What Would the Founders Do by Richard Brookhiser

Heading into the 4th of July weekend – even though the holiday isn’t until Tuesday – I thought it might be appropriate to recommend a perfect book for your holiday enjoyment.

The ever brilliant Richard Brookhiser’s latest work, What Would the Founders Do?, seems well suited to be read this weekend. In WWFD Brookhiser uses his witty and urbane style to outline what the Founding Fathers might think about a variety of issues confronting us today.

If you need something to read on the beach or on the porch swing but you prefer history to the typical summer fare of thrillers or romance novels, Brookhiser would be a good choice.

The introduction sets the stage and seeks to explain exactly why we look to the Founders for guidance:

In moments of struggle, farce, or disaster, the founders are still with us. We look to them for slogans, cheap shots, inspiration and instruction. We seize on them for sleazy advantage and for moral guidance. We ransack what they said and did for clues to what they would, and what we should, do.

The founders knew they were making history. John Adams believed that the day of independence “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival….It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Like every other country, we honor our heroes, celebrate our holidays, remember our defeats, and regret our failings. But we do more. We engage the founders in a continuing dialog about the present. It is an imaginary dialog, for the founders are dead. Yet they are not entirely dead, for they live on in our minds. Parades and fireworks commemorate American independence, as Adams predicted. But the New York Times also commemorates it by reprinting the Declaration of Independence. We are not content to remember what the founders did; we must read, or at least see, their explanation of it. Having read it, we feel that we can engage it. The Declaration is a position paper and an action memo that is always in our mail box; we believe we can hit the reply button, for further elaboration.

[. . ]

God blessed the founders, they did not bless themselves. Their specialness comes from being human creators of a human thing, America. We, their successor Americans, feel simultaneously awed by them and like them. They built the country, they wrote the user’s manuals—Declaration, Constitution, Federalist Papers—and they ran it while it could still be returned to the manufacturer. We assume that if anyone knows how the U.S.A. should work, it must be them. In that spirit, we ask WWFD—What Would the Founders Do?

What makes WWFD a good summer read is Brookhiser’s light touch and the book’s epigrammatic style. Using his vast knowledge of the history involved and his insight into the personalities, Brookhiser never gets bogged down in minutia or technicalities.

Instead, he gives what might be called a guided tour of the Founding Fathers’ mental furniture; a inside look at the way they thought and acted. He allows us to see the world through their eyes and thus gain perspective on our own time.

After a scene setting first chapter, the chapters are short and broken up into small sections by issue. You can read the book straight through or you could jump around and just check out issues that interest you.

Brookhiser doesn’t use the Founders ideas or arguments to back up a particular ideology or political position so much as offer principles and ideas that are useful in making decisions about the issues confronting us.

Nevertheless, there is a basic theme that runs throughout the work:

American is about liberty or it is about nothing. The founders fought a revolution because Britain was infringing their rights, and they kept working at their form of government until they made on capable of preserving them.

The idea of liberty, and its constraints, was never far from the founders’ minds as they thought about and debated public policy.

Sometimes Brookhiser comes to a blunt conclusion: “The founders would not have fought the war on drugs” or “Self-help and charity were the welfare of he founders.” But more often he outlines the various perspectives and thoughts – including the tensions and inconsistencies – of the founders on any given issue. His conclusions can be both frustratingly vague for those seeking clear answers, but also thought provoking. Here is how he wraps up the discussion of religion in public life:

Washington and Jefferson were both amateur architects, whose houses – Mount Vernon and Monticello – are American masterpieces. Building metaphors came naturally to them. But when they looked to religion, from the point of view of freedom, Washington thought of pillars, Jefferson of walls.

Brookhiser can also be inspiring when describing the thoughts of the founders. In asking whether the founders saw America as an example to the world he touches on the idealism of the founding:

Yet at the same time, the founders were tugged by the belief that they were actors on a larger stage – that their audience was the human race, and their time frame was all of time. In a forum like the Constitutional Convention, eternity could poke through the wrangles. If the delegates failed, Alexander Hamilton said at one point, the cause of republican government would be “disgraced and lost to mankind forever.” “We shall disappoint not only America,” Elbridge Gerry agreed, “But the whole world.” Strange fears, strange hopes for a little country on the edge of nowhere. When America loses them, it will be far smaller.”

The founder’s positions on many issues reflect a uniquely American balance of pragmatism and idealism; the drive to sustain a conservative revolution.

In the end, Brookhiser extols us to replicate not so much their exact positions as their character:

What we can always take from the founders, whether we are honoring the letter of their law, or improvising madly, as they sometimes did, is a style of thought, a way of working, a stance.

We can be as intelligent as they were, and as serious; as practical and as brave. We can know as much as they did, and work as hard. We can compromise when we have to, and kill when we must. We can; as they said, all me are created equal.”

Words worth thinking about this holiday.

I hope the above has captured some of the thoughtfulness and wit of What Would the Founders Do. It is a quick and entertaining read but still thought provoking. While it touches on some serious issues, its light touch, and almost encyclopedia entry like structure, makes it perfect to take along to the beach or the park.

Have a good weekend and a great Fourth of July.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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