What Would the Founders Think? (And Would It Really Matter?)

Advice about invading Iraq?

Another blog I’ve been engaging with is What Would the Founders Think?, which focuses on connecting current debate about the proper role of government in America to the political philosophy of the founders. One of its bloggers, Martin, and I have had some polite yet feisty exchanges on this blog: here and here. I find our differences revealing (and the politeness encouraging), since what I’ve been hoping to do is foster debate, across political lines, about these very issues. 

So instead of more back-and-forth with Martin, buried in the comments, I thought I’d express a few reflections on WWTFT — and about the whole idea of what the founders thought, as it also relates to thinking about the founders’ religion, in the blog American Creation (I discuss that here and elsewhere). 

Putting it bluntly, WWTFT is coming from the current political right — but taking seriously the Tea Party’s appeal to the founding period.

Where others are dressing in wigs and breeches and carrying slogans on signs, Martin and his co-blogger Marcia are posting detailed readings of some of the thornier entries in The Federalist and closely reviewing a wide range of important books, not only the big pop bios like Ron Chernow’s upcoming Washington tome but also Gordon Wood’s scholarly, ultimately liberal Radicalism of the American Revolution and the libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises’s Bureaucracy, for example. They also write posts expressing utter rejection of progressive politics and culture and what they see as mindless tropings among left-wing youth. 

They’re against a fairly familiar set of things: “judicial activism,” “big government,” “progressivism,” “end runs on the second amendment, ” “job-destroying environmental regulation.” 

And they attended Glenn Beck’s rally in Washington. 

Oh: and they appear to live in Arizona. 

So a lot of people I know wouldn’t want to engage with WWTFT, including some sophisticated conservatives who would find the blog’s tone at times tendentious and polemical, even defensive.  But I like polemical, don’t like some kinds of sophisticated, and don’t see a lot of bloggers anywhere on the political spectrum digging hard into founding thinking like this. In a world of tweets about what somebody had for lunch, that seems like a pretty good use of the public nature of “social media.” 

And their even considering the dark, unedifying conflicts in which I trade — which spook lots of liberals! — suggests to me that we share, possibly with some others, a hunger for informed public debate across the great gulfs fixed by today’s partisan presumptions. Let a thousand flowers bloom — as their boy George Washington was not fond of saying. 

Of course when you get right down to it, I think WWTFT’s conclusions are totally foregone. I think they’re looking to pile up a mountain of supposed founding theory for what they already consider to be appropriate modern policy, largely anti-government. They differ from me most starkly less for being conservative than for thinking there’s anything consistent, and consistently useful for modern policy, to be found in the thoughts of the famous founders. I go to that period seeking incommensurability, irreducible conflict, tensions (a polite word for trainwrecks) that haunt (a polite word for wreck) us today, what Greil Marcus calls the old, weird America, which, I’m beginning to think, was really a new, weird America. 

Put it another way: It’s possible that The Federalist is not the best guide to understanding either the politics and lives of Madison and Hamilton or how to read the Constitution. 

More on this perhaps to come, but one thing that I find very interesting about serious conservatives like WWTFT, who study the founding period — and this is true about Glenn Beck too! — is that in their opposition to what they think of as today’s liberal-elite big government machine, they look back for help to the most elite guys in the world, the guys who invented that government (and yes, I include Madison and Jefferson). Their sainted Washington, for example, would have rounded up these “activists” and tried to shake false confessions of treason out of them. You can read about that in my The Whiskey Rebellion (a topic the libertarian Rothbard got wrong, as I try to show the Rockwell libertarians here). Jefferson got off on the idea of people rising up — French people. He wasn’t about to hand Monticello over to the white rabble down the hill. The sheer disgust that any one of the famous founders would have showered on the very people who now constantly invoke their legacies seems like a telling irony to me. Not one of the founders had anything to do with “grass-roots democracy,” a term that would have made all of them, despite their differences, sick. The revulsion unified them. It’s all they had in common, really. And that begins to tell us what they would have thought.

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2 thoughts on “What Would the Founders Think? (And Would It Really Matter?)

  1. William,

    I would say your post could be summarized best by a sentence appearing a bit past mid-way in your post: “They differ from me most starkly less for being conservative than for thinking there’s anything consistent, and consistently useful for modern policy, to be found in the thoughts of the famous founders.”

    Given that you dismiss outright the viability of the WWTFT project in the sentence above, what should we readers take away other than that your faith in modern “liberalism” (read: a kinder and gentler synthesis of mid-20th century collectivist statism) is a “foregone conclusion”?

    The work of the founders is relevant precisely because it is not a work of “policy” (a neo-liberal cover term for “control”) but rather “anti-policy” — a work of philosophy concerning the nature of government and its relation to the governed, if those governed wish in any sense to be free while not descending into anarchy.

    As for “elites”, it is not the “elite” status (with respect to, say, wealth, education, or social position) of those occupying the halls of government that modern conservatism has a problem with. Most reasonable people seem willing to defer to the counsel of those they deem to be their intellectual superiors in this or that field. A simple matter of division of labor. What people are growing increasingly unwilling to defer to are “elites” whom they do not see as acting in or sharing their interests. There is no perceived division of labor, only the feeling that one is a pawn at best in someone else’s game. The “elites” of the revolutionary period, on the other hand, were thoroughly *in* the game. They risked their status, wealth, and lives along with those they led and thus commanded respect. Modern “elites”, of which the President is the acme, do none of this.

    So, score 2 for the founders. They weren’t out to game anyone and they proved it by going “all-in” and playing themselves for the highest stakes. On that view, what can be said of modern liberalism? Do modern liberals have a stake in the game? What is their desired end state?

    Your turn.

  2. Appreciate the smart commenting. Some random responses:

    Faith in modern lberalism (or any other kind)? Me? Poke around some, I think you’ll see otherwise.

    To me the significant work of the founders was *not* a work of philosophy but a government, full of policy, even defined as you do. That’s our difference.

    On people’s happily accepting others’ greater expertise: Hm. I like the idea. Don’t see it. I do agree that what *should* be bothering people is the degree to which “experts” aren’t working in people’s interest.

    And I’d have to know what you mean by “in the game,” but I suspect I could not disagree more strenuously with the thinking behind the assertion that the founders were in it, in the way you may mean.

    But look, I’m not out to say that the founders were in some way bad, and it bugs me that every time I say what I really *am* saying, the debate drifts toward arguing “founders good / founders bad.” You’ve worked the discussion around, through some assertions open to question, to scoring two for the founders over modern liberals. Is that what we were talking about? What I keep trying to suggest is that people with ideas about government keep wanting to project those ideas on the founders, a dog that never hunts. I see that as both an intellectual and political problem of some interest. [UPDATE:] You, for example, believe the founders created a philosophy opposed to “modern liberalism,” and you spend much admirable effort and brainpower trying to prove it. Others do equally heavy lifting to show that the founders helped invent modern liberalism. Carry on, all. I’m interested in the founders’ mutual dissonances, hardball politics, and their shared disdain for the democracy (“manhood suffrage” to them) that everybody nowadays claims to see as axiomatic to American values.

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