Founding Failures

Having studied American history (and taken more than a passing interest in American politics and culture) for so many years, it no longer surprises me how frequently the founding generation is wheeled out to justify policy from politicians of all stripes. One thing that does consistently amaze me, however, is the extent to which minor incidents from many years ago can suddenly be blown up into huge political controversies.

This is a trope employed by politicians and news media alike. In the last couple of weeks, The New Republic has pored over Rick Santorum’s essays as a political science student at Penn State in the hope of gaining some insight into his political journey. (For what it’s worth, if I’m ever up before a tenure committee, I hope I’m not judged on my undergraduate essays). Similarly, Marco Rubio has come in for criticism for having converted from Mormonism to Catholicism when he was thirteen. I wonder what’s next? “OBAMA THREW TOYS OUT OF PRAM AGED TWO”?

I find this journalistic trope all the more puzzling given the aforementioned veneration of the founding generation. For almost to a man, the Founding Fathers most frequently cited today had fairly major blemishes on their political records prior to their successes in the revolutionary era. George Washington’s astute military tactics proved crucial in defeating the British in the War of Independence. Yet I often wonder whether a Continental Congress in today’s world would have promoted someone whose overenthusiasm and naivete helped precipitate a world war between French and British Empires?

Or take Thomas Jefferson, a man who before 1800 seemed to have a poor sense of political timing. To put it lightly, he didn’t cover himself in glory as Governor of Virginia. He lost his chance to shape the Constitutional Convention through his service in Paris. And as Secretary of State, he was rather overshadowed by the Hamiltonians. In a 24-hour news cycle, I’m not convinced that he would have been a credible candidate in a Presidential election.

Even that most urbane of revolutionaries, Benjamin Franklin, lost his political antennae for a while in the 1760s. How else can we explain his support for instituting royal government in Pennsylvania just as the imperial crisis started brewing? Lest we forget, Philadelphia’s most contested election took place in 1764, resulting in Franklin being turned out of office (having previously been elected to the Assembly despite being in London).

My point, then, is fairly simple – people are human, and they get things wrong. The context of policies change, people learn from their mistakes. In some ways, it would be far more frightening to expect rigid ideological consistency through the course of a lifetime. Gordon Wood’s excellent article, asking if there is a ‘James Madison problem’, quite rightly makes the point that a political career spanning 30 years is hardly likely to cohere tightly, no matter how much we might find that useful if we want history to serve presentist purposes.

The title of the post is a deliberate wordplay. In one sense, it suggests that the leaders of the revolution may have been considered failures in today’s political climate, even as they made understandable missteps and about-turns as they grappled with the immense challenge of turning principles of popular sovereignty into stable institutions of government. But in another sense, it suggests that these ‘failures’ were also crucial in the Founders’ political development. The right to be wrong, and the freedom to experiment, and the ability to learn from mistakes, are crucial in the personal development of us all. When political debate prevents people from changing their mind or explaining context, we are all the poorer.

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About Ken Owen

Assistant Professor of History, University of Illinois at Springfield
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One Response to Founding Failures

  1. Some really interesting things to consider here.

    First, and a propos of nothing, only about ten people in the United States know what a “pram” is, and eight of those were born in the UK. But otherwise, yes, we’re not far from that.

    What’s interesting to me is that in each of the cases you describe above the FF in question knew that he’d blown it in some way during the period you described and each waged (or attempted to wage) a public relations campaign to fix the issue.

    So you have Washington’s report to Robert Dinwiddie about the encounter with Jumonville (with which Fred Anderson dramatically opens Crucible of War, in which he goes into classic CYA mode, asserting baldly that he acted only in self-defense, though he actually does a rather poor job of making the case.

    Jefferson hired Philip Freneau at the State Department as a way to support his publication of the National Gazette to help Jefferson wage battles against the Hamiltonians (to whatever effect).

    And Franklin of course was the consummate PR campaigner. After the 1764 debacle, he followed by showing tacit approval for the Stamp Act (oops!), but tried to make amends through the publication of his testimony before Parliament in February 1766.

    In any case, I certainly agree with your underlying point — I wouldn’t hold Rubio’s pre-teen experiences with Mormonism as something that should be a political liability, for a whole host of reasons. And I think we can actually learn much from thinking about how people reacted to career blunders in the eighteenth century.

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