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What Wo uld the Founders Do?

The popularity of books about Ben, George, Alex, John and Tom reflects something deeper about what Americans want from their leaders


By Gene Mirabelli


It can’t be true that the United States has behaved stupidly over and over again, or that everything we’ve done in the past few years has turned out badly. It can’t be that our friends have distanced themselves and that our enemies are everywhere. But sometimes it looks that way. Sometimes our leaders look terribly diminished and, like the longtime sick, they appear lost in their own clothing.

Maybe that’s why so many readers have tossed aside the newspaper and picked up a good book about happier events in our history. There’s been a flood of works about the founders, some of them quite long and all of them serious, but they’ve found an avid readership. Frankly, it’s refreshing to read about a group of brave, intelligent and passionate people who made the United States.

There are so many of these books that choosing among them gets difficult. My recent preferences are for Ron Chernow’s superb Alexander Hamilton, David McCullough’s wonderful biography of John (and, of course, Abigail) Adams in John Adams, Walter Isaacson’s engaging Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (and let me also squeeze in Edmund Morgan’s deep Benjamin Franklin), Joseph Ellis’s insightful His Excellency: George Washington, and his portrait of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx. I confess that my interest in worthy, sharp-minded, hardworking but colorless James Madison is limited, and I’m not partial to any particular study of him.

One of the attractive features of these biographies is that they show us a world wide open to men of talent and energy, no matter your age or place in society. In 1776, the famous Benjamin Franklin is 70 years old; Alexander Hamilton is 21, broke and obscure; James Madison, a very well-to-do slave owner, is 25; and John Adams, New England farmer and lawyer, is 41.

And the careers of these men are amazing. Franklin began as a printer’s apprentice, corraled lightning, and became the essential diplomat who brought French money and eventually the entire nation to the aid of the struggling colonies. Hamilton, an incandescent intelligence, was born a bastard on the slave-ridden island of Nevis. He began as a shipping clerk in the Caribbean, but five years later he was Washington’s aide-de-camp and went on to invent the U.S. Treasury. Or Washington himself, whose experience as an officer in the French and Indian War taught him chiefly his own limitations; that knowledge, plus the books he purchased on his way to his command in Massachusetts, was his preparation for holding the continental army together until it defeated one of the greatest fighting machines in the world.

Furthermore, these astonishing careers were happening at the same time and criss-crossing each other. These people knew each other, helped and hated each other by turns, sometimes praised and more often viciously slandered each other. Finally, of course, all were engaged in a shared life-or-death struggle that transcended personal gain or glory.

They improvised their way through a long war, and in a long, hot summer, composed a constitution that stands today. Is there a reader who can resist the fantastic loops of a story that has cranky John Adams and silken Thomas Jefferson as close friends, then bitter enemies, then in old, old age reconciled letter-writers who die on the same Fourth of July? It was morning in America, and these people were there to make the sun rise.

Joseph Ellis has said that readers’ appetite for these books—which he notes began about 10 years ago—is more than “founders chic,” more than a momentary fad. It’s natural to wonder what stimulated the hunger for these histories and why it persists. Ellis doesn’t answer those questions. But if we look back over our recent history, we can make a good guess as to why these books are so sought-after now.

Not so long ago our future was far more hopeful. The Soviet Union had collapsed, its vassal states had broken free, and the United States had become the undisputed leader in global affairs. In the words of George Bush the elder, we were at the start of a “new world order.” With that Bush, the United States led a broad coalition that destroyed Iraq’s military forces, but—prudently acceding to the wishes of its Arab partners—the United States stopped short of occupying Iraq’s capital and overthrowing its government.

In the Clinton era that followed, Iraq remained a powerless country hemmed in by economic sanctions and no-fly zones, with U.S. and British aircraft patrolling the skies overhead. Despite what appeared to be isolated terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans prospered and saw their country extending a benign hegemony over the globe. This would be the American century, and America would do for the world what it had done for itself.

Then things got strange. After a bizarre moralistic campaign to impeach President Bill Clinton for sexual shenanigans, Republicans lost the popular vote yet seized the presidency. George Bush the younger became commander-in-chief, convinced that international ties were designed to entangle and hinder American might. He turned his back on the Kyoto accords, pushed aside the World Court and tore up our anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia. He asserted absolute unconstrained power: the ability to do what he wanted, wherever he wanted, with no namby-pamby “decent respect to the opinions of mankind”—that good old phrase from the Declaration of Independence.

After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the American military retaliated with a brilliant rout of the Taliban, in the midst of which the president surprised the world by proclaiming the existence of an “axis of evil” composed of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Forgetting the Taliban, Bush and his neoconservative confederates dusted off their adolescent plan to launch a preemptive war against an enfeebled Iraq. Thus began one of the most inept, dangerous and self-defiling periods in American history.

As a people, we are sustained by the stories of our beginning, by our Paul Revere calling the “country folk to be up and to arm,” by our threadbare soldiers at Valley Forge leaving their bloody footprints in the snow, by our Jefferson writing what we know is self-evident and true, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But in the here and now, Americans see their republic spilling blood and billions in a foreign country it doesn’t understand, but which it chose to demolish for no good reason. They’ve looked at the photos from Abu Gharib. They see that the United States built the prison in Guantanamo purposely to be outside the protection of the Constitution, so it can hold “enemy combatants” in legal limbo. Americans hear a president who says the United States doesn’t torture, but they know he smuggles prisoners to foreign countries to be tortured out of sight, out of hearing. And Americans know their country spies on them without cause and without oversight. No wonder we turn to the glorious past.

Not that the founders were saints or demigods. On the contrary, nowadays their private behavior would thrill an impeachment committee. Old Ben Franklin never got too old to intrigue with a pretty woman, no matter if she was married. Hothead Hamilton cheated on his wife, then published a defensive pamphlet to show he didn’t cheat the treasury. Jefferson, they say, liked to bed his slave girl, when he wasn’t secretly paying journalists to spread slanders.

And those men weren’t so pious as our leaders are today. True, Adams had a rock-hard belief in God and the soul, but in his public life he was a secular rationalist. Washington was not a churchgoer; no, he didn’t kneel down in the snow at Valley Forge, despite the paintings and legends. Franklin, a lifelong deist, doubted the divinity of Christ and, as he quipped shortly before he died, “It is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.” Jefferson believed in a hands-off creator, not in the divinity of Christ, and, using scissors and paste, cut out all references to the supernatural in Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, producing a Gospel according to Jefferson wherein Jesus is a secular humanist. This year’s campaigning politicians are far chummier with God and Jesus than the founders were.

Today, in the darkling twilight of this administration, we turn to the founders for hope. Because despite their flaws, despite their compromised Constitution, they did so well. Those passionate pragmatists believed in civic virtue—when was the last time you heard anyone speak of that? They believed that guided by reason they could improve life for everyone, not through divine inspiration, but by erecting a structure of humane laws for all society. For the past seven years our leaders have promoted ideology, not intelligence; near-term aggrandizement instead of farsighted benefit. In 1799, John Adams refused to fight a popular war with France, knowing his refusal would cost him the presidency the next year. He helped his country, not himself, and for the rest of his long life, rightly regarded it as his finest moment.

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