Richard Brookhiser

What Would The Founders Do?

VTR Date: October 23, 2006

Richard Brookhiser discusses his book on approaches to contemporary American problems.


GUEST: Richard Brookhiser
VTR: 10/23/06 I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today sure knows how to start and stop his books. For historian and journalist Richard Brookhiser has just written What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions…Their Answers … published by Basic Books. And he begins it by asking: “Who cares what the founders would do? Who believes that the experiences, opinions, or plans of men who lived two hundred years ago could have any relevance to our problems? Who imagines that the founders could answer our questions?” “We do.” the answer is, of course, We do. “I have heard it”, he writes, “with by own ears”. Just, I must report, as I have in my own role as an erstwhile American historian. For Richard Brookhiser is truly on target in writing that Americans want to know what the Founders would do about guns, taxes, race, the war on drugs, the war in Iraq; about Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush…No subject is too trivial, no problem is too difficult. And, agree or disagree with him in the particulars, my guest then devotes What Would the Founders Do? to answering Americans’ many quests for guidance from the past. What qualifies him, of course, is a series of books he’s written on the Founders and other themes in Americana, and a career as scribbler and editor for such publications as National Review, American Heritage, New York Observer, and The New York Times Book Review. So it seems to me, Mr. Brookhiser, that maybe the best to do is just to ask you what are the questions that are most asked you…in terms of what would the Founders have done? BROOKHISER: Well, in May and June I was doing a lot of publicity for this book and it was all “Q & A” format. And the three questions that dominated all the, you know, all the sessions were…immigration…and it was always asked by people who were opposed…to specifically illegal immigration, but also not happy with high levels of legal. The second question was anything related to church and state issues. And about half the people who asked that wanted me to say that all the Founders were devout. And the other half wanted me to say that all the Founders were deists or skeptics. So I had to disappoint everyone. Then the third…the third cluster of questions had to do with the War on Terror, ah, war in Iraq. And those questions were almost all asked by, by skeptics, by people who thought they were going badly and, you know, were approaching it from that angle.HEFFNER: What were your answers?BROOKHISER: But those were the three…Iraq, church and state and, and immigration.HEFFNER: What were your answers?BROOKHISER: Well, immigration I said…immigration… politics was an issue in the 1790s in the Adams Administration. When John Adams was President Congress passed and he signed a law that … that was the Alien Act. And this allowed the President of the United States to deport any alien whom he considered dangerous on his own finding.There didn’t have to be any judicial proceeding, it was just the matter of the President deciding and then the Alien was, you know, was supposed to be out of here.Now Adams signed the Act although he never used it. He never invoked it. So it’s possible to think that this was not high on his list of priorities. But he saw no problem with signing it and he, he did sign it, it became a law. The reason it was passed is that we’d had an influx of immigrants from Ireland and from France, which were both undergoing revolutionary turmoil in 1798. You know the Irish had had an abortive uprising against British rule; the French Revolution was going through one of its cycles … a new regime had come in and the partisans of the old regime were, you know, (laughter) in danger of losing their heads.So we had a lot of Irishmen and Frenchmen coming here. And there was a feeling on the part of many of the Founders that they would bring their turmoil here with them. There was a Congressman from Massachusetts…Harrison Gray Otis…who said, you know, “Why should we have hordes of wild Irishmen coming here to disturb our tranquility?” You know so this was sort of the motivation of the people who passed the law.Now the, the other party in the two party system of the day, which was Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s … they thought this was a terrible law. Partly for Constitutional grounds, they thought it gave much too much power to the President. But they also opposed it on the political grounds that they’d been, you know, appealing very successfully to the immigrant vote in the United States. You know, relatively small, but it existed and they’d been reaching out, you know, to these people quite successfully. They reached out a lot more successfully, you know, after this whole uproar over the Alien Act occurred. And that was one of the many reasons why Jefferson beat Adams in the election of 1800. And, and became the third President. So, here you see the Founding Fathers having a similar division to what we have. There’s no economic argument in here. I mean they’re not worried that these Irishmen or Frenchmen are going to take our job.HEFFNER: To take jobs.BROOKHISER: But it’s a cultural and a political dispute and, you know, and one side says we have too many of these people here and the other side says…no, it’s no problem, especially since they’re all voting for us. So, you know, this is 200 