GORDON S. WOOD
Author, The Radicalism of the American Revolution; writing a book on Franklin
Franklin is the one founder who still has an immediate effect. People use him to justify the American dream. And immigrants still respond to this. This is a land of opportunity you come here with very little, and you can make it. And Franklin still offers this lesson.
He's sort of the original American Dream, even though he was one of the last of the revolutionaries to jump on board. He remained in England almost to the end. In 1775 he returns, and he's suspected of being a British spy. So he has a hard time making it as an American in his own lifetime. But after he dies he becomes the quintessential American.
Author of the children's book America: A Patriotic Primer
James Madison's ideas are almost in the air that we breathe. They are the DNA of our society. Every time we think about politics, we are thinking about a political system that was largely conceived by him and embodied by him in the Constitution. And when we speak out, we're calling upon the Bill of Rights, of which he was the principal author. And when we go to the church of our choice, we're fulfilling an ideal he was passionate about, which was that there would be no state religion in America. He's everywhere. So like other things that are everywhere, like air and DNA, we don't think about it very much. And so I like to call attention to Madison for his stunning accomplishment.
Director, Empower America
My guy is Madison, which is a little unusual. Most people you talk to, you'll get Jefferson or Adams now Adams is in fashion. Obviously, Washington is critical. But I've always been a Madison guy. I like a couple of things about him. He had a gift of chronic anonymity ... he would be in a meeting, and he was so nondescript and small, people wouldn't even notice he was there. But he would be directing the outcome of the meeting by his occasional comments. This is what he did all during the Philadelphia convention. And there's a quote I think it's John Quincy Adams who said, "It is by virtue of the emanations of his mind that we are today able to call ourselves fellow citizens."
Author, John Adams; currently working on a book about the Revolutionary War
Adams didn't fight in the war. He served in many ways with greater effect in the long run than if he had served in the military, because he helped get the money to pay for it. We had virtually nothing with which to stand up against this most powerful military force in the world. We didn't have any money. And it was devilish hard to get in the early years. John Adams secured loans from Holland, which were decisive. He traveled farther in the service of his country than any other principal American figure of that time, at great risk, inconvenience and discomfort. And he never failed to answer the call of the country to serve. His greatest contribution, I suppose, was that he was the one who fought the good fight in Congress. He was the one who got the Declaration of Independence through Congress. It was a very difficult decision, because anyone who put his signature on that document was declaring himself a traitor and if caught would be hanged.
There was a wonderful American audacity about what they were attempting, given that they had no army and no navy and that there wasn't a bank in the entire 13 colonies there was no one currency. There were tremendous regional rivalries. When George Washington took command of the army in Boston, he could barely abide New Englanders, but he overcame his own bias, and many of the New England officers turned out to be the best he had for the long haul.
Former Congressman from Georgia and former Speaker of the House
Washington's favorite play was Cato, which is essentially a Whig play about the importance of freedom and Cato's willingness to kill himself rather than live under Caesar.
I revere Washington the most; I like Franklin the most. Franklin had a zest for life, a practicality, an ingenious capacity to invent both socially and technologically ... He is the most Renaissance of all the founding fathers. He was the original compassionate conservative. He'd say we have too much government and need to find ways to privatize more.
[The Founders] are the wisest and most effective small group in secular human history ... Their understandings of the practicality of leading human beings [and] the level of professionalism that they had both as politicians and as leaders is unrivaled. If you take the core group Washington, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, George Mason there's actually no group quite like them maybe at the early stages of the Roman republic, which is lost in antiquity. But the sense of balance, practicality combined with a deep theoretical understanding of human nature and a deep reading of history they're in a different league.
