Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Those Founding Fathers

Whenever the country is in a crisis, I take a step back and think of the Founding Fathers. It would be a slight understatement to say that there’s sore need for their cool counsel at the moment.
I’m sure Senator Evan Bayh is a decent man, but is it churlish of me to feel that part of his decision to not run for re-election is because he was passed over twice as Democratic candidate for Vice President?
However, he did strike a chord with his statement that “even at a time of enormous challenge, the people’s business is not being done.”
Now one could argue that the Founding Fathers were, for the most part, well-heeled individuals who not only believed that propertied males alone should have a vote, but that women should be relegated to the kitchen, parlor and bedroom. The occasional lettered lady, of course, might aspire to the role of supportive pen pal.
To cap it all these gentlemen who extolled the virtue of liberty refused to deal with the cancer of slavery.
History is like that, though – examine it through the lens of our own times, and you will witness few rose-colored scenarios. Indeed, had the issue of slavery been dealt with back then, it’s unlikely there ever would have been a United States.
And still these men had great wisdom and foresight, and through compromise and principle they bequeathed us an enlightened constitution and a framework within which to work out our differences and problems.
Most of them greatly feared mob rule. They were suspicious of demagoguery and felt that the “great unwashed” were too easily manipulated.
Whatever would they think now as media clowns, blowhards, braggarts, and a twenty-four hour news cycle pollute any kind of civil and meaningful discourse? Is it any wonder that people are confused and angry and yet are not quite sure who caused their problems, let alone what the answers might be.
These Founding Fathers were giants: great debaters, writers, and leaders – take a glance at the Federalist Papers most of which Alexander Hamilton apparently dashed off in between frolicking, politicking, making a living and raising a family.
Many were bitter rivals whose supporters fought in the streets; Hamilton himself was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, and he particularly disliked Thomas Jefferson.
And yet, they made big, though often unpopular, calls. With the newly fledged republic on the verge of bankruptcy, Hamilton insisted that all debts from the Revolutionary War be honored, for if not, the markets and creditors would never again trust the fiscal credibility of the country. He was accused of favoring the banks but argued his case brilliantly and, in the end, his rivals acquiesced.
The stoic George Washington looked on appalled. He knew most of the combatants and had but one hope – that they never form themselves into political parties. While he didn’t agree with many of their ideas, he felt that they were basically decent men who could be appealed to on an individual basis. Combine them in parties, however, and the herd principle would take over.
The idea of public opinion holding sway was frightening. Congress, whether in Philadelphia or Washington, was far from most members’ constituencies. There they were isolated and able to deliberate and make decisions for the national good, unlike our present day peacocks preening before TV cameras while leading with those ubiquitous sanctimonious words that have me running for the hills, “The American people…”
In the end, though, the Founding Fathers depended on a literate and intelligent electorate. As there was nothing approaching universal suffrage, the body of voters was small, condensed and often well educated by today’s standards. Common discourse was part of life and entertainment in and of itself.
There were of course Bill O’Reillys and Keith Olbermanns, provocateurs long on short fuses, fueled by political partisanship; but people of the time were used to lengthy church sermons and public rallies, and were practiced in crystallizing thoughts, summing up ideas and arriving at their own conclusions.
What’s happened? Are we too exhausted from work, too narrow in our frame of references, too set in our ways, too desirous of partisan political victories to see the damage we’re doing to the republic entrusted to us?
Hardly a founding father - but an effective, pragmatic politician and Mayor of Wexford - Dominic Kiernan once remarked to me, “every country gets the government it deserves.”
Say it ain’t so, Dom.

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