What would the Founding Fathers think of today’s America? How would they advise us to address the great domestic and foreign challenges of our time? Would they be proud of contemporary Americans for preserving their handiwork, or would they despair at what has become of the United States in the 21st century?
The answer to all of these questions is the same: Who cares? Seriously. Who cares what James Madison would have thought about internet regulation? Who cares what Thomas Jefferson might have said about the war in Ukraine?
The cult of the American founding has no parallels in other English-speaking democracies. A British prime minister who declared that 21st-century Britain must turn for guidance to Robert Walpole or Pitt the Younger would be considered daft. Many Canadians would find it difficult to identify John A. MacDonald, the chief founder of their confederation. As for Australia, one authority observes: “There is arguably no more neglected group of people in Australian history than those who produced the Australian Constitution…. Most Australians would be hard pressed to name more than the smallest handful of the Founders.”
Ironically, some of the American Founding Fathers themselves seem to have foreseen the future cult devoted to their veneration. In 1790, John Adams complained in a letter to Benjamin Rush: “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung George Washington.” At least that would be more interesting than the present version of American political ancestor-worship, in which the Founders like a cloud of ghosts hover over our shoulders, smiling in approval or shuddering in disgust.
The cult of the Founders in its present form is only a few generations old. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Republicans honored Alexander Hamilton and disparaged Jefferson; Democrats did the reverse. True, Abraham Lincoln, in opposing slavery and defending the union, followed the example of Henry Clay in calling for a return to the idealism of the founding period. But in his Annual Address to Congress in 1862, Lincoln observed, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the equation. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”
Modern Founders-ism is a relic of the second half of the 20th century. It served two purposes for the American nation-state: providing a nonracist definition of the American nation during the civil-rights revolution, and supplying the American state with a missionary creed that could rival Marxism-Leninism during the Cold War.
From the founding era to the late 19th century, most white Americans were of British Protestant or Northwest European extraction, and many doubted that Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants and other “white ethnics,” to say nothing of nonwhite people, could ever be “real” Americans, whatever their citizenship status might be in law. The dominant school of academic political science around 1900, shared by conservatives and progressives like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, traced the “germ” or seed of Anglo-American liberty back through the Angles and Saxons to the ancient Germans, who had resisted and then overthrown the Western Roman Empire before colonizing Britain in the Dark Ages.
The germ theory wasn’t without precedent. In 1776, Jefferson’s rejected design for the Great Seal of the United States featured Hengist and Horsa, two barbarian chieftains who led the invasion of the British Isles by Teutonic tribes. The Sage of Monticello promoted the teaching of Anglo-Saxon as the supposed language of liberty. Yet it was a century later, and ironically after the Civil War, that the racial component of American belonging increasingly took on a pseudoscientific character.
In Ancient Society (1877), Lewis H. Morgan, one of the pioneers of American anthropology, wrote: “Two families of mankind, the Aryan and Semitic, by the commingling of diverse stocks, superiority of subsistence or advantage of position, and possibly from all together, were the first to emerge from barbarism. They were substantially the founders of civilization.” In The Winning of the West (1889), Theodore Roosevelt wrote: “It is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners and become the heritage of the dominant world races.”
Nordicist racial ideology shaped the Immigration Act of 1924, signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge, who declared: “America must remain American.” A few years earlier, in an article in Good Housekeeping, Coolidge had called for the United States to remain not only majority-white, but also majority-Nordic: “Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides.”
The Nazis’ genocidal and eugenic policies discredited the racism, Nordicism, and anti-Semitism shared by much of the Anglo-American elite. After 1945, the idea that “real” Americans were the heirs of ancient Aryan or Indo-European tribes from the Eurasian steppes, by way of the forests of Germany and the British Isles, was dumped and replaced by a new, more universalist definition of American nationality. To be “American” was now equated with having a deep personal belief in the ideals of the founding.
In practice, the equation of American identity with political belief makes no sense. Individuals in other countries can believe in the ideals of the American founding, however defined, but that doesn’t make them US citizens, absent legal immigration and naturalization. Nor is there any procedure to strip citizenship from Americans who think that King George or Jefferson Davis was the good guy and Washington or Lincoln the villain of American history. But this democratic universalist redefinition of American identity, falsely ascribed to America’s Founding Fathers as a group, served a useful social purpose during the civil-rights revolution and the dismantling of anti-Jewish quotas in Ivy League universities.
At the same time that it provided an alternative to the traditional Teutonic Protestant version of American national identity, postwar democratic universalism was worked up into an evangelical secular creed that could contest Marxism-Leninism in the Cold War struggle to win the “hearts and minds” of people in postcolonial Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The Federalist Papers and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America were recast as sacred scriptures to be promoted abroad and taught to children at home.
