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Historians Reflect on Founding Fathers and America Today

Ray Suarez speaks with three historians, Richard Brookhiser, Ron Chernow and Jan Lewis, about what the founding fathers might have thought of America today.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    What would our founding fathers think about our country today? On America's 228th birthday we get some insight from three people who've studied the founders. 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. Ron Chernow is a prize-winning biographer; his newest book is on Alexander Hamilton. And Jan Lewis is chairman of the Department of History at Rutgers University. She's a specialist in colonial and early national history. She's written extensively about Thomas Jefferson.

    Well, guests, recently we've been arguing about habeas corpus, had some great debates about the limits of executive power, and this constantly toing and froing about powers of the states versus the federal government. It's still in 2004 a world the founders would recognize, Ron Chernow?

  • RON CHERNOW:

    Well, I think the founders would be very pleased by the power and the prosperity of the country. I think that they would be somewhat dismayed by the nature of political discourse. These were men who had rich political visions that they passionately and extensively argued. I think that they would be dismayed by a world of politicians who are governed by pollsters and focus groups who express themselves through 60-second ads, rather than through speeches and papers and pamphlets, and these were men who didn't have dispositions, but they had philosophies.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Professor Lewis, Ron Chernow saying that they wouldn't be too impressed with the discourse, it got pretty rough in the 1790s, didn't it?

  • JAN LEWIS:

    Oh, it sure did, and I think actually they might find politics today milder than it was in their time. We have to remember that during Jefferson's administration Vice President Aaron Burr got into a duel and actually killed the former secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton. As bad as things have gotten with Dick Cheney he's only used the "F" curse; he hasn't actually gone out and shot Richard Rubin.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Richard Brookhiser, weigh in on the politics of today and how you think it would look to — to the founders.

  • RICHARD BROOKHISER:

    Well, I agree with Professor Lewis. In a lot of ways politics is more polite and more moderate than it was. The man who wrote the Constitution, Gouverneur Morris, 25 years after he wrote it he wanted the country broken up. You know, he said in order to form a more perfect union, then he decided the union wasn't so perfect, so his attitude was, the hell with it, let's split the whole thing up and start all over, which is a pretty radical position.

    I think the founders would find our politicians and our voters pretty dumb. I mean, we have two Yale men running for president now, but I don't think they can translate Greek into Latin, and back, which, you know, anyone who went to a college in those days was required to be able to do. And, you know, I'm not just laughing at George W. Bush and John Kerry. I think they would have this disdainful attitude towards we, the voters, as well.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Alexander Hamilton went, I guess to the precursor of Columbia University, rather than to Yale. Did he get the country inevitably of all the founders that he was looking for?

  • RICHARD BROOKHISER:

    Oh, I think so. I mean, it was Hamilton I think who had a vision of an America that would be dominated not only by agriculture but by manufacturing stock exchanges, banks, corporations, large cities, a lot of things that were anathema to the Jeffersonian version. I think that he was very prophetic in terms of the shape of power, not only that the federal government would become so powerful but that even within the federal government that the executive branch would, as it were, be the engine of government.

    But I think it was Hamilton who first saw the president, for instance, would be the principal actor in the American political drama at a time when Jefferson and Madison, who saw the House as much closer to the people, as the perfect populist institution, were hoping that the Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, would have a larger role. So I think that if Hamilton came back today, he would have more of a sense of vindication in many ways than Thomas Jefferson.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Professor Lewis, is this a zero sum gain? If Hamilton got his America, does that mean Jefferson didn't get his?

  • JAN LEWIS:

    Oh, I don't know. If Jefferson is still the favorite founding father and half a million people flock to Monticello every year and Jefferson's ideals — life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness — are still the ideals that govern this nation and to some extent have sway throughout much of the world.

  • RICHARD BROOKHISER:

    Well, I think one thing that would please them all would be the fact that there were no more slaves, and this was an institution that they lived among; many of them owned slaves. I think it's fair to say that all of the founding fathers thought that slavery was bad and hoped that it would eventually pass away. Now some of them were more practical in pursuit of this goal than others. Alexander Hamilton and John Jay helped found a manumission society in New York to get rid of slavery in New York state, because it wasn't just a Southern thing. New York had a lot of slaves, but I think in fairness to all of them, including the great slave owners, like the Virginians, they would be pleased to see that this institution had disappeared.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Pleased to see but at the same time weren't some of them also marked by their unwillingness to step forward on the issue and sometimes their willingness to let others step forward on it?

  • RICHARD BROOKHISER:

    Well, they had mixed records. You know, George Washington grew up in Virginia, a slave-holding culture. He owned hundreds of slaves, but in his will he freed all his own slaves, and he knew that his will was going to be a public document and therefore he was making a statement by doing this. For some of the other founders who lived in New England or Pennsylvania it was perhaps an easier call because those states got rid of their slavery, you know, ahead of even New York.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Go ahead.

