Why would it be impossible to compile a group of equal ability as the Founding Fathers?

Like many in the past, we Americans tend to glorify our roots, vilify our enemies, and eulogize our Founders. It would be naive and incorrect to assume that equally capable and equally motivated citizens no longer dwell within the United States, as they did during the Founding Era; just as it would be ignorant to assume our country was predicated upon unimpeachable ethics and unfailingly heroic individuals. Education has become more widespread, the marketplace of ideas is overflowing into millions of homes nationwide through newspapers, radios, telephones, televisions, and the internet, and the all around standard of living has risen significantly. All throughout our nation’s universities and workplaces there are people who are intelligent, informed, witty, and motivated—this is a fact that must first be acknowledged.

However, there is no escaping the curious reality that these are not the people who influence the policy of our nation, as once was the case; these are not the people who make up our government and decide the fate of our nation. The truth is: a number of barriers, tangible and intangible, have come between the government and this pool of intellectualism, since John Jay and the Founding Fathers established the machinery of our nation’s government. In fact, the pool of intellectualism itself has, since that Era, has gone through a state of putrefaction which makes the equally capable individuals within today’s society ill-equipped for governance. There are two factors, I believe, which account for the low proportion of able individuals within today’s society: the first factor is the excessive influence wielded by the masses on our government, when compared to the Founding Era; the second factor is the death of the Statesmen elite class within today’s society, replaced by a new class of specialized elites.

Many contend that in the Founding Era, able minded individuals were available based on circumstance: intellectualisms thrives out of necessity. The Founders didn’t debate because they wanted to, the argument continues; instead, they debated, because they had to. It seems likely that, because of necessity, able individuals would be more attracted to government. The Founding Era, in that sense, resembles ancient Greek and Roman polis structured government, where everything was political by necessity, and individuals would dedicate their lives to the cause. In fact, Sarah Jay appropriately remarked that she felt like a “Roman matron” who was forced to give her husband, John Jay, “so entirely to the public” (Stahr 115). In that sense, clearly, necessity inspired dedicated, able individuals. However, I contend that, perhaps because modern man has been overindulged by prosperity, even if necessity inspired dedication, the structure of our society not only stifles the development of able individuals like the Founders, but also prevents those individuals from accessing our government.

John Jay, before he died, wrote that America would, “experience deep distress” because there are too many people, he believed, who “love pure democracy too dearly; they seem not to consider that pure democracy, like pure rum, easily produces intoxication, and with it a thousand mad pranks and fooleries” (Stahr 375). Jay, like many of his Federalist colleagues, acknowledged that the population is intellectually stratified; he seemed to realize that, in many ways, the most important distinction between groups of individuals, between the masses and the elite, is the intellectual demand they place on themselves. Jay understood that “pure democracy” empowers the masses and neuters the intellectuals, and he feared the toll on American society.

Spanish philosopher José Ortega, in his famous work, Revolt of the Masses, claimed that, “there is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance […] This fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power” (3). The increased influence wielded by the masses, by those who complacently refuse to place intellectual demands on themselves, and the decay of the Statesman politician, seems to be what Jay portended as the dissolving factor in American democracy, a factor which ultimately accounted for the high proportion of able individuals within the Founding Era, and the lack thereof within today’s society. Indeed, John Jay’s fears were realized.

The first factor which accounts for the low proportion of able individuals within modern government is the ascension of the masses to political power, catalyzed by urbanization. During the Founding era, the least educated and least capable were dispersed, diluted, and impotent towards influencing the nation’s course of action. Surely, public opinion was important; however, the intellectual elites understood their role in interpreting the masses’ desires, not catering to them. In fact, Alexander Hamilton notes, “The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and, however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true to fact. The people are turbulent and changing, they seldom judge or determine right” (Chernow 230). Today however, great groups of people have coalesced into great political forces within major cities—this mass of people cannot be ignored, and therefore, within the political arena, must be catered to. The qualities necessary to persuade an ignorant electorate, clearly, are rarely the qualities necessary to rule over it.

During the Founding Era, John Jay remarks, there was, “a degree of intelligence and information in the mass of our people, which affords much room for hope that by degrees our affairs will assume a more consistent and pleasing aspect” (Stahr 124). The intellectual elite, during the Founding Era, were the ones who engineered public policy: the electorate was composed of informed, able minded individuals. The ignorant were detached from and powerless over the political process . As such, during the Founding Era, the determination of our nation’s leader (campaigning) itself was vastly different. The newspaper, during that time, was the primary conduit to the largely informed public: the 85 Federalist Papers used to win ratification of the constitution, for example, which catered to an intellectual elite, were on average four times longer than an editorial today, and substantially more sophisticated. Often, it wasn’t even necessary to campaign at all, as the informed electorate was familiar already with a candidate’s achievements, “[John Jay] played no role in [his campaign for governor in 1795]: he was in England when it started and at sea as it concluded” (Stahr 339). Today, as the masses wield power within the electorate, campaigning is vastly different, and therefore, the government is inaccessible to those whom rely on the construction of cogent, sophisticated arguments, like the Founders. The sound-bite campaigning used to enamor to the electorate, in a large way, makes government inaccessible to able minded individuals.

