- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDERS DO?:

OUR QUESTIONS, THEIR ANSWERS

By Richard Brookhiser

Basic Books, $25, 275 pages

REVIEWED BY JEREMY LOTT

The cover painting is a clear window into this book. The setting is a modern tavern. You see the bartender with a white apron in the background as well as a pool table with a cue propped against its side and a television anchored to the ceiling over an exit. Odds are you’ll only notice those things long after you see six of our nation’s Founding Fathers front and center, raising their glasses. George Washington hoists a modern beer bottle of some indeterminate brand. Benjamin Franklin and Sam Adams toast with pint glasses. Alexander Hamilton raises his glass full of red wine, Thomas Jefferson his malt liquor, and James Madison his martini. I think … they’re toasting us.

“Who cares what the Founders would do?” is the question that Richard Brookhiser, the popular historian, asks in the intro. Answer: “We do. I have heard it with my own ears.”

Over the last decade, while giving hundreds of talks related to his biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Adams family (subtitled “The Adamses” to avoid any confusion with Morticia, Gomez, Pugsley and Wendesday Addams) and Gouverneur Morris, Mr. Brookhiser fielded thousands of questions from Americans of all walks of life. The form of inquiry he encountered most often was, What would the Founders have to say about X? The issues were all over the map: from terrorism to assimilation to hemp to genetic engineering.

Our historian initially got a chuckle out of a few of the questions and found others exasperating, but the audiences kept piling on. It’s a habit of modern Americans to go back to the men who made it all happen for advice, and here was a man who was better at making those oracles speak than most. Eventually, he realized that it might be useful to rope several dozen of his answers together and put them between two covers. Thus the self-helpful title, “What Would the Founders Do?: Our Questions, Their Answers.”

Mr. Brookhiser begins by telling us that this extreme curiosity about what the Founders would think is nothing new. For the debut speech of his presidential campaign, Abraham Lincoln took up the issue of what the Founders would say about whether Congress had the power to eliminate slavery in the territories. He argued that the vast majority of Founders who had an opinion on the subject, including the father of this country, would say that slavery could be eliminated there. “We sustain [Washington’s] policy,” Lincoln explained to his political opponents. “You repudiate it.”

And so it has gone. In his “I have a dream” speech, delivered with the Lincoln memorial in the background, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked not only the author of the Emancipation Proclamation but also the “architects of our republic.” Those great men, King explained, had signed a “promissory note [the Declaration of Independence] to which every American was to fall heir,” though it would take longer for some Americans to lay claim to that promise than others.

The hitch in getting the Founders to speak to our world is that things have evolved. A lot. They were radicals who managed to throw off the yoke of their mother country. Then they were the ruling class of a new, struggling republic, still clinging to the Eastern seaboard in defiance of several Old World empires that had yet to peter out. Their technology was primitive, their teeth bad, and their language, though recognizably English, requires some translation. Some critics have gone so far as to argue that this is scarcely the same country anymore, so why bother the Founders in their graves?

Best to answer that with another question: If every board, nail and piling of a sailing vessel is replaced over time, what makes it still the same ship?

The answer, of course, is its history. And just as any would-be sailor or renovator would be best served to know how the vessel was designed and to what purpose, Americans have a notion that as we sail into choppy waters we should consult those men who designed our ship of state.

Many of the answers are illuminating, others speculative, still others troubling. The Q’s and the A’s are gathered together into eight chapters, bookended by a quick sketch of the material and intellectual world of the Founders at one end and a few final thoughts on what they would think of this book at the other. (Most would like it; John Adams would fill the margins with furious refutations.)

Each chapter opens with a brief discussion of its theme and then dives right in. The second chapter on “Liberty and Law,” for example, opens by informing us that “America is about liberty or it is about nothing,” and then gives us a few ideas about the discussion to come. Before the end of the first page the reader comes to the question, “Did the Founders support the death penalty?”

Mr. Brookhiser keeps things moving throughout, with story and anecdote and some wickedly turned phrases. In the two and a half pages of discussion about the death penalty he gives us a glimpse of Jefferson’s thoughts as well as the legislation that he sponsored (to curb but not abolish executions), of the role of the new national government in law enforcement, of changing ideas about crime and punishment in the 18th century, and of Washington’s actions during war and peace.

As president, Washington put down the Whiskey rebellion and then had some of the smaller fish in the plot tried and sentenced to death, but then he pardoned them. Lesson: “Leadership is an art, and Washington knew there are no hard and fast rules. But he never excluded the ultimate penalty.” In his refusal to rule out the death penalty, Washington was speaking for the consensus of the founding generation.

The thing to like best about the book is that the answers aren’t pat. Mr. Brookhiser doesn’t try to create phony consensus among the Founders where they disagreed, and he avoids being too worshipful of them or heaping scorn. In fact, it reads like many long afternoons full of good conversation at the local pub with several of the world’s more remarkable men, now retired, telling stories as they observe their greatest achievement unfold.

Jeremy Lott is author of “In Defense of Hypocrisy” (forthcoming from Nelson Current).


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