Alison LaCroix: "The Founders' Fiction"

Reading eighteenth-century novels in company with the American revolutionaries
Alison L. LaCroix
April 7, 2009

"What would the founders have thought?"

It’s a favorite question for constitutional lawyers, legal scholars, and politicians, and it can be a crowd-pleasing parlor trick for legal historians: take a modern-day controversy, feed it into the chattering machine of late-eighteenth-century opinion, and see what comes out. Uncertain what to think about international agreements? See George Washington’s Farewell Address: "[S]teer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world." Frustrated by government inaction? Consider Thomas Jefferson’s injunction: "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." Feminism? Abigail Adams to John Adams: "Remember the Ladies." Whatever the topic, the generation of Americans responsible for the Revolution, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution seems to have an answer. The situation calls to mind Adam Gopnik’s description of the place of Alexis de Tocqueville in modern political commentary: "There is no bore like a Tocqueville bore, no game quite so easy to play as the game of saying that Tocqueville saw it all before it happened." No game quite so easy, that is, except for the game of attributing superhuman perception and wisdom to the founders.