I take a personal interest in the Founders’ revival, since I helped start it. My first biography, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, was generously reviewed by a major scholar, Joseph J. Ellis, on the front page of the New York Times Book Review in February 1996.
That was a warm-up: The breakout book for the Founders was Ellis’s own American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1997), which won the National Book Award. In its wake, professional historians (Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood, Jack Rakove) and professional biographers (David McCullough, Ron Chernow) moved steadily through the great names: Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, John Adams, Madison. Lesser greats had their innings, from Sam Adams to Alexander McGillivray, the Franco-Scottish chief of the Creek Indians whose negotiations with the Washington administration were almost as complex and dishonest as Iran’s today. After dozens of volumes and almost 20 years, I thought we might be slowing down.
Instead, the Founders’ revival rolls through other media. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton had a triumphant opening on Broadway, its weekly grosses now trailing only The Lion King. On television, AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies, a tale of Revolutionary espionage based on a book by NR veteran Alexander Rose, was renewed for a third season. Even Sleepy Hollow, Fox’s fantasy jape, also renewed for a third season, has a Founding angle, since Ichabod Crane, reincarnated in modern-day Tarrytown, N.Y., deals not only with the powers of hell but also with such old-time friends of his as Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin. Washington Irving, who was both Crane’s creator and a biographer of George Washington, would be amused to see his interests so briskly telescoped.
We feel close to the Founders because they are close, as historical figures go. When I give Founders-related talks, I sometimes take the audience on the following time trip: When I was in college, I heard a lecture by Alger Hiss, the Soviet spy; when Hiss was a young lawyer, he clerked for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.; when Holmes was a captain in the Army, he told President Lincoln to “get down, you damn fool!” when Lincoln looked over a parapet at Jubal Early’s raid on Washington; and when Lincoln served his lone term in the House, one of the congressmen he served with was former president John Quincy Adams, who heard the cannon and saw the smoke of the Battle of Bunker Hill from his family’s home across the bay in Braintree. From us to the Revolution is only four steps. It’s a lot farther back to Charlemagne.
But what do we take from these not-so-dead Americans, beyond mere information or entertainment? How do they impress or inspire us? Is there anything we are overlooking?
At the heart of the Founding was a war, and war is always engrossing. The Civil War and World War II are the greatest magnets for historians and reenactors, but the Revolution is surely third. The Revolution (longer than the Civil War and our part in World War II put together) was our longest war until Vietnam. It covered a great swatch of the New World, from Quebec to St. Louis to Guyana. It offers marches, sieges, blunders, brilliance, spying, civil strife, diplomacy, and ideology, both on paper and in practice: Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal; Washington was the last American commander to lead integrated units until the Korean War.
Despite its length and its extent, the Revolution is more comprehensible than other modern world wars because of its scale. Fewer than 30,000 men fought at Yorktown, compared with over 200,000 at Oudenarde (1708) or more than half a million at Leipzig (1814). Its smaller numbers were a product of its nightmarish logistics — Britain and France had to manage their efforts from overseas, while the United States had to manage its with a barely functioning government. As a result, both the actors in the drama and its students today have a more intimate relation to causes and trends; the trees do not choke out the forest.
Though interest in any war often starts as a form of fandom or voyeurism, a way of experiencing battle without wounds, lice, or tedium, if pursued seriously it can offer a panorama of human qualities: intuition, improvisation, planning, persistence, backbiting, stupidity, panic. War can show the heights of valor: Baron Johann de Kalb, the German-born French officer, first came to America in 1768 as a secret agent in the Great Game of Anglo–French rivalry, scoping out the colonials for possible allies; by 1780, when the quondam realpolitiker lay on the field at Camden, dying from multiple gunshot and bayonet wounds, he told a solicitous enemy officer, “I die the death I always prayed for, the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.” War can show the depths of villainy. Most of the Revolution’s atrocities were committed by the British, or by their irregular American allies, a disparity that helped tilt the undecided — a third of the population, John Adams guessed — to the patriot side. At the same time, you did not want to be a Loyalist who fell into the hands of patriot guerrillas in New York or the Carolinas.
After the war, what? The climactic purpose of the Constitution, according to its preamble, is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.” Today those are understood to be what Baron Kalb died for — rights. Rights talk, and even some of our rights, are quite healthy after two centuries.
I was recently asked which of the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights could be passed today. My quick answer was none of them: The amending process is deliberately hard, and the ten that were ratified by December 1791 were understood to be a concession to the Constitution’s defeated opponents, reassuring them that the nation’s new structure would not become oppressive. No such mandate exists now.
But on second thought I believe a number would pass rather easily. Gun owners would surely secure the Second — shorn of any ambiguity about guns’ being legal only for use in militias. There are enough journalists, old-school ACLU types, and wingers irked by campus PC to pass the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of the press, and of speech. Similarly there are enough believers in enough different churches to insist on the free exercise of religion. No one thinks anymore about quartering troops in private houses, but the practice seems so outlandish that if anyone offered the Third Amendment it might also pass.
Contentious issues are routinely debated in a language of rights. Abortion supporters uphold a woman’s right to control her own life, opponents the right of the unborn to have one. The Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments extended rights that, whatever Jefferson wrote or Washington did, had been denied black Americans, both slave and free. The civil-rights movement of the mid 20th century said, We really mean it. This struggle was so central to America’s history and principles that women, gays, and transsexuals have all sought to appropriate it.
