America’s Founding Fathers tackled many thorny questions from the pursuit of happiness to the separation of powers but they never had to confront such controversial issues as stem cell research, Social Security or campaign finance reform. With the Founders held in high esteem, and modern politicians viewed with considerable contempt, it’s not surprising that many Americans wonder how the men who formed our nation’s government might handle today’s most difficult problems.
Journalist and historian Richard Brookhiser offers a witty and thought-provoking response in What Would the Founders Do? Their Questions, Our Answers. Plumbing the Founders’ recorded musings, Brookhiser speculates on such matters as how Alexander Hamilton would react to Hurricane Katrina (he would expect city, state and federal executives to demonstrate energy in their response) and what Thomas Jefferson might think of assisted suicide (he would support it). It quickly becomes apparent that Brookhiser, while respectful of the Founders, is no sacred textualist. He is clearly more interested in spotlighting provocative ideas than he is in presenting correct ones.
Speaking from his home in New York, Brookhiser says his inspiration for the book came from people asking him WWFD questions every time he spoke about the Founders. When he told his wife that one of his lectures on Alexander Hamilton, his historical specialty, had sparked four such inquiries, she suggested that they should be the subject of his next book. (His earlier books include Rules of Civility, Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton and The Adamses.) I tried to find as realistic answers as I could, he explains. I think the only time I’m close to being totally tongue-in-cheek is [with] the one on campaign finance reform where I say it’s a wonder that James Madison and Gouverneur Morris ever got elected to anything. I’ve been a political journalist for almost 30 years for National Review, Brookhiser explains. The way I generated the questions [was that] I just thought, What am I writing about with my National Review hat on? All the editorials that I and my colleagues write, what are they all about? . . . So I said, OK, pitch all these balls to the Founders and see how they swing at them. It was like writing 60 articles. Brookhiser rejects the notion that the Founders were all over the map philosophically and thus unlikely to be of a single mind about anything. I would say that were often all over the map politically, but I wouldn’t say [they were] philosophically. There were certain core principles that they all agreed on. It’s very interesting that the Continental Congress made lots of changes in Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration [of Independence]. But they did not touch what we regard as the most famous parts of it the opening. Hardly anything was done to that. People look to the Founders for guidance, Brookhiser thinks, because America is still a young country. They’re not that far away, he says. They’re closer than Charlemagne. And yet we have old institutions. The presidency goes back to 1789; Congress goes back to 1774. You compare that to five French republics and two empires and two kingdoms, and we have lots of continuity. Maybe the most important thing is that the Founders were politicians, and they were recognizably like modern politicians. They had to run for office. They had to say what they thought. They debated with each other. Another strand of relevance, Brookhiser notes, was that the Founders were future-oriented. They were very mindful of working for posterity and of the world watching them as examples. This was a little country, on the edge of things. But when they’re at the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry said, If we fail, we will disappoint the world.’ In an appendix, Brookhiser has some fun with the Founders when he imagines them as modern-day bloggers. The industrious Ben Franklin has three blogs Dirtyoldman, Keytech and YouSucceed to present his sides as a sensualist, scientist and self-help guru. Sam Adams blogs under BeerandLiberty. If these guys were alive now, he says, of course they’d be blogging. . . . The Patriot Act forbids me from telling you how I’m in contact with the Founders, but be assured that I am. If the author can fathom what the Founders would think about intelligent design, then it seems fair to ask him how they’d view this book about them. I think none of them would quarrel with [me] trying to do it in a popular way, he says. Almost all of them wrote journalism. Franklin would like it to the extent that it’s humorous and pulling people’s legs. In terms of what I’m saying about their thoughts, I’m sure I’d get a lot of quarrels because I’m bluntly presenting quarrels that they had. Jefferson would say, Why are you presenting Hamilton’s argument so well? I mean, really, come on!‘ And vice versa. So I’m sure I’d get a lot of that. In a way, I’m glad they’re dead. I’m sure I’d be fielding a lot of correspondence. Edward Morris is a Nashville-based writer.