TOPICS > Politics

The Founders’ Vision

July 4, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: What would those who found this country think about it now in the year 2003? We get some informed speculation from four people who have studied the founders: Joyce Appleby, professor emeritus at UCLA, has written about Thomas Jefferson and the Revolutionary and post- Revolutionary War era; Joseph Ellis of Mt. Holyoke College won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Founding Brothers, The Revolutionary Generation.” He also wrote a book on Jefferson. Richard Brookhiser’s latest book is “Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution,” he’s a senior editor at the National Review; he’s also written biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Adamses. Walter Isaacson is the author of the just-published “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.” He’s the president of the Aspen Institute, and former editor of Time Magazine and head of CNN.

Joseph Ellis, was creating the most powerful nation in the world, as the U.S. of A. is today what most of the founders had in mind?

JOSEPH ELLIS: I don’t think in 1776 that’s what they had in mind; they intended to secede from the British Empire, and they felt they were improvising on the edge of catastrophe. Bringing them into the 21st century is probably like planting cut flowers. My own view is that at least two of them — Alexander Hamilton and George Washington — saw the emergent American Republic as a prospective world power and wouldn’t be too surprised to see us as the overwhelming hegemonic power at the dawn of the 21st century.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Joyce Appleby, about Hamilton and Washington?

JOYCE APPLEBY: Yes, I do, and I would add Jefferson as well, because one of the interesting things is that these 13 colonies that turned themselves into 13 confederated states, they are on this shelf of land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, and yet, they took the word “Continental” — Continental Congress, and they thought about a continental destiny. This is really quite remarkable when you think about it, so they certainly had a vision that the American state was going to grow geographically.

But at the same time they were aware that it was an experiment and that republics were fragile forms of government, so they sort of oscillated between this, this sort of exaggerated confidence in what the United States was going to become, I think, morally as a free nation but also geographically, and there were real worries and concerns about whether or not this frail experiment was going to survive.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, what do you think they would think about what this country is now?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, you have to remember that the Revolutionary War was eight and a half years from start till the peace treaty, so that war was longer than the Civil War and our participation in World War II put together. It was a long, grueling experience, and a lot of consciousness changing occurred during it.

I think Professor Ellis is right. At the beginning, people were not thinking in terms of empires or even necessarily a fused nation, but by the end of it they were. And I’ll just throw in Gouverneur Morris. He said, “this generation will pass away, and give rise to a race of Americans.”

JIM LEHRER: Now, what about Ben Franklin, Walter?

WALTER ISAACSON: You know, way back in 1754, he first had the notion that the colonies should get together. He had this Albany plan of union, when they all met in Albany to figure out how to fight the French and the Indians and that sort of thing, but he was also back then a true believer in the British Empire. He just believed in the notion of empire and that it would expand, and he called it a fine, noble vase, and finally in late 1775, he realizes that it’s shattered irreparably.

So first of all, he does want to see a new union of the colonies, not just 13 separate colonies signing the declaration but he writes an article of confederation, an early model of the articles that’s a very strong sense of union and he has a great sense of the expansive empire that America could become.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think he would think of the country generally right now? Would he be pleased with who we are and what we’ve become as a people, as well as a nation?

WALTER ISAACSON: You know, I think he would like the notion that America stands for tolerance and religious tolerance, and he would sort of rankle when we fail that. He also would like the notion that we can find some common ground in compromise. You know, last week when the Supreme Court did the affirmative action decision, that was a very Ben Franklin-like decision, which is, you know, we know there’s some common sense somewhere in here, and let’s just see if we can try to work it out.

What he wouldn’t like is the divisiveness and the partisanship that you see today because he was always somebody — you know, he’s like a tradesman; he said, you take a little bit off the plank here and a little bit off the plank here and we could form a very good joint and make a very good society.

JIM LEHRER: Joe Ellis, what would you add to that –Walter is talking about Ben Franklin, but go through some of the — well, for instance, Jefferson, what do you think he would think of us as a people right now and some of the contemporary things that are happening to us as a country?

JOSEPH ELLIS: Well, you know, the notion that we could establish Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq would probably be something that would be interesting to ask him about. Jefferson did believe the principles on which the American republic was based, as articulated in the declaration, were universal principles.