The right to make a deal in the form of a binding contract is so basic that it did not have to wait for the Bill of Rights to be secured but was put into the Constitution itself, on the motion of Rufus King (Article I, Section 10). At the same time, every effort to ameliorate the effects of the market by regulation or through public assistance to the unfortunate is cast as a right to organize, to earn a living wage, or some such. Marxists have a language of class struggle, but Americans would rather use their native tongue.
A political philosopher or an economist might argue that many of these rights are incoherent or violations of other rights, but that is a discussion for a later time. When we talk, we start by talking about rights, which link the NRA and Caitlyn Jenner, merchants of derivatives and socialists, to the Battle of Bunker Hill even more directly than by hearing a lecture by Alger Hiss. If you can invoke the language of rights, you can get the Founders on your side. Rights are right; they are also ours.
But another legacy of the Founders, equally important, is less robust. That is their faith in self-government.
Rights and self-government are related, of course, because rights are more than barriers against interference; they make a statement about the worth of those who enjoy them. As Melville put it, man is “Nature’s Roman, never to be scourged.” Nature’s Romans should also rule themselves.
The Founder who believed most eloquently in our fitness for self-rule was Jefferson. He expressed his respect for the political capacity of the people, as individuals and as a body, again and again. All men are not created equally intelligent, but that did not trouble him, for he believed that all have an innate moral sense, which is a better guide to action than brains. Erroneous ideas or misinformation may cloud the moral sense, but time and truth will inevitably make all right. “He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. . . . State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” “The cause of republicanism, triumphing in Europe, can never fail to do so here in the long run. Our citizens may be deceived for a while, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light.” Jefferson’s observation about republicanism’s triumphing in Europe was made in 1799, just before Bonaparte became first consul. Jefferson made a number of bad predictions in his life but never lost his faith in man.
Even Founders with a darker view of humanity trusted the people’s ability to rule themselves. Madison, who is famous for observing in Federalist No. 51 that men were not angels, went on in the 1790s, after his burst of Constitution-writing and -explicating, to offer public opinion as the ultimate force for good in the republic. “Every good citizen will be at once a centinel over the rights of the people” and “over the authorities of the . . . government.” Hamilton, whose worldview was darker yet (“Is it not time,” he asked in Federalist No. 6, “to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age” and recognize “that we . . . are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”), nevertheless trusted popular rule. When he gave his day-long oration at the Constitutional Convention advocating an executive and senators elected for life, he defended his plan by noting that under it “all the magistrates” were to be chosen “by the people, or by a process of election originating with the people.”
The Founding generation’s faith in self-government was most pithily stated not by any of the Founders but by Levi Preston, a Minuteman who fought at Concord. When he was 91, Preston was asked by a young whippersnapper why he had fought. Was it because of the Stamp Act? The tea tax? The writings of John Locke? No, no, no, said Preston, then explained himself thus: “What we meant in going for those red-coats was this. We had always governed ourselves, and we always meant to.”
Do we still mean to? A presidential-election year may be the worst time to ask. It is the great symbol, almost the festival of self-rule. Yet the sophisticated view of presidential contests is that they are brainless exercises, PR kabuki. Any real work that gets done is done behind the scenes, by soft-faced, hard-handed manipulators. The only threats to the stability of this system come from rube orgasms, precipitated in this cycle by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Perhaps it is best that the people do not rule. A powerful argument against them is the doctrine of rights itself. Lest the people dilute or trample them, rights need safeguards, either in the form of intricate constitutional machinery or in the wisdom and insight of unelected guardians. When Justice Breyer argues that the Supreme Court should heed foreign laws, or when Justice Kennedy invokes “the right to define . . . the mystery of human life,” we can debate whether they are rightfully extending the Constitution or superseding it. Even if they are doing the latter, however, they and the Constitution they have violated are on parallel missions: keeping the voters in line.
Other limitations on the people arise from decisions that they or their representatives have made. Many government programs are so technical (price controls, setting interest rates) or so sweeping (laws that ban discrimination or mandate full employment) that they require a class of administrators to implement and oversee them. If these are not to be patronage appointees, then they must be civil servants with some degree of independence. Yet any officer of the state who is secure in his position has little incentive to respect or heed the public, and every incentive to become fond of his position and perks.
The Biblical vision of the modern administrative state is 1 Samuel 8, in which Samuel, last of the judges of Israel, tells the people what a monarchy will be like: Their sons will be enlisted as charioteers and horsemen, their daughters as cooks and bakers; a tithe of everyone’s seed, vineyards, and sheep will be appropriated; maidservants, menservants, and asses will all be put to work. “And ye shall be . . . servants.” But the punch line is in the set-up: The people of Israel first came to Samuel and asked for this. Or as Mencken put it, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” Or as Hugo Grotius, the Dutch legal philosopher, argued, it is possible for people justly to place themselves in bondage.
We are a long way from monarchy or bondage, yet we are also a long way from Jefferson’s dreams of self-rule. Some of that is probably the backwash of bigness, but much of it is the result of our own inattention, and mistaken intentions.
The soberest Founder of them all warned us. In 1783, as the Revolution wound down, George Washington wrote a circular to the 13 state governors — his first (and so far as he then knew only) farewell address. He is not ranked with our great writers, but there is one long paragraph in this message that is carefully wrought and very impressive. The bulk of it is a description of our situation at that moment: “a vast tract of continent”; “various soils and climates”; “the rights of mankind . . . better understood and more clearly defined”; letters, commerce, manners, Revelation. Then, the kicker: “At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence, and if their citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.”