Americans are fond of imagining what George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and other of the country's so-called Founding Fathers would have to say about contemporary issues. Present-day politicians like to suggest that they are still pursuing the ideals those 18th-century men espoused when they established the United States.
Now a biographer of many of America's earliest statesmen has written a book that draws on their writings to address the question "What Would the Founders Do?" about some of the issues facing the nation today.
Richard Brookhiser says he got the inspiration for his book What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers from speaking to audiences about his previous books. "I've been writing books about the Founders for ten years, speaking to live audiences or on radio where there is Q & A (questions from listeners)," Brookhiser says. "There was always a question what would Washington or Hamilton or Jefferson do about this or that, which was some issue in the news or some person in the news."
Questions such as what would the Founding Fathers do about the immigration problem? Brookhiser says even in the 18th century the nation's leaders were not in agreement on the issue. In fact, he says, during the drafting of the Constitution two immigrants "locked horns" over how long a foreign-born resident needed to live in the U.S. before being eligible to run for the Senate.
"The two immigrants who clashed on this were James Wilson, who came from Scotland, (and) Pierce Butler, who came from Ireland," Brookhiser says. "Wilson said, 'Lets have low requirements. It's humiliating to be told you aren't eligible.' Butler said, 'Foreigners have foreign principles. These can be dangerous to us, so we want them to spend a lot of time here.'"
Some Founding Fathers, like George Mason, didn't want immigrants serving in the Senate no matter how long they lived here. In the end, the Constitutional Convention decided nine years' residency was sufficient.
"[The Founders] also disagreed a lot about war and peace -- you know, which countries should we support, which wars should we enter," Brookhiser says, adding they would most likely have disagreed over the war in Iraq as well.
Much as today's rogue states and Islamic terrorists have posed a challenge to the U.S., the author says the nation's first presidents had to deal with the Barbary pirates. The pirates ran a cutthroat naval protection racket off the North African coast. For years, they plundered and terrorized the busy shipping lane with impunity, demanding protection money or ransoms for hijacked sailors and ships.
Brookhiser says the Founding Fathers had very different strategies for dealing with them. "President Washington negotiated a treaty to pay these guys off. President (John) Adams ratified it. But when Jefferson came in, he sent our navy over to the Mediterranean to try to clean them out."
As for the role of religion in the new republic, Brookhiser says two of the most celebrated Founders, Jefferson and Washington, both used architectural terms to describe their differing points of view. "Thomas Jefferson wrote a famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he uses the phrase 'wall of separation:' that 'there should be a wall of separation between church and state.'"
Brookhiser says six years earlier, George Washington gave his farewell address and a referred to religion as "the prop, the pillar and the support of morality." In other words, he explains, "Some people can be moral without religion, but they are a tiny minority and a country really must have religion to be moral."
One thing the author believes nearly all of the Founders would embrace today is the electronic news media. "Obviously they had nothing electronic, nothing of the Internet, but what they did have in the late 18th century was newspapers," he says. "The Founders thought newspapers were very important. They wrote for the newspapers a lot. They criticized the newspapers a lot, and were criticized by them. So if they were brought back today, they would sit themselves down in front of the (TV) tube, in front of the computer, and they would try to figure out this new world, because they (would) know they would have to master it."
Historian Richard Brookhiser isn't the only author intrigued by the question of what the Founders would do. A novel called Tempus Fugit takes what the publisher calls "an intimate look at Jefferson's genius and hypocrisy, Franklin's wit and wisdom, and Washington's honesty and bravery," imagining what would happen if these three icons of American history were transported suddenly across time to the 21st century.