But if you bring him into the present, we’re going to have to brief him on the last 180 years of American history and so it’s tough to know what he’d say. But if I were to speak for him in Baghdad, I’d say that he would say we have to begin this new Iraq republic with the principle of separation of church and state.

On the Michigan decision on affirmative action I think the words of Jefferson in the Declaration can be cited by both sides — those who believe like Mr. Rehnquist and Scalia, for example, that it was the wrong decision because the Declaration does root rights in individuals and has very little to say about government powers too redistribute those rights.

On the other hand, the mandate towards equality that is articulated in that credo statement, the magic words, the 58 words of the Declaration that begin, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” you could see a movement from Jefferson to Lincoln to Martin Luther King and you could see this decision in Michigan as the next chapter in a long saga.

JIM LEHRER: Joyce Appleby, what do you see in present-day events, any of the ones that they have already mentioned or any one that you would like to add or subtract, and then focus it back a little on what the founders might react to having seen it happen.

JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think that the founders would be impressed by the fact that democracy is spreading in the world. After all, theirs was one of the few republics in a world of tyrannies and monarchies, so that it would be quite remarkable to think that, what, there are 112 democracies in the world today. Clearly, there would be some sort of a jolt at seeing what kind of societies we have in the early 21st century.

But I believe — again a kind of ambivalence — the founders really did believe these were universal principles, at the same time they recognized that they were path breakers, that they were experimenting, and I think it would be quite reassuring for them to see that democracies are flourishing many places, they’re struggling other places, but they are definitely in the ascendance. I think that would be extremely gratifying because they would feel that their revolution had been the beginning of an entirely new future for humankind.

JIM LEHRER: Who were the most nervous among the founders, Joyce Appleby, those who were not so sure that this was going to last, or maybe it was truly a precarious experiment, or were there any?

JOYCE APPLEBY: Oh, I think John Adams was. He felt that were certain principles that had to be followed in the structuring of government. I think he was worried about the absence of an elite that was secure institutionally.

But really they all were. Madison in writing the Constitution was upset that the Congress wasn’t going to have a veto power over the state legislatures. And here, this made him feel that the experiment was indeed at risk. I think most of them, who studied politics seriously, and they really did — they were well read as much as they could be in all the previous governments in the world. So I don’t think that doubt was connected with any one group.

The anti-federalists were once called the men of little faith because they worried about having an expanded government and a consolidated nation as opposed to keeping politics at the local level. There were different worries, and they are spread across the population of revolutionary leaders. But, I think all of them were anxious about it. This was quite an experiment, and they were mindful, they were mindful of all the pitfalls lying ahead, and of course the Civil War would have confirmed their fears.

We’re so far past the Civil War that we no longer see it as a rent in the Constitution and a severe rebuke to the revolutionary tradition; at least the fact that the Civil War erupted and not its conclusion.

JIM LEHRER: If we ran this discussion on a television program during the Civil War, we might get four different sets of answers –


RICHARD BROOKHISER: I think nervous is too mild a word.

JIM LEHRER: Is that right?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: When we have elections, we know there’s going to be a next one, so if you lose, if your side loses, you know you have another chance. None of these men knew that. I mean their theory taught them that this should be the way it should work and they have some experience with colonial governments with elections that didn’t have ultimate power, but they did not know that this was going to work. When they’re at the Constitutional Convention Elbridge Gerry says that if we fail, the cause of republican government will be lost and disgraced forever.

You know, so you had these rubes in America thinking that if they didn’t get this right, it was going to have world historical consequences, and they had a tremendous weight of responsibility on their shoulders.

JIM LEHRER: What about George Washington? He’s the one we don’t know what much about. You studied him for years and wrote a major book about him. What was his level of confidence about whether the thing was going to work and last?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Jefferson said that Washington was a man of gloomy apprehensions.

JIM LEHRER: Gloomy apprehension?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Apprehension, yes, and he had a lot to make himself gloomy — from whether he was going to win this war to whether he was going to be a good first president, and there was a lot on his shoulders, perhaps more than on any other individual’s. I think the way he handled it, is he just resolved to do his duty every day, to face every challenge.

JIM LEHRER: Walter, having just said… yes, yes go ahead.

