America needs people like the Founding Fathers to deal with the problems of the 21st Century.
To clarify that statement, I’m not recommending that we adopt the ideology or values of the Founders. Instead, I think some of the Founders’ behavior is worth emulating. In particular, risk taking and the willingness to abandon traditions and challenge institutions.
The Founders challenged and overcame a corrupt political system – the British Empire. The Founders also made a successful break with history, traditions, ancient beliefs, and long-standing institutions.
Hence, the Founders were not Conservatives; they were radicals and revolutionaries. Ironically, many modern Conservatives glorify the Founders and the system they built.
Lessons we can learn from the Founders
The first behavior of the Founders we need to emulate is challenging and questioning power and authority.
The Founding Fathers questioned and challenged the most powerful polity on Earth the British Empire. In the late 18th Century, the British had the world’s most powerful and successful navy and army. The Royal Navy ruled the seas and British armies had conquered most of North America and large swathes of India.
Consequently, the Founders had no outside allies when they launched the American Revolution. No European power would recognize the United States until after the Battle of Saratoga in 1778. The French offered some secret help, including officers and arms, but refused to send an army until the Americans proved they could win on the battlefield.
Moreover, wealthy British corporations; such as the British East India Company, dominated the American economy. Hence, Americans who challenged British power had no friends and could face poverty.
The Founders succeeded through the simple act of challenging authority and power. Similarly to Gandhi, the Founders’ first success was to challenge the moral legitimacy of the British Empire. Just challenging authority gave the Founders enormous credibility with many European intellectuals who began pressuring the French Court to recognize the United States.
Hence, the most important lesson modern reformers need to learn from the Founders is to challenge the legitimacy of power. History shows you can defeat a corrupt system by exposing its corruption or questioning the basis of its power.
One way the Founders discredited the British Empire was to expose its absurdity. In particular, Thomas Paine’s popular book Common Sense mocked the Empire and the ideology behind it. For instance, Paine wrote how absurd it was for an island to govern a vast territory such as the United States.
Similarly, modern reformers could delegitimatize the current US status quo by exposing its racism, inequality, and corruption. In addition, reformers could imitate Paine by publicizing the absurdities in America’s political system.
For example, the belief in a wise and all powerful US Supreme Court and US Senate. Or the absurdity of a Senator who represents the 1.792 million people West Virginia having the power to make law for the 333 million people of the United States.
Break with Tradition
The American Revolution represents one of the most radical breaks with the past in human history.
For instance, almost all the world’s governments in the late 18th Century were monarchies. Every major nation in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, the Chinese Empire, the Persian Empire, Japan, the Mughal Empire in India, and most of the African states were absolute monarchies.
The only republics in the late 18th Century were a small states such as Venice, the Netherlands, and San Marino. Moreover, the popular wisdom in the late 18th Century was that democracy would never work. The popular belief, based on Roman history, was that all republics would eventually collapse and become monarchies.
Hence, the Founders rejected most of Europe’s philosophy and ideology. The Founders were rejecting centuries of scholarship, theology, philosophy, ideology, history, politics, and tradition by founding a republic. The prevailing wisdom was that republics would not work.
In addition, the Founders upended centuries of legal tradition by creating a written Constitution. Instead of government by fiat based on the word of a monarch or Pope, there was a document anybody could read and interpret.
Thus, the Founding Fathers created a new kind of nation state. One based on a legal compact between the people and the leaders. That was a radical break from the prevailing belief that a nation state was based on an individual, or a family, anointed by God or the Gods.
Be Willing to Change
The willingness to change and break with tradition sets the Founders apart from most leaders.
One example of that willingness to change was the risk a small group of men led by George Washington took when they proposed a new constitution and system of government for the nation. The Founders at the Constitutional Convention threw out the entire system of government the Continental Congress created, and proposed a new order.
In contrast, today’s American leaders are afraid to abandon a few questionable rules such as the filibuster or the nine-member limit for Supreme Court justices. Instead, so-called leaders mindlessly worship tradition and turn institutions into idols we must grovel before.
Instead of seeing the absurdity and challenging it. These people glorify the system and worship it. Hence, most of America’s modern leaders are the equivalent of the loyalists who refused to abandon their oaths to King George III. Many of them left their homes rather than live under a new system.
How do we Get Radical Change?
Hence, we need people dedicated to radical change and smashing or abandoning institutions as the Founders did. Unfortunately, such people only appear in extraordinary times.
Historically, radical change only occurs in times of great stress or crisis. For example, the Founders only declared independence in the face of a British invasion of the colonies in 1776.
Similarly, America only created a modern welfare state in the face of the Great Depression. Comparatively, it took World War II to force the United Kingdom to build a welfare state and abandon imperialism.
Interestingly, the ideas behind the American and British welfare states of the 1930s and 1940s were not new or radical. There was nothing in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (D-New York) New Deal that was not in Theodore Roosevelt’s (R-New York) 1912 progressive Party Platform. Moreover, all the dramatic actions taken by Clement Attlee’s Labour government in the late 1940s came from proposals British reformers made decades earlier.
The difference was that catastrophes had overturned the political and economic orders. Much as the British invasion had overturned America’s political and economic order in 1776.
I have to wonder if the catastrophes unleashed by Climate Change, social media, and technological unemployment will force us to take such radical steps. Hopefully, people like the Founders will appear and guide America through those changes. Studying the Founders can help us identify such people and guide their behavior.