Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


What Would the Founders Do? By Richard Brookhiser








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When readers bring a sense of playfulness to Richard Brookhiser’s latest book, What Would the Founders Do?, they are likely to come away with satisfaction and pleasure. Those who expect the rigorous discipline shown in his earlier books on the founders will find this book annoying. I liked it. The subtitle, “Our Questions: Their Answers,” reveals the structure of the book. Taking a cue from the “What Would Jesus Do?” style, Brookhiser considers modern question and tries to find evidence of behavior in the life of the founders that would reveal how they would act if faced with our contemporary questions. Many readers will neither like nor agree with some of the answers Brookhiser presents. That, too, is part of the fun. There are no answers to be found, but it brings great pleasure to consider a possible case. Here’s an excerpt, from the middle of Chapter 4, “God and Man,” pp. 62-67:


Did the Founders Think America Was a Christian Nation?


In 1797, the Senate considered a treaty, negotiated the previous year, with the bashaw of Tripoli. The United States agreed to give him cash and presents, and declared, in one clause, that America bore “no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmens,” for it was “not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Tripoli and the countries of North Africa ran a naval protection racket, extorting ransoms for captives they seized, or selling their good behavior, in treaties such as this one. North African slavery was horrible, and since the United States could not protect its shipping or its citizens, it found it prudent to pay in advance. Tripoli’s true religion was thievery, but the clause on Christianity and Islam was designed to remove any pretext for trouble. The Senate passed the treaty unanimously, and President Adams signed it three days later. When honor yields to necessity, there is no point quibbling over details. (Four years later the bashaw upped his price and declared war, forcing us to deal with him differently.)

In fact, there was no cause to quibble with the bashaw about creeds. The United States was not founded on the Christian reli­gion. The First Amendment, forbidding a national religious es­tablishment, had been ratified in 1791. The year before, President Washington wrote the congregation of Touro Synagogue in Newport that America did not practice “toleration”: it was not “by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. . . . All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” In 1793, he wrote the Swedenborgian New Church in Baltimore “that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart.” That amendment and these statements are a better guide to the founders’. views than a treaty with pirates.

Washington had invoked Christ in one critical public state­ment, his 1783 circular to the states as the Revolution was wind­ing down. This, as far as Washington knew at the time, was his farewell address, his last significant official communication with the state governments and the people of America. He ended it with a prayer that God (a more particular name than Providence) would “dispose us all, to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean [conduct] ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristicks of the divine author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy na­tion.” The Touro Synagogue would be pleased that he quoted Micah 6:8 on the importance of justice and mercy. But neither they nor any Musselmens who happened to be in America would consider Jesus Christ the author of their religions. Washington was not asking Americans to think of Jesus in a religious context, however—as Savior, or Son of God. He was asking them to imi­tate Jesus’ qualities—charity, humility, peacefulness. Washington had seen little enough of “pacific temper” during the war, and he would see little more when he came back into public life as presi­dent. But some sufficient residue had to exist, or the country would fly apart. Whatever Washington believed about Christ, the Christ of his statement is a political figure, the model citizen.


What Role Did the Founders Believe That Religion Should Play in Public Lift?


In March 1790, one month before he died, Benjamin Franklin answered a letter from the Reverend Ezra Stiles, a Congregationalist minister and president of Yale College. Stiles wanted to know what Franklin believed. Franklin answered that this was the first time anyone had ever asked him (clearly, he did not be­lieve in the Ninth Commandment), then stated his creed. It was essentially Unitarian: God rules the world, the best way to serve him is by serving mankind, and Jesus was a great moral teacher. Franklin doubted Jesus’ divinity, but would not worry about the matter now, “when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.” If believing in Jesus’ divinity encouraged people to follow his teachings, that was probably a good thing. Franklin ended by asking Stiles to keep his letter confidential. “All sects here [in Philadelphia] have experienced my good will in assisting them with subscriptions for building their new places of worship; and, as I have never [publicly] opposed any of their doctrines, I hope to go out of the world in peace with them all.” Franklin believed that religion was good for the public; if the public thought he was religious, that was good for Franklin.

If the founders did not make America a Christian nation, many of them thought it should be a religious nation. In their view religions sustained the civic culture of the state. Franklin said as much in his letter to Stiles; George Washington said it quite directly in his actual Farewell Address, printed in the news­papers in 1796 as his last term was ending. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” Washington wrote, “religion and morality are indispensable supports.” He also called them “pillars of human happiness” and “props of the duties of men and citizens.” He gave an example: “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obli­gation desert the oaths” taken in court? (Was Washington right? Two hundred years later, the nation would be convulsed because President Clinton lied under oath, yet Clinton was a religious man.) Philosophy could not do the job of propping, pillaring, and supporting alone. “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

The background of these concerns was the French Revolu­tion, by then in its eighth year. Its enemies, who by 1796 included Washington, often argued that the revolution threatened the political and moral fabric of the world. Washington wanted to shore up America. He proposed no government action; given his political principles, how could he? He called for intellectual, and individual, vigilance. What friend of “free government,” he asked, “can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation. . .

Other founders thought free government was threatened by religion, not revolution. Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution because he believed, as he wrote George Wythe, that France had been “loaded with misery, by kings, nobles, and priests, and by them alone.” France’s clerical establishment had been as crushing as its political one. America was fortunate not to have such a thing, but politicized orthodoxy was a threat even here. That, Jefferson believed, was why the principles of liberty had to be entrenched in law, and publicly honored. During his first term as president, he sent a letter to supporters in Danbury, Connecticut, in which he admitted reli­gious feelings—for the First Amendment. “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people.” The First Amendment, he explained, after quoting it, “buil[t] a wall of separation between church and state.” The wall of separation had holes in it, as Jefferson knew, for the First Amendment al­lowed states to maintain religious establishments, and several, including Connecticut, did so; the supporters, to whom he was writing, were a group of Baptists who chafed at their minority position in a Congregationalist state. But Jefferson hoped to see “the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights.”

Washington and Jefferson were both amateur architects, whose houses—Mount Vernon and Monticello—are American masterpieces. Building metaphors came naturally to them. But when they looked to religion, from the point of view of freedom, Washington thought of pillars, Jefferson of walls.


Readers can zip through What Would the Founders Do? rapidly, spending extra time on those questions of particular interest. The breezy approach Brookhiser uses allows the flow of Q&A to proceed easily, and those readers open to being entertained will enjoy this book.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2006 issue of Executive Times


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