Henningsen: Our disappointed founders

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(HOST) As we prepare to celebrate our independence, teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen reminds us that the system of government we have today isn’t exactly what the Founders intended.

(HENNINGSEN) Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4th, 1826 – the fiftieth anniversary of American independence.  Anticipating the celebration, each issued a final public statement giving ringing testimony to the significance of the American Revolution.  But public statements don’t always reflect private thoughts. The sad truth is that Jefferson, Adams, and many of their contemporaries died disillusioned with the consequences of their revolution.

They’d intended to create a republic – a system of government in which wise, impartial custodians of public virtue ruled in the public interest.  But they based their revolution on ideals of human equality, equality of opportunity, and the notion that ultimate power to govern rests with the people at large. And those ideas inspired the people at large to join in, transforming an 18th century republic into a democracy, which wasn’t what the framers had in mind.   
Before his death, George Washington complained that there was no longer room for gentlemen in politics, when a party could "set up a broomstick" as a candidate, call it "a true son of Liberty" or a "Democrat" or anything else to suit their purpose, and the broomstick would "command their votes in toto."

Alexander Hamilton called the people "A great beast" and regarded democracy as a poison – essentially mob rule. 
As he watched the ascendancy of ideas and people he loathed, Hamilton wrote, "Every day proves to me more and more, that this American world was not made for me."

Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration, had anticipated an American enlightenment, but saw the country’s affairs falling "into the hands of the young and ignorant and needy."  "We are indeed," he wrote John Adams in 1812, "a bebanked, a bewhiskied, and a bedollared nation."  Rush burned the notes and documents he’d saved to write a history of the American Revolution.

Adams responded in kind:  "Where is now, the progress of the human Mind?  .  .  .  When?  Where? and How? is the present Chaos to be arranged into order?"

Thomas Jefferson hated what he saw developing – an America of speculation, paper money, banks, and renewed emphasis on evangelical religion.  It was a world of small men grubbing over small issues – not the departed giants of his youth.  "All, all dead", he wrote in 1825, "and ourselves left alone amidst a new generation whom we know not, and who knows not us."

Jefferson and the others were truly men of an 18th century elite, who deplored the emerging democracy that had overtaken the republic they planned.  It’s useful to remember that we celebrate an unintended consequence of their revolution.  That may sound depressing, but it shouldn’t.  The real revolution the Founders launched was one of ideas: ideas of equality that remain revolutionary – and worth celebrating.

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