By Lawrence W. Reed
What Would the Founders Do? (WWtFD).
Now that’s something I’d like to see on a bumper sticker on every car in America! In these crazy times of government-mandated lockdowns and spending binges and debt explosions, a country begun by the most extraordinary generation in history ought to take a moment and ponder that question.
Today’s “progressives” (a misnomer by several orders of magnitude) generally turn their noses up at the mere mention of “the Founders.” They magnify the imperfections of men like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Adams and denigrate their contributions.
For example: Woodrow Wilson, America’s 28th president and a progressive icon, chafed at the restrictions the Constitution placed upon the exercise of power. Separation of powers, checks and balances, and the like were obstacles to his ambitions for activist government. He once declared that “the only fruit of dividing power had been to make it irresponsible.”
Just as the progressive San Francisco school board painted over an old mural of George Washington at a local high school, those of a similar persuasion want to blot out the Founders from textbooks and public discussion.
Progressives assess the Founding generation not by the customs of that day but through the lens of today’s progressive agenda: concentrated power wielded by an aristocracy steeped in know-it-all arrogance, stifling political correctness, self-righteous virtue-signaling, and cosmic ignorance of both human nature and economics. If that’s your perspective, you can’t help but see the likes of Jefferson as antiquated and irrelevant, as obstacles to be brushed aside. Progressives seek to restore the powers of the State that America’s Founders boldly stripped away, which makes progressivism profoundly regressive—a throwback to more or less the 14th Century.
I see this often and vividly in the comments section of my Facebook page posts. When I quote Jefferson, a progressive or two will denounce the man as if he personified evil. “He held slaves!” To which I usually respond thusly:
He was not perfect. His middle name wasn’t God. He was a product of the 18th Century and he helped mightily to put the world on a new and better path. Can you confidently say that if you had been born in 1743, you would have accomplished as much good as Jefferson, that you would have been a paragon of virtue? I’m guessing that if you live to be 100, you will not bless the cause of human liberty with even half what the man from Monticello gave us toward that end—not to mention science, law, letters, architecture, education and philosophy. So cool your jets, Beethoven.
Epidemics are not a 21st-century thing. The men and women of early America dealt many times with extensive and deadly diseases—including smallpox, cholera, measles, and yellow fever. They were well aware of the bubonic plague that came before and would visit again. While I wouldn’t pretend to know what the men and women of Washington’s day might prescribe for a coronavirus response in ours, it’s fair to say they believed statism to be no cure for anything—and in fact, to be a mortal danger itself and deadlier than any pathogen.
None of the crafters of the Constitution would ever stoop to approach legislation the way our progressive Speaker of the House once did (“We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it”).
The Founders would be among the first to tell you they didn’t possess all the answers to everything. But they were confident that a free people would eventually come up with better answers than corrupt elites, some of whom appear to frolic in their own edicts (Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is Exhibit A).
To the Bill of Rights, Madison never suggested adding such language as “weather permitting” or “if it’s convenient” or “pending executive approval” or “unless otherwise over-ridden for a variety of special purposes and good intentions.” He and the others at the Constitutional Convention knew that future power lusters would gladly drive a 20-mule team straight through such loopholes.
At the very minimum, the Founders would, to borrow from my essay “A Nation’s True Test Comes After the Crisis,” “judge the leadership and character of those in power by how quickly they get off our backs, out of our pockets, and out of our way when the crisis has passed” and assess most harshly “those who use the situation to enshrine the state as our master.”
The Founders themselves aren’t available for consultation but their words of warning and wisdom still are. Here’s a selection worth your time and consideration. You the reader can decide their value in present circumstances. Remember that those men and women endured hardships and challenges just as existentially serious as any we’ve experienced. They put much thought into what they did because at certain times, their very lives depended upon it. It’s never a useless exercise to hear them out:
- “The accumulation of all powers—legislative, executive and judicial—in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” – James Madison, 1787
- “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country by their conduct and example to decide the important question—whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” – Alexander Hamilton, 1787
- “You should no longer piddle at the threshold. It is time to leap into the theatre to unlock the bars, and open every gate that impedes the rise and growth of the American republic.” – Mercy Otis Warren, 1775.
- “They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin, 1759
- “Honor, justice and humanity forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1775
- “I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature; and that power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and like the grave, cries, “Give, give!” The great fish swallow up the small; and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government.” – Abigail Adams, 1775
- “An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1813
- “The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” – James Madison, 1829
- “Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.” – James Madison, 1792
- “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” – Alexander Hamilton, 1775
- “The liberties of our Country, the freedom of our civil constitution, are worth defending at all hazards. It is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have received them as a fair Inheritance from our worthy Ancestors. They purchased them for us with toil and danger and expense of treasure and blood; and transmitted them to us with care and diligence. It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy on the present generation, enlightened as it is, if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle; or be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men. Of the latter we are in most danger at present. Let us therefore be aware of it. Let us contemplate our forefathers and posterity; and resolve to maintain the rights bequeathed to us from the former, for the sake of the latter.” – Samuel Adams, 1771
- “Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interest, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.” – Thomas Paine, 1776
- “No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.” – George Mason, 1776
- “America has fought for the boon of liberty…[G]uard it on every side that it might not be sported away by the folly of the people or the intrigue or deception of their rulers.” – Mercy Otis Warren, 1805.
Lawrence W. Reed is President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Ambassador for Global Liberty at the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also author of “Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction” and “Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism”.