years ahead of time… it’s very much a similar sort of line up to what we have now.HEFFNER: And the other questions?BROOKHISER: Well, on…the question of church and state this is…HEFFNER: That’s a big one, isn’t it?BROOKHISER: This is very complicated and it has, you know, it goes off in a lot of directions. But, but one way to kind of… crystallize it is to look at two classic statements by two different Founding Fathers.One is George Washington’s Farewell Address. Which he, he prints in the newspapers in the last year of his second term. And this is when he’s announcing to America he’s not going to run… he’s not going to stand for a third term, he’s going to go home. And in the Farewell Address which is his advice…he last advice to the country…there is a famous…paragraph which discusses the role of religion and morality in politics. And he says that these are indispensable props, pillars and supports to having a good political system. And that any politician who sought to undermine them would be foolish. Okay, that’s one position.Six years later Thomas Jefferson is President, he writes a letter to some supporters of his in Connecticut. These are a group of Baptists in the State of Connecticut, which has a state religious establishment. Which was still a Constitutional thing. The First Amendment said there should be no national establishment of religion, but states could have it, to varying degrees. And they didn’t lose that power until the, you know, the Civil War Amendments decades later.So, in Connecticut when you paid your taxes, some of that money went to Congregationalist ministers and the Baptist in Connecticut resented this. And…these ministers were inveterate political enemies of Thomas Jefferson. So Jefferson and the Baptists are, you know, they’re allies, they have the same … they have a common enemy here. And it’s in this letter that Jefferson uses the phrase about the wall of separation between church and state, and he hopes that this will be the status, not only at the national level, but also at the state level and that it will define the relationships.So, you have Washington speaking of props, pillars and supports. Jefferson speaking of a wall…and these also…are the two great architects of the Founding generation…you know, Washington builds Mount Vernon, Jefferson builds Monticello. And when they use architectural or building metaphor they’re talking about something that’s very close to them. But you’ve got prop people and you have wall people. And, again, they are still with us today.HEFFNER: But you know the strange thing is that one assumes…seeing the book on the shelf…that here I am going to get guidance…BROOKHISER: MmmHmm.HEFFNER: … absolute. What you’re providing is all the different ways in which our forefathers were in the same situation that we’re in … opposed one to the other.BROOKHISER: Well, very often that’s the case … and, you know, and sometimes the opposition was quite rancorous. I mean … one, one question that came up a lot … not as much as the Big Three, but … it was a question that took the form of “What would, what would these men think if they were to come back into our current political climate?” You know, the election of 2000. The election of 2004 and, you know, allegations of cheating and, you know … you name it. And even going back to the Clinton years. Just all this uproar and, and ruckus and character assassination.And I say they’d think “Great. It’s better. It’s improved. Everybody’s calmed down.” I mean that’s really what they, what they would have to say based on the politics they lived through in the 1790s and the 1800s, the next decade.I mean if you really want to read crazy political stuff, you go back then and it just makes, you know, Anne Coulter and Michael Moore…forget about it, they couldn’t play in that league. HEFFNER: Now, I remember, as a boy, it was always hearing “What would Al Smith have said?”BROOKHISER: (Laughter)HEFFNER: About the New Deal, etc. Why do you think these questions come up. My impression is the British don’t do it. The French don’t do it. We do it. Why?BROOKHISER: Well, one very obvious reason is that, is that their foundings are so much remoter in time.HEFFNER: Okay, fair enough.BROOKHISER: I mean they’re, they’re even mythical almost. King Arthur is mythical. Alfred the Great … you know, we know something about him, but he’s very far back. But another reason is that, that our Founders … they were politicians. You know they got, they got their offices by being elected to them or, you know, in the case of George Washington as Commander and Chief, he was picked by a Congress which had been elected. So they’re not, they’re not ruling by Divine Right. Or they’re not ruling by religious inspiration. They, they come to power through the same means that, you know, George Bush and John Kerry and everybody on the scene does today.And, you know, one effect of that is that they had to be constantly or they, they did constantly explain themselves. And they were out there all the time saying, you know, “This is what I think. This is what we should do. This is the proper course. These are the right reasons.” And…and then once you win, you know, you still have to persuade people of your policies. So you have, you know, Alexander Hamilton is a good example. He’s the first Treasury Secretary, a brilliant…innovative, but he’s constantly writing for the newspapers. Now, they all used pseudonyms but everybody, you know, everybody knows who these pseudonyms are really attached to.But he’s constantly writing essays for the