Allow me to take a moment to wish America a belated happy birthday. Our Founding Fathers declared independence 237 years and one day ago, a happy occasion marked across the country with hamburgers, hot dogs, beer and fireworks.
Let us raise one of those beers, then, to the founders, who gave us a form of government that both enshrined and protected concepts like liberty and principles of freedom and self-governance, but has had the flexibility to endure through centuries of ever-accelerating change.
If you doubt that the genius of the political system involves adaptability and flexibility, then consider the still-nebulous 2016 presidential field and ask how many of the 2016 White House wannabes could the founders have even conceived of holding that office? It's important to remember how astonishingly few. (And do we even need to point out that a black president would have been impossible in their lifetimes?)
I consulted with my old friend Taylor Stoermer, a historian at Colonial Williamsburg, about what the political landscape looked like back when the founders were framing our democratic republic. "After the American Revolution, after the Constitution, when you're talking about the kind of people who are a part of the political community, you're talking about white male property owners," he says, continuing, "You're talking about white, male Protestants. Generally you're talking about not even evangelicals."
What does that mean for 2016? Start with the early acclaimed frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. A former senator and former secretary of state, Clinton would have one problem in the age of our founders: her gender. They weren't called the Founding "Fathers" for nothing, after all. And that would not only be a Hillary problem. Other women reportedly pondering 2016 bids include Democrats like Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as Republican Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Or consider one of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination (at least until he became the enduring face of an immigration reform bill many in the GOP base viscerally dislike), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. While he ticks the "male" box, a founders-era Rubio would be disqualified by two other characteristics: his race and his creed. Hispanics had no place in colonial political society, and Catholics were viewed with deep suspicion – so deep that it would not be finally uprooted for nearly 200 years – as owing loyalty to both the United States and to the Vatican.
If you're removing Hispanics from the rolls of possible 2016 contenders you can remove Rubio as well as New Mexico's Martinez, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, he of the 2012 Democratic National Convention keynote address. Other nonwhites who get mentioned as potential candidates include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Haley and Rice.
The number of 21st-century possible presidential contenders who would fail the mainline Protestant test is even longer: Say goodbye to Catholic Democrats Joe Biden (U.S. vice president), Brian Schweitzer (former Montana governor), Castro, Andrew Cuomo (New York governor), Gillibrand and Martin O'Malley (governor of Maryland) as well as Catholic Republicans Rubio, Martinez (she scores a colonial ineligibility hat trick), Jindal, Ayotte, Paul Ryan (House Budget Committee chairman when not serving as Mitt Romney's running mate), Sandoval, Rick Santorum (former Pennsylvania senator), Bob McDonnell (governor of Virginia) and Jeb Bush (born a Protestant but converted to Catholicism). And, if we want to keep with the spirit of '76, we could probably remove evangelicals Cruz, Walker, Rice, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Govs. Mike Pence of Indiana and John Kasich of Ohio, both of whom were born Catholic and then born again.
What separated these groups from white, male, mainline Protestant landowners in the 18th century was the sense of who had a "stake in the future of America, and that stake has to be tangible, which means that you've got to own a piece of the ground," Stoermer says. Landowners could be counted on to vote for the interests of the community. Others were of dubious loyalty: Women were seen to owe allegiance to their husbands, nonwhites to their employers and Catholics to the pope.
And yet collectively these groups – the "Benetton ad we have of presidential candidates," as Stoermer aptly puts it – will almost certainly provide the country with its next president. Indeed, of 30 prospective candidates listed at the blog Prez16, only two – Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – could have been realistic candidates at the nation's founding.
Which brings us back to flexibility, adaptability and the founders' genius. How can anyone get caught up in trying to discern their original intentions when the system they designed has grown beyond the limitations imposed upon them by the times in which they lived?
"This is going to be unlike any other cycle in American history when it comes to presidential candidates," Stoermer says. "And I honestly think it's something the founders would have been thrilled about" because it demonstrates the expansion of self-governance beyond what they could even have conceived of.
Happy birthday, America.
- Read Peter Roff: The 4th of July, John Adams and a New Nation
- Read Brian Walsh: Obamacare Delay Won't Save Democrats From 2014 Voters
- Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad