.k.a. Thayendanegea, was a Mohawk chief who led murderous raids on patriot farmers in New York and Pennsylvania, killing women and children as well as soldiers. Brant was no savage—he was a devout Episcopalian who helped translate the Gospel of Mark into Mohawk —but he simply behaved savagely in wartime. George Washington responded by sending Gen. John Sullivan to destroy the Indians’ towns, crops, and “everything that was to be found.” Sullivan, who had the help of friendly Oneidas, laid 40 villages to waste; Brant’s raids only redoubled.

In the South, guerrilla warfare raged between patriots and Loyalists. Gen. Nathanael Greene, sent to retrieve the military situation in the Carolinas in 1781, wrote in shock to his wife, Caty, about what he found there: “The sufferings and distress of the inhabitants beggars [ sic ] all description… . they persecute each other with little less than savage fury.”

Early in the war Gen. Charles Lee, a radical, eccentric English officer who had settled in Virginia and taken up the American cause, envisioned a guerrilla struggle, involving punitive measures against American Loyalists. Native-born officers like Washington and Greene preferred to rely on a professional army, responsible to the politicians in Congress. No doubt they were motivated in part by pride: They wanted to show the enemy, their former rulers, that they were not rubes leading some ragtag uprising. But they also dreaded the civil commotion that Lee evidently welcomed.

Washington and Greene were right. John Adams guessed that a third of the American people supported the Revolution, a third opposed it, and a third were indifferent. The key factor in shifting those numbers as the war progressed was the brutal conduct of pro-British irregulars. The Americans didn’t always do right, but they did right more often than their enemies, and it did them a lot of good.

What would the Founders do about rogue states?

The Founders knew four rogue states, the Muslim principalities of North Africa, known as the Barbary Coast: Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli (Libya). As mentioned earlier, the infant United States paid tribute to keep them from seizing and enslaving American citizens. In 1801 Yussuf Karamanli, the bashaw of Tripoli—a man of “very splendid and tawdry appearance”—became the first foreign ruler to declare war on the United States, hoping to extort higher payments.

Thomas Jefferson, newly inaugurated as President, sent almost all the small navy he had to the Mediterranean, to deal with Karamanli.

There were setbacks: The frigate Philadelphia ran aground on a reef in Tripoli Harbor and had to be burned; the crew was enslaved. There were also successes: The Americans took the bashaw’s second-largest town, Derne (now Darnah), with a combined sealand assault. The land assault was particularly heroic: a 500-mile march through the desert from Egypt by a party of Marines, mercenaries, and Muslim allies, led by an impetuous diplomat, William Eaton. (Eaton’s exploit is remembered in the “Marine Corps Hymn”: “to the shores of Tripoli.”) Once Eaton was in Derne and the U.S. Navy was before Tripoli, the bashaw saw reason and returned all his American slaves for $60,000, not the cool million he had originally demanded.

Jefferson congratulated himself on his victory, but it was only temporary. America was soon embroiled with Britain, the greatest maritime power on earth, and the Barbary States resumed the pirate business. In 1815 a new American squadron sailed to the Mediterranean, compelling Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli to forswear piracy and to pay damages for past offenses. President Madison hailed “this demonstration of American skill and prowess.” America was off the hook, but piracy did not finally end until France and the Ottoman Empire occupied the entire Barbary Coast.

Then, as now, the three ways of dealing with rogue states were negotiation, force, and overwhelming force.

Would the Founders fight pre-emptive wars?

When President Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 for $15 million, his Federalist opponents weren’t pleased. What was good for him, they reasoned, was bad for the country.