A Lot Like Us

Author Richard Brookhiser and NEH Chairman Bruce Cole discuss the modern sensibilities of America's Founders.

HUMANITIES, January/February 2007, Volume 28, Number 1


Politics haven't changed that much from the earliest days of the Republic to today, writer Richard Brookhiser tells NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. Brookhiser has written six books on the founding period, among them biographies of Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris. His most recent is WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDERS DO?

Bruce Cole: You're a distinguished historian as well as a commentator and columnist. How did you get to be both of those and how do you divide up your time?

Richard Brookhiser: I started off as a political journalist. I was a summer intern at National Review in 1976, and then went to work there. I'm still there, so there's not a lot of turbulence in that part of my career. I started with history in the 1990s. My first book was a look at the '84 presidential campaign; it was called The Outside Story because I had a notion that what's important is not what the insiders do on the inside, it's what the candidates and their supporters say on the outside.

Then I wrote The Way of the WASP, which was trying to figure out who white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were and what they had done for and to America over the years.

I was trying to think of a third book and having trouble coming up with a good idea. My agent, Michael Carlisle, said, write me a list of ten ideas. I came up with a list and then my wife, Jeanne Safer, said "Why don't you add George Washington to that list, you have always admired him," so he became idea number eleven. Michael said that's the one I can sell and he did. Then, having gotten a contract, I was required to learn about my subject.

Cole: I know there are a lot of historians who comment on politics, but you did it the other way. What did that bring to historical writing?

Brookhiser: You know what politics is like and what politicians do and how they behave. You know how politics works, you know what the deal is, you know what the stab in the back is, you know what waiting the other guy out until he makes a mistake is, because you see X, Y, and Z and all the contemporary people doing that. I think well of the Founding Fathers—I admire them, I think they were great men-but they were also politicians. Part of their greatness is to have accomplished great things through the means of politics, but they do use the means that your governor and your Congressman and their opponents use. When you see Thomas Jefferson stabbing someone in the back, maybe you are better able to see that, having written about the last election

Cole: What do you think the Founders would think about this past year's election?

Brookhiser: They would be pleased that the tone of politics was better than the tone of politics in their day, that since the 1790s and the 1800s we've become less partisan and less rancorous, more civilized.

Cole: It's hard for people to understand, isn't it?

Brookhiser: I know, but I tell people this all the time. If you really want to see hardball stuff, if you want to see eye gouging and ear biting you have to look at the 1790s and the following decade, the 1800s, and it really goes right through the end of the War of 1812. Part of it is that everything was brand new. It was all brand new.

Cole: Thinking about what you just said about how less rigorous and bitter and eye gouging it is now—even back to Lincoln's 1864 election and you look at what their opponents were saying at each other—we're really tame.

Brookhiser: I think we are getting back toward Founders' levels of rancor, but I don't believe we're there yet.

Cole: The Founders were great thinkers but also politicians, and I think that's part of what makes them interesting, just as their failures make them interesting.

Brookhiser: This is how they get power and this is how they accomplish whatever it is they have at heart. That's one of the continuities in our history. We are constantly checking things out with the Founding Fathers and the main reason probably is that they are recognizably like modern politicians. Yes, a lot has changed, but they are getting power by being elected or being appointed by people who have been elected.

George Washington as a young man uses the sort of climb-up-the-backstairs techniques that people use in English novels of the eighteenth centuryflatteryknowing that my Lord so-and-so was the colonial governor of Massachusetts. There is a charming letter that Washington writes as a young militia officer, and he says, "Do not think, my Lord, that I am going to flatter!" I think he even puts an exclamation point on it, which is the sure sign of insincerity. "My Lord, I am not a flatterer!" Well, of course you are. Not to say that there is no flattery in Washington these days.

Cole: The Founders realized, didn't they, that this is not a perfected democracy and these are ideas that evolve and are always being tested?

Brookhiser: They did know that it was experimental and they thought it could fail. That was a very real possibility.

