What the Founding Fathers Would Think of Us

David M. Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachian Professor of History at Stanford University. His scholarship is notable for its integration of economic analysis with social history and political history. Kennedy has written over ten books; his first, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (1970), won the John Gilmary Shea Prize in 1970 and the Bancroft Prize in 1971. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Over Here: The First World War and American Society (1980) and won the Pulitzer in 2000 for his 1999 book Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. Other awards include the Francis Parkman Prize, the Ambassador's Prize and the California Gold Medal for Literature, all of which he received in the year 2000. Kennedy was educated at Stanford and Yale. The author of many articles, he has also penned a textbook, The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, now in its thirteenth edition. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

  • Transcript


Question: What would the Founding Fathers think of us?

David Kennedy: Well I think the founding fathers were time warped to the present moment. And to someone ask their opinion on things . . . First of all, I think we’d have to allow them a long period of observation before they could form a cogent opinion. And that in itself would be . . . The way we could inform them . . . the technological means we would have to give them an idea of what was going on in this continent today would itself be among the things they would find mind boggling. But I think on balance, they would . . . particularly if they had some points of comparison of how other societies in the 21st century are conducting their affairs, they’d be reasonably proud of the fact that we have maintained a larger and more robust, more vital civil society, and managed to keep the state more or less to Jeffersonian proportions compared to a lot of other people. That would be one thing they would find to be consistent with their intentions and the charter that they laid out for the future of the society. I think they’d be of two minds about the role the United States plays in the world at large today. I think they had aspirations – many of them did, at least – to make the United States some kind of example to the world about how to organize a civil society and a democratic or representative government; and indeed how to revolutionize not just domestic society, but the international system itself. And I think they would find much to be proud of there, that the United States has played an exemplary role in the world, particularly in the 50 years or so following World War II. But I think they would be plenty nervous about the overreaching aspects of a lot of recent American policy and role in the world, which we try not merely to exemplify how a praiseworthy or meritorious society does its work. But we try to impose that way of life on others, and I think they would find that a fool’s error.

Recorded on: 7/4/07