July 13, 2005

The Shortcomings of the Founders

Ever notice how the founders of our country had no interest in irony? You can read The Federalist Papers from front to back and not find an unmeant sentence, a facetious overtone.

They did not spend their time strutting, posturing, boasting emptily or vaingloriously. “Give me liberty or give me death” was a literal statement, a measure of real expected consequences, not a line thought up by an image consultant.

They did not advertise themselves or glorify themselves or sell themselves. Washington was so unselfserving that we have almost no inkling of who he was – a man who awed the likes of Jefferson and Adams.

They did not indulge in smarter–than–thou sophistication, though they were smarter than anyone. Franklin, their greatest wit, was earnestly trying to help his countrymen live better.

They put their money where their mouths were. They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, and having said it, they had no choice but to mean it. If they had lost, they would have been hanged as traitors, their estates likely confiscated, their names spat upon by history. Remember that, the next time you think of them as fighting to maintain inherited privilege. To maintain inherited privilege, they would have only had to do nothing.

Which of us even has a sacred honor to pledge?

And they did not look back with intolerant superiority at their predecessors. They did not castigate the Romans for their flaws; they tried to live up to the Romans’ virtues. We sneer and call them hypocrites because their reach exceeded their grasp, because they did not live up to the ideals they created -- as if creating ideals like those wasn’t enough for one generation. We look back at them through the lens of our own cynicism and insincerity.

They bequeathed us a treasure, and have we enlarged it as they hoped? Or have we lived high off it, laughing as it dwindled?

Which of us will not have to beg forgiveness of the future?

If they came back, they would hear our criticisms thankfully and admire our progress. They would admit their shortcomings, which they made their system to protect us from.

And then we could ask them what to do.

"It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis, at which we are arrived, may with propriety be regarded as the area in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act, may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind."
-- Hamilton, THE FEDERALIST, No. 1