Thursday, October 21, 2010

An Old Idea

When I was a child I had an idea that, now that I'm an older child, I've realized was not so unique as I'd considered. How interesting would it have been if Benjamin Franklin could see the 1990s!

As a kid I pictured Ben sitting in the car next to me, flabbergasted by the speed we were demonstrating. Electric lights! The thing that reset the bowling pins and the aerosol sprayed into our bowling shoes would delight him. I was confident that Ben would enjoy our world.

Now I stop and think what his experience would really be like, after the first months of giddy excitement had worn off. So, too, I wonder what other the founders would think of this new 21st century. What employment would they find? What would they praise and deride, especially politically? Would their Enlightenment visions be closer to fulfillment, or gasping for breath?

So here are the four I think of when I hear 'founder': Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin. You could make the case for Hamilton, but I don't think there's anything uniquely Hamiltonian that isn't covered by the actions and thoughts of the other four. My slight portraits are divined from public actions as well as private letters and diary entries. It's important to note the distinction, for all four men, of these two realms.


Ben Franklin - the non-presidential founder. In a way the most well-rounded founder, an Enlightenment man with Renaissance man distinctions. As the oldest of the pack he should get first billing, and, as a factoid, he's the only founder to have put his name on all four critical documents: Declaration of Independence, Treaty of Paris, Treaty of Alliance with France, and the Constitution.

Franklin was a public figure: always in the spotlight and very beloved by his fellow colonists and foreigners. He had a Puritan background, but a generic deist view of religion. He subscribed to no particular church. This alone may have disqualified his political career these days.

He subscribed, falteringly, to the 13 virtues he set down in his Autobiography. These are fairly straightforward, such as humility, temperance, and sincerity. Later in life he was an outspoken abolitionist. I can only assume he would be a strong advocate for civil rights and tolerance.

As an ambassador he was a rather worldly fellow - he helped secure the Treaty of Paris - with positions in both England and France. His reputation was well known as a scientist. I think he'd support global warming (he did a lot of work in meteorology) and be rather pleased with where electrical science had progressed to help people.

Fundamentally he was a thinker: I doubt he'd be pleased with 'liberal elitist' being used as a slander. As a satirist he supported and knew the power of the pen. He founded the American Philosophical Society and an academy in Philadelphia. Knowledge was power for Franklin. His scientific inquiries were the reason he was charmed in Parisian society, and without them he'd not have been as potent a force as he was.

The flip side to Franklin was his industry. He was a monopolizing business man who used gregariousness as an advantage for his printing empire. He retired very young, and was like the other founders fairly wealthy. Something should be said of his family values, too. His son sided with the English in the Revolution, and neither of them, despite efforts, ever healed that rift. As far as his fidelity is concerned his record is closer to John McCain than Barrack and Michelle.

Franklin might not have thrived in the 21st century, but of the founders he may be the best adapted to it. He'd undoubtedly enjoy the comforts of modern medicine with his gout, and probably enjoy most technological innovations. Unlike Jefferson or Washington, Franklin was a man who'd worked in an industrial capacity to gain his fortune: seeing America as a place of business would probably make him happy. Although as a dedicated philanthropist with his wealth I'm sure he'd have some choice, biting words for current corporate ethics.


For me, Washington has always been rather enigmatic and unapproachable. He's my least favorite founder, although I'd be hard pressed to say why. As the first president he set many precedents for the office but I spend little time on him, and never have found him to be an interesting person. If I invited all four major founders to the future, I think I'd spend the least amount of time with him.

Brought to the 21st century Washington would be one of the most conservative, although he definitely wouldn't be a tea partier. He favored a strong, Federalist government. Not surprising, considering the novelty of the 13 states he was attempting to unify into a cohesive union. I'm not sure if he'd be a Democrat, either. Since Kennedy and Johnson the Democrats have been a very socially liberal bunch what with civil rights. Washington gave oodles of support to France to help quell the Haitian slave rebellion. At the same time he was a Mason and dedicated philanthropist.

But I doubt he'd be a republican, either: Washington strongly disapproved of party politics and spent much of his two terms attempting to ensure that the United States did no fall prey to parties. He would have undoubtedly been horrified and upset by our party system with its mutual attacks and ad campaigns. I think he'd be a strong advocate of campaign finance reform: he initially refused a salary until he realized what a dangerous precedent that would be. He didn't want only the rich to be able to run for office.

Like the other founders he was a deist, and he made a point of visiting and attending multiple churches. In office he had no trouble exercising power - The Whiskey Rebellion was put down by invoking the local militias.

All in all I think of him as a big government libertarian. He would be an outcast in our political world: he wouldn't support the Republican big business and wealthy party attitude, but he's too conservative socially for the liberal democrats. As a man who sincerely wished to have peace at his Mt. Vernon estate I doubt he'd be a fan of our hyper-connectivity. The 21st century would not suit him too well, I don't think.


What to say about Adams? The man wasn't very popular, quarrelsome, and fairly pompous. His single-term presidency was only somewhat noteworthy. He was not an inspired ambassador, but was a gifted lawyer. With all of this in mind I feel as though Adams would be best politically suited to modern times.

