The Revolution matters in American politics; matters in ways that are perhaps inexplicable to most Europeans. In matters as diverse (and as modern) as healthcare reform, religion in politics, and race relations you often hear the questions, “But what would Jefferson/Washington/Franklin do”? (If the issue concerns finance, it’s usually Hamilton to whom we turn.) So their ideas—and perhaps just as importantly—how we see them, matters.
There is a good reason for that. The Founders crafted a government that was based on reason and a belief that honorable men would, in the end, be the rulers of this new nation. Enlightenment values—honor, belief in reason. And the Founders based the Constitution on our, their descendants’ reason, despite the fact that they were all too aware of people’s passions. How could they not be?
Afraid of centralized power, afraid small states would dominate big states and vice versa, afraid to confront slavery, afraid that people’s unreasoning passions would overwhelm a not-yet created government. And how could they not be afraid? For not only had they themselves waged a Revolution, seen another Revolution (the French) play out in front of their eyes as it were, but their very language was imbued with the language of passions. For, as Albert Hirschman demonstrates, what we now call our own interests (or self-enlightened interests)—words that sound wonderfully objective, rational and cool-headed, were in the seventeenth and eighteenth century called “passions” or even the “sin of avarice.” The Founders, who Gordon Wood argues convincingly were perhaps the last American aristocracy, had no reason to trust the common people’s passions. And many of them did not.
In fact, as Joanne Freeman in her lectures points out Alexander Hamilton argued for six hours in Philadelphia for a national government that would remove the common man from power as much as possible. Now, Hamilton may be an extreme case but Jefferson, the Founder we perhaps most associate with democracy—at least for white males, assumed that the government would always be in the hands of the “natural aristocracy.” In other words, he assumed that the common man—for all his faults—would just naturally select people like himself to run things. Small wonder then that Jefferson, like most Founders who lived as long as he, was so pessimistic about the state of the United States government and its people. For the common man did not chooses people like Jefferson to run things. They chose, instead, common men; people imbued with passions, knowing full well that those people would look out for their interests. Indeed, as Gordon Wood demonstrates men were often chosen because the electorate assumed that they would look out for their own interests and, in the process, look out for their as well.
The Founders had thought to create a republic but created a democracy. But they did it not simply by writing a document—a brilliant framework though I think it to be. Perhaps even more importantly, they did it by their example. When George Washington resigned as general from the Continental Army and went back to Mount Vernon, he showed his countrymen—indeed, some would say the world—that the best way to have and keep power it to give it away. No-one had tried that before Washington. No-one had trusted people that much. But he did and it worked and some of our best leaders are doing it to this day.
And that’s not the only way in which the Founders’ example has shaped our nation and our politics. Gordon Woods records, for example, that Alexander Hamilton often had to stop his political career to “see to his affairs.” Remember this was a time when gentlemen were not supposed to get financial rewards for their public service and, indeed, British MPs would not get a salary until 1911. By this example, men of modest means showed us that government service is supposed to be a burden and that men of modest means could still serve.
Thus, even though government servants do draw a salary these days, it is, according to most studies, 11 to 12 percent less than comparable private sector pay. This is quite different from the situation in Europe where public sector salaries, according to an EU report, outpace private sector salaries.
So by their framework of government and by their example, the Founders helped create a government and society that was democratic, fearful of government, having expectations of the public sector that are unique, and a government in which everyone can participate.
So there is a good reason to look to the Founders. They after all started us on this journey to a more perfect union.