What Would Thomas Jefferson Think of Sarah Palin?

Would the Founding Fathers have approved of an inexperienced No. 2?

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Stephen Hayward is a political scientist and a credentialed conservative scholar, but it needs to be noted that he is not a professional—or an objective—historian.

In a recent essay, which conservatives have taken to quoting with approval, Hayward asserts that the Founding Fathers would be thrilled that an "uncertified" person like Sarah Palin is up for one of the highest offices in the land.

Palin is a living testament to our democratic principles, says Hayward, and the criticism of her nomination raises profound questions, like "whether we still believe in the American people's capacity for self-government" and "what we mean when we affirm that all American citizens are equal" and whether "we tacitly believe there are distinct classes of citizens."

Well, no.

It does no such thing.

The question raised by Hayward's essay is whether a conservative economic elite, determined to retain power after years of dismal failure, can sway votes by making such silly arguments.

Yes, starting at the top with President George W. Bush, a bona fide aristocrat and graduate of both Harvard and Yale (whose family has perfected the useful art of disguising its lineage), there are many elite Ivy Leaguers occupying positions of power in Washington.

And then there are a lot of people like Dick Cheney (University of Wyoming), Harry Reid (Utah State University), and Nancy Pelosi (Trinity College)—smart, tough kids from backgrounds no better than Sarah Palin's who proved themselves in long years of service and made it, as she has, with commendable pluck and drive.

They didn't need concocted "elitist conspiracy" theories to handle their critics. They did it by working hard, succeeding at their jobs, showing know-how, and (gasp!) compiling impressive résumés.

Snobs? Washington is full of them. Always has been. Read how it welcomed Andrew Jackson and Abe Lincoln and their spouses to town. It's a city of pecking orders and bruised feelings and folks who look over your shoulder to see if somebody more important just walked in the room.

Yet somehow, the Republic, equality, and self-government have survived.

Palin is getting a hasty and inelegant public vetting, and taking flak from her opponents in a rough election, nothing more. Geraldine Ferraro and Dan Quayle faced rougher trials, and their running mates were not so old, nor had suffered from cancer.

That youngster Barack Obama has been running nationally for almost two years, showing Americans his character and grit, and displaying the "talent and public spirit" that, Hayward argues, the Founders sought in elected officials. Give Palin a few months, and we will all feel as comfortable with her as well, or not.

Hayward is a veteran of two conservative think tanks (Heritage and the American Enterprise Institute) that were established with the explicit purpose of bending political thought to the right in America, and he writes for the Weekly Standard, a tout sheet for the cause. He has an ideological ax to grind.

Fair enough. I commend him for his honesty in saying, at the outset, that "American political thought since its earliest days has been ambiguous or conflicted about the existence and character of a 'natural aristocracy' of governing talent."

That is the kind of real, and modest, conclusion one should make when approaching that generation of planters, merchants, lawyers and citizen-soldiers who mixed French and English political theory with their frontier experiences and declared "all men are created equal." There are too many Founders with so many conflicting viewpoints, trimmed and adjusted over the course of their lives, and subject to the necessity of political compromise, for any polemicist like Hayward (or me) to issue blanket statements about their beliefs.

See for yourself. Go to the public library and—away from the rants of Internet proselytizers—read up on what the Founders thought about religion.

For every devout reference to Providence made by these deists, you'll find a counterveiling example (like The Jefferson Bible) to persuade you that the first generation of Americans, incontestably, was the most secular.

Unfortunately, Hayward does not maintain his humility for long. The simplicity and purity of inexperience, he contends, is a virtue prized by the patriots.

Today's "establishment is affronted by the idea that an ordinary hockey mom—a mere citizen—might be just as capable of running the country as a long-time member of the Council on Foreign Relations," he contends. "This closed-shop attitude is exactly what both Jefferson and Adams set themselves against."

As appealing as it sounds, this statement is a distortion. There is a difference between snobbery and folly. None of the Founders nominated barkeeps or stable boys—mere citizens—in the name of democracy, to high office.

Nor did they elevate obscure pols from the hinterland. Indeed, for the first four decades, they kept the office in the immediate family. Just look at the roster of our first six presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams.

They were realists. They valued proven skills in war and peace; demonstrated talent and experience, and a good education—not to mention white skin, male chromosomes, property, family wealth, and good breeding.

And they had a healthy disdain of popular passions.

Having noted how difficult it is to pin down our forebears, I should not get into a battle of selective quotations. But here's one from James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, a great democrat, warning about democracy: "Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."

Surely, the Founders feared tyranny. Since they happened to be squaring off against the British Empire, they tended to condemn its despotic king and arrogant aristocracy.

But they also gave us a constitutional republic, not a direct democracy, with lots of checks and balances—like a strong executive, a Supreme Court, the Bill of Rights, and a Senate of peers with six-year terms—to distill the passions of the popularly elected House.

"If the legislative authority be not restrained," said Pennsylvania's James Wilson, an unsung hero of the Constitutional Convention, "there can be neither liberty nor stability.

"In a single House there is no check, but the inadequate one, of the virtue and good sense of those who compose it," Wilson warned.

I'm a lifelong acolyte of the dreamy, provocative Jefferson ("For here we are not afraid to follow truth, wherever it may lead") in a town where both political parties are dominated by cynical, greedy, snobby Hamiltonians. I want to agree with Hayward. I cannot.

Palin needs a good vetting. America needs to know who she is. Then we'll decide if she's qualified to be first in the line of presidential succession. I suspect that, despite the actuarial tables, we'll conclude that she's OK.

So spare me the conservative tizzy.

If "equality" or our "capacity for self-government" were giving way to a creeping, class-conscious elitism, how could the grandson of a Kenyan farmer be knocking on the White House door, hoping to replace the Bushes of Greenwich?