Editor’s Note: Joseph J. Ellis is the author of many works of American history, including the Pulitzer Prize winner “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” and “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson,” which won the National Book Award. His most recent book, “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution,” is out in paperback from Vintage Books. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Joseph J. Ellis: We wonder what Founding Fathers would have thought about Trump
The question is irresistible -- but misguided, Ellis says
He asks if Founders could have handled a female or African-American president?
Question: What would the Founding Fathers think of Donald Trump?
This is a loaded one, designed to elicit a comparison between now and then that contrasts the debased currency of our current politics with the gold standard of the founding generation.
The editors of The New Yorker have already answered the question with a cover on their February 1 issue, showing replicas of George Washington et al. reacting in mock horror at the cartoonish depiction of Trump. One can almost hear late-night comedians tossing off jokes about how our current presidential candidates demonstrate that Darwin got it exactly backward.
I’ve seen this movie before. When I was giving talks about my book “Founding Brothers” in 2001, audiences often asked why we had to choose between George Bush and Al Gore in 2000 when, 200 years earlier, voters could choose between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. I found myself saying that, if you knew how dirty the election of 1800 really was, the contrast between now and then would not be so dramatic.
This is not to mention the press coverage Jefferson received upon election about his relationship with his former slave, Sally Hemings, which made Bill Clinton’s dalliances with Monica Lewinsky seem like mere peccadilloes.
Don’t get me wrong. The presidential candidacy of Trump defies national comprehension, though the Republican establishment, for good reason, is not laughing. And I have devoted much of my professional career to recovering the founding generation as the most gifted and creative political leaders in American history, who have much to teach us.
That said, all efforts to transport them into our time zone are misguided, like trying to plant cut flowers, though the urge to do it is apparently irresistible.
Let’s try this together: What would Washington say about our invasion of Iraq? He would not know where Iraq is. Which of the Founders does Ronald Reagan most resemble? None of them. What would Benjamin Franklin say about the Affordable Care Act? Nothing, because he was already covered by Medicare.
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Or suppose we shift the questions. What would the Founders think about Hillary Clinton? Well, they were imbedded in a patriarchal world in which a woman’s right to vote, much less run for the presidency, was unimaginable.
Or, to push the point even further, what would they say about Barack Obama? That should provoke an interesting conversation, since few of the Founders believed that whites and blacks could live together in the same society once slavery was ended. On both of these scores they have more to learn from us than we from them.
One of their enduring legacies, which was awkward in their own day and is anachronistic in ours, is the Electoral College. I’m not sure whether it would help or hurt Trump’s cause, but I’m virtually certain the Founders would nod their approval if we dispensed with electoral votes and chose our presidents in a popular election.
Joseph J. Ellis is the author of many works of American history, including the Pulitzer Prize winner “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” and “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson,” which won the National Book Award. His most recent book, “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution,” is out in paperback from Vintage Books. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.