Professor of history at Texas A&M; author, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin
When Benjamin Franklin was walking out of the last session of the convention, a woman from Philadelphia stopped him on the street, and said, "Dr. Franklin, what have you produced?" And he said, "A republic if you can keep it." He would have been quite pleased, thrilled and gratified that his handiwork and that of his generation have lasted as long as it has. On the other hand, there are certain things about American politics, especially today, that would shock him, perhaps appall him, in particular, the huge role of money in American politics. Franklin spent most of the two decades before the American revolution in London. What made him a rebel, what made him an American patriot, was observing how corrupt British politics had become under the influence of insider position, insider money, insider power. <--!pagebreak-->
A. BELL JR.
Visiting professor, New York University School of Law
The founding fathers had two fears. One was of a strong Federal Government that would emulate England and be very heavy-handed. The other thing is, they were afraid of the little people because the little people were not being good citizens; they weren't paying their taxes; they were raising Cain. And so if you look at the Constitution they had little role in how the President was selected. That's where we got the college of electors, which is of course a disaster. The Senators were elected by the state legislatures.
A main area of controversy was slavery, because some of the framers were absolutely opposed to slavery, and others were absolutely opposed to any kind of new government that did not protect their property in slaves. The way of the slave owners and those who profited from slavery not all of whom were slave owners was to say, "How can you bring a new country into being, a new government to protect property, when you're not going to protect our property in slaves?" And even the abolitionists had no answer to this.
The significant thing for today is that we still make decisions the structure of government is such, that it's much easier to have policies to protect vested property than it is to protect the interests of poor people to work, to health care, to decent education, you name it.
Author, Jefferson's Pillow: The founding fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism
In 1797, when Washington is 65 years old, he goes home after serving two terms as President. Even then, people were saying, "Hey, another term." And for a rich Virginian, he does something that is quite incredible. He might have sent a better earlier signal, but the greatest man, the greatest American of his time, [in] the last summer of his life, in 1799 ... reworked his will so his slaves were freed. The ones he owned were freed at the death of his wife. A very powerful antislavery message.
When he let his slaves go, it sent a powerful message down through the generations that the greatest of all Americans thought slavery was a bad idea. No, people didn't just jump up and free their slaves. But on the other hand, they could not claim that the founding was purely a pro-slavery episode. Not when the most powerful figure of the founding said, "I wish slavery would go away."
ABC's World News Tonight editor and anchor; co-author, In Search of America, with Todd Brewster
The founding fathers' ideas are alive and well, and debated and practiced and a sinew for American life every day, even though most of us don't go around talking about Jefferson and Hamilton and Franklin and George Washington and John Adams. Every day I cover issues of church and state and the determination of large numbers of people in the country to build a more moral society, or to have again a society that they thought was more moral at an earlier age. What we see every time, whether it's a battle over the teaching of evolution or creation, [is] the constant battle over church and state.
We take democracy for granted. We are attempting to export it now to Iraq, and it probably pays to go back and look at the founding fathers' arguments about the dangers, the fragility of democracy, as we try to encourage it in Iraq. The founding fathers would argue that it has to come from the bottom up. The assumption that we can do it is risky.
U.S. Senator from West Virginia
Nathan Hale volunteered to go behind the British lines in response to a call for volunteers by General Washington. He was discovered and arrested as a spy. That was on Sept. 21, 1776. The next morning he was hauled up before a crude gallows, and they said, "Do you have anything to say?" He said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
So here was Nathan Hale, who was willing to give everything he had. And yet we're not willing today in the U.S. Senate the Senate passed that resolution shifting the power to declare war from the Congress to the President of the U.S. That was a shame, and only 23 Senators voted against shifting that power. When it came to the Senate, and we didn't cast a vote that demonstrated courage and not intimidation, we should have been reminded of Nathan Hale.
If the Founders had seen just that one vote, they would have been ashamed of us. We politicians have a duty, and we in the Senate have sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution. The Constitution says Congress shall have the power to declare war. Yet we stood that right on its head, turned right around and shifted that power over to a President who was not even elected by a majority of the American people.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON
Avalon Foundation professor in the humanities, University of Pennsylvania
They were great but flawed men. Thomas Jefferson was the architect of Monticello and of American democracy as we know it in large part, but he also was a slaveholder and, it has now been proved, the father of several children who were black. We need more of that insight, not less of it. We need more of the critical details, of the flaws and flesh of the founding fathers, to give us a sense of their true accomplishments and to take measure of their true greatness.
