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Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

Our feuding Founding Fathers

Q: On this July 4th weekend, we celebrate Adams, Jefferson and other rebels who dared to challenge the established political order. Putting your own political preferences aside, what do you think the leaders of the American Revolution would view the leaders of today's 'Tea Party?'

America's great revolutionaries of 1776 would probably think the same of today's Tea Partiers as they thought of each other. Some would adore them, others would despise them, some would simply be puzzled. We revere the founders now and hold their Declaration up as an enduring document of great ideas--which it is--and a ringing sign of their unity--which it wasn't.

The process of writing, approving, and signing the Declaration was a messy one. Even after the Continental Congress finally voted for independence, it took Jefferson weeks to write the document that declared it, Congress a week to agree on its wording, and its members a month to reassemble to sign it. They were revolutionaries, to be sure. But they were a wildly different bunch, and barbs between the leaders were the stuff of legends. Adams and Franklin traded barbs for years, and the Jefferson-Hamilton feud spilled out to a New Jersey dueling field where Vice President Aarom Burr shot and killed the former Treasury secretary.

Two big lessons come from the Founders' feuds. One is that, especially after Hamilton's death, they resolved that dueling with each other to resolve disputes wouldn't help the democracy they had worked so hard to create. Creating a system that could bend without ever completely breaking is one of their greatest contributions. The Civil War tested this principle as sorely as any idea could be tested, but in the end the Founders' vision won out.

The other is that they came to realize, especially in the rough-and-tumble debate over the Declaration, that if they permitted all their own beliefs, no matter how treasured, to stand in the way of the nation's interest, all their ideals would disintegrate and they'd hand the country over to the British. Franklin, as usual, put it better than anyone: "We must hang together, gentlemen," he told his fellow members of Congress, "else, we shall most assuredly hang separately."

The Tea Partiers know how to rouse a good fight. They have learned how to pick off their opponents. They're framing the values they want to fight for. But have they learned yet how to hang together--with each other and with the others we elect to run this country--so we don't all hang separately?

By Donald Kettl

 |  July 1, 2010; 12:19 PM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I have a letter to local newspaper this week making writer's observation that too few in public or government are practical enough to put country before either state or party. I think the country is in jeopardy, presenting us to the world as fractured, incompetent, ungovernable.

Posted by: paulco | July 1, 2010 4:44 PM
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I recently grew even more amazed by the feat accomplished by the framers. Though we don't relate to it now, as you know, in that time period, the "states" were considered countries much like Europe. These separate countries which were only committed to each other by a military confederation and many thought it would dissolve after the war leaving North America to resemble Europe. However, the efforts of a few effectively rested sovereignty from 13 separate countries without blood or coercion; effectively by the consent of the people.

I think the framers would applaud some of the ideas, yet be appalled by others. The fact that Jefferson and Hamilton (et al) intrigued in the media, I'm pretty sure, was not meant to be precedent to follow. It seems like we've lost most of what was truly great and reveled in what amounted to mistakes.

Great notions like polite and honest debate. A disdain for certainty. In Madison's journal he recorded some great thoughts including that of Elbridge Gerry: "Confidence is the road to tyranny". He has James Wilson, on the discussion of the definition and treatment of tyranny saying "The subject was, however, intricate, and he distrusted his present judgment on it." Gerry was also against "letting the heads of Departments, particularly of finance, have anything to do in the business connected with legislation".

People argue about the "intent" of the framers. It seems to me that there intent was summed up by Ben Franklin's sentiment also recorded by Madison "In free government the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors and sovereigns." The fact that 10s of millions of dollars are necessary to campaign for office is the barrier keeping the government out of the hands of the people and establishing what they almost all agreed should be guarded against; aristocracy.

Posted by: CogitoErgoBibo | July 1, 2010 2:47 PM
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The Tea Party needs to evolve and move away from the talk radio/cable news shock jocks into a group that can work with others they may disagree with or else they will end up a small disgruntled, ignored party.

Posted by: kchses1 | July 1, 2010 1:08 PM
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