When we had this play produced at the New-York Historical Society last September, people kept asking me that – who’s your favorite Founding Father?
That’s really hard to say. At one of the performances, somebody said the FF reminded him of The Beatles. I thought there was a great deal of insight in that. Individually, they all had their quirks and weaknesses. Taken alone, none of them could have carried the day. George Washington was “the indispensable man,” but he was woefully inarticulate and uncomfortable in debate. He was a man of action. His writings are beautiful – he’s a good, solid product of the Enlightenment – but he couldn’t think on his feet. There’s a marvelous scene in Gore Vidal’s Burr where Washington begins to say something before a group, becomes tongue-tied, and Alexander Hamilton jumps in smoothly with, “What you mean to say, General, is . . . . “ Then as he walks by Burr (who is narrating), “he gave me flick of his eye” (not a wink, but a flick) to acknowledge what was going on. Vidal, of course, is diabolical in his observations and doesn’t like most of the FF, but I think he got it right there. (Read Burr, by the way, for Vidal’s guess at why Hamilton and Burr got in the fatal argument. It’s as bad as you could possibly imagine, but I think he might have it right.)
Hamilton and James Madison, of course, were the most powerful intellects and stand right next to the great philosophers. But they had their limits as well. Madison was a Virginia man, first and foremost, and as uncompromising as any when it came to giving up equal representation in the Senate. And Hamilton was a sheer monarchist. The New-York Historical Society is now running an exhibition, “Alexander Hamilton – The Man Who Made Modern America.” Maybe so, but Hamilton’s biggest contribution at the Convention was a speech asking that both Senators and Presidents be elected for life. When that failed, he left and didn’t take part in the debates for most of August and September.
Yet the NYHS is right in a way. Before Hamilton gave his speech, the Convention was a kind of dreary and cautious affair, bickering over whether the President should be elected by the national legislature and the national legislature by the state legislatures. Hamilton’s speech is electrifying. Suddenly you see the outlines of the Presidency we know now. “The executive shall have power to veto all laws passed by the legislature; direct all efforts in war and peace; make all treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate; and appoint the chief officers of Finance, War, and Foreign Affairs.” Nobody was talking this way until Hamilton piped up. He said at the end, “No man’s ideas were more remote than my own from the document we now have before us,” but the Presidency and the Judiciary bear his stamp.
Franklin was the wise old man at the Convention, perhaps too wise for some. Whenever he spoke, there was general muttering that he wasn’t really addressing the delegates but was putting his stamp on history. His one memorable contribution – that the Executive should work for free in order to avoid corruption – was hopelessly naive even for the time. To the younger delegates he was fast becoming a relic of a former age.
Yet how wise he was. His speech at the end – “I consent to this Constitution because I expect none better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best” – is something for the ages. And when he tries to settle things down when the Convention was at the breaking point in June – “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without God’s notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His guidance?" - well you have to hear it in context to get the full impact.
I picked James Wilson as a major character because of all the FF I thought he was the closest to us. The others are Men of the Enlightenment – too intelligent for us, really, and completely versed in perfidies of humanity. They all had classical educations and had absorbed Thucydides and Livy the way we absorb video games and reality TV. But Wilson is all business, a practical man, par excellence. He was a Philadelphia lawyer and was actually in a great deal of trouble with the public by the time of the Convention. He died bankrupt and in poverty. But he was a practical man of affairs, no philosophy, no flowering rhetoric, but always right to the point – very contemporary.
Altogether, it’s like a symphony orchestra. No instrument dominates but all are in the right place at the right time, waiting to take their cue. Washington, then, was like the conductor, not actually orchestrating the dialogue, but always there to make sure it met a certain standard (“Let us raise then a standard . . . “) and didn’t stray too far.
(Actually, I had a brilliant professor in college – Ben Zeigler – who once described the Presidency of the FF in these exact terms – “He was like an orchestra conductor, making sure things never went too fast, never went too slow,” waving his arms in rhythm the whole time. It was so eloquent, the whole class burst into finger-snapping applause. Maybe I’m just lifting this from him.)
So that’s my impression. I don’t really have a Favorite Founding Father. I like them as a group. It’s like saying you like the Beatles but you really like George or Paul or John the best. That misses the whole point. It’s what they did together that counts.