Cole: We look back and we think that that's impossible because we know how it turned out. But there was a great deal of uncertainty.

Brookhiser: First, they could have lost the war. There was this burst of optimism after the British left Boston in 1776—foolish optimism as it turned out because the war was very grim and very long. Then, once we were independent, were we going to be crushed by our debts? You have delegates to the Constitutional Convention—Alexander Hamilton at one point and Elbridge Gerry at another-and they are saying if we fail, the cause of republican government will be lost and disgraced forever.

You can read that and think, "What are these guys talking about?" They are in Philadelphia, a small city, and they are saying that what they are doing is going to have these eternal consequences. The world wasn't paying attention to them. On the other hand, you can see how much was right about what they were saying. The last republics were ancient classical ones that were long gone or a few European examples and some of those had just disappeared. They were doing something new and all by themselves and they were right to think that a lot rode on it.

Another reason why we should care about the Founders is that they maintain a high standard of thinking, speaking, and writing. When they argue a question, they are apt to do it in a way that is interesting and provocative and well said, even when they are wrong. Even those who are wrong are likely to say something that will force you to think about it. Not to say that they can't be demagogic, because they certainly can be, but nevertheless there are high profits to engaging with these guys because they will keep you on your toes.

Cole: Who of the Founders do you think comes across as the most contemporary thinker?

Brookhiser: You could imagine, say, Franklin just slipping right into electronic media. He would love it; he would get it, he would have a blog on Day Two. He has the qualities of a good journalist. He can write short, he can write simply. He can write tight and he can be very funny and he has a great straight face and those will always sell. And you could imagine Hamilton going right to Wall Street. "This is great, show me the numbers, what's rocking and rolling. I want to know, I want to understand this."

Cole: How about Jefferson?

Brookhiser: Jefferson could come up with slogans for someone's political campaign. He'd be the big idea man. He could be the Ted Sorenson or somebody, only possibly even better.

Cole: He could write good speeches obviously.

Brookhiser: Even though he didn't like to speak, he hated speaking, himself. But he had that eloquence. I think they would all be pleased by how large and how powerful the country has become. Washington uses the phrase "rising empire" over and over again. At first that's paradoxical because these are not monarchists—they are throwing off a king, and they don't establish another monarchy in its place, but they did appear to think you can have an imperial country with republican institutions.

Cole: Expansion was always part of this, wasn't it?

Brookhiser: With almost all of them. One of the few who feared to expand westward was Gouverneur Morris. He didn't want Louisiana. He didn't want to go west of the Mississippi. He thought having powerful, hostile neighbors would be a good check on our own internal squabbling. That's a rare view. The rest of them just expected to roll for the Pacific. Jefferson thought we would get Canada and Cuba at the beginning of the War of 1812. He said capturing Canada will be a "mere matter of marching."

Cole: He had questions about the Constitution though, didn't he?

Brookhiser: As it was being written, he was in Paris, so he was seeing it from afar. He wasn't alarmed by the great event which alarmed so many of his peers back in America, which was Shays's Rebellion. It was this uprising of farmers crushed by debt and taxes in central and western Massachusetts. Massachusetts was trying to pay off its debts as a state and the way it did this was by raising land taxes. These people were just being foreclosed right and left. There was this armed uprising against the courts. Jefferson looking at it from across the Atlantic, said, look, the people always have to show that they maintain the "spirit of resistance."

Cole: He liked all that, right?

Brookhiser: He didn't see the necessity for a new constitution as acutely. He had some doubts about what he heard was being done, but he listened to Madison. Madison was his younger friend, his protégé and also in some ways his mentor.

Jefferson was the visionary. Madison was the more practical thinker. Jefferson was up there like the Goodyear blimp-that's an image of Joe Ellis's-hovering about our politics like a dirigible. Madison was the guy with the guy-wire holding it to earth and giving it tugs from time to time. Jefferson almost always responded to Madison's critiques. He used him as his sounding board and his reality check.

