Politics then and now: Hillary Clinton and the Founding Fathers

Hillary Clinton is no Thomas Jefferson, and Marco Rubio is no Alexander Hamilton. Why would the Founding Fathers be so out of place in today's U.S. Congress?

Continental Congress Appointing George Washington Commander and Chief - Swearing in of the 2015 Congrees
Continental Congress Appointing George Washington Commander and Chief - Swearing in of the 2015 Congrees

WASHINGTON, May 26, 2015 — Prior to the American Revolution, when Patrick Henry declared “Give me liberty or give me death,” his words had real meaning. By advocating revolution against England, the world’s most powerful nation with the world’s largest army and navy, the Founding Fathers risked everything.

If the revolution had failed, which seemed likely to many, they would have lost their property and their lives. George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s at Monticello, James Madison’s at Montpelier, all would have been confiscated by the victorious British had the war been lost.

The Congressman, Obama and Clinton

When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, only one third of the population of the 13 colonies supported breaking away from the British Empire.

Those who supported independence put their lives on the line.

In his book “American Creation,” historian Joseph Ellis writes:

“The revolutionary generation won the first successful war for colonial independence in the modern era, against all odds, defeating the most powerful army and navy in the world … The British philosopher and essayist Alfred North Whitehead observed that there have been only two instances in the history of Western civilization when the political leaders of an emerging nation behaved as well as anyone could reasonably expect. The first was Rome under Caesar Augustus and the second was America’s revolutionary generation … fThe late eighteenth century was the most politically creative era in American history. They were, in effect, always on their best behavior because they knew we would be watching, an idea we should find endearing because it makes us complicitous in their greatness.”

The Founding Fathers did not consult the colonial equivalent of pollsters to find out what people wanted to hear. Instead, they developed ideas about how a government should be run and how freedom could be established in an environment of order and law. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were prime movers behind the Constitutional Convention and the chief authors of “The Federalist Papers,” an undertaking to convince Americans to support the Constitution of 1787.

President Obama asks Congress for permission. Why?

In his biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” Ron Chernow notes,

“He had a pragmatic mind that minted comprehensive programs. In contriving the smoothly running machinery of a modern nation-state—including a budget system, a funded debt, a tax system, a central bank, a custom service, and a coast guard—and justifying them in some of America’s most influential state papers, he set a high-water mark for administrative competence that has never been equaled. If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.”

Hamilton, a careful reader of the skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume, quoted Hume’s view that in framing a government, “every man ought to be supposed a knave and to have no other end in all his actions but private interests.” The task of government, he believed, was not to stop selfish striving, a hopeless task, but to harness it to public good. In starting to outline the contours of his own vision of government, Hamilton was spurred by Hume’s dark vision of human nature, which corresponded to his own.

From the “First Philippic” of Demosthenes, he plucked a passage that summed up his conception of a leader as someone who would not pander to popular whims. “As a general marches at the head of his troops,” so should wise political leaders “march at the head of affairs, insomuch that they ought not to wait the event to know what measures to take,  but the measures which they have taken out to produce the event.”

The Founding Fathers—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Hamilton, Franklin and others—were an extraordinary group of men, truly representing a golden age in our history. The creation of the new American government clearly required both Republicans and Federalists, both a Jefferson and a Hamilton, both those jealous of individual freedom and those concerned that such freedom could only exist and be maintained within an orderly society ruled by law.

In a society of only a few million people, we produced leaders who have stood the test of time. Such a generation has never again been seen, on these shores or elsewhere.

These men did not hire ghost writers for “The Federalist Papers.”  Their words and their thoughts were their own. They did  not hire consultants and pollsters to tell them what their views should be on the issues of the day. They often took highly unpopular positions and did their best to convince their colleagues and the public at large of their merits.

They risked their lives and everything they owned to declare independence and knew very well that the possibility of losing everything was very real.

The contrast between the Founding Fathers and those engaged in public life today could not be greater. In the colonial period, our leaders risked their fortunes for the principle of independence. Today, men and women make their fortunes through their participation in politics.

Hillary Clinton, for example, reported that she earned $10.2 million from 45 speeches in 2014, her first full year out of government. Of that, almost $4.6 million came from clients who lobbied to shape policies on issues as varied as taxes, trade, financial regulation and health care.

The Clinton Foundation received as much as $26.4 million in previously undisclosed payments from major corporations, universities, foreign sources and other groups. The money was paid as “fees” for speeches for Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton.

Clinton & Adelson: U.S. Foreign Policy for sale to the highest bidder

There can be little doubt that this money was given to the Clintons because of her candidacy for president and her ability to provide assistance to those contributing. Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the money-tracking Center for Responsive Politics, says:

“It’s big money. They’re spending it because they have far greater sums riding on those decisions that they’re trying to shape. Every man, or woman in the street thought Hillary Clinton would run again.”

Even those who are sympathetic to Clinton’s candidacy, such as liberal Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus have expressed dismay. “Again with the speeches. The gross excessiveness of it all, vacuuming up six-figure checks well past the point of rational need or political seemliness.”

But Hillary Clinton is hardly alone. Norman R. Braman, a Florida billionaire who has long bolstered the career and personal finances of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is reported ready to invest $10 million or more for the senator’s presidential candidacy. Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson has auditioned possible Republican candidates who seek his support. Endorsement of the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, including his rejection of a two-state solution, is a requirement.

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared, he made the mistake of referring to the West Bank as “occupied territory,” which, of course, it is under International law, as well as U.S. policy, under both Republicans and Democrats. Christie quickly apologized for his “mistake.”

Jeb Bush also sought Adelson’s support and turned his back on long-time Bush family friend and former Secretary of State James Baker to get it. Baker, in a recent talk to J Street, was critical of Israel’s rejection of the two-state solution, which was unacceptable to Adelson.

Beyond this, many candidates don’t seem to know where they stand on the issues, except when their pollsters tell them what is necessary to win in Iowa or South Carolina or New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton once was a supporter of the trans-Pacific trade pact being considered in the Congress. Now, she refuses to take a position—or even take questions from the press. Jeb Bush once supported Common Core educational standards. Now he opposes them. Scott Walker was first hot and then cold on a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Marco Rubio was in and then out on offsetting increased military spending with other cuts. And what exactly is his current position on immigration?

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., is sure of one thing: His opposition to gambling on the Internet. This, of course, is a crusade of Adelson, who wants no competition for his gambling casinos. He seems to favor competition and free enterprise in every commercial undertaking but his own.

The contrast between the political leaders of America’s golden age and those we observe today could not be more stark. No one today is risking his life, property or honor for anything. The state of our government reflects this fact all too well.


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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.