newspapers defending his policies. And, you know, so they were “out there” then. And, and we sort of figure, well, they must still be out there even though they’re departed. HEFFNER: Well the frequent questions that you receive would indicate to some that we’re a very historical minded people. On the other hand it seems to me that we know so little about our history …BROOKHISER: MmmHmm.HEFFNER: … and give so little of a damn about our history that there is some basic contradiction there. BROOKHISER: Well, I think it is mixed. I remember a few years ago I was shooting a documentary on George Washington for PBS. And one of the places we filmed was Newburgh, New York which was the last…the last encampment of the Continental Army at the very end of the Revolution.And a very important thing happened there, which is Washington basically heading his officers off from a potential coup, I mean they were really so angry with Congress that they hadn’t been paid, they were at the point of threatening Congress until Washington calmed them all down.So that’s why we were in Newburgh. And Washington’s headquarters is still downtown and, you know, downtown is kind of rough, as a lot of upstate New York cities are. And we did “vox pop” which is just, you know, asking people in the neighborhood and on the street, you know, do you know what happened in that house and what do you think of it.And everybody knew Wash…that was Washington’s headquarters. Everybody knew that. Now, they didn’t know what the importance of it was. One man said, “That’s where George Washington signed the Declaration of Independence.” Well, you know …HEFFNER: Ahaa.BROOKHISER: …well he never signed the…HEFFNER: (Laughter)BROOKHISER: …Declaration and if he had it wouldn’t have been there, it would have been in Philadelphia. But,…you know…I tend to be a glass is half-full person. So I hear that and I say, “Okay, fine I have to tell him what happened in this house. But he knows something happened. And he knows it’s important and he has, you know, it wasn’t just like a blank, a blank face.And then there was another man, a young man. And he said, “Well, you know, Washington, because of what he did … he’s responsible for the opportunities I have today.”And, you know, you could look around at the neighborhood and say, “doesn’t seem like there’re many here.” But he thought he had some and he was making a connection, you know, between his situation, or the system we now have and the Revolution. So …HEFFNER: Are you …BROOKHISER: … we find stuff like that, too.HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that you’re that much less cynical than I am? In terms of our knowledge of, and even our interest in, our national past.BROOKHISER: Knowledge of and interest in … HEFFNER: Two different things.BROOKHISER: …are different. Yeah, the knowledge level is often…you know…and then sometimes you go to places…um…and you meet like local history buffs, and they really do know a hell of a lot about what happened right there.Now, how it fit in the big picture, that can get very hazy, you know, very quickly. So, yes, knowledge can be, you know, a problem. But, but I think the interest, the interest is there. And it’s out there. And so, you know, my job or a historian’s job is to say, “Fine”, and address that…and then feed it.HEFFNER: It’s interesting…what, what you’re saying about that leads me to question whether you feel that our leaders are equally concerned with, equally interested in the past as a guide to the present?BROOKHISER: Well, some of them are. I mean…I have met, you know, and I don’t want to say that, that just the ones I’ve met are the only ones there are. There may be more out there. But I know that…for that Washington documentary one of the things we wanted to, to treat was the Farewell Address and that is read every year in the U.S. Senate. They have this custom of doing it. And… so the Senator that year who was reading it was the late Senator Moynihan from New York.And so we did an interview with him before he went on the Senate floor and read the Farewell Address. And, you know, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an intellectual. You know, he knew his …HEFFNER: I was just going to say that. Yes.BROOKHISER: He knew his history. And he, he was very up, up on it. I have met Newt Gingrich. I mean I know him a little bit. He’s a different sort of an intellectual than Moynihan was. But he, too, was a college professor. You know he knows his history. He’s very passionate about it. When I was writing…what book was it… maybe it was my Washington book and he said, “You ought to read Howard Fast’s novel about …HEFFNER: Newt Gingrich said that?BROOKHISER: Newt, Newt Gingrich said that about the whole Princeton/Trenton campaign. So, you know, he had … he had an opinion … he had some knowledge there.HEFFNER: I wasn’t reflecting on his knowledge, I was reflecting on the person he picked…BROOKHISER: Oh, Howard Fast…well…HEFFNER: …to read.BROOKHISER: …you know, Howard Fast…he, he wrote a number of popular works on American history. So, so why not?HEFFNER: From a decidedly Left Wing point of view.BROOKHISER: Right. Right.HEFFNER: Let’s carry this a little further. We know that JFK, for instance, had a very real interest in the past. At least it manifested itself in the Profiles in Courage…BROOKHISER: MmmHmm.HEFFNER: …whoever wrote or didn’t write it, Kennedy was identified with it. Contemporary figures … you talk about Daniel Patrick Moynihan, undoubtedly true because he was the scholar in politics.To what degree do you