Monday, October 11, 2010

The Founders: the very human products of a Golden Age

The Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the United States government can bestow on a scholar in the humanities.  The recipients read like a who's-who of American literature, and while the Lecture itself is rarely a work of substantive scholarship, it often serves as a clarifying statement of a presenting scholar's approach to his or her subject matter.  Two Jefferson lectures in particular touch on themes discussed in his blog, Forrest McDonald's 1987 lecture, The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers, and David McCollough's 2003 lecture, The Course of Human Events.

In his lecture McDonald, one of the foremost conservative scholars of our nation's early history, describes the Founders as inhabitants of a "Golden Age," and laments that we are unlikely to see their kind again.  The unique circumstances of our founding period cannot be replicated, and the combination of culture, education, social conditions and the economic situation of the late colonial and early republican periods ensure that the quality of leadership and the depth of foresight present in the founding generation is unlikely to reoccur. 

McCollough, known best for his best-selling biography of John Adams, approaches the Founders and their times more specifically, as individual human beings, and as such, in their humanness, the Founders have a more universal applicability.  The lessons we can draw from them are not lessons from divinities, but lessons from human beings like ourselves.  As McCollough puts it:
One might also say that history is not about the past. If you think about it, no one ever lived in the past. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams, and their contemporaries didn't walk about saying, "Isn't this fascinating living in the past! Aren't we picturesque in our funny clothes!" They lived in the present. The difference is it was their present, not ours. They were caught up in the living moment exactly as we are, and with no more certainty of how things would turn out than we have. 

Nor were they gods. Indeed, to see them as gods or god-like is to do disservice to their memories. Gods, after all, don't deserve a lot of credit because they can do whatever they wish. 

Those we call the Founders were living men. None was perfect. Each had his human flaws and failings, his weaknesses. They made mistakes, let others down, let themselves down.
Because the Founders were human, because they had hobbies and interests and loves, because they were capable of great things and great failures, they are within the scope of being able to teach us through their example.  McCollough discusses how different the Founders' ideal of happiness is from the modern materialistic vision.  How they were motivated by simple love of country and personal courage to attempt what appeared impossible at the time.   They left us not with unobtainable dreams but with a vision for our country that was grounded in the idea of individual liberty under law.  The Founders left us not to look upon them with amazement and awe, but to complete the work that they began but were unable to finish completely.  Again to quote McCollough:
But while it is essential to remember them as individual mortal beings no more perfect in every way than are we, and that they themselves knew this better than anyone, it is also essential to understand that they knew their own great achievements to be imperfect and incomplete. 

The American experiment was from its start an unfulfilled promise. There was much work to be done. There were glaring flaws to correct, unfinished business to attend to, improvements and necessary adjustments to devise in order to keep pace with the onrush of growth and change and expanding opportunities. 

Those brave, high-minded people of earlier times gave us stars to steer by -- a government of laws not of men, equal justice before the law, the importance of the individual, the ideal of equality, freedom of religion, freedom of thought and expression, and the love of learning.
As much as I hate to disagree with Forrest McDonald, McCollough's vision of the Founders and our relationship to them is much closer to the mark.  Our Founders -- not just the famous names but the ordinary people who made our revolution and our early republic work -- were indeed the products, as each generation of people are, of human conditions that were unique.  But they were not unique as to be beyond imitation or replication.

Our Founders left us with one of the richest legacies in human history, a canon of thought and of practice in republican virtue unparalleled in the human story between Athens and London.   But they did not mean for it to be a closed canon.  They meant for it to be built upon, to be improved.  And at our best moments in our history, our leaders have reminded us of this fact, of the changes that need to be made to fulfill the Founder's vision even more closely. 

Was America during the founding period a golden age?  Yes, indeed it was.  But the gold of that age can be burnished to shine every more brightly, it can be refined to glimmer with ever-greater purity.  It is easy to look back upon the Founders and tremble at their greatness.  But what we should really be trembling at is their hopes for us and what we would accomplish.  The challenge of our day is to look back on their example and then live forward by the stars the left, as McCollough puts it, for us to steer by.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

No matter what you personally might think of Ronald Reagan, it has been reported that even his political enemies like him. That is, those that had real interaction with him.

Why was he one of the most popular presidents? He popularized the "vision" of the Founders, I think. He cast "hope" and he had a sense of humor, too.

I think it is important to understand and know what our Founders thought and how they understood government, because otherwise we are not building on a foundation, but a "dream"...

I do think that our form of government is necessary to understand, because otherwise, we can't think through the present issues with realistic "hope" or vision...but part of this is understanding the political philosophy behind the Founders and their "vision"...

Jason Pappas said...

If I think of all the revolutions around the world since the American Revolution, I'm inclined to side with McDonald about this exceptional period.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

But, Mr. (Dr.?) Pappas,
Don't you think that the British were civilized, and understood dissent, because of their own religious dissent from Catholicism? Today, absolutized governments, or Statism is what disallows dissent?

Mark D. said...

I don't disagree that America is an exceptional country. What I disagree with is the idea that we can't improve on the Founding as our republic continues to grow and mature. In many ways, there were fundamental flaws in the political and social environment of the Founding -- slavery being the most obvious example but not the only one. On that point, we only really lived out the truths found in the Declaration of Independence after the ratification of the Civil Rights Amendments at the close of the Civil War. And then it took another 100 years or so to fully realize the legal rights provided to all Americans by those Civil Rights Amendments.

Were the Founders unique? Absolutely. But can their work be improved upon? Can we make a country that is more free, more republican (with a small "r"), more virtuous, more civic while at the same time more individualistic? I think we can. I think we can build on their achievements and do better than they did. But we have to want to. We have to see it as possible. And we have to prepare ourselves to do it.

If we can -- if we follow McCollough's advice -- we can create a new golden age.

Jason Pappas said...

I agree with you Mark and sympathize with your aspirations. While we've added to the achievements of our Founding Fathers, I also believe that there's much that we've lost. I don't see an appreciation of the civil virtue, appreciation of natural rights, and insight into human nature that was common among our Founders.

The Founding Fathers thought that England, which they had admired, had become corrupt. One wonders what they would have thought of today’s America. You’re right; it would be a betrayal of their spirit if we viewed the Founding as a rare never-to-be-repeated event and lose hope for our future.

Mark D. said...


I agree with you. In many ways we have lost much. but we can achieve the same greatness of the Founders if we choose to. National decline is a choice. we can choose to embrace the ideals and values and virtues of the Founders if we choose. and we can act accordingly.