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What Would The Founders Do Today?

May 2024
22min read

Suppose they could go on "Meet The Press"...

Who 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.

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).

The Founders invite our questions now because they invited discussion when they lived. They were argumentative, expansive know-it-alls, hanging their ideas out to dry in public speeches and in journalism. Not everything they did was for public consumption or discussion. They schemed behind closed doors, as all politicians do, and they issued sweeping pronouncements from on high, as proud and intelligent people often do. “I have written very dogmatically,” said Fisher Ames at the end of one letter, describing the doings of the First Congress, “and why should I affect doubts, when I entertain none?” Yet since the Founders also knew that the judges of their plans and their doings were the public, they constantly sought to show, demonstrate, persuade, or inspire. The Declaration submits itself to “the opinions of mankind.” The Federalist papers declare that their arguments “will be open to all and may be judged of by all.”

All their lives the Founders had to say what they would do. So why should they get a rest when we need a little advice?

Would the Founders support the death penalty?

The Founders assumed that the national government would not have much to do with crime and punishment. At the Continental Congress, John Witherspoon, Madison’s teacher in college, remarked in passing that “nothing relating to individuals could ever come before” them; the states, he assumed, would handle all such matters. Even after the Constitution increased the national government’s power, Alexander Hamilton argued that the most power-hungry men would not be tempted to meddle in “the mere domestic police of a state.” In the eighteenth century, police meant both a community’s laws and the police force that upheld them.

Even so, the Bill of Rights discusses capital punishment. The Fifth Amendment assumes that certain criminals will be executed, though it limits the ways in which this may be done. No one may be “deprived of life” without due process of law. There will be no summary judgments—no death warrants by Executive Order or punitive special bills in Congress; everyone accused of a capital crime will get a trial. Finally, no one may be put “in jeopardy of life” for the same crime more than once. Prosecutors can’t keep trying a man until they hang him.

The Eighth Amendment forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” meaning torture. Capital punishment was not unusual and not, by itself, considered unusually cruel.

As Commander in Chief during the Revolution, Washington did not hesitate to execute or to threaten it. Maj. John André, a charming young British spymaster, was caught behind American lines out of uniform and hanged as a spy himself (his agent, Benedict Arnold, got away). As the war wound down, some unpaid, undersupplied American soldiers in New Jersey mutinied. After the mutiny was quelled, two of the ringleaders were shot. Washington was “happy” not to have to execute more but warned that such “lenity” would not be shown “on any future occasion.”

Yet on other occasions Washington did mitigate the death penalty. After he put down the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt in western Pennsylvania, two of the rebels were convicted of treason and condemned to death; since they were small fry—the real leaders had fled—Washington pardoned them both. Leadership is an art, and Washington knew there are no hard-and-fast rules. But he never excluded the ultimate penalty.

What would the Founders think of gun control?

The backstory of the Founders’ thoughts on the politics of gun ownership begins with the politics of England, a hundred years earlier.

During the reign of James II (1685–88), Protestant Englishmen feared that they would be disarmed by their Catholic king and bullied by his large professional army and its Catholic officer corps. That is indeed what James planned. His Protestant subjects forestalled him by chasing him from the throne in 1688, with Dutch help. One consequence of the Glorious Revolution was the English Bill of Rights, banning standing armies in England in peacetime and guaranteeing Protestants the right to bear arms “for their defense.”

William Blackstone, a mid-eighteenth-century legal commentator, explained the right of “having arms” as a firewall, “barriers to protect and maintain” other rights when ordinary protections had crumbled. “It is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”

The gun provisions of the English Bill of Rights and Blackstone’s discussion of them became relevant when the Constitution was being ratified. Patrick Henry and Gov. George Clinton of New York feared a stronger federal government. Once the Constitution passed, they offered amendments condemning standing armies, upholding the right to keep and bear arms, and praising militias (ordinary citizens summoned to fight by their states). “A well regulated Militia composed of the body of the people trained to arms,” said the Henryites and Clintonians, “is the proper, natural and safe defence of a free State.” After passing through Congress and the massaging hands of James Madison, this became the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” The slap at standing armies had fallen away, but the militia and the armed citizenry remained, no longer a last resort for Protestants against scheming, aggressive Catholics, but for the states against the federal government (and, in theory, for the people against oppressive government). If guns were illegal, only armies would have guns.

