Presidential Politics And Modern American Democracy… In Historical Perspective

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I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of everyone saying how disappointed our Founding Fathers would be if they saw the state of American democracy today. Are we always and everywhere the city upon a hill that John Winthrop envisioned? Not by a long shot. But surely we’re closer to the top of that hill than the bottom. Didn’t Bill Murray have his assessment of America in Stripes exactly right? We’re 10-1! I’m not going to sugarcoat things. This problem becomes more acute every day closer we get to Election Day. Everywhere you go, it’s Thomas Jefferson would be appalled at this and Abraham Lincoln is turning in his grave over that.

Let me pause to make my point perfectly clear: this is not a disagreement on the merits. I don’t doubt for a moment that these great American Patriots, if with us today, wouldn’t hesitate to speak critically of our constitutional republic. My issue is with the notion that this would be the first thing on their minds. Or even the fifteenth.

Let’s start with Thomas Jefferson. There was no more staunch a defender of a free press than he, who famously said if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Smart money says Mr. Jefferson would warn us of the danger to our republic of too pliant a media. But this only after spending blissful mud-caked hours tearing about Monticello in his newly purchased monster truck. I can imagine the evening’s letter home to Martha: “WidowMaker and I drove all the way to Montpelier and went ‘up and over’ Madison’s buggy, which is now flatter than his beloved Federalist Papers. He’s gonna be so piffed.”

I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that Patrick Henry would fulminate over the threat a leviathan federal government poses to individual liberty. Recall how he let British Parliament know exactly what he thought of the Stamp Act. But first you’d have to talk him down from the waterslide tower at Slip N’ Splash Water Park. Virginia courtliness aside, I’m sure he’d be shoving kids out of line all the way up the staircase, sanctimoniously yelling things like “give me firsties on Wet Lightning or give me death!”

And then there’s James Madison. Once at peace with his flattened carriage, he might disagree with Patrick Henry and cast his lot behind a strong national government. After all, President Madison nearly cost us the ballgame in the War of 1812 for want of a strong national army. But then again he might just brood peevishly in the corner, smarting that his name buys him no equity upside, or even store credit, at area Dolly Madison Bakeries.

Selfless George Washington might go further than the 22nd Amendment and call for a single term limit on the presidency today. True to form, he’d say something statesmanlike such as “I cannot tell a lie; the threat to the republic of an imperial presidency has never been greater.” But then in the same breath he’d continue with “want more truth? This frozen yogurt is, like, French-molasses good. Tell me it comes in cherry.”

There’s a good chance Abraham Lincoln would shed light on the lonely burden of leadership, especially at a time of great division in the land. But he’d so enlighten us only after getting his hands on an iPhone, prank-calling the first ten Stephen Douglases he found in contacts and ordering a ton of merchandise on Amazon, sending the bill to his Gettysburg Address. He’d then spend the afternoon exploiting his height advantage and crushing utterly despondent James Madison in tetherball.

In our age of easy money, first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton probably could not resist warning that muscular foreign policy presupposes a sound national currency. But not before riding up on a Segway and spiking the football at the feet of his old adversary: “Hey, Burr, my play is absolutely killing it on Broadway. How’s yours doing?” And then Aaron would be like “good one, Alex, you got me there. Mine’s off-Broadway. In New Jersey, actually. Want to cross the Hudson and see it with me? I just love the ending.”

And so, my fellow Americans, with all the partisan rancor that surrounds us, we’d do well to keep things simple this Election Day. Let’s just agree to do the two things that we know for certain our Founding Fathers themselves would do. First, get out and vote. And second, when you’re voting, keep foremost in your mind what would be foremost in theirs if they were there in the booth with you: “Sweet Aunt Irene, would you look at this touch-screen? What amazing technology! Let me guess, Freemasons?”