Read this quote from a recent Bloomberg article:
“Would George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, or Thomas Jefferson wear facemasks?
Would they have closed down American society, abrogating all constitutional rights and freedoms out of fear of a pandemic?”
It’s a fascinating question and one that I’m thrilled Americans are still asking. It’s a unique American trait to continually reference, with respect, the political genius of our founders—even in an age where statues and images of past American relics are being vandalized and torn down. Apparently, the American public still collectively wonders: what would the founders do under the present day circumstances?
One: Why Americans Still Care About The Founder’s Opinion
It truly is curious to me that the authors of Bloomberg article (likely catering to the average liberal or moderate) would feel the need to write an article addressing the thoughts and opinions of the founders about today’s coronavirus government games. One would assume that readers of Bloomberg could care less what the founders think; but again, this is why I say assume. Take a look at these survey results and these polls about how Americans believe the founders would feel about America today. Both polls are from different time periods but show similar sentiments. Most Americans believe the founders would NOT be pleased with state of America today or the handling of the Constitution.
This is interesting, given that few Americans actually know what the Constitution says. It’s as if American’s possess and innate sense about how the government and Constitution is supposed to work even if they can’t quite explain what or why.
So, here we are at a very unique point in history, facing the coronavirus (among other things) and Americans still seem to care about what the founders say.
While most Americans may not be able to articulate this, I’ll explain why I believe Americans still hold a smidge of reverence for the founders and their opinions. Somehow, someway this country and this Constitution has survived around 250 years of existence, during which, the country grew and prospered unlike any country before. So, in some, perhaps, latent way, Americans know that these founders did something right and their opinions on how we’re handling the country they created still resonate with us because of this.
Two: The Pandemic the Founders Faced
Between 1793-1805, yellow fever spread rapidly and vehemently throughout the young country, infecting even the likes of Hamilton and his wife Eliza.
Jefferson said of the ordeal: “It is called a yellow fever, but is like nothing known or read of by the Physicians. The week before last the deaths were about 40. the last week about 80. and this week I think they will be 200. and it goes on spreading.”
One publisher and bookseller, Carrey, described that “acquaintances and friends avoided each other in the streets, and only signified their regard by a cold nod. The old custom of shaking hands fell into such disuse, that many were affronted at even the offer of the hand.”
In other words, citizens self-adjusted to avoid a dangerous disease, a disease that Carrey estimated took 4,000-5,000 lives out of a town of 50,000, a staggering 10% death rate.
I find no records of a massive government shutdown or even of debates or talks of a government shutdown. There were political squabbles regarding which method of care should be desired, but beyond that, it doesn’t even seem to cross the minds of the founders that the government had any role in a epidemic or pandemic.
Three: Every Founder Would Handle It Differently
Here’s the thing: the Bloomberg article goes on to argue that the founders would have worn masks and would have wanted all of the regulations and shutdowns that we currently experiencing. But in saying this, the authors treat the founders as a homogeneous monolith. The beauty of the founding era was that it was filled with men who had vastly different understandings about how the government should work to protect and promote liberty. No one single founding mind is responsible for the creation of America or the theories she is founded upon.
I’m going to preface this section with a little explanation. First, the founders lived in a very different time where little was known of viruses and disease, but in my explanations below, I’m going to presume that they know what we know.
Also, I cannot actually know what the founders would do should they magically show up today. I’m not them and I’ve never personally known them. I can merely speculate from my research and knowledge of their writings and actions. I can say this. They likely wouldn’t even look at the coronavirus situation as much as choke over the massive power of the federal government coupled with the egregious amount of unconstitutional laws the federal government has passed. They would also likely puzzle over the motivations of the government when it comes to the coronavirus. I doubt they’d immediately buy into the hype surrounding it, given their very low perspectives of human nature.
That being said, here are my speculations about how four notable founders would respond to the coronavirus.
Alexander Hamilton: Ah Hamilton. Should he be resurrected to see the country as it is today and the handling of this virus, he’d have an array of responses. He’d likely first revel in the economic power of this country, mostly due to his genius and design and hope. He’d then have to digest the immense power of the federal (and the state) government, which is far beyond anything even he would have imagined.
