Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Asking the Founders for Help: A Review of Richard Brookhiser’s What Would the Founders Do?
By Alexander Marriott

What would George Washington have to say about terrorism and preemptive war? What did Jefferson think of the death penalty? Would the founders fight a war on drugs? Were the founders pacifists? Did they object to women participating in the political process? These are just some of the many questions historian and journalist Richard Brookhiser poses to the whole panoply founding fathers in his new book What Would the Founders Do? The book is a valuable compilation and explanation of various positions and opinions the founders held (sometimes in contradiction to each other) on various problems of their day, the fundamentals of which are still relevant to problems confronting us today. Why look back to these figures, the last of whom died in 1836 (Madison), for guidance today? Brookhiser answers that question quite succinctly: “They built the country, they wrote the user manuals—Declaration, Constitution, Federalist Papers—and they ran it while it could still be returned to the manufacturer. We assume that if anyone knows how the U.S.A. should work, it must be them. In that spirit, we ask WWFD—What Would the Founders Do?” (Pg. 6) The book itself is not the end of the story; the founders are answering more questions online, in the blogosphere. A whole host of FounderBlogs have been created for the likes of Washington, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison to offer their wit and wisdom on more issues of the day.

With this premise dictating his direction, Brookhiser rakes his own immense knowledge of the founding fathers and uses their positions and opinions to answer numerous question under broad topics such as “God and Man,” “Money and Business,” and “Education and Media.” The book bears the hallmarks of Brookhiser’s previous historical interests. George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton would have had to be heavily involved in the book anyway, but Gouverneur Morris, a largely forgotten but incredibly fascinating founder from New York (who largely became marginalized due to his radical Federalism and the fact that Jeffersonians ruled the government for 24 years), is consulted more in this book than would have been the case if any other historian had written it. Brookhiser’s previous (and current) penchant for Federalists perhaps colors his views on their opponents, the Jeffersonians (whom he rather undeservedly connects to the modern Democratic Party, but that is a question for another day), but not to extent detrimental to this book.

The main recommendation this book has is the incredibly even handed and sober way in which Brookhiser treats his material. It would be easy for a partisan to go through the writings of the founders and pick out of context positions and opinions that validate current political opinions, but he does not stoop to such a level. The answers for whether the founders would fight a war on drugs, teach intelligent design, and permit assisted suicide are very measured and accurate expositions of the thoughts of the founders on the fundamentals underlying these issues.

Of course the easiest critique to level against this book or any work like it is the fact that the founders were men of a different era and are all deceased. In fact, Brookhiser devotes an entire chapter in the early going to this very question. Without their living in the present age it is impossible to tell what they would think about saving social security, drilling in ANWR, or school vouchers. This is superficially true, but such an attitude would invalidate all knowledge, particularly all history as we know it. Aristotle has been dead for over two thousand years and yet he can still teach us a great deal about the world (properly corrected where he was in error). The same can be said about John Locke, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, George Washington, and James Madison.

The real problem with the premise of Brookhiser’s latest effort is that the founders were not infallible authorities to consult on political or ethical concerns. Their inability to deal with metaphysics, which Brookhiser points out, was a serious flaw, because they ended up stating their political breakthroughs as self-evident truths, when they were and are not. Though Brookhiser and the rest of us may want to go back to the founders and get the wisdom we seem to have lost, their advice is limited not only by time, but by their own deficiencies. In their age they could say radical liberty and individual rights were self-evident truths because few would dispute the point, but today’s post-modern world where people dispute the existence of reality, objectivity, truth, reason, and knowledge (the beginnings of which had only begun when the founders were achieving their greatest triumphs) requires something more. In the context of their own time the founders were heroic visionaries, men of ideas and action. Whether they could fight the philosophical quagmire of the present which threatens all their efforts to secure freedom and liberty to their posterity is far from certain. That being said, Mr. Brookhiser’s efforts to bring the founders intelligently and understandably to as many Americans as possible (not just scholars) are to be commended and encouraged. The seriousness and probity which the founders brought to all the issues they grappled with comes through clearly in this book and is something we should all strive to emulate.