Of flintlocks and atom bombs

Considerable time and energy is spent in this country speculating about what the founders of this great nation would do or think or say if they were alive today. It is an interesting exercise and not without merit, but more often than we care to admit a futile one.

The thirteen colonies had a total of population of about 2.5 million, spread out over 375,000 square miles in 1776. Today we have more than 315 million people on 3.7 million square miles. In size, we’ve grown 10-fold; in population,  126-fold.

Technologically, we live in a world that we can barely imagine, never mind what George Washington or James Madison might have envisioned. They lived in a time of flintlock muskets and quill pens; we in an era of atom bombs and iPads.

Washington warned us to beware of foreign entanglements, good advice for a small, weak, young nation far removed from the center of the political and economic universe, much harder for a large, wealthy country from which the rest of the world takes its cues.

The concept of limited government and self-sufficiency is one thing when people are spread thinly across a seemingly endless continent with no one to answer to except themselves, something else when we are elbow-to-elbow, each of our actions infringing in some way large or small on our neighbor. We all hate rules and regulations, but the world is also a different place than it was 248 years ago, or even 50 or 100 years ago.

What would the founders say? Another trap of this line of thinking is that the founders disagreed as much as we do today. From Alexander Hamilton to Patrick Henry, they’re opinions stretched the limits of political thinking. One thing that probably can be said is that they talked, they discussed, they searched for commonalities to keep the ship of state afloat. They had ideals, but they were not necessarily idealists. Their biggest disagreements were, at their roots, economic.

It is proper to look to the founders for advice and insight. But it is also proper to recognize the world has changed, and so have we.

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