Pundits on all sides frequently claim the Founding Fathers would not recognize America today. Automatic weapons, internet, air travel—oh my! In fact, however, it is unlikely the Founders would express much shock at today’s bloated government or partisan political culture.
Putting aside that they understood the concept of innovation, and even had repeating firearms, this group of men understood something far more fundamental: human nature. Baked into virtually every meticulously crafted line of the Declaration, Constitution, Federalist Papers, and treatises of the day was a recognition that man has both incredible capacity for cooperation and devastating potential for destruction. Equipped with knowledge of history and of human nature, the Founders had possibly the greatest predictive power of any group of people throughout history.
Big Government Is as Old as Sin
This awareness of human nature is why James Madison remarked in Federalist 38 that Solon the Athenian statesman “had not given to his countrymen the government best suited to their happiness, but most tolerable to their prejudices.” It was their understanding of history, and the successes and failures of the ancient and modern worlds, that led the Founders to create a federal republic with separation of powers, checks and balances, dual sovereignty, and a written Constitution. By following this example and adding further institutional safeguards, they sought to form the government most tolerable of our prejudices so that all people could pursue happiness.
Along with a government suited for men, not angels, Madison and company put separation of powers and checks in place not to keep the government static, but to keep it balanced. They knew it would grow, and that is precisely why they devised it so carefully.
It is hard to picture Madison red-faced and wide-eyed watching Fox News or a C-SPAN broadcast of a congressional hearing. Surely things like the federal budget and the entitlement regime would be pulse-quickening, but Declaration-era writings make clear that the Framers and Founders not only knew of the potential, but foresaw the likelihood of such growth and power.
Even the legendary Benjamin Franklin quip, “A republic, if you can keep it,” contains the pearl of wisdom and recognition that order does not stick around naturally. In fact, the natural state of things is disorder and devolution into chaos. Would Franklin be surprised to see decay in the republic? I suspect if anything, he would be shocked it still exists.
Endless foreign war falls short as well. George Washington who, as commander of the Continental Army, was greatly assisted by foreign military power, knew intervening beyond our shores was dangerous. Would the father of the country and issuer of the Proclamation of Neutrality be surprised at endless foreign conflict? Seems to me he understood the consequences and had the foresight to avoid it during his tenure.
Perhaps what truly would astound the first Americans is the vitriol and spectacle of political culture. The 2016 presidential campaign included friends turned rivals, intense polarization, exceedingly rich aristocrats, lifelong political creatures, and everything else that makes for a fantastical fall-of-an-empire story.
Merely typing “creole bas” (as in “creole bastard”) into a search bar will pull up a Siri suggestion and Google prediction for Alexander Hamilton. The founders’ mudslinging was so great that hundreds of years later, this political insult still defines the man, at least according to Google. Lest we forget, Hamilton was shot and killed by the sitting vice president of the United States. I’m sure Aaron Burr cracked a smile from the grave when Donald Trump said he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue without losing any voters.
While many insults are tossed around today, I suspect “hermaphroditic character” is not common to most ears. But Thomas Jefferson, that genteel and polished statesman, taunted John Adams as “A blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character with neither the force and fitness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
By no stretch of the imagination would polarized politics, infighting, insults, or even the 24-hour news cycle shock even the most mild-mannered of our Founders. They were men hardened by tyranny; victors of revolution; students of history; political innovators. Not only would they recognize this aspect of the modern state, they would feel right at home.
Technology and Change
People often patronizingly infantilize those who came before us. This primitive view of the past is not only inaccurate but astonishingly conceited. Undergraduate political science students may have the internet, but many of the Founders spoke multiple languages, could read and write in the ancient scripts, quoted and understood the great philosophers, and were fighting wars while still in their teens.
Some say if the Founders could have known how deadly guns would become, they never would have penned the Second Amendment. To take this view, one has to believe not only that they were idiots, but that they could not read. Of course they were aware of the concept of technological advancement—for weaponry in particular. They had heard of a sword, spear, bow, and arrow. Yet they used a magic boom stick! That they couldn’t fathom another development is idiocy, and ignores the astounding innovation that took place in real time during their lives.
More importantly, this generation of dueling, revolutionary, treasonous, tar-and-feathering, 18th-century rabble-rousers would not be shocked by mass shootings. Of course, like all decent people, it would be a sickening realization, but they lived through and read about the history of man. It’s a history filled with genocides, war, torture, and hysteria. The form of such violence is simply a new form, but not a new phenomenon.
New Settings, Same Stories
And the form of things is important. Of course remote controls and Skype would flabbergast them, just like visual reality shocks the Greatest Generation. But the Founders had roads and bridges, simple machines, and innovative tools for their day. The interstate highway system, F-150s, and television may be impressive developments, but not so much so that their minds could not comprehend. Since they were literate about ancient Rome, with amazing running water and sewage systems, it is likely certain things would disappoint them about the modern world.
But these all come back to human nature. The Framers understood that men could unite for common purpose, accomplish enormous feats, and promote the good. They also knew of the evils dwelling within the heart of men. This country today is populated by the same kind of men, with the same innate passions and prejudices, simply using different facts and tools.
So of course they would not recognize today in simplistic terms any more than you would not recognize a classmate from elementary school. Things change, but on a relatively predictable course. Things being different do not make them unrecognizable, and the Founders understood change better than most, being keen students of history. Most importantly, they understood that human nature doesn’t change, and they planned accordingly.