Richard Brookhiser’s new book What Would the Founders Do? Is a unique one. Where else in 2006 can the Founding Fathers answer your questions? What would the Founders do about Social Security? WMDs? Would the Founders drill at ANWR?
In an interview with NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez, National Review senior editor Brookhiser gives a taste of the Founders’ mood and sees if they’re taking any additional queries. Kathryn Jean Lopez:
Rick, was this depressing to write? “George Washington’s first cabinet was the strongest cabinet there has ever been…”? We couldn’t do better in like 230 years?
Richard Brookhiser: It’s not so depressing. They set a very high bar: Jefferson at State, Hamilton at Treasury, Henry Knox at War (Knox: their weak link!). In fairness, modern presidents have to appoint a zillion more people.
Lopez: Does the 8th Amendment suggest (or more than) that the Founders would not side with Jack Bauer (pro) on torture?Brookhiser:
Torture was one of those things, like forced conversion or the divine right of kings, that enlightened 18th
-century Americans couldn’t imagine themselves doing or endorsing. At the same time, ordinary punishments could be quite rough. Daniel Morgan, the great rifle commander, survived 500 lashes from British officers in colonial times. He boasted they lost count, so he only got 499.
Lopez: Why would the Founders not fight the war on drugs?
Brookhiser: Alcohol was the drug of choice in 18th-century America (as it is today). Alexander Hamilton argued that one of the benefits of his whiskey tax would be to reduce excess consumption. “…by rendering the article dearer, [it] might tend to restrain too free an indulgence of such habits.” The big government guy among the founders addresses the drug problem of his day, and proposes–taxing it.
Lopez: On what issues do the Founders most stubbornly and annoyingly disagree with you?
Brookhiser: I believe the special relationship with Britain, beginning in the 1890s and running through Tony Blair, has done us and the world a lot of good. George Washington denounced all permanent relations with foreign countries. “The nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”
Lopez: Which Founder would you get in the most bar fights with?
Brookhiser: Tom Paine was quarrelsome, he was a horse’s ass about Christianity (anti) and the French Revolution (pro), and he was often in bars. But how could I fight with the greatest journalist who ever lived? His lede for the first “American Crisis” (“These are the times that try men’s souls…”) recalls the speech Shakespeare gives Henry V before Agincourt, only it is better, because it was written in real life, on deadline.
Lopez: Would you advise sometimes ignoring the Founders?
Brookhiser: If you go to them for nostalgia, stop going. They are teachers, not teddy bears.
Lopez: How precise is the bar scene on the cover? Madison was a martini man?
Brookhiser: John Adams is standing next to Thomas Jefferson, and seems as if he is the same height, which means he must have climbed on a box. Jefferson is holding a wine glass, which is right, since he was the only Founder besides the Morrises (Robert and Gouverneur) who knew the difference between good wine and cat urine.
Lopez: Once and for all (as if), what would the Founders do about church and state today? Could religious hospitals avoid doing abortion? What would the Founders do about school prayer?
Brookhiser: The Founders believed America was under God. They did not think it was a Christian (or any other religion) nation. They disagreed about the role of religion in public life, Washington calling it a support, Jefferson recommending a wall. I can’t see any of them balking at non-denominational school prayer. Even Paine revered the Almighty (that’s why he thought it was so important to destroy Christianity, as a libel on Him). What non-religious hospitals do you imagine they would allow to perform abortions, exactly?
Lopez: You’ve got blogging in there. Does that mean the Founders would be into the blogosphere?
Brookhiser: One piece of modern journalism was in place in late 18th-century America–newspapers. The Founders read them, published them, wrote them, and were written up in them, constantly. If they came back today, they would sit themselves in front of a radio, a TV, and a computer to figure out 24/7 media, because they would need to understand it to persuade the public. Indeed, they’re blogging even as we speak at my book’s site, www.founderblogs.com.
Lopez: What’s your most frequently asked question you had to cut out of the book?
Brookhiser: Cut? I was stuffing questions in up to the last minute.
Lopez: Who was the most conservative Founder and what would he be saying–talking-head style–about the White House and Congress right now?
Brookhiser: Jefferson would be dismayed by taxes and spending, Hamilton would be incensed by Katrina screw-ups, Adams and Gouverneur Morris would laugh at efforts to encourage democracy in the Middle East, Abigail Adams would demand that the government shut down the MSM, the young Franklin would mock Mexican immigrants as “boors” (he changed his tune later). I was asked to add the following note: “My dear Miss Lopez: I intrude on your time only to remind gentlemen, and ladies, that we are engaged in war with an enemy that is a determined as he is indifferent to the rights of men. The safety and happiness of our country, and of the millions unborn who are to follow us, demand that we give our attention to the task at hand. Your obedient humble Servant, G. Washington.”
<title>What Would the Founders Do?, by Richard Brookhiser</title>