Posted: November 6, 2006
lthough Richard Brookhiser's new book is fairly small, the undertaking was colossal. I am aware of only a handful of historians who understand America's founders well enough to speculate—intelligently—about things they did not consider; and of those, I know virtually none who is well-enough versed in current events to address the burning issues of our time. The author of perceptive and stimulating biographies of several of the leading 18th-century Americans, Brookhiser is eminently qualified on the first count, and has the additional advantage of writing with the fluency of his subjects. (Historians tend to write in the fashion of those they study, which means that historians of, say, 17th-century England are notoriously abstruse and long-winded.) As for current events, Brookhiser's other hat is that of senior editor at National Review, which makes him about as up-to-date as one can be, albeit with a special slant.
In regard to a few subjects of recent concern, the founders appear at first blush to have been quite unenlightened. I refer in particular to their attitudes toward Indians, women, and blacks. George Washington had more experience with Indians than any other founder. Though he regarded frontiersmen as "banditti" whose greed for Indian lands would inevitably lead to strife and armed conflict, he realistically expected that, "the gradual extension of our settlements will as certainly cause the savage as the wolf to retire; both being beasts of prey tho' they differ in shape." Jefferson romanticized Indians, but he expected them to suffer the fate that Washington foresaw. Only John Marshall among the founders, ruling in the Cherokee v. Georgia(1831) case, held that Indians were a distinct community with rights that had to be respected under the Constitution, and he was overruled by Andrew Jackson. As Brookhiser points out, however, Marshall's view ultimately prevailed, which explains how Indian tribes today are permitted to operate gambling establishments where gambling is otherwise illegal.
As for women, Brookhiser includes the almost mandatory letter that Abigail Adams wrote to her husband in March 1776, urging that "in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors." Historians normally cite the passage to introduce the proposition that women were regarded as inferior to men and were so treated by law and custom. To a considerable extent the characterization is accurate, for women could own real property only in South Carolina, were generally excluded from education, and were discriminated against in various ways. Brookhiser notes, however, that women were allowed to vote in New Jersey until the turn of the 19th century—the first place on earth where that was the case; that some men (notably Aaron Burr) heartily supported the education of women and saw to it that their own wives and daughters received full education; and, most tellingly, that several founders, including Washington and Gouverneur Morris, solicited and followed the advice of women whose judgment they trusted. Of course, as these men well knew, Louis XV also listened closely to the opinions of certain women at his court. Indeed, the position of official mistress to the king was a quite powerful one in 18th-century France. In America, things were different.
And as for blacks, Brookhiser notes flatly that the "Founders did not successfully deal with slavery," an indisputable observation; but he adds to that statement something of a qualification, "and only marginally with its effects." Those marginal dealings were nonetheless impressive, at least among certain of the founders. For instance, during the Revolution, Alexander Hamilton and his friend John Laurens proposed to raise four battalions of black slaves in South Carolina that would be given "their freedom with their muskets." Laurens himself would command the unit. The two colonels persuaded Washington to approve their plan, but the legislature of South Carolina refused its consent. Even so, blacks (slave and free) fought under Washington's command in New England, and of the 12,000 men who fought at the battle of Monmouth, "eight hundred were blacks or Indians."
The antislavery forces in New York, headed by Hamilton, John Jay, and Governor George Clinton, made considerable strides toward responsible emancipation. In 1785 they founded the New York Manumission Society, one of whose undertakings was to set up an African Free School for both boys and girls to teach them reading, writing, and avoiding "habits of idleness." By 1823 the school comprised nearly 900 pupils, "more than half the black children of school age in New York City. Its graduates included professionals, clergymen and one of the founders of Liberia." Moreover, in New York and surrounding states blacks were eligible to vote, and as is well known, the courts of Massachusetts had declared that slavery was abolished there by the constitution that John Adams had written for the state.
