Sunday’s Washington Post ran an interesting editorial by historian Joseph Ellis, author of numerous books on the Founding Fathers, with the headline, “What Would George Do?” The question Ellis asks — how would the Founding Fathers, like Washington and Jefferson, react to the problems facing the nation today, like Iraq, the media, and so forth? And in a time when the concept of “Original Intent” is bandied about by Supreme Court justices and the talking heads and presidential candidates who say the Founders created a “Christian nation,” perhaps it would be interesting to see what an historian’s reaction would be.
Not so fast, says Ellis:
The historically correct answer, then, is that Washington would not have a clue. It’s tempting to believe that the political wisdom of our Founding Fathers can travel across the centuries in a time capsule, land among us intact, then release its insights into our atmosphere — and as we breathed in that enriched air, our perspective on Iraq, global warming, immigration and the other hot-button issues of the day would be informed by what we might call “founders’ genius.” (Come to think of it, at least two Supreme Court justices who embrace the literal version of “original intent” believe that this is possible.) But there are no time capsules, except in science fiction. The gap between the founders’ time and ours is non-negotiable, and any direct linkage between them and now is intellectually problematic.
Indeed, Ellis believes the Founding Fathers would be appalled by the present-day mode of governing:
To take another example, your opinion on the current debate about how much power the executive branch should have will be significantly influenced if you read the debates about the subject in the Constitutional Convention and the states’ ratifying conventions. For it will soon become clear that the most palpable fear that haunted all these debates was the specter of monarchy. Vice President Cheney’s argument that limitations on the executive branch enacted in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate need to be rolled back is historically myopic. Virtually all of the Founding Fathers would regard the expansion of executive power since 1945 as a violation of the republican principles they cherished. And the way Congress has effectively surrendered war-making powers to the president since World War II represents a fundamental distortion of checks and balances as the founders intended them.
Finally, Ellis attacks the very idea of “Original Intent”:
Because Jefferson was the prophet of the American promise, the author of those 55 words that begin “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he has always been a historical trophy that all sides seek to claim. For Franklin D. Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Jefferson was the ultimate prize, the ace of spades in the American political deck. This would have struck Jefferson as highly ironic, for he was on record as believing that each generation should be sovereign, not weighted down by what he called “the dead hand of the past.” In that sense, Jefferson’s greatest legacy was to oppose all legacies. He also made it clear that, once the United States became a thickly populated, urban, industrial nation, his agrarian vision became essentially irrelevant. That means that our political context for nearly 100 years has been resolutely post-Jeffersonian. Those folks claiming his mantle, such as those Supreme Court justices who declare their allegiance to the “original intentions” of the framers, are invariably imposing their own values and convictions under the cover of his name.
Ellis’ article makes for an interesting, if brief read. Ellis’ point, essentially, is that the past is, at best, a guide, not a rulebook. The world of today is one that the agrarian founders of the American experiment would not have recognized. What they said is important, but it is not the be-all-and-end-all of American political philosophy.