The celebrated historian Gordon Wood has a rather strange article in today’s New York Times. His hook is that a woman in Illinois recently told a reporter, apropos the upcoming election, that “I am not really happy right now with anybody . . . When the country was founded, those guys were all pretty new at it. How bad could it be” to have a lot of new people in Congress?
This launches Wood on a history lesson about how, on the contrary, the founding fathers had a lot of political experience, even in colonial days, and that by the final third of the eighteenth century Americans had well-developed habits of self-rule–unlike the French, which is one reason why their revolution turned out so badly by comparison to our own. All true–and yet. . .
And yet somehow by the end of his article Wood has transformed this history lesson into a reason to reject the “throw the bums out” mood of the current electorate. Keep the bums in! seems to be his response. Goodness knows we can’t have any “rotating amateurs” in there when we’re so obviously well-governed by the wisdom and experience of Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi.
I’d give a little more credit to the lady from Decatur. When our country was founded, there was an awful lot that was new, and that none of the founders had any experience in handling. The commercial relations of a network of states, the conduct of diplomacy with other nations, the defense of a vast territory against external threats, the uniting of a continental republic under one rule of law, the handling of debt and finance for a new hybrid form of republican federalism. Somehow they did all right.
And I don’t think it occurred to Wood that his own argument tells against him, and for the lady from Decatur. One of Wood’s best points is that ordinary Americans, in and out of public office, had plenty of political savvy by the time of the Revolution. Just so today. Lots of Americans–countless ones, in fact–could do as well or better on Capitol Hill than many of the pampered grandees of the political class. And you don’t have to be an advocate of formal term limits, as Wood seems to think, if you’re fed up and want a change. And we don’t need term limits. All we need is a ballot.