Then, in a class by himself, was Washington. He freed his slaves by his last will and testament, providing that the youth among them be taught to read and write and "be brought up to some useful occupation." Those who were too old to support themselves were provided a livelihood for as long as they lived.
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Beyond these topics, Brookhiser finds that the founders provide prudent counsel for a wide range of modern concerns. Among these are gun control, the war on drugs, response to natural disasters, religion in politics, luxury taxes, outsourcing, the environment, social security, legalized gambling, conscription, foreign relations, tuition tax credits and private school vouchers, journalists and their sources, children born out of wedlock, the right to privacy, campaign finance, term limits, and poll-driven politics.
Sometimes the modern questions that Brookhiser addresses to the founders seem inappropriate. Take weapons of mass destruction, for instance. Obviously nuclear bombs and chemical warfare were unknown in the 18th century. Germ warfare, on the other hand, was decidedly known and perhaps practiced. During Pontiac's rebellion after the French and Indian War, British commander Sir Jeffrey Amherst proposed that blankets infected with smallpox be distributed among the "disaffected tribes of Indians." The evidence is unclear as to whether that was actually done, but a deadly outbreak of smallpox occurred soon thereafter. Moreover, Washington suspected that in 1775 the British deliberately infected his army in New England; deaths from smallpox among his troops were devastating. Americans, for their part, were appalled by the prospect, and at Valley Forge Washington had his army inoculated against the disease, lest the British resort to germ warfare (again?).
Three modern topics that Brookhiser treats relate to subjects closely associated with President George W. Bush and his critics. At first Brookhiser asks, "Would the founders support spreading democracy around the world?" On the whole, Brookhiser is skeptical, for the founders did not believe that democracy could work in the United States. In a democracy, James Madison wrote, the "passion or interest" of majorities was unrestrained. "Hence it is that [pure] democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention." Hamilton never called the people "a great beast," as Henry Adams claimed (though in a paraphrase), but in the last letter he wrote he did declare that "our real disease... is DEMOCRACY." Both Hamilton and Madison, along with most Americans, believed that the zeal for democracy in revolutionary France would lead to violence, corruption, and tyranny. They were right, but as Brookhiser whimsically notes, France ultimately produced two stable republican regimes (1871-1940 and 1958-present), and "[i]f even France has had some success with democracy, perhaps other nations can as well."
A related question is whether the founders would fear an American empire. "Emperors were devil figures in the historical imagination of the founders.... But empires do not have to have emperors." Washington could refer to America as a "rising empire." Jefferson grew ecstatic in predicting national expansion, and he exulted that if the nation reached its ultimate limits "we should have such an empire for liberty" that the world had never "surveyed since the creation." Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton shared the view that America could be "an empire and a republic at the same time." To the founding generation, a federal republic was a republican empire—reconciling the rights of the periphery with the demands of central power.
Unconnected with those concerns, but a hot-button issue in the summer of 2006, is immigration. What kind of immigration policy would the founders have espoused, you may ask. In principle most wanted to encourage immigration, though in the Constitutional Convention questions were raised about assimilation, with the result that residency requirements of seven years were stipulated for members of the House and nine years for the Senate, and the president was required to be a natural-born citizen. Assimilation became a heated question during the 1790s, because French and Irish immigrants overwhelmingly voted for Republicans and against Federalists. Reacting to that tendency, the Federalist-dominated Congress of 1798 raised the residency requirement for citizenship from five years to fourteen.
Perhaps the oddest summary of the mixed attitudes was Gouverneur Morris's in the Constitutional Convention. Morris cited the practice of some Indian tribes of extending "hospitality so far as to offer to strangers their wives and daughters." That, he said, was no "proper model for us." He would "admit them to his house, he would invite them to his table, would provide for them comfortable lodging; but would not carry the complaisance so far as, to bed them with his wife."
At the end Brookhiser asks, "What would the founders think of this book?" With becoming (if exasperating) modesty, he skirts the question. I shall not be so squeamish. Having lived with the framers most of my adult life, I assert confidently that they would have loved it.