Andrew Cohen’s praise for the far-sightedness of the Founding Fathers is typical of the genre. Whenever our contemporary politics are gridlocked, and whenever it seems that our system is incapable of working on behalf of future generations, we look at the Founders with envy, “Why can’t our leaders be as wise, or as prudent, or as farsighted?” Here is Cohen in his own words:
I have belatedly come to “The Founding Fathers Reconsidered,” a very good book written by R.B Bernstein and published last year by Oxford. Among his many other points, Bernstein points out that future icons Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Adams — to name just a handful — possessed not just an extraordinary sense of self-awareness but the rare intellectual and emotional rigor to keep the “long view” in sight.
The “Fathers” aren’t beloved today because they were such perceptive political philosophers and dogged Men of the Enlightenment. They are beloved today because their long view about America — republicanism, democracy, separation of church and state, tension between power and press — have been so successful for so long. And this is so, in part, because they were razor smart, and politically courageous, and eminently well-rounded, and brilliantly well-educated, and intellectually (if not personally) honorable, and curious about so much of the world.
The Founding Fathers may have had the long-view about some items — though, given how dramatically the federal system has changed, I’m not sure that’s the case — but on a whole host of others, they were just as short-sighted and opportunistic as the politicians Cohen decries. The 3/5th compromise and the Constitution’s complete disengagement with slavery were crass political moves aimed at appeasing Southern slaveholders. We tend view the Senate as an institution handed down from the Lord himself, but the truth is that it owes its existence to expediency; small states were unwilling to sign on to the Constitution unless they were assured fair influence in the legislature. Even the written Bill of Rights was a reluctant concession to the anti-Federalists.
The Founders were admirable men — slave-owning notwithstanding — but the Constitution was shot through with the short-term politics of the late 18th century. Indeed, the first eighty years of American history should throw water on anyone inclined to praise the far-sightedness of the Founders. Forty-five years after ratification, the country was divided over whether or not states could nullify federal law, and thirty years after that the nation suffered the costs of the Founders’ short-term political concerns by way of a bloody, apocalyptic war over slavery.