It is even more important now to recall the lessons of liberty that the founding fathers bequeathed, especially as civil liberties are eroded and democratic institutions are rendered vulnerable in the aftermath of 9/11 and the ostensible war on terror.
The founding fathers would be appalled that the best and the brightest often don't seek political office as the manifestation of their citizenship but are going into private industry and business not that the founding fathers were against entrepreneurship, from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin. The apathy displayed by the electorate might deeply disappoint them but perhaps not surprise them in light of the nation's ineffective bridging of the gulf between the 'have gots' and the 'have nots.' The government has basically been held hostage by moneyed interests.
Author, the upcoming Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right
If you put Jefferson, Franklin and Madison on a commission to reform our political system, they'd come back maybe a year later, and Franklin would have a minority report and Jefferson and Madison would have a 300-page document on campaign-finance reform that involves regulating money in ways that reflect the advertising prices in each congressional district.
I don't know if our founding fathers could solve what we have right now. And of course they should be politically correctly called our founding parents.
In other words, Madison would have a constitutional objection to McCain-Feingold. Jefferson wouldn't. Adams would be, "Anything goes," just full disclosure. It would just be funny to see these guys come back and face the entire press. They'd just ask Jefferson if he'd had sex with his slaves. And he'd just say, "Well, I thought we were talking about getting politics working again in this great republic."
"We know, but tell us about Sally Hemings." <--!pagebreak-->RON CHERNOW
Author, Titan: The life of John D. Rockefeller Sr., and an upcoming book on Alexander Hamilton
For me, Hamilton is very much the messenger from the future. He lives at a time when the country is overwhelmingly rural, and he introduces a vision of society that is strikingly different, a society that was more urban, much more oriented toward manufacturing and had an advanced system of banks, credit and stock exchanges. To people at the time this all seemed wildly radical and even frightening. The start of Wall Street was really in trading the securities that Hamilton issued, the government bonds that he issued in order to fund the debt left over from the Revolution. But this is all at the very infancy of finance.
What happened over the past 200 years is that American has slowly and inexorably developed into the society that Hamilton foresaw with what now seems like amazing prescience. So he's been vindicated. We now have Hamilton's future much more than Jefferson's. His position among the founding fathers is unique because he straddled the two great revolutions going on in the 18th century the democratic revolution and the capitalist revolution.
J. A. LEO LEMAY
Professor of English, University of Delaware, and author, Reappraising Benjamin Franklin: A Bicentennial Perspective Franklin: A Bicentennial Perspective
Every member of the Constitutional Convention was more of a believer in hierarchy than was Franklin. Franklin is the most radical of them in this way ... The movement was to make the ability to vote have property attached to it. Franklin led the movement against that and of course prevailed.
Franklin and Jefferson and Adams were all geniuses. And there's no question that George Washington was a person of great ability and of extraordinary character. Now how many of our Presidents do we really think are like one or the other? ... Most of the Presidents, they simply don't compare with these four great leaders.
EDMUND S. MORGAN
Author, Benjamin Franklin
It was Washington's great ability to know when to say no that was very important in the success of the revolution. He was not a great field general, in the sense that he never won a great battle. The siege of Yorktown was his only military success. His only real success was in keeping the Continental Army alive. He did that by refusing to send detachments to places that were in immediate danger and wanted help. It made him very unpopular. His really crucial refusal was to refuse to take the power that his officers would have liked to thrust upon him when the war was over. He did not do a(n Oliver) Cromwell. The U.S. government was a total mess when the war ended. And Washington's officers, who fought this war for independence, said, "We need someone to take charge see that the union survives," and so on. And he said, "Nothing doing." He would have nothing to do with assuming civil power because he was a military hero.
