The Past is Present

As I have read through Ferling and Ellis, I have been repeatedly struck by how little the American political scene has changed over the past two hundred thirty-five years. It is often tempting in our day and age to bemoan the lack of civility and honesty in our modern political process, but with a little research it becomes obvious that this is nothing new. We often hear about how one candidate or another allegedly does not adhere to the original intentions of the Founding Fathers, but this is a ridiculous assertion to make. Even when we know with certainty the “original intentions” of the Founders, it is clear that the gulf that separates modern Democrats and Republicans is no wider wide than that which separated Hamiltonian Federalists from Jeffersonian Republicans. Jefferson and Hamilton and their lieutenants manipulated the press as much as any modern political operative; one can easily substitute John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States for MSNBC, and Philip Freneau’s National Gazette for Fox News.[1] The simple fact is that the Founding Fathers did not possess a collective, monolithic view of how the new republic should look. As Ellis pointed out, there were two “founding moments” in our nation’s history; the first occurred in 1776, and was the touchstone for the Jeffersonians, while the second happened at the Constitutional Convention and became the defining moment for the Hamiltonians.[2] The modern heirs to these political legacies do not often seem to know or understand how the whole process played out.

As a brief aside, my studies of the Founders have led me to more greatly admire Adams and Washington. Adams was a bit of an unsung hero, and there was much in Washington’s character to admire. Jefferson, on the other hand, was devious and dissembling, and I have grown almost to despise him. Hamilton was brilliant but a little dangerous, I believe, and I have not been able to decide what I feel about Franklin.

[1] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 341.

[2] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 9.

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