William Jefferson Clinton adored Thomas Jefferson and, as president, he shared many of Jefferson’s character traits. Both men were incredibly wise and crafty politicians, and both were willing to bend the truth when it enhanced their perception of the greater good.
As much as we may wish our Founding Fathers like Jefferson were gods looking down upon us from Olympus, research reveals they were mere men after all.
However, something was different. Our leaders today are so hamstrung by lobbyists, bureaucratic pandering and preening before a fawning media, the only legislation they seem capable of passing are laws of unintended consequences. Conversely, the founders managed, with very limited revenues, to support George Washington’s rag-tag army fighting the most powerful army on earth, to locate and build a capitol, and to pay off the massive debts of the Revolutionary War. These were nearly insurmountable problems, yet our Founding Fathers resolved them.
First, size matters. The founders had the wisdom to limit the size of the government. Larger government means more inefficiency and a bureaucracy less responsive to the governed. It also creates more opportunities for rogue players within bureaucratic channels to act in ways that benefit themselves or their parties, but not the country. Witness any number of scandals of recent administrations.
Second, the Founding Fathers viewed their jobs differently than political leaders today. They never saw themselves as a political class. Instead they were farmers, printers, preachers, brewers, merchants, doctors and accountants. Their close connection with their communities through their professions gave them a sense of being of the people, not above the people.
Third, the Founding Fathers believed in a Creator bigger than themselves. Of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, there were 28 Episcopalians, 8 Presbyterians, 7 Congregationalists, 2 Lutherans, 2 Dutch Reformed, 2 Methodists and 2 Roman Catholics. Ninety-three percent were Christian. They were men who believed there was a power higher than government. Consequently, their faith gave them both a humble perspective and the confidence to face a crisis.
On June 28, 1787, the Constitutional Convention had all but fallen apart. It was an 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most secular member of the Convention, who saved it. How? He suggested it was time to pray. Hear his frail, raspy voice coming to us through the years, his sage advice as pertinent today as it was then:
“And have we forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, sir, a long time and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings that ‘except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this and I also believe that without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.”
The ethical character of our Founding Fathers was not so different from our leaders today; however, their perspective was definitely different. They recognized the need for limited government. They saw their work as a benefit to those who came after them, not as a benefit to themselves and the present. Finally, their faith led them beyond the limits of themselves. This perhaps is the biggest difference, and perhaps it is why Washington today is slouching toward Babel.
Roger Smith retired as a U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and has since been a pilot with Southwest Airlines. A life-long student of history, he recently published “American Spirit,” a historical work of fiction set in early America. He and his wife, Patti, live on Possum Creek near Soddy-Daisy.