This is where the Second Amendment came from. But several complications must be added. Blackstone is a tricky oracle, for the only absolute in his world is legislative supremacy; what he gives to freedom with the right hand he is always willing to take back with the left, so long as the legislature (or Parliament) agrees. The right of “having arms,” he acknowledges, is subject to “due restrictions … such as are allowed by law.”

How can Blackstone’s “natural right of resistance” find a place in the Constitution in any case? It is the starting point of the Declaration of Independence, which opens with a recipe for just revolution. But how can the laws say when they should be overthrown? If things have reached that point, it’s time to clear the decks and not worry about the Bill of Rights.

Was the Second Amendment, then, a bulwark of liberty or a pious irrelevance? The framers of the Constitution doubted that any Bill of Rights was necessary, which was why they left it out. Under the Constitution power would derive from the people; how could the people oppress themselves? But Madison became midwife to the Bill of Rights, under pressure from his enemy Patrick Henry and prodding from his friend Jefferson. Jefferson, the amateur architect, saw a bill of rights as a useful structural prop. “A brace the more will often keep up [a] building which would have fallen” without it, Jefferson wrote Madison. Some Founders believed passionately in the Second Amendment and the other nine. The rest put up with them.

Guns were a fact of the Founders’ everyday lives. The cerebral Jefferson, in one of those sweetly pompous letters of advice that he loved sending his younger relatives, recommended taking walks with a gun. “While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with a ball … are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind.” So much for baseball, already being played in early forms. “Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion of your walks.”

One special type of gun was known to many of the Founders even though its use was illegal: the dueling pistol. Although Hamilton owned a fowling piece, he did not own dueling pistols, so when Vice President Aaron Burr challenged him to a duel for a political insult in the spring of 1804 he had to borrow a set from his brother-in-law. The pistols were made by the London gunsmith Robert Wogdon, the finest practitioner of his art. They were .544 caliber, meaning their bullets had a diameter of just over half an inch. The barrels were unrifled, but their careful balancing made the pistols accurate at the short distances of dueling. Burr’s bullet pierced Hamilton’s abdomen, and he died of spinal shock after 36 hours of agony. Burr was indicted for murder, but the prosecution lapsed, for no jury would convict a gentleman who had defended his honor.

The Founders lived among guns; they would never make them illegal; they would subject them to necessary laws, following Blackstone. And as in the duel that put Hamilton in his grave, they broke their own laws when honor demanded it.

How would the Founders fight the war on drugs?

Every time I talk about George Washington to an audience that is younger than the members of AARP, I get the following question: Did Washington grow hemp at Mount Vernon? This irrepressible query is asked by potheads, who know that the answer is yes and want me to say so publicly. One enthusiast, after a talk, gave me one of those modified dollar bills with i grew hemp stenciled over Washington’s head.

What I tell the hopeful is that Washington indeed grew hemp but that he grew it for fabric. The master of Mount Vernon was a meticulous farmer, and if he had found an additional intoxicating or medicinal use in any of his crops, he would have recorded it.

Opium was used as a medicine and was known to be addictive, and cranky Founders sometimes accused each other of being in its thrall. John Adams, the crankiest Founder, thought Alexander Hamilton relied on opium to get him through long speeches, while Gouverneur Morris, the sunniest Founder, who nevertheless deeply disliked James Madison, wondered if Madison was an opium addict. Both stories were preposterous.

The drug of choice in late-eighteenth-century America was alcohol. Franklin compiled a list of 128 phrases meaning “He’s drunk” (from “He’s pissed in the brook” to “He’s eaten a toad and a half for breakfast” to “He’s mellow”). In a more exalted mood, he cited wine as a mark of divine benevolence. In the miracle at Cana, Jesus converted water into wine (John 2:1–11). “But this conversion,” wrote Franklin, “is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy. The miracle [at Cana] was only performed to hasten the operation.” When George Washington ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses, he treated voters to drinks. (This was illegal but universally practiced.) The Washington campaign served 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 38 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and 2 gallons of cider, no doubt hard, for a total of 164 gallons of alcohol. There were 396 voters. Washington won.