The postwar veneration of Tocqueville by American intellectuals might have surprised my great-grandfather, a historian and a founder of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, from whom indirectly I inherited a first-edition copy of the English translation of Democracy in America, published in 1838. My ancestor, a (relative) progressive who also owned and had read books by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, had never bothered to cut the pages of the Tocqueville tome, which was grouped in his library with another Jacksonian-era travelogue by a European observer, the British writer Harriet Martineau’s Society in America, published in 1837.
Even after World War II, significant political subcultures in the United States ignored the cult of the Founding Fathers. Squabbling Marxist sectarians identified with Lenin or Trotsky or Bukharin or Luxemburg or Kautsky, not Madison or Hamilton or Jefferson. Libertarians had little use for either Jefferson’s agrarianism or Hamilton’s developmentalism and neomercantilism, and found their prophets in modern émigrés from Russia (Ayn Rand) or Austria (Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek), not the early American republic.
Meanwhile, the powerful technocratic progressive strain on the American center left has for more than a century championed expert rule informed by social science, which, like natural science, is supposed to be constantly updated by new findings. In this vision, there is little value in social science more than a decade or two old, much less 18th-century political philosophy. No wonder that references to the founding are rare among today’s progressives, except when they quote Jefferson and other Founding Fathers on the separation of church and state. Barack Obama’s slogan in his Inaugural Address, a “new foundation,” sank when launched and was quickly replaced by the slogan “win the future,” which was closer to the orientation of American progressivism. Meanwhile, the identity-politics faction, the other important school on today’s left, has no use for the Founders at all, except as defendants to be arraigned on charges of racism, genocide, patriarchy, and homophobia.
This means that there are only two groups of Americans in the electorate who might be influenced by appeals to the Founders and their era: populists, who can be either on the left or right but nowadays tend to be on the right; and Buckley-Goldwater-Reagan “fusionist” or “movement” conservatives, who favor an incoherent mix of foreign-policy hawkishness, Christian conservatism, and libertarian economics.
American populists, however, tend to identify with the grassroots anti-British rebels of the War of Independence, not with the bewigged gentlemen in stockings and buckled shoes who wrote the federal Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. The preferred iconography of American populism includes the Boston Tea Party, the Gadsden flag with a rattlesnake, and Archibald M. Willard’s famous centennial painting of 1876, “The Spirit of ’76.” That last depicts a boy and an old man marching with the Continental line and beating drums while a soldier with a bandaged head plays on a fife, the Stars and Stripes fluttering behind them.
In contrast to populists, elite fusionist conservatives since the 1950s have privileged 1787 over 1776. They have treated the federal Constitution as the equivalent of the Ten Commandments, teaching the American people, “Thou Shalt Not Have Nice Things,” like a living wage, labor unions, guaranteed access to inexpensive health care, or adequate social insurance. The Founders thus become ventriloquist dummies for rich donors who fund fusionist magazines that few but the same donors read.
To make sure that “constitutional” prohibitions are enforced against populists on the right and social democrats on the left, some members of the fusionist right—or the undead right—propose returning to the Lochner era (1897-1937), when the US Supreme Court frequently struck down workweek maximum hours, child-labor prohibitions, and other such reforms on the grounds that they violated free-market economics or the sanctity of contract.
In The Washington Post in 2014, George Will, a former communitarian conservative who is now a libertarian, wrote: “Judicial activism isn’t a bad thing”: “Conservatism’s task, politically hazardous but constitutionally essential, is to urge courts to throw as many flags as there are infractions,” by striking down great numbers of municipal, state, and federal laws that run afoul of the tenets of free-market fundamentalism.
Will’s effort to save the right from statism brings to mind the critic Kenneth Tynan’s description of T.S. Eliot’s midcentury bid to revive verse drama, which Tynan compared to the exertions of a swimming instructor demonstrating various moves while standing in an empty pool. The call for judicially imposed anti-statism represents the desperation of elite libertarians who are beginning to lose some of their influence on the American right after having masqueraded for decades as conservatives.
When the last idolater of the Founders has boarded the last National Review cruise and sailed off into the sunset, the acronym WWTFD—“What Would the Founders Do?”—will leave Americans as baffled as contemporary Singaporeans would be by veneration of Sir Stamford Raffles, the 19th-century British imperial official credited as the “founder” of their island city-state. This isn’t to say there is nothing to be learned from individual American Founders, like Hamilton on industrial policy or Jefferson on religious liberty. But their relevant views can and should be defended on their merits, without deferring to a sacral authority.
If anyone could have been expected to stress the continuity of American history and the need to rely on the wisdom of the Founders, it would have been John Hay. He was the private secretary of Abraham Lincoln, later serving as secretary of state under President William McKinley. In his memorial address in 1901 for McKinley, the second of two assassinated presidents whom he had served, Hay, then 67, with the wisdom of experience and age declared:
The past gives no clue to the future. The fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? We are ourselves the fathers! We are ourselves the prophets! The questions that are put to us, we must answer without delay, without help—for the sphinx allows no one to pass.