Cole: You spoke about Morris and the idea that the hostile powers were keeping the republic in check. The early republic had to deal with a lot of external threats, pirates for example, pretty much on a global scale. They did that effectively.

Brookhiser: Many of them had a very realistic, even dark view of the world and of international relations. Hamilton's Federalist No. 6 was a catalog of human passions, which he said would never change. People are greedy, they are ambitious, they are stupid, and they are lustful. He goes through a whole list of things. In Federalist No. 6, he says "is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a 'golden age'" and from thinking that we live in the "empire of perfect reason?'" He was trying to tell us fellow Americans, look, things can really go wrong in the world and there will be many times when we will have to deal with that.

New York had been attacked in 1776. The commander in chief then was George Washington. He had the responsibility for defending the city, and he got his tail kicked. The British drove him out and they sat here for seven-and-a-half years. A quarter of the city burned down and they put thousands of prisoners in ships in the East River.

Cole: Have you seen this new survey about history knowledge and civic knowledge in college and universities?

Brookhiser: Is it depressing news?

Cole: It's just more of it.

Brookhiser: I've seen many of these surveys over the years and it's like dog bites man, it's always the same thing: half the kids don't know what century World War II was in. There are all these horror-story pull quotes you can get from it. On the other hand, I have to approach this in an optimistic spirit. At least in terms of the founding period, you have 100 percent name recognition with a number of these men, and 90 percent favorable ratings. That's a good place to start. My job is to fill in the knowledge. But wouldn't you rather be starting with someone who is on every one-dollar bill, rather than someone whom no one has ever seen?

Cole:Well, the name recognition is good. That's a start. Then there are these surveys of colleges and universities that show an alarming lack of knowledge. More people can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government.

I guess my point is the Founders may have name recognition, but students don't know much about them. You are getting generations and generations that are coming out with that lack of knowledge. On the other hand, the books you and other people are writing about Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison and the like are being read. So I think there is a break between what people are getting out of school and what they are being drawn towards when they are older.

Obviously the Founders have tremendous attraction. When did this all start?

Brookhiser: In the '90s you began seeing this explosion of books on the Founders and some of it was by academics who were able to write in an intelligible way, like Joe Ellis. Some of it was by people who weren't academics, but were turning their attention to it: There was me, David McCullough wrote his John Adams book, and Ron Chernoff, a little later with his Alexander Hamilton book. There was a convergence.

Cole: All this success breeds interest.

Brookhiser: I think people are interested in the Founders because they are ultimately like us. They are also not that remote from us, compared to Founders of other countries. We are not talking about Alfred the Great here.

Cole: Or Romulus and Remus.

Brookhiser: In my last book I show that it's five steps from me to the Revolution. When I was in college I heard Alger Hiss give a talk. He clerked for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes told President Lincoln "get down you damn fool" when Lincoln was inspecting a Civil War battlefield and Holmes was a young captain. Lincoln served in the House of Representatives, with former President John Quincy Adams, who heard the cannon from the battle of Bunker Hill in Braintree. That's just five steps.

Cole: One of your teachers at Yale was Garry Wills. Is that right?

Brookhiser: Yes, I was an English major at Yale and I took very few history courses, but one of the ones I did was with Garry Wills. I think he was at Johns Hopkins then. He would come up every other week and do a double seminar on Thomas Jefferson. I knew Garry Wills from National Review, which I had begun writing for when I was in high school.

Wills had worked for them and then he had left and had changed his political views. He was teaching this Jefferson course. He had a lot of interesting things to say about him, but he would also talk about Washington, sometimes as a stick to beat Jefferson with gently. He clearly loved George Washington and that's what first opened my eyes—what first told me there was a powerful story.

Cole: There are many good books about Washington and other political figures. I love your books because, among other things, they are concise. A really good book is about not only what you put into it, but what you leave out of it. In many ways, I think it is harder to write a shorter book than it is a longer one.

Brookhiser: The long book can be well done and there is a place for it, but too often it's just putting in everything you know. That can make for a monster.

