I have mentioned this before, but if any one asked me to name the best thing to come out of this blog I would have to put the ability to correspond with authors high on the list. Richard Brookhiser was one of the first authors I ever “interviewed” and by interview I mean a Q&A conducted via email. He continues to be one of my favorite authors/writers. He is knowledgeable about history, careful with his words, and pithy and witty and the same time. Inexplicably, he continues to answer my emails.
When What Would the Founders Do was released I thought it a great chance to do another Q&A. Mr. Brookhiser graciously agreed. The result follows below with questions in bold.
1) Why are we still arguing about the Founders? Why do they still matter?
This is a relatively new country. Many of the institutions and arguments that preoccupy us go back to the founders. Much of their thinking was pitched at a level of generality that will make it perennially relevant.
2) In what areas do you think the Founderâ€™s world is most similar to ours? Most different?
The founders lived among superpowers and world wars. They saw the beginnings of modern media, modern economics, democratic politics and even (in the French Revolution) totalitarian ideology.
Slavery is gone from this country. Preoccupation with the self, which in their day occurred only in a few diaries and novels, is now a spectator sport.
3) What issue divided the Founders? Was there an issue that almost everyone agreed on?
The founders believed in American independence; in the equality, and therefore the rights, of man; in God (though they defined him differently); in education; and in America â€™s imperial destiny. They disagreed about most everything else, hence the emergence of partisan politics.
4) How might some of the more famous founders line up politically today (left-right, Republican-Democrat, etc.)?
Hamilton would be a nationalist, now as always. Even though its principles are almost completely un-Jeffersonian, Jefferson would probably stay with his party (now called the Democrats), because they still more easily summon populist rhetoric. Gouverneur Morris would be a scoffing, caustic, unhelpful blogger.
5) When you compare current political leaders to the Founders what character or trait do you find most lacking? What is something that we do better in our politics then the Founders did in theirs?
Our politicians mix more readily (or at least appear to), and are less educated.
6) Which founder do you find yourself admiring the most? The least?
Washington is the greatest founder, though I pick Gouverneur Morris for best friend. Aaron Burr was a scoundrel.
7) How has it been different working on what might be called an anecdotal short essay type format as compared to your usual chronological biography? Were there unique challenges in writing and editing?
The hardest problem was deciding how to organize the questions that I would pose them. I was stuck on the idea of tracking some founding documentâ€”the Constitution, the Federalist Papers–when Richard Snow, editor in chief of American Heritage, said casually over lunch, â€œOf course, youâ€™ll be doing war and peace, money and business, men and women…â€ I ran home and jotted it all down.
8) What was the most surprising thing you discovered as you did your research?
I knew that some women had voted in New Jersey shortly after independence, but the whole story of the â€œpetticoat voteâ€ (New Jersey women who met the property qualification had the franchise from 1776 to 1807) was delightful.
One surprise, in the craft of research, is how much is available online: Blackstone, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mercy Otis Warren, Cesare Beccaria, to say nothing of various editions of the founders themselves….It sure makes writing easier, but then you wonder why will anyone need writers?
9) What do you think best describes American attitudes about the Founders: woefully uneducated and ignorant of their history and ideas; overly respectful and not willing to engage their ideas; too caught up in the uniqueness of the present and thus unable to see their relevance to our time?
I think all your stereotypes are true simultaneously. What keeps me going is the level of interest people show, however ignorant, nostalgic or antiquarian it might be. Thatâ€™s a good place to start from; I try to supply provocative answers.
10) What is next for you? Another biography? Any temptation to try something completely different like fiction?
I donâ€™t know what book is next, but I do know I will be writing and hosting another documentary, â€œRediscovering Alexander Hamilton.â€ Michael Pack, the producer and director, and I got an NEH grant. That means Caribbean locations. Hard work, but someone has to do it