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Education Reporter

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What Would the Founders Do? Richard Brookhiser, Basic Books, 2006, 261 pp., $26

This engaging book attempts to answer many of the crucial questions of our times from the perspective of America's founding fathers. What would the founders do about terrorism, outsourcing, Social Security, Intelligent Design, embryonic stem cell research, school vouchers, or welfare? Brookhiser's book contributes to the discussion of the issues themselves and also to our understanding of the founders.

It would be all too easy for the writer of a book like this to color the founders with his own opinions, and to end with a portrait of them that bore an uncanny resemblance to himself. Thankfully, Brookhiser resists. He proceeds with obvious caution, and bases each response on what the founders actually said and did.

What would the founders do about rogue states? Brookhiser tells what they did about Tripoli and other nations that once extorted tribute from our ships on the Mediterranean. What would the founders have thought about tuition tax credits or school vouchers? Brookhiser describes education in America in their time.

Some of the questions require less application than others. About the death penalty, gun control, luxury taxes, school curricula, covert ops, and more, the founders' opinions are relatively easy to discern. They faced these same questions in their own context.

The book's many details bring the founders vividly to life. For example, in Benjamin Franklin's curriculum for the nascent University of Pennsylvania, he included gardening, mechanics, drawing, and swimming, alongside academics; but he promoted history as the most important subject. Studying history would bring up many controversial moral issues: the more, the better, in Franklin's view. "Publick disputes warm the imagination, whet the industry, and strengthen the natural abilities."

Brookhiser treats the founders' ideas and ideals with fairness and respect. He commemorates their strengths without ignoring their weaknesses, and always presents evidence of their opinions and beliefs. Since he speculates only cautiously about the founders' stances on divisive issues, the most likely criticism from readers will be that surely, in some cases, the founders would answer much more emphatically than the book suggests.

However, the book's approach is to say only what it can say for certain. It leaves readers with the inspiration of the founders' intellectual example, and the raw material of information about their lives and thoughts. It provokes us to continue asking, "What would the founders do? And what will we do?"

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