J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

If the Leading Founders Were Alive Today

A Boston 1775 reader alerted me to an essay in the Washington Post last week by Mount Holyoke professor Joseph Ellis titled “What Would George Do?”. It discusses the often-posed question of how Washington or other founders would respond to the nation’s challenges today. Ellis answers:

Washington would not be able to find Iraq on a map. Nor would he know about weapons of mass destruction, Islamic fundamentalism, Humvees, cellphones, CNN or Saddam Hussein. The historically correct answer, then, is that Washington would not have a clue.

It's tempting to believe that the political wisdom of our Founding Fathers can travel across the centuries in a time capsule, land among us intact, then release its insights into our atmosphere -- and as we breathed in that enriched air, our perspective on Iraq, global warming, immigration and the other hot-button issues of the day would be informed by what we might call "founders' genius." (Come to think of it, at least two Supreme Court justices who embrace the literal version of "original intent" believe that this is possible.)
I have a friend who wrote for David Letterman (and may soon do so again, once the strike is settled). Whenever the Top Ten List is something like, “Ten Things George Washington Would Say If He Were Here Today,” he offers, “AAAAH! There’s a big metal bird in the sky!”

For myself, I think if I were to have Thomas Jefferson over for a weekend, the first night’s dinner would produce a most stimulating discussion, of which I could hear only about half since he was so soft-spoken. And the next morning I’d find that Mr. Jefferson had electrocuted himself trying to figure out how his alarm clock worked. (Throughout his life Jefferson wrestled with the challenge of building an accurate timepiece.)

Guessing what John Adams might say on an issue seems even harder. I suspect that the easiest way to get him to take a particular position would be to suggest to him that the opposite position is popular and clearly seems best.

Recognizing such challenges, Ellis proceeds:
Suppose, then, that we rephrase the question. It is not "What would George Washington do about Iraq?" Rather, it is "How are your own views of Iraq affected by your study of Washington's experience leading a rebellion against a British military occupation?" The answer on this score is pretty clear. Washington eventually realized -- and it took him three years to have this epiphany -- that the only way he could lose the Revolutionary War was to try to win it. The British army and navy could win all the major battles, and with a few exceptions they did; but they faced the intractable problem of trying to establish control over a vast continent whose population resented and resisted military occupation. As the old counterinsurgency mantra goes, Washington won by not losing, and the British lost by not winning. Our dilemma in Iraq is analogous to the British dilemma in North America -- and is likely to yield the same outcome.

To take another example, your opinion on the current debate about how much power the executive branch should have will be significantly influenced if you read the debates about the subject in the Constitutional Convention and the states' ratifying conventions. For it will soon become clear that the most palpable fear that haunted all these debates was the specter of monarchy. Vice President Cheney's argument that limitations on the executive branch enacted in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate need to be rolled back is historically myopic. Virtually all of the Founding Fathers would regard the expansion of executive power since 1945 as a violation of the republican principles they cherished. And the way Congress has effectively surrendered war-making powers to the president since World War II represents a fundamental distortion of checks and balances as the founders intended them.
It’s hard to argue with those historical analogies. We might say that the solutions of the late 1700s wouldn’t be up to today’s far-flung, fast-moving challenges. But we can hardly deny that Washington led an successful insurgency without winning many battlefield victories, or that the founders put a lot of checks on executive power because they feared that the Presidency would become monarchical.


Larry Cebula said...

"Whenever the Top Ten List is something like, “Ten Things George Washington Would Say If He Were Here Today,” he offers, “AAAAH! There’s a big metal bird in the sky!”

I keep reading that and laughing. Amen.

J. L. Bell said...

CORRECTION: On his way back to work, my friend tells me that he isn't the writer who suggests the "big metal bird" line for what Washington would say if he were alive today.

Instead, he always suggests: "Help! Let me out of this coffin!"

The management regrets the errors.