The 1794 frontier uprising known as the Whiskey Rebellion was, despite the comic ring of its name, the most serious domestic violence between the Revolution and the Civil War. The point at issue, however, was not drug use but taxes. Hamilton’s financial program required a tax on distilled spirits. Distillers in western Pennsylvania resented paying it, fought gun battles with the local excise collector, and raised a rebel flag. Washington sent an army five times larger than the one he had led across the Delaware before the Battle of Trenton to put the rebellion down, and it melted away.

Before things reached this point, Hamilton defended his excise to Congress. A whiskey tax, he argued, was fair: “There appears to be no article … which is an object of more equal consumption throughout the United States.” But then he had second thoughts; maybe Pennsylvania frontiersmen did drink more. If so, “it would certainly not be a reason … to repeal or lessen a tax, which, by rendering the article dearer, might tend to restrain too free an indulgence of such habits.” There, in the midst of a controversy that would lead to rebellion, the Founder with the most expansive view of the powers of the federal government staked out the maximum drug-war position of his generation: If a tax brings down whiskey consumption, so much the better.

The Founders would not have fought a war on drugs.

Did the Founders think America was a Christian nation?

In 1797 the Senate considered a treaty, negotiated the previous year, with the bashaw of Tripoli. The United States agreed to give him cash and presents and declared, in one clause, that America bore “no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen,” for it was “not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Tripoli and the countries of North Africa ran a naval protection racket, extorting ransoms for captives they seized or selling their good behavior, in treaties such as this one. North African slavery was horrible, and since the United States could not protect its shipping or its citizens, it found it prudent to pay in advance. Tripoli’s true religion was thievery, but the clause on Christianity and Islam was designed to remove any pretext for trouble. The Senate passed the treaty unanimously, and President Adams signed it three days later. When honor yields to necessity, there is no point quibbling over details. (Four years later the bashaw upped his price and declared war, forcing us to deal with him differently.)

In fact, there was no cause to quibble with the bashaw about creeds. The United States was not founded on the Christian religion. The First Amendment, forbidding a national religious establishment, had been ratified in 1791. The year before, President Washington wrote the congregation of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, that America did not practice “toleration”; it was not “by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” In 1793 he wrote the Swedenborgian New Church in Baltimore “that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart.” That amendment and these statements are a better guide to the Founders’ views than a treaty with pirates.

Would the Founders back state-sponsored gambling?

In February 1826, the last year of his life, Thomas Jefferson asked the Virginia legislature to authorize a lottery. In his petition, he analyzed the morality of games of chance.

His first point was startling. “If we consider games of chance immoral, then every pursuit of human industry is immoral; for there is not a single one that is not subject to chance.” Captains risk their ships, and merchants risk their cargoes; farmers bet on the weather, builders bet on the real estate market, hunters bet on the prevalence of game. “These, then, are games of chance. Yet so far from being immoral, they are indispensable to the existence of man.” In one swoop, he overturned all of Benjamin Franklin’s almanac maxims about hard work.

His second thought was more cautious. Trade, farming, and the rest produce real goods when the bet pays off. But games of chance that were pure diversions—Jefferson specified cards, dice, and billiards—“are entirely unproductive.” They were also “so seducing … to men of a certain constitution of mind, that they cannot resist the temptation” of betting on them. In such cases, “as in those of insanity, idiocy, infancy, etc., it is the duty of society to take” gambling addicts “under its protection; even against their own acts, and to restrain their right of choice of these pursuits, by suppressing them entirely.” Jefferson the libertarian saw chance everywhere; Jefferson the republican saw the damage that the pursuit of it sometimes did. The two Jeffersons dueled till the end.

Jefferson concluded that lotteries belonged to a third class of games of chance, those that were harmful if they became habitual but “useful on certain occasions.” The Virginia legislature therefore had the right to permit lotteries on a case-by-case basis and had done so, Jefferson pointed out, for 70 worthy causes from 1782 to 1820, from helping the College of William and Mary to improving the road to Sniggers Gap.

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.

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.

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