Damnable Deficient

Colin Kidd

  • 1776: America and Britain at War by David McCullough
    Allen Lane, 386 pp, £25.00, June 2005, ISBN 0 7139 9863 6

Their resolve fortified by the sturdy civic virtue of Cato and Brutus, and their idea of republican self-government indebted to Greco-Roman models, the founders of American independence deferred to the authority of the ancients, even as they embarked on a revolutionary political experiment. George Washington, for example, identified himself with Cato of Utica, whom the 18th-century British knew best through the medium of Addison’s popular tragedy Cato (1713). Lines from the play found their way into Washington’s letters and speeches, and, in defiance of Congressional resolutions against the attendance of public officials at plays, he had Cato performed at Valley Forge to inspire his troops. By inclination a foxhunting man, he was the least bookish of the leading founders, many of whom were much more deeply immersed in the classics. The selfless Cincinnatus, the reforming Solon, Cicero in his defence of the republican constitution – these were the cynosures of virtuous conduct for the founding generation.

Over two centuries later, today’s Americans display a similar reverence for the founding era itself. The generation of 1776-87 provides an unattainable benchmark for public virtue, political wisdom, statesmanship and heroism. Politicians and intellectuals – especially on the right – appear to regard Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and John Adams as the American equivalents of Plato, Aristotle, Cato and Brutus, while the wider culture acknowledges the near-superhuman qualities of the men of 1776. The founders in their periwigs, breeches and frockcoats hold a secure place in the popular iconography of American freedom, alongside comic-book heroes in capes and tights. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, a federalist president who failed to secure re-election, has sold two million copies since it was published in 2001.

For all its sentimental and antiquarian dimensions, the cult of the founders has damaging political consequences. In particular, abject deference to the constitutional machinery devised in 1787, whose murky compromises are underacknowledged, tends to thwart the popular will and to stymie reformist impulses. Democrats proper, who have woken up in recent years to the dangers inherent in the electoral college, the equal representation of states – whether populous or empty – in the Senate and the judicial review of federal and state legislation, see little possibility of amending a venerated constitution. However, a few bold voices have questioned the infantile subservience of 21st-century citizens to 18th-century political solutions, foremost among them Robert Dahl in his devastating audit of the American political system, How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2002).

Dahl’s attempt to stir Americans from their cultic attachment to the founders is more than matched, however, by the efforts of conservatives to pickle the 18th century. The Federalist Society, named in honour of the Federalist Papers (1787-88) published by Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, is a conservative law society dedicated to upholding with unswerving rigidity the original intent of the constitution’s founders. By 1998, the Society had around five thousand student members at 145 law schools, as well as fifteen thousand practising lawyers in local chapters across the country, including the independent prosecutor in the Whitewater-Lewinsky affair, Ken Starr, who was a member of the elite James Madison Club for major donors to the Society. When Hillary Clinton ‘imagined’ a vast right-wing conspiracy, the Federalist Society can’t have been far from her thoughts.

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