Every American generation, as it ages, becomes aghast at the changes it sees coming. This was never more true than for the very first American generation - the well-educated aristocratic Founding Fathers who gave birth to the world's first and, somehow, lasting, egalitarian democratic republic. Federalists like Hamilton and their opponents like Jefferson and Madison alike had envisioned a "classical" democracy with deep roots in Rome and Athens. Instead, as they grew old, they saw about them a money-grubbing, anti-intellectual country where, as Jefferson wrote in his last year, the land was filled with citizens "whom we know not, and who know not us."
Representative among them was a rural Pennsylvania politician named William Findley. Findley, born in Ireland in 1741, arrived in the colonies in time to rise from a private to a captain in the revolutionary War. He served in both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature, and was elected as an anti-Federalist to the U.S. House for terms from 1791-1799 and 1803-1817. (In 1811 he was designated the "Father of the House," the first to be awarded the honorary title.)
Findley was among the first to promote the interests of the "self-made man," spurning the aristocratic goal of "public interest" as little more than the self-interest of the rich. This sort of thing drove most of the Founders nuts.
I thought of Findley today as I read a first-hand report in the latest New York Review of Books from last month's Tea Party Convention in Nashville. Author Jonathan Raban went to the convention not as a journalist, but as a member of the movement, figuring his libertarian disgust with government surveillance, warrantless wiretapping, etc., qualified him.
His report centered on ways that the convention showed schisms among the tea sets. It seems religious-right folks didn't really turn on the anti-big government Ayn Rand types. The latter were rather unmoved by rousing speeches by birthers, those who saw Obama's election as "our Pearl Harbor" and our subjugation into the Third Reich, and folks who figured the election was the result of a plot by immigrants.
And then came feature speaker Sara Palin, apparently loved by all who were there. You've heard her stuff before. But Raban made the point that just as liberals take for granted Palin's stupidity and unfitness for office, so certain conservatives feel the same about Obama. And if the current president proves unable to reverse the disasters he inherited from Bush, those conservatives, despite their schisms, might just gather enough middle-ground votes to put Palin in office.
Somewhere, Thomas Jefferson may be shaking his head yet again.