Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Review: What Would the Founders Do?

In What Would the Founders Do? (Our Questions Their Answers), Richard Brookhiser resurrects our revolutionary generation to investigate their views on modern-day issues. He first examines an important question: Why do Americans care so much about the Founding Fathers' thoughts while the French do not agonize over what Charlemagne would do? As Mr. Brookhiser explains it, our founding generation is not that far removed from us. Brookhiser himself had attended a lecture by Alger Hiss who had clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who had "scolded" President Lincoln for being imprudent on a Civil War battlefield. Lincoln had served with John Quincy Adams in Congress, and Adams had seen the smoke of the canons of the Battle of Bunker Hill when he was a boy. Only five steps removed from us, our Fathers remain touchable and accessible.

Brookhiser maintains his readers' interest throughout the book with quotes from the Founders on a host of issues and sprinkles his own witty comments here and there for the readers' amusement. Topics tackled include the death penalty, gun control, gay rights, censorship, natural disaster response, religion, taxes, welfare, social security, terrorism, foreign affairs, the U.S.A. as empire, education, media, women, slavery, immigration, and, of course, politics. Finding quotes from the Founders on all these issues and more is not as difficult as it seems, though sifting through them may have been. Prolific writers, the Founders left behind reams of their thoughts in letters, essays and diaries.

A caveat: if one is seeking definitive answers and consensus from the Founders, he is likely to be disappointed. On some issues the Founders speak with one voice, but in most cases they quarreled amongst themselves and these differences of opinion trickle--no, flood over-- into this book just as they had in their lives. Most likely, if there is only one opinion, only one of them raised a pen on the issue. Mr. Brookhiser explains this phenomenon near the end of his work:
They have passed these disagreements, and the disposition to disagree, on to us. Contention is as much a part of their legacy as their principles. It fills our public space, and our minds. Mere ambition generates conflict in times of peace and prosperity, and the world provides enough real problems to give us serious things to quarrel about. (p. 218)

All in all, What Would the Founders Do? is a worthwhile read.*

Other Delawareans on this book: Paul Smith Jr., here and here, and Anonymous Opinion.

*Honestly, there are times when I disagreed with Richard Brookhiser's conclusions or I wished he had found quotes from different authors to show a different side to the controversy. One example---Jefferson is the only quote on assisted suicide. Granted, that issue probably didn't cross the Founders' minds much and Jefferson would be the one to consider it and to express the most liberal opinion on this issue. Though I could be wrong, I just couldn't picture John Adams concurring. On a couple other topics, I think I may have chosen different quotes and, using them, have come to different conclusions about the Founders' opinions. However, anytime we examine the Founders' views and become more familiar with them, we better ourselves, and to have their quotes on so many issues gathered together in one place benefits us. Thanks, Mr. Brookhiser.


At 6/07/2006 9:05 AM, Blogger Paul Smith Jr. said...

Monday night at the Constitution Center, he did mention that he had to write many positions on the Founders' behalf that he himself couldn't support. He mentioned a specific example which I can't remember but it wasn't assisted suicide.

At 6/07/2006 1:28 PM, Blogger Christopher Taylor said...

I think eventually there is going to come a time when the left stops revering the founding fathers and goes into a full court press trying to demonize and smear them into insignificance. The big barriers between their ideals and America's reality is the US Constitution and the ideology and philosophy of the founding fathers.

For now, they are so revered and honored that nobody dares speak ill of them. In America, most arguments can be settled, or at least stopped, by quoting these men on a topic. I suspect those days are numbered.

At 6/07/2006 9:09 PM, Blogger Anna Venger said...

In college history classes all we heard about was how awful all the dead white males were because some of them had slaves and because women didn't get to vote and there wasn't universal suffrage for men early on either, etc, etc. (Of course those things were bad, but our nation tended to be far more upstanding than the others of the time period.) It wasn't until I started reading on my own that I really came to appreciate the Founders. So some of the attacks have been underway for quite a while.

What amazes me is the seeming resurgence of interest in the Founders in recent years as witnessed by the number of bestsellers about them now. I hope it continues. A little hero worship might do us good.


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