Monday, September 16, 2013

The Founding Fathers as Innovators: Republic 1.0

The Founding Fathers play a critically important, sometimes even bizarre role in modern America.  “We want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action,” Gordon Wood writes in his superb Revolutionary Characters, “or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq.”

In many ways this obsession with seeking the blessings of our founders is unique.  We don’t worry, for example, if Henry Ford would endorse our newest manufacturing processes, what Babe Ruth thinks of the designated hitter rule or if Louis Armstrong cares for rap.  Likewise, the French don’t wonder what Charlemagne would say about their current immigration policy just as the British, Wood points out, feel no need to check in periodically with either of the two William Pitts.

WWTJD? Exactly.

So, it’s interesting to reflect on the fact that the Founding Fathers’ greatest accomplishment—beyond their individual achievements with electricity, writing declarations, and winning wars—was constructing their grand experiment in self-government: Republic 1.0.  As political entrepreneurs, Washington and company launched a radical innovation in the global market, ran it for a while, and then handed it over to the next generation of management.

What did they think of the nation they had created?   Were they pleased?  Did Republic 1.0 measure up to their expectations?  Did each die content in his achievement, or, like Victor Frankenstein, aghast at the unintended consequences of the monster they had fashioned?

In retrospect, we recognize that Republic 1.0 was (what we now might call) a minimally viable product; it “failed to free the slaves, failed to offer full political equality to women, . . . failed to grant citizenship to Indians, [and] failed to create an economic world in which all could compete on equal terms.”[1]  It was exceedingly unstable.  The white settlers who streamed across the Appalachians after peace with Great Britain had little use for Republic 1.0., whose impact could barely be felt across the mountains.  Worse still, the issue over which the Union would later nearly dissolve had been utterly misjudged by the Founders, who believed the principles of the Revolution would eventually destroy slavery; just as Republic 1.0 launched, the United States was on the verge of its greatest expansion ever of enslaved peoples.

Washington told his Secretary of State that if the United States dissolved, as he feared it might, he had made up his mind to join the North.  

(Memo to Robert E. Lee.)  Jefferson had a vision of Republic 1.0 not very different from that under the Articles of Confederation: dissolution of the country was never particularly onerous.  If the West and East separate, he said in 1804, “Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children & descendants as those of the eastern.”[2]  For his part, James Madison, the so-called father of the Constitution, considered the document that emerged from the Constitutional Convention to be so different from his original plan that it would inevitably fail.

It would be a long, long stretch before a more united Republic 2.0 emerged after the Civil War, an event none of the Founders lived to see.

By the 1780s, the leader of our creative team, George Washington, had earned an unrivaled international reputation as a classical hero, “a living embodiment of all the classical republican virtue the age was eagerly striving to recover.”[3]  However, as he entered his final years, he was exceedingly unhappy.  He and his administration had been subject to vicious criticism by the likes of Thomas Paine, who—in the name of politics--called him “the scourge and misfortune of our country” who slept away his time on the battlefield, a duplicitous politician of vanity, ingratitude and pride.  In turn, Washington believed Jefferson’s Republicans to be “the curse of this country” and feared that the government would be overthrown.  When he was asked to run for President again in 1799 he was done with politics in a nation where character no longer mattered; if the Jefferson Republicans “set up a broomstick,” Washington said, and called it “a true son of Liberty,” it would command all of their votes.

Likewise, Jefferson was nearly despondent in retirement. “By the end of his life,” Wood writes, “Jefferson had moments of apprehension that the American Revolution, to which he had devoted his life, was in danger of failing.”  He retired to Monticello permanently.  He stopped taking all but one newspaper, and lost interest in receiving mail.  He watched his beloved Virginia decline from the richest and most populous state to a “besieged and bewildered backwater whose principal business was the selling of slaves. Decay was everywhere, and Jefferson felt it at Monticello.”  His debts mounted, and he sold slaves when he could not sell land.  He never grasped currency, banking, capital formation or large-scale manufacturing; indeed, it’s fair to say Jefferson never understood the Industrial Revolution, and considered its output—speculative investments and commercial avarice—as primary failures of Republic 1.0.  Most of all, Jefferson moaned, a national government that did not allow the people of Missouri to own slaves violated the Constitution.  If the federal government claimed for itself that right, then it would next declare all slaves in the country free, “in which case all the whites within the United States south of the Potomac and Ohio must evacuate their States, and most fortunate those who can do it first.”[4]  The author of the Declaration of Independence could not envision a world were white and black lived together as equals in peace.

