What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers
Reviewed by Michael Lind
It might be thought that nothing new could be said about America's founding fathers, in the midst of the contemporary avalanche of tomes about Washington, Jefferson and other early American leaders. But Rick Brookhiser, inspired perhaps by a Christian motto—"What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD)—has come up with a way to describe the views of the architects of the American republic that is as entertaining as it is informative.
"Americans have been asking what the founders would do since the founders died," writes Brookhiser, a journalist and historian (Alexander Hamilton and The Way of the WASP ). Combining the skills of a first-rate writer with those of a medium at a séance, Brookhiser channels the spirits of eminent early Americans in discussing contemporary public debates.
At times, Brookhiser has to stretch to find an analogy between the era of the founders and today, such as his comparison between stem cell research and the old practice of robbing graves for medical research.
In other cases, however, the conceit works to shed light on present and past alike. Should the U.S. attempt to spread democracy around the world? Brookhiser makes a case for the caution of Alexander Hamilton rather than the optimism of Thomas Jefferson. The war on drugs? "The founders would not have fought a war on drugs," but would have taxed them instead, Brookhiser declares, reasoning from the excise tax on whiskey imposed by the federal government. What would the founders do about Social Security? "Social Security follows none of their models (family provision, charity, reward for service, investment)."
The book reveals that many of the public policy questions confronting the early American republic are similar to challenges Americans wrestle with today. The values of 18th-century Americans, by contrast, were radically different and benighted by modern standards. Jefferson, while opposing slavery, argued that blacks were inferior and should be expatriated from the United States. The founders took a male-dominated society for granted, though Hamilton was willing to consider sweatshop work for women: "It is worthy of particular remark, that, in general, women and children are rendered more useful... by manufacturing establishments than they would otherwise be."
With a rare union of wit and scholarship, What Would the Founders Do? presents history as a source of continuing debates, rather than as a set of answers. Comparing the founders to present-day Americans, Brookhiser concludes: "We can be as intelligent as they were, and as serious, as practical, and as brave.... We can; as they said, all men are created equal."(May 5)
Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President.