A dozen years after H.W. Brands argued in The Atlantic that we pay too much deference to the Founding Fathers, “What would the Founders think?” is still a go-to invocation. In our collective imagination, the Founders tend to be reincarnated in modern-day America, capable of only one thought: “SMH.”
Here, for example, is a recent NASCAR ad by Parks and Rec's Nick Offerman suggesting that our bewigged forebears would look unkindly upon SMS and/or emoji (and possibly gluten-free diets):
This is also more-or-less the premise of a 2013 novel called The New Founders. And it’s a ubiquitous trope in opinion writing: Here’s Michael Shermer in TIME suggesting that the Founders would have frowned on the anti-vaccination movement.
In his September 2003 Atlantic story, Brands himself supposed that the Founders would have been dismayed by what they found in today’s U.S.
But what would have dismayed the Founders most, Brands said, is this very tendency to invoke them as referees in today’s debates:
In revering the Founders we undervalue ourselves and sabotage our own efforts to make improvements—necessary improvements—in the republican experiment they began. Our love for the Founders leads us to abandon, and even to betray, the very principles they fought for. … We agonize over ‘original intent’ as if what the Founders believed ought to determine the way we live two centuries later. They would have laughed, and then wept, at our timidity.
Brands made a compelling case that our reverence for the Founders is relatively novel. During the first 50 years of independence, as the electorate expanded, he said, it was the people—the soldiers of the revolution—who drew the most praise: “The common man came to the fore, and the old elites—including, after the fact, the Founders—lost ground commensurately.”