Suffice to say that Washington was unhappy with Republicans, and almost as unhappy with his own Federalist party, while Jefferson was unhappy with nearly everything that had evolved from Republic 1.0.  American society, he believed, was becoming more factional and barbaric.  The proof for Jefferson was the election of Andrew Jackson, who he felt was simply unfit for the presidency.  “All, all dead!” he wrote to an old friend the year before he died, “and ourselves left alone midst a new generation whom we know not, and who know not us.”[5]

John Adams, who had little of Washington or Jefferson’s gravitas, was criticized cruelly; he came to conclude that not only was he under-appreciated, but he had become victim of “the most envious malignity, the most base, vulgar, sordid, fishwoman scurrility, and the most palpable lies” that had ever been leveled against any public official.[6]  Adams’ original sin was never buying the myth of American exceptionalism; if Republic 1.0 relied on the virtue of the people, who were as corrupt as any other nation in the world, he believed all would be destroyed.  Clearly that was not the way to win friends and influence republics.

The founders, Wood concludes, succeeded so well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people that that’s precisely what they got.  Neither Washington, who led the common man in battle, nor Adams, who represented him in court, had any illusions about human nature, preferring a strong national government (led by a wise elite).  Jefferson, the great champion of the common man, could not have tripped over more than a few common men in all his years in Paris and on his great plantation, so when he finally understood late in life whom they were and what they were like, he was dumbfounded.  (That's why, when we quote him, we use the early stuff.)

By 1820, the great experiment had spun wildly out of control, far beyond the vision or comfort of its creators.

The unintended consequence of Republic 1.0 was that it actually worked.

In fact, there was one Founder who would today be fundamentally comfortable and happy with the results of the great American experiment.  Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s lifelong enemy, was an immigrant, an opponent of slavery, a proponent of a large standing army, and (like Adams and Washington) had serious doubts about democracy.  He was the only Founding Father who understood finance, banking, capital creation and fundamental economics, the only one who truly comprehended the Industrial Revolution.  He believed America in time would become more urban and industrial, more hierarchical and unequal.  He wanted creditors attached not to the states but to a strong national government.  He argued for a central bank.  Hamilton was the true genius of Republic 1.0--and, as sometimes happens, almost none of his coFounders understood what he was doing.  (To his credit, Washington was wise enough to recognize Hamilton's genius and then stay out of his way.)

Imagine the Founding Fathers visiting for breakfast one morning, settling in with you to watch The Today Show.  Jefferson would undoubtedly love the weather maps but be mortified by nearly everything else, including the weather person.  Washington would scratch his head over our involvement with chemical weapons in the MidEast.  Adams would wonder why he still has no statue in Washington, D.C.  Poor Madison would wonder why he is so forgotten (in this essay and elsewhere).  But Hamilton—ah, Hamilton--learning about the Pentagon, the national debt, federal taxes, industrial muscle and foreign entanglements—would smile and simply say, “Republic 1.0?  I told you so.”

[1] Wood, Gordon, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, New York: Penguin Press, 2006, Loc. 182.  
[2] Wood, Gordon, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, New York: Penguin Press, 2006, Loc. 1829.  
[3] Wood, Gordon, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, New York: Penguin Press, 2006, Loc. 734.  
[4] Wood, Gordon, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, New York: Penguin Press, 2006, Loc. 1915.  
[5] Wood, Gordon, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, New York: Penguin Press, 2006, Loc. 1991.  
[6] Wood, Gordon, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, New York: Penguin Press, 2006, Loc. 4428.