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The founders saw us coming

July 04, 2006|Richard Brookhiser | RICHARD BROOKHISER is the author of "What Would the Founders Do: Our Questions, Their Answers."

IF SUPERMAN CAN return to help us, why can't America's founders? It's true, Superman is alive and the founders are not. On the other hand, Superman is fictional, whereas Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton and the rest were flesh-and-blood politicians, dealing with problems surprisingly similar to our own and establishing the laws and institutions we still use to confront those problems.

Illegal immigration, for example, is a red-hot issue today, but the first immigration debates go back more than 200 years. In 1798, Congress passed and President John Adams signed the Alien Act, a law allowing the president to deport dangerous aliens on his own say-so, without trial. The stimulus was an influx of refugees from Ireland and France -- countries undergoing political turmoil that many founders feared would be brought to the U.S. by the new immigrants. Rep. Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts, for example, warned in Congress of "hordes of wild Irishmen" coming here "to disturb our tranquillity."

Thomas Jefferson, who intended to replace Adams as president, opposed the Alien Act on the grounds that it gave the executive too much power. But Jefferson's position also appealed to ethnic and immigrant voters in America, including, in addition to wild Irishmen, the German Americans in Pennsylvania and New York City. Jefferson's success with these voters was one reason he won the election of 1800.

In other words, key elements of our debate were already in place: fear that immigration would be a political and cultural problem versus confidence that it was no problem at all, especially if immigrants voted the right way. The founders were split on the question, as politicians are today.

The founders were unfamiliar with ICBMs and atom bombs and the threats they posed. But at least one of them contemplated preemptive war. In 1803, President Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million. His old enemy, Alexander Hamilton, congratulated him on the acquisition but added that Jefferson should have simply taken it. "Sound policy unquestionably demanded of us ... to seize the object at once" -- then we could have dickered over the price.

Hamilton was so bellicose because France was ruled by Napoleon, a known aggressor; indeed, the French had already made trouble for Americans trying to ship produce down the Mississippi and out of New Orleans. In Hamilton's view, there were hostile actions short of war that justified hostile responses. An Army veteran who came from a broken home, he expected the world to be dangerous.

In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton had asked: "Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age" and realize that we do not live in "the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?" He would have been willing to strike first to defend the United States.

Today, Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) has been in hot water since he was found cooling $90,000 in cash in his freezer, allegedly from shady deals. When the FBI raided Jefferson's congressional office in May looking for related information, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi condemned the search as a violation of the separation of powers.

The founders would have known that it was no such thing. The Constitution protects congressmen from prosecution while Congress is in session, so they can be free to meet and discuss, but it also allows them to be arrested for treason, felony and breach of the peace. These protections -- and these exceptions to protections -- apply to their offices and papers.

How would the founders have reacted to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential hopes?

Feminism as we know it was over their horizon. Yet there were engaged women who talked politics at the highest level, and not just political wives such as Abigail Adams or Dolley Madison. When Benjamin Franklin said the Constitutional Convention had produced "a republic, if you can keep it," he was speaking to the plugged-in Philadelphia hostess Eliza Powell, the Pamela Harriman of her day.

In New Jersey in 1776, ordinary women had even more political clout: They could vote. This women's suffrage, the first in America and, so far as I know, the modern world, was the result of an inadvertence -- the framers of New Jersey's first state constitution used the word "inhabitants" rather than "freemen" to describe voters. It was not complete: Because there was a property qualification, married women (whose husbands owned all their property) were out of luck. But widows and single heiresses could, and did, qualify. The "petticoat vote," as it was called, lasted until 1807, when women were made scapegoats for a spectacularly corrupt local election and purged from the rolls. New Jersey politics did not improve even so.

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