think there’s a concern about the patterns of the past, the precedents of the past? To what degree do you think that our current crop of political leadership—is concerned with the patterns that had been set by their predecessors?BROOKHISER: Well I think a lot of times it’s event driven. And, and since 9/11 we’ve been in a period of war, you know … and whether it’s one big war or two different ones and how long it’s going to last, I mean these are all things we argue about. But we’ve certainly been in a period of struggle and conflict. And I think that has made people, including politicians at least somewhat mindful of other precedents … earlier, you know, situations and precedents. Now, admittedly a lot of this is ransacking the past for bumper stickers. You know you want to go back and you want to find something that supports what your policy happens to be and so, you know, you look, you know, if you want to have a, a bellicose or an active policy you look for situations where that was, you know, that worked, or where it should have been tried because not doing it had such bad consequences. If you want to be, you know, more prudent or cautious or withdrawing then you look to examples of arrogance and incompetence. I mean in, you know, in American history and the founding era can give you both. Now we think of the American Revolution … I think rightly as a glorious struggle and cause.The War of 1812 was certainly extremely divisive when it was being fought. And people have, I think, still very mixed reactions to it to the extent they think of it at all. So, and Founders lived through both of those conflicts. So if, if you … even if you’re just limiting yourself to the Founding you can, you know, you can go back and find a wide range of war making and its, and its results.But I think people…I mean they’re at least interested in it for the motive of self-interest and and maybe, you know, more of it trickles through. Maybe there’s actual instruction incurring.HEFFNER: Do you yourself make a distinction in you thinking as well as in your writing between American history and American’s heritage?BROOKHISER: Say more.HEFFNER: Well, it seems to me that there is such a vast gap between our heritage, which is the best of American life those angels … the better angels of our souls. And our history, which has so many dark spots to it. And I wonder whether in your thinking and in your writing you set the one against the other? BROOKHISER: Well, you know, look, the dark spots also march on and they, and they still affect us. To take, to take the very obvious case, we still deal with slavery and its aftershocks and its aftereffects, you know, and, and that was something that, that the Founders didn’t know how to handle themselves.I think virtually all of them believed that slavery was a bad thing, but they, they didn’t know what they should then do about that. And you know some people made efforts to free their own slaves, or free slaves in the states in which they lived, but obviously it didn’t work and we had a Civil War. You know, and some issues, some issues which you think maybe disappeared, are actually still with us. I mean one surprisingly long lived issue and this was a great preoccupation among the Founding Fathers…who gets the Spanish Empire? You know here we were in the Western hemisphere…most of it is owned by Spain…I mean from Florida and the Louisiana Territory, at certain points, and everything South…it’s all owned by Spain.But Spain is clearly going from being a glorious empire to an empire that’s about to fall apart. And who’s going to grab the good parts near us? You know and this is something the Founders were obsessed with and then it goes right through American history, through the Mexican War, through the Spanish American War … but we’re still dealing with the aftereffects of it. I mean Spain is long gone. Spain has been out of here since, you know, the 1820s or earlier than that. But, you know, Cuba is still an issue … in, in American politics. It comes up. Immigration. I mean it’s mostly coming from Mexico and Central America. So it’s … you know … the empire is gone but people who lived there are still there and they’re moving North. You know so we’re still … you know, if Jefferson were to come back, and he was very preoccupied with this question. He, he would say, “Oh, still going on is it? Okay. That’s interesting.”HEFFNER: Do you think that’s what most of the Founders would say? It seems to me, from what you have said in terms of your answers to people, the questions they ask, whether it’s about immigration or religious divisions or whatever…that, “Oh, it’s still going on.”BROOKHISER: Well, and they wouldn’t, you know they wouldn’t be disheartened by that necessarily. Because they thought, you know that, that political problems arise out of human nature. And, and they believed that human nature was a constant thing. I mean there were certain passions that human beings had … they, they wanted money, they wanted success, they wanted recognition, they wanted liberty. I mean there’s just a mix of these things and you’re never going to change that so you’re constantly going to be dealing with the, you know, the effects of these passions.HEFFNER: I suppose one could say there’s some comfort to be had in the notion that the more things change, the more they do seem to stay the same. Thank you so much for joining me today, Richard Brookhiser.BROOKHISER: Thank you.HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.” N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.