Incurious Bastards

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.

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

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