What Do Early American Politics Tell Us About Modern Politics?

In 2009, I wrote my Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers as a way to bring attention to what I called the “greatest generation” of Americans.

This doesn’t mean that Americans had forgotten the founding generation. Hardly. They were being discussed all the time.

But I did have the sense that it was getting harder to talk about their accomplishments without bowing your head in remorse for racism and slavery.

Only a penitent man will pass.

I was right, and the crusade against everything traditionally Americans has only grown worse.

Efforts by the West Coast Straussians to attach Lincoln to the founding generation through the “proposition nation” are just as foolish, and in fact, make the right look even worse.

Which brings me to the opening question. What can we learn from early American politics?

We should not simplify the period. Anyone who has written on the topic–including yours truly–had been guilty of this oversight before. We want to make the period easier to understand and so we throw a wide net while ignoring the complexity of the period.

Simple labels do not work.

Which is why I decided to discuss this essay from Douglas Wilson on the founding period.

It was sent to me by one of my McClanahan Academy LIVE! students (this has become a great community, meaning you should hop on board for the next class this fall).

Wilson gets a lot of things right in his essay, but he makes some major mistakes by trying to oversimplify the founding period.

For example, Washington was a “nationalist” but that should not be confused with Daniel Webster nationalism or Andrew Jackson nationalism or Abraham Lincoln nationalism. He would have rejected all three.

He was never Jefferson’s political “adversary”, and while Washington admired the English political tradition, he believed the American political system was far superior to the British model.

It also seems that Wilson does not really understand an “unwritten constitution,” though again, this could just be an oversight in his effort to make the history more “understandable.”

He does correctly point out that we can learn a great deal from this period in American history, though I would also argue that the structural problems of the United States Constitution could be improved. The Confederate Constitution of 1861 did a nice job in that regard.

We should talk about the founding generation, but we should also get them right. That includes the indispensable man, George Washington.

Washington was a real “nationalist”, meaning he favored a union of States that benefited all and burden all equally. He opposed factions because he thought they undermined the general welfare of the whole, and he advocated republican virtue and the most important quality for American statesmen.

In other words, Washington favored a domestic policy that John C. Calhoun would have understood.

Both Washington and Jefferson advanced a foreign policy that would be alien in the federal city today. Non-intervention was the most pro-American foreign policy in the history of the United States.

There is much to learn from Washington and the founding generation. We just need to get it right so that our adversaries cannot point the finger back at us and say, “See, you are “whitewashing” history!”

I discuss Wilson’s piece and the founding generation on episode 857 of The Brion McClanahan Show.

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