Author, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence; currently working on a book on the ratification of the federal Constitution
What's wonderful about John Adams is his attitude toward the deification of the Founders, which was one of immense skepticism. The reinterpretation of the Founders as somehow a special species of human beings akin to religious figures came in after the War of 1812, but John Adams lived to see it, and being an outspoken man, he criticized it. He said, "You know, I don't recognize these people." He particularly execrated the cult of Washington. The idea was that they were human beings, not religious figures. He had the grace to say to a young American, "I'll let you in on a big secret: I don't think my generation was any better than yours."
[Yet] these were the people who laid down the basis for the institutions under which we now live. They managed to carry off a revolution that ended not in more carnage but in peace and in a constitutional order. This is a historical wonder.
How do you think they would take to a country in which the Supreme Court chooses the next President? In their craziest fantasies, the anti-Federalists never thought this would be possible that Congress doesn't assiduously guard the right to declare war. They would find what came of the institutions they defined bewildering.
Host of The O'Reilly Factor and author, The O'Reilly Factor and The No Spin Zone
When the founding fathers structured the country, they realized that they did not have enough power in Philadelphia to supervise such a vast area. They could not supervise it on the federal level. So they took great pains, led by Franklin, Madison and Jefferson (and Madison and Jefferson are not perceived to be religious-oriented people) they took great pains to emphasize that the American philosophy had to include "fear of God." This is in all of their correspondence; they open everything with a prayer. There was this constant emphasis on "We're being guided by God." Why did they do that? The reason was that they all believed it would be chaos in the U.S. if people were not operating out of right and wrong, because they just didn't have enough power to supervise bad behavior. So they came to the conclusion that if people feared wrongdoing because they'd be punished by God, that would be best for the country.
Today we have done a 180 on that, because today people have lost sight of the reason why the founding fathers wanted this incorporated into everyday life they wanted spirituality incorporated. They didn't want a religion imposed, because that's what they had fled in Europe. These weren't stealth politicians. They were pretty straightforward guys. Most of them were ordinary thinkers; there weren't a lot of great thinkers. They were just guys who were trying to get a government off the ground. They'd be horrified at what we've become. What we have now is a bunch of greedy people who are trying to exploit the system rather than improve the system.
Former U.S. Senator; author, The Journey from Here
You can't say how the founding fathers would react to the government without asking, "How would they react to American society?" None of them would even be able to have dreamed of America today. The only thing to say is that they knew that the future was uncertain, and they had the genius to design a system that is still as resilient today as it was at the time that they wrote the Constitution. And to me, that's the important point. People in America always say, "Well, you know, things are terrible, blah blah blah." Yeah, but there is within the structures of the Constitution and its dialogue with the Declaration the capacity to renew and reform and solve any problem through the democratic process.
ROBERT P. GEORGE
Director, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University
Very often people will say that the system put into place by the Founders in the 18th century was great for the 18th century but that it doesn't work for the post-industrial Internet information-age world. If James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and even Benjamin Franklin were back today, their judgment would be the opposite. These are great geniuses of political science: one of the interesting things about the U.S. founding is that it's an achievement of political science.
The Founders had a circle to square. The old problem of political theory was how to create a central government sufficiently powerful to advance the interests of the nation both domestically and internationally (and) yet at the same time constrained in ways that would prevent that government from becoming tyrannical. The great insight of the U.S. Founders was the concept of a central government of delegated and therefore limited powers sharing authority with state governments, which exercised general jurisdiction and whose powers were not merely derivative of the central government. That's a genuinely original piece of political science.
Author, To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders
The founding fathers matter today because they changed the course of history. In devising the forms of our public institutions, they thought long and hard about the problem of power the power of the state, of the government and how to protect the individual's liberties from the necessary powers of government. It came up first in their resistance to what they believed was the growth of autocratic power in Britain and in justifying rebellion against it. It came up in the writing of the first state constitutions. And it came up above all in writing and ratifying the Constitution.
The debate on the Constitution, which lasted for almost a year, was one of the greatest struggles over the principles of power and liberty ever recorded. And the result of that debate was that you could not properly have a bill of powers (which is what the Constitution is) without joining to it a bill of rights. That balance between the two between powers and liberties is the heart of their thinking, and if there is anything more relevant to our problems today, I don't know what it is.