Cole: I think if you are writing almost on any subject, because of the Internet and the access to knowledge, you are going to know more than somebody who was writing fifty years earlier.

Brookhiser: More and more material is coming online. You don't have to go to the library. When I was doing my last book, What Would the Founders Do? I noticed that Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England are online, Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights Of Woman is online, Cesare Beccaria's essay On Crimes and Punishments is online. These are not obscure eighteenth-century texts, but they are eighteenth-century texts.

Cole: It is interesting how you are able to manipulate material and to expand horizontally and dig down deeply.

Brookhiser: You can have all the access in the world and then it's a question as to what you do with it.

Cole: Exactly. It is interesting that the Founders' books that have the greatest success and are being read by most people aren't necessarily coming from academics any more.

Brookhiser: Like Walter Isaacson on Benjamin Franklin.

Cole: Like McCullough and a number of other people. You have any idea why that is?

Brookhiser: The history of the founding era has been pretty well taught for the last forty years at the highest academic levels. I think Bernard Bailyn and Edmund Morgan had a lot to do with this.

Cole: Gordon Wood.

Brookhiser: Bailyn and Morgan and Wood also looked at what was in these guys' heads and took it very seriously. My sense is that it is beginning to change, but that has been the reigning paradigm.

Cole: They have rescued these ideas, I think. They write well and they are interested in a synthetic view of history, rather than slicing and dicing and working in only some micro part of it. These are the people who have stayed with the large issues of how this country got started and why.

Brookhiser: Many of those large issues are still marching on.

Cole: With your new book, I would guess people call you up and ask all kinds of questions about what the Founders would do. How detailed does it get?

Brookhiser: Half the questions are things that I would anticipate that are in the book, but there are always surprises. One of the most surprising and really a very good question, a very deep question, was "what would the Founders think of celebrities?" I took a breath.

Cole: That's a tough one.

Brookhiser: It's a good question. I started saying that many of the Founders were celebrities, and I guess they would be surprised at what sorts of people are also celebrities today—not just generals and political leaders and the occasional great evangelist, but also entertainers and athletes and so on. Then I remembered that when Jefferson and Adams were old men, Adams wrote a letter to Jefferson about the five pillars of aristocracy. He said, they were birth, wealth, beauty, genius, and virtue, and then he said, and this is the John Adams twist, any one of the first three—birth, wealth, and beauty—could always overwhelm both of the last two.

He would understand Britney Spears. He would slot her or any other movie star or entertainer into the beauty slot. You would have to explain a few things to him, but he would get the big picture right away.

Cole: That's very funny. Of course, there are lots of celebrities. An aristocrat is someone that is born to privilege.

Brookhiser: When we say aristocrat we think of an old family, so that's one of the categories. That's one way you get it.

The Adamses become a sort of republican family of aristocratic birth, but then he adds these other categories.

Cole: Your commentary and your columns are not just about the Founders and about politics—I read your last one on gardening. I thought that was terrific.

Brookhiser: Well thank you.

Cole: It was beautifully written. I never thought I could read anything poetic about beans, I've got to tell you.

Brookhiser: If you grow beans for a summer, they are amazing. Pole beans—once they start shooting up a pole you understand "Jack and the Beanstalk," you absolutely understand it. These little guys, they would go up to the sky if they could, that is just what they want to do.

Cole: What would the Founders think about pole beans? [laughter]

Brookhiser: Jefferson was a great gardener.

Cole: Have you written on gardening often?

Brookhiser: No, but I write a column in National Review every other issue, every four weeks. Most of them are called "City Desk," and they are about life in the city. Then I realized we have a house in the Catskills, and I was spending weekends there, and so some of them are called "Country Life."

Cole: What are you up to now? What about another book? Brookhiser: I was just talking to my publisher. It's going to be George Washington's Art of Leadership.

Cole: Well, I wish you well with it, and thank you for taking time to talk with me.

Brookhiser: A pleasure.