The Magazine

The Spirit of ’76

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

Jefferson

So wrote Thomas Jefferson, in what turned out to be the last words he set to paper, in a June 24, 1826, letter to Washington, D.C., mayor Roger Weightman. Jefferson was regretfully declining an invitation to travel to the nation’s capital to celebrate the 50th anniversary of American independence with the District’s citizens as well as with “the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword.” Jefferson explained he couldn’t travel because of “circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control.” He died at home a few days later—on July 4.

Jefferson had been 33 when he served as the principal author of the Declaration. His fellow member of the drafting committee, John Adams, also died on July 4, 1826. He had been 40 in 1776. The man who was at different times Jefferson’s and Adams’s adversary, arguably the greatest of the Founders, Alexander Hamilton, as a 20-year-old in 1775, admonished his countrymen that “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records.” He then while in his early 20s served as General George Washington’s chief of staff during the Revolution, was at age 33 one of the two primary authors of the Federalist Papers, and at age 34 became secretary of the Treasury.

The Founders were young. That doesn’t mean they weren’t respectful of the wisdom of the ages. “Experience must be our only guide,” John Dickinson instructed his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress. And today, too, as the 237th annual return of Independence Day refreshes our recollection of our rights and an undiminished devotion to them, experience has its claims. Experience, after all, teaches the price of weakness abroad and of bloated government at home. Experience also provides guidance for remedying these problems. The lessons of Reagan and Thatcher aren’t so distant as to be inaccessible nor so difficult as to be inapplicable.

But sober experience won’t be enough to remedy our ills. We’ve never been so weak while facing such dangerous circumstances abroad. We’ve never run up this kind of debt except when engaged in a world war. We’ve never had to repeal and replace a program like Obamacare. We’ve never had to deal with the near-dissolution of the family among sectors of our society. We’ve rarely had elites so out of touch with middle America and, in some ways, with reality. 

So the remedies can’t simply be based on experience. They will have to be bold and will necessarily be doubtful. They will have to be of the kind characteristically chanced by the young. 

This includes the young in spirit, of course. Chronology is not destiny. In 1980 the 69-year-old Ronald Reagan was more youthful in attitude than all the earnest 30-year-old establishment wannabes. In 1940 the 65-year-old Winston Churchill was more youthful in spirit than all the world-weary appeasers born decades after him.

In the 2014 elections, the fading appeal and dogmatic rigidity of reactionary liberalism will be nicely embodied by the Democrats’ congressional leaders, the septuagenarians Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Within the executive branch, a septuagenarian vice president and sexagenarian secretaries of defense and state are fronted by a young president with old ideas, tired views stubbornly impervious to change, and an increasingly cranky temperament. Liberalism’s standard-bearer in 2016 will most likely be Hillary Clinton, who has maneuvered through four decades in American public life manifesting that characteristic combination of today’s liberalism—a keen attention to personal grasping and advancement along with the profession of glittering generalities and the adoption of fine-sounding policies regardless of actual real-world consequences. About these Bourbons of elite liberalism, one can only echo Talleyrand: They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. 

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