Where the Founding Fathers Would Stand Today

They might be horrified by aspects of our politics, but they would still join in and give as good as they got.

People sometimes ask what the Founding Fathers would think of American politics today, or where they would come down on particular policy questions. It’s a speculative exercise; we can’t know. But we can take some educated guesses about where individual Founders would have stood today based on their personalities, their philosophies, and their biographies.

Of course, we begin with a demographic disclaimer: By “Founding Fathers” here I mean generally the leaders of the American Revolution and those who made and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. All of them were men. All of them were white. Almost all of them were well-off. Almost all of them were married heads of families. None of them were openly gay. Almost all of them were products of, and lived all or most of their lives on, the Atlantic coast. Almost all of them were Anglo-Saxon in ethnic origin and Protestant in religion. Some of them had college degrees, while many others were almost entirely self-educated; nearly none had post-graduate degrees, as there were almost no post-graduate institutions in the colonies. Add those factors together, and you get a demographic profile that today would lean heavily Republican.

Let’s consider a handful of the most prominent Founders:

George Washington: Washington, one of the richest men in America in the prime of his life, was a deeply conservative figure, and also a vigorous nationalist. His conservatism — his respect for social order, tradition, religion, virtue, and strict adherence to the original, written Constitution — served him well in most instances. It helped him to lead a revolution that defended traditional liberties without overthrowing the structure of his society. On the downside, his conservatism tended to keep him from turning his moral qualms about slavery into action.

When I say that Washington was a nationalist, of course, I mean that he promoted the nationalism of his time. The nationalist impulse takes multiple different forms. Washington was a great exponent of unifying nationalism, seeing a strong (but limited) national government as a blessing to all Americans. He was also, along with Benjamin Franklin, one of the earliest and most enthusiastic exponents of the western expansion and settlement of the new nation.

Washington despised political parties. Given his deep conservatism, I have little doubt that Washington, if he lived today, would be a Republican. Would he really be a Donald Trump Republican? The question misses an important point: any party, faction, or group that George Washington joined would immediately be led by George Washington. He was that kind of man. Trump, like any other Republican, would follow him.

John Adams: Figures of the 18th century are always a bit dicey to translate into an entirely different world. But no American Founder is easier to imagine in today’s politics: John Adams would be John McCain. Like McCain, Adams was squat, verbose, witty, sarcastic, combative, and more persistent than diplomatic. (“Sit down, John!” could have been written about either of them.) Adams and McCain were both figures of the center-right who loved their country deeply but feuded incessantly with the major figures in their own parties. Adams destroyed his party by the end of a single term in the White House; it is possible that McCain, if he’d been elected in 2008, might have done the same. Both men were driven by intense patriotism, a strong sense of personal honor, and an occasional attraction to quixotic causes; both were also vain, self-righteous, and prone to being guided by their many personal grudges. Both men were devoted advocates of naval power, but too easily tempted to use federal legislation against political speech.

To be sure, Adams and McCain had their differences. Adams was every inch the lawyer, and deep enough philosophically that Russell Kirk identified him as America’s first consequential conservative thinker. McCain was a warrior by temperament and training, a combat pilot who was always a quick thinker but never a deep one. Their views on immigration were quite different, as well — but then again, if McCain had been president in an era when his political and media critics were inspired by foreign ideas, it is hard to be sure that he would not have signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. In any event, if you dropped John Adams into the Senate of the 21st century, his politics, accomplishments, enemies, and media coverage would look very much like those of John McCain.

(As an aside, Abigail Adams would very much have been a vigorous public political figure today in her own right, perhaps disagreeing with her husband on some issues but nonetheless fiercely loyal to him and venomous towards his many enemies.)

Thomas Jefferson: The founder of what became the Democratic Party (known then as the Republicans, and later as the Democratic-Republicans) would seem, at first glance, impossibly out of step with today’s version of his party, which is actively purging him from its memory. Jefferson was a slaveholder who believed in an agrarian nation. He was the seminal theorist of states’ rights. A man with his political principles today would probably be a member of some eccentric sect — say, the Libertarian Party or the Constitution Party.

But to judge Jefferson by his principles is to miss the man. Even in his own time, Jefferson’s principles were malleable, adapting to circumstance. As much as Jefferson’s ideals have been influential in shaping America, a picture of Jefferson transplanted to the 21st century would place greater weight on his personality.

Jefferson’s personality and self-image was that of a sophisticate, an intellectual, a Francophile, a university founder. He lived on a plantation, but unlike Washington, he bent comparatively little of his formidable intellect towards the commercial improvement of his land; he was more interested in the architecture. He was, of course, famously enamored of the French Revolution, for a good while after it was prudent to be. He was swept away by periodic intellectual enthusiasms, and liked the idea of beginning the world anew.

Had Jefferson been on Twitter, he would have regularly been roasted for tweeting things that contradicted what he’d tweeted previously.

Benjamin Franklin: Franklin was a sardonic newspaperman in the prime of his life, who only later in life got personally involved in politics. Today, Franklin would almost certainly be a fixture in print and on cable-TV roundtables, dishing out droll, cutting one-liners. Franklin’s temperament would never have been suited to a role as a partisan mouthpiece, and he, too, enjoyed the respect of European intellectuals; I suspect he would have maneuvered himself into a position independent of the two major parties.

Alexander Hamilton: Hamilton was very much a conservative in terms of his values and a rigorous thinker, although Kirk faults him for failing to anticipate how his ambitious vision of an America of finance, industry, and nationalism would come into conflict with the faith and order that underlay his principles. In outlook and temperament as well as in his programs, Hamilton was a natural Wall Street type. He might have been a zealous pro-lifer in today’s issue environment, in recognition of his illegitimate birth, but then, he was also a womanizer.

Hamilton today would probably be a Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan Republican, perhaps after surviving a dalliance with Rubinomics in the 1990s. A natural elitist and meritocrat, he would doubtless have disliked the populist, anti–Wall Street turn of the Republicans under Trump, but he was also an inveterate climber who might easily have reconciled himself to Trumpism if he thought that was necessary to advance his position.

James Madison: Madison is, in some ways, the hardest of the major Founders to picture in today’s politics. He was physically small and quiet, and he was naturally inclined to be ideological more than political — although, as Jay Cost’s recent biography notes, he was in many ways America’s first partisan politician. Unlike his friend and mentor Jefferson, Madison would likely not have been a Democrat in today’s world. Indeed, he even had major differences with the direction of the party in his own lifetime, supporting Henry Clay over Andrew Jackson in 1832. I tend to think that Madison today would be a judge rather than a politician, at home at gatherings of the Federalist Society that today uses his likeness as its icon and insisting — now as then — upon the strictest of readings of the Constitution.

Thomas Paine: Of all the Founders, the great pamphleteer is the easiest to picture as a modern progressive. Paine was a zealot, an avowed atheist who went to France to throw his lot in with the French Revolution even as it took on its increasingly Jacobin turn — a decision from which he barely escaped with his life. Paine’s actual politics were not nearly so radical as those of his ideological descendants, but his irreligious utopian streak would mark him today as a man of the Left.

One could go further down the list, of course. There were many other important Founders, and they ran the gamut in terms of their defenses of the established order, their desire for major change, their taste for rabble-rousing versus elitism, and their devotion to localism. But this much we know for sure: The Founders were not distant, marble statues; they were men whose deeply felt philosophical convictions were forged from practical experience. If they were alive today, they might be horrified by aspects of our politics, but they would still join in and give as good as they got.