- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

Historian Richard Brookhiser has written biographies of several Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. In his new book, “What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers,” Mr. Brookhiser views contemporary issues through the eyes of the men who established the United States.

A senior editor for National Review, Mr. Brookhiser lives in New York and is also a columnist for the New York Observer. The following are excerpts of an interview with Mr. Brookhiser:

Q: Who cares what the Founders would do and why?

A: We seem to care. Whenever I give a talk about them — and I’ve been doing this for 10 years — there’s always at least one question about what would Washington or Hamilton or whoever it is do about some issue of the day.

Q:Why is what they would do so important to us?

A: Partly for bad reasons. Partly, it’s a nostalgia. We use them as a stick to beat ourselves in a sentimental way. We are flawed, but we think they are flawless or much-less flawed.

Certainly they were brilliant, and they expressed themselves well. They engaged in controversy and discussion constantly, so when they touch upon an issue, we can be confident that it’s well-threshed out. But they were also men, and they were also politicians, and they knew that about themselves. That’s yet another reason they took such care in doing what they did and designing what they designed.

Q: Do we idolize them in other ways?

A: We assume they had a greater unity of purpose than they had. … They were all fighting the Revolution together. But that aside, and even during the Revolution, there was politics of before, during and after, so the unity at the moment was the result of consensus-building at best.

Q: How many questions about the Founders do you tackle in the book?

A. I asked the Founders about 60 questions about current issues, and these are all things that I’ve written about or have come up in editorial conferences. This is just the daily stuff. What I do with the Founders is, I’m never making things up or speculating. I’m trying to find instances in their own careers which were analogous more or less to ours, and I say what they said and did in their own lifetimes and I explain the situation to the reader so the reader can decide.

Q: What are some of the most controversial questions to them?

A: Some of the questions that agitated them still agitate us a lot. They were very divided about judicial review, and some of the arguments between Chief Justice [John] Marshall and President [Thomas] Jefferson still go on. They could be very divided in terms of what wars the post-independence United States should fight, how provocative France was being, what should we do in response, the same question about Britain. These were great partisan matters in their day. They had difference of opinion about the relationship of religion and the state. …

Q: Did you find yourself at odds with other historians over what the Founders would do in certain circumstances?

A: Some historians don’t believe it’s sensible to ask these questions now, or at least they say they don’t. I think that shows a certain lack of imagination, and I think the Founders themselves would say if they actually were to come back — obviously, they would be stunned by any number of things, from the Internet to good teeth. But they would also say, “Look — everyone’s passions are the same. People still have ambitions, they have honor, they have avarice, they have desires to show off — we have them, you’ll always have them. We tried to design systems to either put them to good use or keep them in check because these are the sources of all political controversy.”

Q: What about some of the particularly hot topics of our day, like abortion and same-sex “marriage”? What would the Founders do in those circumstances?

A: As far as gay “marriage” or any gay rights questions — they were a very conservative lot by our standards. Probably the randiest famous one was not Ben Franklin, but Gouverneur Morris, the man who drafted the Constitution. He lived in France for five years. So there he was, and his primary girlfriend was a very talented author and her husband was 35 years older, so he was kind of out of the picture, and her other boyfriend was the father of her son. …

If you were caught committing homosexual acts in the Continental Army, you were drummed out. Jefferson proposed penalizing sodomite acts with castration in Virginia. On the other hand, when George Washington gets a letter as commander in chief telling him that his brilliant drillmaster had been fooling around with young boys back in Germany, he lays it aside — he dismisses it, because he treats it as gossip, and no accusations of pedophilia had been made [in America]. …

The closest I could come to abortion and the Founders was the bill in the New York Assembly having to do with anti-infanticide. It said any woman that claimed that her newborn had been stillborn — a single woman — will have to also present a witness to that fact. She would have to have a witness to assert that she had not killed the child. And Alexander Hamilton … opposes the bill saying that it forces the woman to make her shame public and prevent her from ever joining polite society. So he is sticking up for a woman who has a pregnancy as a single woman. I think he was motivated by the memories of his own mother, who was not wed to his father. …

Q: Did anything emerge during your study that surprised you?

A: I was surprised by how many of the Founders from across the spectrum of their day used the word “empire” to describe what they hoped and expected the U.S. to become. Washington refers to it constantly as a rising empire. Hamilton, in the first Federalist Paper, says that the papers will discuss the fate of an “interesting empire.” …

I was surprised and delighted by the episode of women voting in New Jersey for 31 years if they could pass the property qualifications. … Married women were out of luck, but single women and widows could meet this standard. … After 31 years, they lost [the right to vote] because they were made the scapegoat of a corrupt election.

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