What Would The Founders Do Today?


Alexander Hamilton made a partial exception, writing in the New York Evening Post that the purchase was “an important acquisition,” even though it would “give éclat” (good buzz) to the Jefferson administration. Hamilton’s only quibble was that Jefferson should have taken Louisiana outright. France, which had come under the control of Napoleon Bonaparte, had been preventing Americans from shipping goods down the Mississippi River. Since the American right to use the Mississippi was guaranteed by treaty, Hamilton thought interference was a “justifiable cause of war.” We should have seized New Orleans “at once”; if we had then decided to buy it, we could have set the price.

If pre-emptive war means attacking another country before it attacks us, then Hamilton was in favor of it. But if pre-emptive war means attacking another country without good reason, then he moves out of the pro column.

Would the Founders teach intelligent design?

A few of the Founders were doctors, and Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman student of scientific subjects—animals, fossils, Indian languages—but the only Founder who was a true scientist was Benjamin Franklin. It is a delight to look over his shoulder and watch his mind at work. In the corners of a busy life, with the simplest equipment, he performed experiments not only on his signature subject, lightning, which earned him Kant’s compliment as “the new Prometheus,” but also on heat and colors, oil and water, evaporation, hydraulics, and marsh gas. He was curious, clever, and provisional; he was not wedded to old theories: “… a new appearance [phenomenon], if it cannot be explain’d by our old principles, may afford us new ones, of use perhaps in explaining some other obscure parts of natural knowledge.” Nor was he unduly proud of his own efforts: “It may be of use to relate the circumstances even of an experiment that does not succeed, since they may give hints of amendment in future trials: it is therefore I have been thus particular.” He knew that science was a collective enterprise, pursued by researchers confirming or correcting one another’s observations, which is why he cherished his memberships in scientific societies around the world. Franklin being Franklin, he also mocked science, with an insider’s perfect pitch, as in his spoof proposal to the Royal Academy of Brussels that it discover “some drug wholesome & not disagreeable” that would make farts smell like perfume.

One subject Franklin stopped examining after he was a young man was the study of first causes, or metaphysics. “The great uncertainty I found in metaphysical reasonings disgusted me,” Franklin wrote when he was in his seventies, “and I quitted that kind of reading and study for others more satisfactory.” Some of the Founders shared Franklin’s bafflement with metaphysical reasonings (John Adams played with philosophical skepticism; Jefferson clung, rather uneasily, to the evidence of his senses, including his moral sense)—an odd reluctance, since metaphysical reasonings might shed light on important political questions, such as the worth of mankind. The Founders instead took the rights of man as a given or as a discovery of an independent branch of science. “… the rights of mankind,” George Washington wrote, “were better understood and more clearly defined” at the end of the eighteenth century, thanks to the “researches” of “philosophers, sages and legislatures, through a long succession of years.” Sages and legislators were the political equivalents of experimenters like Franklin.

The Founders also looked for the rights of man in religion. In the Declaration, Jefferson appealed, in words as stirring as they were unlocalized, to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Dr. Benjamin Rush, who signed the Declaration, looked specifically to “the religion of jesus christ.” In a 1786 essay on republican education, Rush wrote that the Genesis account of the creation of man was “the best refutation that can be given to the divine right of kings” and “the strongest argument … in favor of the original and natural equality of all mankind.” If we all are descended from Adam, then none of us can claim to belong to a higher order of beings. Not everyone who read Genesis found the same things in it. Sir Robert Filmer, a seventeenth-century essayist, claimed that Adam’s “lordship … over the whole world” was inherited by kings. Filmer’s arguments were popular enough that John Locke spent many pages refuting them, and they lasted long enough that Tories were still recycling them during the American Revolution. Religious reasonings were as contentious as metaphysical ones; still, some Founders invoked them.

The Founders kept their categories clear. Even when they drew a blank, they knew what they were thinking about. They would not have smuggled metaphysics into science or appealed to natural science to judge questions of religion or human rights. Their design of the branches of knowledge was more intelligent than ours often is.