The Founding Fathers

James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington
James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington (By Daniel Craig From "What Would The Founders Do?")

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By David Liss
Sunday, June 11, 2006

It's hard to say what, precisely, the current literary craze for the Founding Fathers is about. It may be that, like the turn of the 20th century, the turn of the 21st has sparked a period of retrospection. It may be that the success of a handful of founder biographies has set the publishing world off in search of the next big founder thing. Or it may be that there is something in our political climate that suggests we can find answers for our times by appealing to our origins.

Sages for Our Times

The title of Richard Brookhiser's lively and conversational new book, What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers (Basic, $26), is evocative of the question "What would Jesus do?" -- a sort of test used by many Christians to help them make morally and religiously sound choices. Brookhiser argues that WWFD? is an appropriate question on the grounds that "if anyone knows how the U.S.A. should work, it must be them." But taking the Founders' words and deeds as gospel and applying them to contemporary life -- though it can be informative -- presents serious difficulties. When he asks, "What would the Founders think of gun control?" Brookhiser may not be able to answer the question, but he does provide a concise and intelligent explanation of the origins of the Second Amendment and why citizen-based militias were seen as important guardians of liberty. It is interesting history, but the reader quickly sees that it can't answer the question. The Founders had an 18th-century anxiety about standing armies. They had little or no anxiety about armed robberies, gangs, carjackings and school shootings.

These limitations are further exposed with questions such as "Would the Founders be in favor of gay rights?" Brookhiser attempts to answer this question by referencing 18th-century hostility to sodomy and by addressing the possibility that some of the patriots might in fact have been "gaytriots." To this end, he cites the letters between the youthful Alexander Hamilton and his friend John Laurens, which many readers see as erotically charged. Not so, says Brookhiser, who presents the letters as a reflection of the culture of sentimentalism and concludes -- in a defensively straight bit of rationalization -- that since the letters also make reference to finding women attractive, the writers could not possibly have felt homoerotic desire.

A far better point of comparison for gay rights would have been the Founders' views on the disposition of people with marginal status -- those of African origin or Native Americans. Brookhiser practices this sort of extrapolation when he attempts to parse positions on the war on drugs by looking at the Founders' positions on smuggling contraband. But it's clear that the Founders were products of their time, that we are products of ours, and that literal-minded attempts to use their wisdom to solve our problems produce results that range from unsatisfying to absurd.

Capitalist Heroes

Far more focused and successful is Robert E. Wright and David J. Cowen's Financial Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made America Rich (Univ. of Chicago, $25). Wright and Cowen, who have separately written important scholarly works on the financial history of the early republic, here repackage their research for readers of popular history, and do so impressively. Rather than attempting to reshape the canon of famous founders into the creators of America's financial success, Wright and Cowen use the term "founder" more loosely and provide insightful and entertaining sketches of the men who "created the financial system that drove the economic growth that allowed America to become America."

Of their subjects, only Alexander Hamilton is a familiar name, and their chapter on him succinctly explains the breadth of his vision as the first secretary of the treasury and just to what extent that vision was triumphant. Whereas Jefferson and his circle saw America as an agrarian paradise, Hamilton fought hard to implement institutions, most notably the Bank of the United States, to assure a commercial future.

Just as interesting, however, are the stories of Hamilton's contemporaries, such as Tench Coxe, a Hamilton assistant who later betrayed the Federalist cause and supported Jefferson; Swiss-born frontiersman Albert Gallatin, who helped preserve Hamilton's legacy under Republican rule; and William Duer, the shifty speculator whose inability to repay his colossal debts almost single-handedly brought down the nation's finances in 1792.

If Financial Founding Fathers has a flaw, it is its relentless cheerleading for the American capitalist juggernaut. "All democracies need the same elixir," the authors tell us, "economic prosperity. The more resources that a nation's economy can produce, the fewer and more muted will be the discontents and the less venal the government will become." Readers would have been better served with more about what the financial founders believed than with promoting notions that the authors hold or believe their Wall Street readers hold.

Deism's Devotees

David L. Holmes's The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford Univ., $20) provides a survey of religion in the American colonies, a history of deism, an analysis of the religious beliefs of six of the major Founders, a look at the beliefs of less prominent Founders who were devout Christians, an examination of the wives and daughters of the Founders, and closes with a fascinating essay on the rise of evangelical Christianity among presidents in the last quarter of the 20th century -- all in fewer than 200 pages. Holmes's study is concise and smart, and it not only attempts to look at the Founders' words but also to place those words in context. What we come away with is a portrait of a group of men who were products of the Enlightenment and, as such, wanted above all to make faith and reason match up. Holmes wisely avoids generalizations and explains that deism -- the belief that God created the world in the past but is not involved in its operation in the present -- existed in all sorts of gradations.

We learn that Benjamin Franklin, for example, believed primarily in a God of reason but had serious doubts about the divinity of Jesus -- though he strongly subscribed to the moral ideas Jesus preached. Jefferson similarly saw Jesus as a "reformer and moral exemplar" and took a pair of scissors to his Bible to cut away all the parts -- miracles and supernatural interventions -- that offended his intellectual sensibilities.

Washington's religious affiliation, on the other hand, is notoriously ambiguous. Raised as an Anglican, Washington attended church, sometimes regularly. He served as churchwarden, observed fast days and vigorously promoted religion among the soldiers of the Continental Army. Yet he was never confirmed, avoided communion and during his lingering death never prayed nor asked for a clergyman. When he spoke or wrote of God, he favored words with decidedly deist and Masonic connotations: "Providence," "the Deity" and "the Grand Architect." Holmes concludes that Washington was a deist primarily concerned with morality and order, one who favored religion because of the useful role it played in society.

A True Believer?

Michael and Jana Novak, in Washington's God: Religion, Liberty, and the Father of Our Country (Basic, $26), vigorously disagree. The central premise of the Novaks' book is that secular historians have made the "understandable error" of portraying Washington as a deist when he was, in fact, a devout Christian. They cite not only Washington's participation in church life and his promotion of religion among the troops but also his many references to God in his letters and speeches. By reviewing his life, the Novaks point in particular to several instances -- during the French and Indian War when he narrowly escaped death, in the Revolution when the troops were saved by a seemingly miraculous fog -- when he thought Providence had intervened on his behalf. They argue that this belief in Providence -- that it had a special role reserved for Americans and for Washington -- evidences his Christianity.

The Novaks contend that when Washington referred to Providence, he meant a biblical God who involves Himself directly in human affairs. And here they have their most compelling argument, since one of the principal deist beliefs is that God does not get involved in the day-to-day workings of mankind. Washington clearly professed to believe that something influenced events in his and the country's favor; if that something was God, then Washington was not a true deist. Their argument weakens, though, when they cite his public participation in and endorsement of religious observances. Washington's church-going is more easily understood within the context of his society, in which it was part of a citizen's moral and social duties. A person could participate in the life of his church without being convinced of its teachings in the same way a person today could be involved in the PTA but believe the educational system is in need of overhaul.

This tract, which is openly hostile toward deism and the "so-called Enlightenment," obviously wants Washington's God to be the same as the authors' God. While that might make for an effective polemic, it makes for less than convincing history. It's too bad, because the authors raise some interesting points about the limits of Washington's deism, and they make it clear that this is a subject worthy of further scrutiny. That scrutiny would be better done by scholars less determined to find the results that will most please them. ยท

David Liss is the author of four novels, including, most recently, "The Ethical Assassin."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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