Incurious Bastards

More

I have belatedly come to "The Founding Fathers Reconsidered," a very good book written by R.B Bernstein and published last year by Oxford. Among his many other points, Bernstein points out that future icons Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Adams -- to name just a handful -- possessed not just an extraordinary sense of self-awareness but the rare intellectual and emotional rigor to keep the "long view" in sight.

"They linked in their minds their acute sense of being situated in historical time with their equally strong belief that theirs was a pivotal era in human history," Bernstein wrote."Their sense of firstness did not divorce them from the past nor from the future but rather intensified their connections with past or future." Even though they were capable of petty partisanship, begged off making tough choices (on slavery, for example) and left us an ambiguous (constitutional) text, the so-called "Fathers" had nothing if not foresight. It's no wonder we still compare them so favorably to our current crop of short-sighted political leaders. 

The "Fathers," Bernstein wrote, were animated by the following concept: "... If the age could identify natural laws binding God himself and His creation, perhaps other Enlightenment thinkers could identify, elucidate, and apply equally valid and binding natural laws regulating society, politics and government." No wonder the Constitution is so logical in so many ways. No wonder there was astonishing balance in its separations of power and its rights and responsibilities. No wonder it was as organic as it turned out to be.  

Alas, we live in no such curious and noble times. Our political discourse is polluted by the sort of garbage tossed the way of Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) this week by an anti-immigration zealot. Our airwaves are populated with snake-oil salesmen trying to make the complex look easy. The "philosophy" offered by popular modern-day political thinkers is embarrasingly simple or already rejected. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama, elected in part because of his campaign focus on the nation's long-term needs and goals, has been hammered by both the right and the left for the lack of a coherent vision.   

The "Fathers" aren't beloved today because they were such perceptive political philosophers and dogged Men of the Enlightenment. They are beloved today because their long view about America -- republicanism, democracy, separation of church and state, tension between power and press -- have been so successful for so long. And this is so, in part, because they were razor smart, and politically courageous, and eminently well-rounded, and brilliantly well-educated, and intellectually (if not personally) honorable, and curious about so much of the world.

Their legacy, therefore, shouldn't just serve as a goal for their legitimate successors-in-interest now in Washington or among the several states; it should serve as a badge of shame for the multitude of current elected officials and other political players who have fallen so short of the standard set so long ago. Read Bernstein's book if you can. It's both a reminder of how fallible the Founding Fathers were -- and yet how good they still look to us nearly a quarter of a millennium later.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

Just In