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What Would the Founders Do?: Our Questions, Their Answers Hardcover – May 15, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

[Signature]Reviewed by Michael LindIt might be thought that nothing new could be said about America's founding fathers, in the midst of the contemporary avalanche of tomes about Washington, Jefferson and other early American leaders. But Rick Brookhiser, inspired perhaps by a Christian motto—"What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD)—has come up with a way to describe the views of the architects of the American republic that is as entertaining as it is informative."Americans have been asking what the founders would do since the founders died," writes Brookhiser, a journalist and historian (Alexander Hamilton and The Way of the WASP). Combining the skills of a first-rate writer with those of a medium at a séance, Brookhiser channels the spirits of eminent early Americans in discussing contemporary public debates. At times, Brookhiser has to stretch to find an analogy between the era of the founders and today, such as his comparison between stem cell research and the old practice of robbing graves for medical research.In other cases, however, the conceit works to shed light on present and past alike. Should the U.S. attempt to spread democracy around the world? Brookhiser makes a case for the caution of Alexander Hamilton rather than the optimism of Thomas Jefferson. The war on drugs? "The founders would not have fought a war on drugs," but would have taxed them instead, Brookhiser declares, reasoning from the excise tax on whiskey imposed by the federal government. What would the founders do about Social Security? "Social Security follows none of their models (family provision, charity, reward for service, investment)." The book reveals that many of the public policy questions confronting the early American republic are similar to challenges Americans wrestle with today. The values of 18th-century Americans, by contrast, were radically different and benighted by modern standards. Jefferson, while opposing slavery, argued that blacks were inferior and should be expatriated from the United States. The founders took a male-dominated society for granted, though Hamilton was willing to consider sweatshop work for women: "It is worthy of particular remark, that, in general, women and children are rendered more useful... by manufacturing establishments than they would otherwise be."With a rare union of wit and scholarship, What Would the Founders Do? presents history as a source of continuing debates, rather than as a set of answers. Comparing the founders to present-day Americans, Brookhiser concludes: "We can be as intelligent as they were, and as serious, as practical, and as brave.... We can; as they said, all men are created equal."(May 5)Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President.
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From Booklist

It is a long and honored (and often abused) tradition to refer to the Founders while stating one's position on contemporary political controversies. For example, during the early, passionate arguments over New Deal legislation, FDR partisans asserted their intentions to use Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends. Brookhiser is a celebrated historian who has written extensively about some of the Founding Fathers. Here he brings his vast knowledge and considerable wit to bear on analyzing how they might approach some of our currently divisive issues. About political partisanship, Brookhiser points out that most Founders deplored "factions" but were willing to unsheathe swords in a good political tussle. Gay rights? Brookhiser doubts any of them would have promoted it, since even the "libertarian" Jefferson supported repression of sodomites. In a sense, this is a frivolous book, since the Founders were generally as ideologically inconsistent as liberals and conservatives are today. Who knows how they would have reacted to problems in a world they could not imagine? But as an intellectual exercise, this is an enjoyable, stimulating work. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1st edition (May 15, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465008194
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465008193
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #207,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Monty Rainey VINE VOICE on May 20, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Richard Brookhiser has established himself as one of the premier writers of the American founding generation. His biography of George Washington is among the best of a very long list of books written about our founding father. His biographies of Hamilton and Morris are also quite good. For this reason, I was expecting a great deal out of this book, WHAT WOULD THE FOUNDER'S DO?, and was sorely disappointed.

Brookhiser has shown himself capable of tremendous work, but this one fell far short of what I've come to expect from his work. I really like the premise of the book as it aspires to present many of the ominous questions facing American society today, and render luminous answers from the writings of our founding fathers. The problem is, the answers presented here are far from luminous. I found many of Brookhiser's renderings to be rather baseless at times and restricted at others.

For example, on the question of how the founders felt about free speech, Brookhiser sites as his primary source document, the short-lived Sedition Act, implemented during the Adams administration and abolished only two years later. There are countless other sources of information that more appropriately answer this question than such a short-lived and unpopular single piece of legislation.

I also did not like the overall sense from the book that the founder's were far more tolerant of the lack of personal accountability than they actually were. It's really a shame, as these are questions that deserve to be answered. I believe the original intent of the founder's should be considered in all aspects of government and is all to often, dismissed as outdated and irrelevant to today's issues.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Jeff Barnaby on September 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book came as a gift last Christmas. At first it didn't look like it was going to have much to offer - a short and simple book from yet another writer trying to retroactively impose the views and opinions of the Founders on today's issues and events. But, it was a gift, and so it was thrown onto the "books to read" stack where it figured to be short work before getting relegated to the miscellaneous section of the history shelf on the bookcase. It did not take too many pages to realize that first impressions, in this instance, were quite wrong. This book has a good deal to say and it does so consistently and efficiently from beginning to end. In good, clean form it takes a single idea and looks at it from a different angle in each chapter. The end result is a book that is thorough, to the point, and enjoyable to read.

While the title indicates that this is simply a book about how the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and the rest of the founding bunch would deal with today's issues, there is something more to be had from this book. And that something is an important point which has been frequently lost on recent generations of Americans. It's almost assumed at this point to speak about the American Founders as though they were a unified body in both action and thought. Before considering how "the founders" might deal with our issues, and when considering how they actually dealt with their issues, it needs to be understood, first and foremost, that as a whole they never really agreed all that much with each other about anything, other then the fact they wanted to be rid of English rule - and even with that there was some squabbling.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By History Buff on August 13, 2009
Format: Paperback
How many of us haven't considered the founding fathers' reactions every time we receive a speeding ticket, pass a police checkpoint, or read about a Department of Homeland Security? By premise alone, this book is a timely and necessary addition to contemporary political works. However, the delivery is a mixed bag. Some of the questions are insightful, well-researched and informative. As other reviewers indicated, others are not and simply regurgitate well known history, as an undergrad would on a history 101 exam. I do enjoy Brookheiser as a writer, and his list of websites based upon the foiunding fathers' personality traits was quite humorous and fit well with what we knew about these men.

Perhaps I expected too much, as a work such of this could fill volumes, given sufficient research. This book, although enjoyable to read at times, is a highly abridged version of what this book could have been.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jeremy A. Perron on November 25, 2010
Format: Paperback
Often when one turns on the television to any political talk show, regardless of the station, it is not unusual to find someone on program invoking men from centuries past. The person will claim that founders of the United States would support position A (their position) and be against position B (their opponent's position). Often the person will even argue that their opponent's position is an outright betrayal of the founders' vision. These `talking heads*' often make quite a few assumptions with their statements. The biggest and most popular of these assumptions is that all the founders thought the same way. They did not, there were several founders and they all thought differently about different things. Therefore, for every idea you have, you probably could find a founder who would support that particular idea.

I have always wondered when people ask what Jefferson, Washington, or any other founder would want: do they consider biographical time lines? For example, if someone asks what Thomas Jefferson would feel about Obama's health care plan, I always wonder which Tom Jefferson the person asking means.

· Is this person referring to the Thomas Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776?

· Is the person referring to President Thomas Jefferson in 1805?

· Is the person thinking of Jefferson as if he woke up from his really long nap he started on July 4th, 1826, and the first thing he does now that he has woken up is to pick up a newspaper and read about the new health care law?

That last one is important to me. After all, a great leader is not someone who believes in the same thing on Wednesday that he or she believed on Monday regardless what happened on Tuesday.
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