Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rediscovering the Values of the Founding Fathers (or Foundersland: A Fantastical Journey)

Recently my wife and I had guests over for dinner. Amidst our pleasantries, one of them voiced her displeasure with a certain recent Supreme Court ruling. She opined that America had strayed too far from the vision of its founders, which is a common refrain among conservatively-inclined Americans and civil libertarians alike. I'm no expert on the matter, but I'm a reasonably-informed amateur and a fairly astute historical thinker; plus, as luck has it I've been reading Gordon S. Wood's "Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815," so America's founding has been on my mind. I started thinking...what if our country did live by the values held by the founders?

So pull out your cardboard box, gather some Higgs Bosons for fuel, and let's take a trip to a parallel dimension where the founders' intentions were never altered, where the United States of America exist as they were intended to be! (The first sign we've entered bizarro-world? The country's title is still plural!) For clarity I will dub our new dimension Foundersland.*

In Foundersland, powdered wigs wear you!

Of course, even the 1770s were rife with political conflict, and so it is in Foundersland. The conflict is epitomized by Presidential candidate Willard Romney, or "Mitt" as he is known to absolutely nobody, for a gentleman always uses his full given name. Romney comes from a highly regarded family of rich landholders (the most desirable source of wealth in Foundersland), but he also made his own way by obtaining a law degree from Harvard. At one time Romney seemed destined for a life of (small "r") republican political service, but he instead wasted years in tawdry affairs of business.

In Foundersland, a true republican is not engaged in the world of business or finance. Doing so makes him "interested," caught up in the affairs of lower orders of men and lacking sufficient distance to govern with the necessary impartiality. That impartiality, or disinterestedness, is the mostly important qualification for public office. Educated men of letters -- the true heirs of the founders -- are suspicious that Romney remains too closely tied to his past business endeavors. Romney, for his part, would never claim that his business acumen makes him fit for public office; in fact, he has taken great pains to minimize it and points to his wealth and his governance of Massachusetts as his primary qualifications.

Mitt Romney: closet businessman?

Romney, of course, does not view himself as a leader or spokesman of any "party," because everyone in Foundersland knows that parties can only destroy the country. Foundersland also has no real concept of loyal opposition - both Romney and President Obama see themselves as the genuine followers of the Constitution and view the other with suspicion and possibly as traitors. While confrontation or debate would be ungentlemanly (in the past debates have been known to end in duels), both men attack each other indirectly through letters to friends, which are inevitebly published "anonymously" in newspapers.

Obama has issues of his own, but interestingly, race is not one of them. While some lingering prejudice remains, in the this dimension's alternate history Obama benefits from slavery having ended by the 1820s, as predicted by many founders: when trade, industry, and paid labor made slavery economically obsolete, southerners willingly ended the practice and freed their slaves.

Pictured:  Some guy.

In many ways Obama an ideal republican, having raised himself from a low birth to become educated and versed in law. Although his lack of significant landholdings is a flaw, his wealth gained through writing means he is sufficiently disinterested to make sound political decisions.

Obama's real problem -- Romney's too -- is continued opposition from middle-class politicians. The middle class, everybody agrees, is the most volatile element of the country. Meritorious elites agree that "middling sorts" or "democrats," are the ones who have always threatened to undermine America from within.

The middle class is made up of many types of people, from farmers who demand paper money to pay their debts to businessmen and merchants who disdain the aristocratic pretensions of the elites. Some of them are wealthy, often even wealthier than the proper ruling class, but they refuse to follow the time-honored path of letters and gentlemanly conduct. Some mock the importance of proper education and manners, and others outrageously claim that their profit-seeking and land speculation make them more qualified for public service.

Middle-class values.

Most damningly, these middling sorts have the audacity to campaign for office. Romney and Obama both refuse the appearance of seeking office and instead rely on letter-writing and patronage of influential friends to gain votes. But these democrats appeal directly to the people. They make promises to constituents and debase themselves with appalling localism. Thankfully, as James Madison intended, these local demagogues are largely confined to state governments -- most Congressmen and Senators avoid campaigning or becoming too close to their districts -- but the threat of encroachments from the unenlightened mob worries all true republicans.

Anyone who understands the founders' thoughts knows the danger of trusting the masses. Obviously, sovereignty derives from the people, but only abstractly. They must be properly led by enlightened gentlemen. Men who appeal to the people, like Ron Paul, Ross Perot, and Dennis Kucinish betray the very principles of the Constitution!

Thankfully, the impact of the middle class is limited by the Electoral College. While a few states allow popular election of electors, most choose theirs indirectly through state senators and special panels. The President is kept apart from the the people, as he should be.

In Foundersland this is not funny

Unfortunately, our time in Foundersland must come to an end, and we've only caught the smallest glimpse of it -- I don't have time to discuss other interesting things like foreign affairs or gender. Perhaps you think I've portrayed my Foundersland negatively or unfairly, but understand that I'm actualy very fond of it. I see it as a foreign country with a lot of strange customs, a few ideas I'd like to emulate, and others I could do without. In imagining Foundersland I've had to pick and choose what to emphasize, and your Foundersland might be very different from mine. Perhaps yours would look more like what my guest seemed to imagine. Maybe you'd invent something totally unique. Inventing a Foundersland shouldn't' be a free-for-all; we should try to learn the best facts and most rigorous historical methods. Still, everybody ultimately reconstructs the past, to some extent, to suit their perception of the present. Be skeptical of anyone who tells you that their Foundersland is the right one, the one we must emulate. The real world is too important and too complicated for that sort of ungentlemanly talk.


*In creating my Foundersland I'm making two key assumptions that I actually reject: 1. That there was a discreet class or body of men who could be described as "founders" to the exclusion of any others and 2. To the extent such a group existed, their beliefs were homogenous enough to make pithy generalizations that can be honestly applied to modern politics. But for the sake of satire I'll go with it.