Most of our presidents have a legal background: and Adams was the first of this notorious set, comprising 22 out of 44 presidents. His legal abilities allowed him to see things from multiple perspectives, perhaps most notoriously when defending the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre.

As President Adams had negotiate the tenuous balance that eroded between Washington's ideal of having no parties, and the opposing Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. Adams was a Federalist, supporting a national bank and strong central government. Yet he personally got on very poorly with Hamilton, the Federalist leader who was very close to Washington. Jefferson and Adams also had a falling out over the relative strength of government, which Jefferson thought Adams abused.

Principally of these abuses were the Alien and Sedition acts, levelled at quelling dissent. Only 10 people were tried, and no one was deported, but it was a serious blemish on the record. So too did Adams engender no sympathy by the appointment of the Midnight Judges, a rather petty move to try and influence the courts after his term. Jefferson overturned both of these measures. He also created the first property taxes.

In terms of foreign policy Adams had more success, fighting the Quasi-War, and using all his powers to avoid an all-out war with France. Like Washington he felt it best not to meddle in foreign affairs. After his Presidency he again retired to Massachusetts, eventually rekindling his friendship with Jefferson, and watching the young republic grown and change. Religiously he was of course a deist which manifested as a Unitarian.

Adams was the only non-slave owner of the four (Franklin had two, whom he released). As a lawyer and orator I'm unsure if he'd be happy with the litigious element in today's America. As he was a victim of violent attacks in the newspapers of the time I'm sure he'd view today's 24 hour journalism with contempt. As for the role of America as world's police, again, I doubt he'd be entirely happy. On the one hand he genuinely believed in the spread of democracy and relished power and authority. On the other hand, he took an almost isolationist stance and was vehemently anti-war. I rather think Adams would be displeased with 21st century America. His ideals for politics are no longer present, nor would he stand for those worst elements of American culture: greed and duplicity, conspicuous consumption and anti-intellectualism. Yet, in terms of his character, I think he would be very involved in this political arena which he would find disgusting. Adams was a man who rolled up his sleeves to get things done and done right. I can't help but assume that he would wade into the mire with determination.


Lastly we have Jefferson. Darling of the American people, perhaps the founder most beloved after Franklin. This is sensible, considering the many qualities they shared.

Jefferson rose to notoriety as the main quill behind the Declaration of Independence. The ideas of this document are profound and inspiring, the bedrock of the later constitution and most American's view of their country.

As president he repealed taxes, and continued to strengthen the American military, as Adams had done, including the founding of West Point. Contrary to Adams and the federalists Jefferson oversaw the first foreign war, The Barbary War, which proved to be an American victory.

Domestically Jefferson is famed for the Louisiana Purchase, and infamously known for the first anti-Indian acts: hoping for conversion but willing to resort to extermination. He ended the importation of slaves, but was a slave owner. He considered putting abolitionist language in the Declaration of Independence, but kept his slaves until death. He was perhaps the most committed deist of the lot. His 'Bible' eradicates any element of the supernatural being attributed to Jesus.

Jefferson tested the boundaries of executive privilege - when subpoenaed he initially refused to appear. In the end he had to anyway, although his bristling against the Supreme Court extends to the celebrated Marbury v. Madison ruling. Jefferson considered the ruling to be unconstitutional, but figured vetoing it would do no good.

Against the Federalist he supported limited government and was vehemently opposed to the national bank. In his private life, and after the presidency, he founded the University of Virginia, constantly tinkered and invented nifty new devices, and was one of early America's better architects.

The Jeffersonian model is the foundation of small-government and state's rights, with all of the good and bad those concepts contain. His vision for American was agrarian, hence the Louisiana Purchase and desire for westward expansion. This expansion came at a price, though, for native peoples and the slaves who would work the land. Much has been made, for two hundred years, of Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, the slave woman he likely had children by. I can only look at it from the view of a family and with some disdain that a father would keep his own children in captivity.

Entering the 21st century Jefferson would be, I think, rather saddened. The role of corporate America's power and the banking industry would definitely being repugnant. The inter-marriage of money and politics would be frowned upon as well, I think. I would hope he would support civil rights, but his record is so mixed it's difficult to say. As for the agrarian model it has failed: the breadbasket Midwestern states which he secured for the country are now owned by the corporations as well. Small, independent farms are a rarity. The country has followed what may be called his lead in the foreign sector, with the world's strongest military and a presence overseas. As one of the original beneficiaries of political parties I doubt he'd side with our current incarnations, though. The Republicans, although they say they are limited government, have a track record that proves otherwise. I doubt he'd be so naive to pay no attention to the history of the party he decided to join. On the other hand, the Democrats, while liberal like Jefferson, may be seen as too similar to the conservatives regarding spending and power. I can't picture him getting on well with Obama or Clinton, even if he preferred them to Reagan and the Bushes.

Jefferson would probably enjoy the perks of the subsequent technological developments, but, like the others, bemoan any anti-intellectual spirit. The plantation owner in him, like Washington, would prefer the rarefied air of Monticello than the hubbub of New York City. As a dedicated francophile I think he'd have been put out by this country's recent francophobic tendencies. Unlike Adams I doubt Jefferson would get too involved in the 21st century. He'd want to learn about it, but from the ease of a salon armchair. I picture a man reading the newspaper with some regret, tempered with an arch-humanist's hope.

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