Charles U. Zug
February 9, 2018
mericans have a unique obsession with their founding fathers. The United States is perhaps the only country in the world where biographies, musicals, TV shows, and movies about the founding generation proliferate year after year. So it is perhaps no surprise that on both sides of the American political aisle, “Hamilton” the musical has attained—and retained—overwhelming popularity. As President Obama quipped, “Hamilton, I’m pretty sure, is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I agree on.”
What made the Hamilton phenomenon peculiar, however, was the musical’s particularly warm reception by progressive American intellectuals. Normally staunchly anti-founder-hagiography and always happy to debunk the framers as exploitative capitalist oligarchs, they evidently had a soft spot for The Federalist Papers’s primary author all along.
Doubtless, the musical’s hip, edgy music had a lot to do with its reception. As Ben Brantley of the Times has rather condescendingly remarked: “the forms of song most frequently heard on pop radio stations in recent years—rap, hip-hop, R&B ballads—have both the narrative force and the emotional interiority to propel a hefty musical about long-dead white men whose solemn faces glower from the green bills in our wallets.”
Still, why anyone of the decidedly-progressive persuasion would ogle and fawn over a Broadway musical that celebrates the life of Alexander Hamilton—that long-dead, solemn-faced defender par excellence of modern capitalist-republicanism—should give us some pause.
Perhaps the “Hamilton” effect simply confirms the unshakable hold the founders rightly retain on our hearts and minds. Despite themselves, even Americans with a critical-revisionist streak in them can’t help getting jazzed at the sight of a rapping, dancing Publius. Yet if we disesteem so vehemently what Hamilton and his peers esteemed above all else—the polity they bequeathed to us—exactly how sensible is it to let them retain their hold on us, and to celebrate them in popular culture?
To this question, traditionalist conservatives, founder-celebrators of quite a different sort, would retort that the framers deserve lasting celebrity because their accomplishments do deserve esteem.
With respect to internal consistency, at least, the conservative view that the founders deserve celebration because they were right clearly surpasses the progressive one that sees the founders as wrong, but worth celebrating anyway. Yet the conservative position has problems of its own. As Justice Gorsuch’s laughably-evasive repartees with Senators Diane Feinstein and Al Franken during his confirmation hearing suggest, the conservative founder-defense sometimes seems unable to withstand serious and sustained rational criticism, instead resorting to evasion. How many conservatives can rigorously defend textual originalism, for example, without the circular incantation that “it’s right because the founders said it, and the founders said it because it’s right”?
Liberals and conservatives alike have tended to seize on peripheral and fatuous aspects of the founders’ lives and undertakings. Liberals celebrate them because their private lives were full of intrigue and therefore good material for high-brow Broadway rhapsodizing; conservatives, because they happened to be present at the sacred moments of Declaration-signing and Constitutional ratification.
From the standpoint of rationalism, both of these positions widely miss the crucial mark. In their writings and speeches, the framers articulated with a capaciousness of understanding the constitutive features of the modern state: executive power, energetic administration, separation of powers, and modern commercial republicanism. They reflected and wrote about difficult questions which never go away, to which all human beings at all times have rational access, and which are therefore always up for debate.
Accordingly, just because the founders came up with answers to those questions does not mean their answers are correct. Nor, by the same token, does it mean that the founders were bound to a certain historical time and class-perspective, and that their answers to the hard questions of politics should therefore be rejected out of hand. Their thought is worthy of reflection precisely because it sheds bright, clear light on the basic problems of politics, which humankind will always face. This means that the problems the founders diagnosed, and the solutions they devised, can be diagnosed and devised by us as well.
It’s not their biographies, in other words, nor their presence at the founding, but rather their thought that makes Hamilton, Madison, Morris, Jefferson, Adams, and Wilson worthy of enduring attention. If the founders are worth celebrating, it’s not because they were sexy, or because they were “there”; rather, it’s because they were smart.
The founders are a resource for serious constitutional thinking, not demigods to be worshipped. A defense worthy of the founders themselves would therefore have to go beyond Broadway sensationalism, on the one hand, and reverential parochialism, on the other. Rather than trusting that every answer the founders came up with is the right one, it’s incumbent on us, today, to bring our reason to bear on the same questions—and to see if we can do better.