Additionally, during the Founding Era, before urbanization, society’s scale was much smaller, and individual decisions could reverberate throughout the nation much more pronounced. Even by governmental expenditures, it’s clear that intellectuals were not diluted within layers of bureaucracy, “At the end of Jay’s tenure, when New York had about 600,000 residents, the annual expenditures of the government were about $300,000 per year. The smallest state governments today, those of Vermont and Wyoming, each with about 600,000 residents, spend more than $1.2 billion per year” (Stahr 341). Free from the burden of excessive bureaucratism of modern society, decisions made by the intellectual elite could effectively translate into action. In fact, the government was so accessible to the intellectual elite that The Address to the People of Great Britain, one of the most important documents of The Resistance, was written by John Jay, “someone who, only a few months before, had been uninterested in politics” (Stahr 42). I believe that this accessibility to the government by intellectuals and this power vested in those individuals, in part, accounts for the high proportion of effective individuals during the Founding Era.

A second factor, I believe, which accounts for the low proportion of able individuals in today’s government is the decline of the Statesmen elite, the decline of traditional intellectualism. This decline in Statesmen temperament is due to the degradation of a pure liberal arts education, and the rise of specialized labor.

Pure liberal arts education, which places great importance on the fostering of high character and general intellect, was emphasized during The Founding era. Pure liberal arts education was administered at early colleges, and founded on the belief that character was a result not only of habituation, but of instruction, “For Johnson [John Jay’s Headmaster at King’s College] almost every aspect of the college curriculum was aimed at turning out devout and virtuous young men” (Stahr 10). Higher level education during Jay’s time emphasized thinking for the mere sake of discovery: though having few practically societal applications, Greek and Latin philosophy was a major aspect of the curriculum. This emphasis on character and pure intellectualism, rather than proficiency in a certain sector of society, provided for great freedom of thought and strong moral convictions. These attributes defined the Statesmen elite class of the Founding Era, an elite which worked to interpret the will of the masses, and shape the policy of our nation.

Moral conviction was so strong, in fact, Jay once said to Benjamin Franklin, “I would rather see America ruined than dishonored” (Stahr 148), referencing the strong code of honor throughout the Founding Era, all but lost to modern politics. John Jay and the Founding Fathers were well-rounded intellectuals; they were a class of Statesmen elite which no longer exists, equipped with education which allowed them to approach the founding of a nation through a lens foreign to powerful societal figures of modernity.

Today, education at a higher level is vastly different. As a result, the Statesmen elites have withered away, and a new elite class based around specialized labor has formed. Today, the goal of our higher education system, and our society as a whole, is to produce individuals who are useful and productive in certain areas, not individuals who are of strong character and intellectually developed. Society and education emphasizes being useful, not being cultivated.

These new specialized elites are emboldened by their mastery of certain societal spheres—medicine, law, business—and exert great influence on our government. Doctors are capable within the sphere of medicine, lawyers within the field of law, and businessmen within the field of business; however, just as these specialized elites are educated within their field, they are ignorant in almost all else. Though ignorant, they try to reconcile their sphere of specialty with that of the governance. This is dangerous. In addition, specialized labor, by virtue of being specialized, has created a society which tends to over-categorize, act shortsightedly, and fail to innovate within the government. Even those who espoused the virtues of elitism in the past would be frightened by the elite of today. The low proportion of able individuals within government, I believe, can be accounted for by acknowledging the overall societal adulation of men and women with specialized ability and the overall societal suppression of those who are cultivated intellectually and broadly.

Society today is vastly different than it was during the Founding Era. Then, intellectualism was fostered within individuals and allowed to flourish within the nation’s government. Today, intellectualism with our government has been replaced by a hyper-democratic societal structure, one in which the masses and the specialized elite control the policy of our nation—both ill-equipped to do so. Once again, the United States’ is heading down a political road uncharted within the annals of history. Unfortunately, the social and governmental structures which buttressed the foundation of our nation have rotted through lavishness and greed. Only time will tell whether our nation, when reconstructed by the winds of change, can gather a group of comparable genius like the Founders, or whether we will be demolished by our complacency.

Works Cited
 
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. N.p.: Penguin Books, 2004. 
Ortega, Jose. The Revolt of the Masses. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994. 
Stahr, Walter. John Jay. New York: Hambledon & London, 2005. 

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