JOSEPH ELLIS: Could I just get in here. I’m working on Washington, and I agree with what Richard says, that at one point Washington says, if we can survive the first 20 years, then we have the potential to become a great imperial power, an empire over this continent and of course in the world, but he wasn’t sure we’d get through the first 20 years.

JIM LEHRER: I see. Walter, you just spent a long time, how many years did you work on your Franklin book?

WALTER ISAACSON: Twelve years.

JIM LEHRER: Twelve years. Do you feel — and all these other authors, and many others have written books, contemporary books, about these people we’ve been talking about, do you feel that we give too much attention to them? Do they still deserve the awe that we give as a general society, as well as all of you all, scholars and writers who are writing about them, give to them?

WALTER ISAACSON: There’s an amazing sense of value that they bring to this table –

JIM LEHRER: Do they look fresh today?

WALTER ISAACSON: Both in 1776 and then at the Constitutional Convention, and they look fresh today. In fact, Professor Ellis talked about, you know, “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” a pretty amazing phrase. But if you go down in this town in Washington, down to the Library of Congress, and you look at the first draft that Thomas Jefferson wrote, and he writes this draft, it’s all scratchy, and goes to the Library of Congress and he gives it to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to edit it, and he has, “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” and then you see Franklin’s little back slashes, because Franklin was an old, old printer, and so you see those back slashes — and he writes, self evident instead of sacred. He says we’re going to make assertions of reason, not assertions of religion here, and they had this great debate at the notion of the reasonable tolerance that was built into this document.

And likewise when you talked about the optimism or the pessimism in George Washington, you know, George Washington’s sitting in that chair; he’s got the sun carved on the back of it during the Constitutional Convention, and famously afterwards Franklin says, “I always wondered whether that was a setting sun or a rising sun but I now know it’s a rising sun, and they go outside into that hot Philadelphia air and Mrs. Pownall, one of the great old dames of Philadelphia, comes up and says, what have you all done in there? Because they’d been behind closed doors — what have you given us? What have you wrought? And Franklin says, “a republic, Madam, if you can keep it.” And they really did realize, this was something exceptional that they had wrought.

JOSEPH ELLIS: But “if you keep it” is a very important part of that phrase, and for, you know, many periods, in the first 25 years, it didn’t look like they themselves were keeping it.

JIM LEHRER: Joyce Appleby, do you think these men deserve the attention we’re giving them and we still give them?

JOYCE APPLEBY: Oh, I certainly do. I think they were fascinating and what they had to say is extraordinarily pertinent because they really immersed themselves in political theory so they’re interested in how government works, how you protect individual rights, how you manage to sustain order.

But I would say that in the last 40 years we’ve learned a lot about them, the people who surrounded them, that is to say their wives, their daughters, African Americans, both free and enslaved, the small farmers, working class people, artisans, and I think it’s, to me it’s wonderful that we now have the social and cultural context in which to understand what much more fully, these men who were certainly deserving of our attention, not only because of what they did but what they thought, and that’s not even counting the fighting of the Revolution itself, which is a wonderful story about Washington’s endurance.

I love the phrase that “Washington never won a battle and never knew he’d lost one,” and that was a spirit that is quite indomitable.

JIM LEHRER: Joe Ellis, finally, do you believe, based on all your immersion in this period and what these men did, do you believe it would never have happened without them? Did they seize the moment; did the moment seize them? How would you, in simple words, tell us how important they were?

JOSEPH ELLIS: Well, they made the revolution. Without them it wouldn’t have happened. The major figures we’ve been talking about. On the other hand the revolution made them too and, as Richard was saying earlier, changed their thinking and made them understand things in a way that a the start of the process they didn’t understand. So the revolution was, as everybody’s been saying, really risky, contentious, and in the end an improbable success.

Also, without a doubt, this is the greatest collection of political leadership the United States has ever had. I know that we’ve talked about the greatest generation in the 20th century, but this is the greatest generation of political talent, and it’s still a bit of a mystery and a miracle to understand how in a total population of like 4 million, about the size of a modern L.A., you got this galaxy of leaders. And I think in the end it was the experience of the Revolution as an educational process and a kind of Darwinian process, that selected them out and vaulted them into the positions that they enjoyed.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Joyce Appleby, gentlemen, thank you all four very much.