  • JAN LEWIS:

    Jefferson is a complicated one here. He's frustrating to us, maddening. He knew that slavery was wrong, yet, he never worked up the courage to free all of his slaves, nor to compel his country to face the issue. He was afraid, he said in his notes on the state of Virginia, that were slaves freed, they would rise — justly rise up against their former masters and kill them. Therefore, he said, well, we'll just have to colonize slaves somewhere else, Africa, the Caribbean, in the far West somewhere, anywhere far away from the white folks. It turned out that he was actually wrong.

    After the Civil War — and it did take a Civil War to terminate slavery — after the Civil War, black people didn't rise up and exact vengeance on their former masters. To the contrary, it was white people who oppressed blacks and who lynched them. Jefferson happily was wrong. Unhappily, he didn't do much — didn't do much of anything to bring an end to the institution of slavery.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Ron Chernow, you want to —

  • RON CHERNOW:

    People would be surprised at the extent to which the slavery issue permeates the early years of the republic. You know, we're all taught in school, right, that the Constitutional Convention the major split was between the large states and the small states and the compromise was worked out that the large states would get proportional representation; small states would get the equal vote in the Senate.

    In fact, Madison himself said the major split at the Constitutional Convention was not between the large states and the small states but between the North and South because slavery was really a most divisive issue, and the early year of the republic were haunted by fears of disunion, haunted by fears that there would be breakaway confederacies, civil war, foreign intrigue, foreign invasion, and so the thing that was given a premium above all else was unity, so that the most divisive issue, the one thing that could wreck the whole experiment, was slavery, and so Rick's right. I mean, the reactions of different founders is radically different. You have Hamilton, J. Adams, outspoken abolitionists; Washington kind a little bit more in-between; Jefferson opposed to slavery in theory by preferring to defer any action to a future generation, but there is a kind of collective decision that this is one issue that is too hot to handle.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    We've taken a look at domestic questions. Richard Brookhiser, let's turn to foreign affairs. There are American troops permanently posted in many places on the globe, fighting and dying in a few places. Is this a world that the founders could have imagined?

  • RICHARD BROOKHISER:

    Well, it depends on which founders, but I think their foreign policy views tended to be shaped by their experience of the Revolutionary War. Washington, of course, was commander in chief. Hamilton fought throughout the whole length of the war as an officer. John Marshall also fought in the Revolution. So these — Washington and Hamilton especially — tended to be men who viewed the world as a dangerous place, and they knew that America had to be prepared to meet those dangers should they become immediately threatening.

    Some of the other founders — Thomas Jefferson, who was a congressman and a state politician, also James Madison, they tended to be people who hoped that America could stay out of conflict and when they became president, they worked very hard to keep the United States out of the world war that Napoleonic France and Britain were engaged in. They went to great lengths to do this and then in Madison's second term it finally becomes unsustainable, and what we know as the War of 1812 is really our last-minute intervention in the Napoleonic Wars.

    So I think you have some founders who have perhaps unrealistic hopes for the prospects of peace and you have other founders who have been there literally in the trenches who know that that's probably not going to happen in this world.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    What about the idea of an interventionist America, Professor Lewis, the one that would put her men and women on ships and send them to other parts of the world to change the political order?

  • JAN LEWIS:

    Well, I think that's actually something that would have been difficult for most of the founders to imagine simply because the United States at that point was so incredibly weak, and the first priority, the highest priority was simply to preserve the United States, to win the revolution to establish the nation to avoid entangling alliances for as long as possible, not to get involved in this sorry, sad, tired old war of Europe. So to some extent it would have been hard for them to imagine the United States becoming the greatest military power on the Earth, at least not for a really long time, and then beyond that getting involved in foreign adventures or entering into a war of choice. That, I think, is probably close to unimaginable.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And what about the notion, Ron Chernow, of the United Kingdom, the United States' closest and best ally in the world?

  • RON CHERNOW:

    Well, you know —

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And the United States, the senior partner in that alliance by the way?

  • RON CHERNOW:

    Yeah, actually, you know, Americans tend to imagine that the early years of the republic were both isolationist and isolated, and in fact the dominant issue in the 1790s is whether we should tilt toward France or tilt toward England, and you know, we had — we were surrounded by European powers even in North America, with England to the North, Spain to the West and to the South, to Denmark, Holland, France, in the Caribbean.

    One of the things that fascinated me when I was studying Hamilton, you open up a newspaper of the 1780s and 1790s, there's much more foreign news as a proportion of total news than you will find now. Papers today in comparison seem rather provincial so that we were born really in a world war once France and Spain entered the war, so that we were never as apart from the rest of the world as I think we sometimes like to fancy.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Ron Chernow, guests, Happy Fourth to you all.

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