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Barone: Give thanks to the founders

By Michael Barone - | Nov 26, 2023

Michael Barone

There’s plenty to be thankful for this Thanksgiving season — at least if you take your eyes off a presidential race in which most voters want to reject both candidates with big leads for their parties’ nomination and in which international news is dominated by Hamas’ atrocities against Israel and Russia’s destructive invasion of Ukraine.

Put in historical perspective, these woes are far from the most challenging that Americans have faced, and we do so with a frame of government and a capacity for resilience and adaptability that few, if any, other countries can match. These advantages, to a large extent, derive from those who came before us and none more than the Founding Fathers who prosecuted the American Revolution and shepherded the young republic through its stormy early years.

I have a stake in this claim, for next week marks the publication of my book “Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America’s Revolutionary Leaders.” It is, as the subtitle suggests, a discussion of the different geographic orientations of six of the founders, operating as they were at a time when the geography of most of North America and the boundaries of the new nation were unknown.

I wrote this book because I have always been fascinated by maps, and I wanted to learn more about the founders from the wonderful biographies and histories that have been written about them over the last long generation. In researching and writing it, I was struck by two things.

One was how much the founders were aware of the cultural variety of the 13 colonies that declared themselves an independent nation and devised a constitution that held them together. Many today speak as if the United States has just recently become diverse. The founders knew otherwise and attempted to construct a limited government that would leave room for (to use historian David Hackett Fischer’s term) different folkways while providing enough unity to protect against foreign attack.

My second observation was how contingent the success of the Revolution and the new republic were. If the flap of a butterfly’s wings can change the weather a thousand miles away, there were many small and far from inevitable events in, say, 1755, 1775, 1786 or 1803 that proved essential to how things worked out. If they had not happened, North America and the world would not exist as they do today.

If Lord Fairfax, the proprietor of a vast tract of Virginia between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, had not in 1748 hired the 16-year-old George Washington to survey his lands west of the Blue Ridge, would Washington have been entrusted to his mission to help repel the French from the forks of the Ohio River six years later? And without that military experience, would the Second Continental Congress have unanimously appointed him commander of the Continental Army in 1775?

Another commander might not have combined Washington’s daring at Trenton and perseverance in Valley Forge or, more importantly, might not have resigned his military command after the British surrender. Washington’s determination to honor the constitutional limits on his power as president, and to retire after two terms to his farm at Mount Vernon, set precedents in the absence of which American history at various junctures may have taken other, direr courses.

Readers today may find his 18th-century prose awkward. But without his almost entirely silent presence in the chair at the Constitutional Convention, it’s unlikely that the Constitution would have been ratified. And would another first president have had the confidence to appoint two cabinet members as brilliant and contrary-minded as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson? Could another first president have kept the new nation neutral in a world war between revolutionary France and mercantile Britain?

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson accurately predicted that in 100 years, the American republic would have more people than Britain. Washington expected America to become a continental power. Hamilton pushed for the United States to become a naval power, and his adversary Jefferson ordered the navy to the Mediterranean to subdue the Barbary pirates.

In a recent New York Times article, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein notes that liberals — his definition includes most of today’s Republicans and Democrats — have for years defended “republican self-government; checks and balances; freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; due process of law; equal protection; private property.”

That’s a good list of what the founders fought for and wrote on parchment in the storm-tossed years from 1776 to 1791. The founders in their wigs and knee breeches may seem unfamiliar today, but they gave us much to be thankful for — and to foster — through this Thanksgiving week and many Thanksgivings to come.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. His new book, “Mental Maps of the Founders: How Geographic Imagination Guided America’s Revolutionary Leaders,” will be released Nov. 28.

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