His primary focus throughout his life, no matter the stance he took, large or small government, was the preservation of liberty. So, he may push for a slightly stronger federal hand in this coronavirus situation–specifically, to stop the overbearing power of the state governments. Hamilton never really had a problem with a stronger federal government, mostly because he was so afraid of anarchy and felt that a stronger central government would ensure stability and liberty. He would be appalled at the gross overreach of the state governments as a result of the virus and would unabashedly call out those in government for their power grabbing in a time of crisis.
James Madison: Frankly, I think of all the founders, Madison would have the hardest time swallowing or even beginning to understand what is going on today. He would be a strong advocate for states handling the virus locally, (while also strongly disapproving of the way the state governments have handled it) and vehemently against the federal government swallowing more power in the name of safety. Madison, as he demonstrated beautifully during his tenure as president, was quite happy to let a little chaos reign if that meant protecting liberty and I’d expect no difference today. He would attempt to figure out the best way to preserve liberty while also dealing with the situation at hand within Constitutional confines. Once a solution is found, he would fight vehemently for his proposed solution.
Thomas Jefferson: Jefferson would, in theory, take the same stance as Madison. He’d be horrified by the power of the government, federal and state. Jefferson was a strong supporter of a small federal government and power spread amongst the states. He would likely approach this situation with a lot of strong theoretical statements but little practical advise for what or how to handle the practicals of the day. Jefferson was less a man of action and more a man of ideas. He’d rely on Madison to figure out how to put his similar ideas into action.
George Washington: Washington is a harder one to predict. He was less of a politician or brilliant mind and more of a solid leader, a war general and a unifying figurehead. He contributed little to the philosophical debates in which Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Henry and the like all engaged. He did eventually side with the new Constitution (giving it the boost it needed to be ratified), but he was a man of few words and generally stayed out of the political discourse of the day.
Should he magically appear here today, frankly, I think he’d be horrified beyond words at the power of all levels of government and the fact that their talons are in every aspect of American life. He’d be impressed at the military power and then disappointed in the militaristic use of the police to enforce coronavirus regulations. He wouldn’t wax eloquent, but he would likely take a strong stance against government overreach, no matter which government was overreaching.
Four: The Unifying Cause For Liberty
Each of these founders, along with the others I didn’t mention, were fighting for the same thing: liberty. They disagreed on the method (would a stronger federal government better preserve liberty or stronger state governments?) but agreed on the purpose. They all disliked an overbearing and over powerful government because they felt it would threaten liberty.
So, in response to the question in the Bloomberg article: the founders would do anything in their power to preserve liberty if they were here today. They may disagree on exactly how to go about doing this, but they’d all agree that liberty is the end goal. In fact, their varying perspectives and disagreements would make their end solution that much stronger and unifying. The coronavirus would just be another problem to solve in the fight for the preservation and promotion of liberty.
The question today for all Americans is this:
Do we all still share this same end goal?
Because slowly but surely, I’m starting to fear that we don’t.
The Liberty Belle
2 thoughts on “How Would the Founders Handle the Coronavirus? Four Points”
Joanne Freeman, a historian at Yale University specializing in American history, noted that the Founding Fathers would “say a range of things” but would “agree on the existence of something called the ‘common good.’”
“‘The Founders’ would understand — profoundly — the risk inherent in epidemics. [They] didn’t fully understand the cause or cure of curses like cholera and yellow fever, but they understood the need for group action of some kind to fight it,” Freeman wrote in response to Jordan’s tweet.
Washington was a strong believer in science. Very much so in fact. Remember the idea of the common good he believed in, though at the time was applied mostly to his Army, is what led Washington to restrict anyone in the Army from entering or exiting Boston during the 1775/1776 Small Pox outbreak. As well as anyone from there interacting wit his soldiers.
An over 200 year old observation by Alire Delile in a letter to ‘founder’ David Hosack quarantine measures such as isolation & washing are effective in stopping a contagion. Excerpt from a copy of Transactions of the Literary and Philosophical Society of New-York (1815.)
At the levels of infections, the speed of the spread and the cost of hospitalizations, I’d have to believe that the “Founders” would have worked with the experts and followed their advice and did what was best for the people. Not their careers. Now, another factor not considered as part of the assessment here is the people themselves. Through all my readings, I noticed one thing was very striking. The people in those times seemed to think more responsibly in these regards. If they new there was a serious plague, and they new the best practices to prevent getting themselves sick, they would act accordingly in consideration for themselves and others. Now? Too many really do not care. Just my two cents.
Really great comment, very informative and thought provoking. Thank you!