What Would George Do?

By Joseph J. Ellis
Sunday, December 23, 2007

W hat would George Washington do about Iraq? An op-ed editor (not at The Washington Post, I should add) recently asked me to write an article answering that question, presumably because I had once written a biography of Washington and have just published another book on the founding generation. But, as I tried to explain, Washington would not be able to find Iraq on a map. Nor would he know about weapons of mass destruction, Islamic fundamentalism, Humvees, cellphones, CNN or Saddam Hussein.

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.

This conclusion is not just irrefutable; it's also unacceptable to many of us, because it suggests that the past is an eternally lost world that has nothing to teach us. And if history has nothing to teach us, why in heaven's name should we study it?

One answer, I suppose, is for the sheer satisfaction of understanding those who have preceded us on this earthly trail. In that sense, history, like virtue, really is its own reward. But that answer doesn't really work for me. Nor does it explain the rather extraordinary surge of interest over the past decade in the men mythologized and capitalized as our Founding Fathers. Readers are buying books on the founders in unprecedented numbers because they think the founders have something to teach them. And they do. If we come to know them and listen hard enough, they will speak to us.

Suppose, then, that we rephrase the question. It is not "What would George Washington do about Iraq?" Rather, it is "How are your own views of Iraq affected by your study of Washington's experience leading a rebellion against a British military occupation?" The answer on this score is pretty clear. Washington eventually realized -- and it took him three years to have this epiphany -- that the only way he could lose the Revolutionary War was to try to win it. The British army and navy could win all the major battles, and with a few exceptions they did; but they faced the intractable problem of trying to establish control over a vast continent whose population resented and resisted military occupation. As the old counterinsurgency mantra goes, Washington won by not losing, and the British lost by not winning. Our dilemma in Iraq is analogous to the British dilemma in North America -- and is likely to yield the same outcome.

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.

We have also strayed rather far from the world and wisdom of the founders in our current presidential-selection process. In our effort to replace the smoke-filled rooms of the old machine politics with a more democratic primary system, we have created a money-driven, media-dominated campaign culture that none of the founders would have been willing to tolerate. Indeed, they would have regarded anyone who succeeded in our modern-day electoral circus as a clown unworthy of the office. The degree of egomaniacal ambition required to negotiate the current campaign culture would strike all the most prominent founders, save perhaps Aaron Burr, as incompatible with the qualities of mind and heart essential for presidential leadership. It's a bit disquieting to acknowledge, but it's likely that none of our first six presidents -- Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams -- would have run for office in the current political environment.

Even though all efforts to have the founders join us in a conversation about our current issues are futile exercises, like trying to plant cut flowers, the urge to create this conversation appears to be irresistible. And the most seductive, resonant and controversial founder of all, the one who gets the most hits on the Internet, is Thomas Jefferson.

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.

Finally, and somewhat more problematically, an understanding of the founders' mentality complicates our view of our role as Britain's successor as the world's dominant power. The United States began with a conspicuously anti-imperial ethos, and we have had it imprinted on our political DNA from the very start. We were the first former colony to win a war for independence (against Britain, no less) and the first large-scale republic committed to the principle of government by consent rather than coercion.

In that sense, our primal values make us a very reluctant world power in the Roman or British mode. For good historical reasons, we lack the requisite imperial stamina of the British Empire in its "sun-never-sets" phase. Our origins are at odds with all previous versions of a world power. The Romans and British would have experienced no twinges of conscience in leaving a substantial military garrison in Iraq for an indefinite period. But we do, which is one reason why a healthy majority of U.S. citizens want us to leave Iraq as soon as possible. A republic, the world's first large-scale republic, simply cannot be an empire of the conventional European sort. This legacy of the founders complicates our status as the reigning world power.

One could counter with the claim that our anti-imperial origins were always more rhetorical than real. Just ask the Native Americans, or call attention to our apparently permanent military garrisons in Germany and South Korea. They certainly have the look and feel of old-style Roman and British imperialism, wholly compatible with the apparent current plan of the Bush administration to leave a garrison of about 50,000 troops in Iraq.

What would Washington do? Well, he did speak of a prospective American empire, though he was thinking primarily of our eventual domination of the North American continent, not the globe. On a few occasions, he seemed to suggest that if we played our cards right in the 19th century, the United States might replace Britain as the dominant power in the 20th. That indeed happened. But would he have endorsed a hegemonic U.S. foreign policy based on military power? Probably not. But that's my opinion, not necessarily Washington's.

Joseph J. Ellis is the Ford Foundation professor of history at Mount Holyoke College. His books include "Founding Brothers," "American Sphinx" and,

most recently, "American Creation."

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