This time of year, I’m drawn to think of the people who founded this country — no surprise there; it’s what the 4th of July is all about — and the kind of world they occupied while creating the form of government we have today.
It is important, I think, to remember that they were for the most part not modifying something that was in existence elsewhere, but building on a metaphorical bare lot. That the founding principles they employed have so well and so effectively provided for the things they could not have imagined is always a wonder to me.
More of a wonder is the nature of the things they did not have, which comprises a list of things that we nowadays would consider impossible to do without.
For instance, they did not have even aspirin, never mind trendy ibuprofen or naproxen. (On the other hand, they didn’t have acetaminophen, either.) And this was at a time when the consumption of alcohol was substantial and widespread, because alcoholic beverages were considered (probably correctly) safer than the questionable drinking water in many locales.
When someone had a toothache, the prevailing remedy was extraction. Bear in mind that the first local anesthetic, cocaine, didn’t come round until the 1850s. While laughing at George Washington’s painful false teeth, bear in mind that his real teeth were yanked with tongs and little or nothing to kill the pain.
General anesthetics were not reliable until ether came to be employed in the 1840s; before then, surgery was accompanied by opium — but not too much, lest it kill the patient. Antiseptics were not routinely used. A lot of things that wouldn’t kill you now would very likely have killed you then. There were no antibiotics yet.
Indoor toilets were so rare as to be effectively nonexistent, though Thomas Jefferson had an indoor privy at Monticello. But the flush toilet did not exist in any practical form until a century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Likewise, baths were not the daily event we enjoy today (indeed, frequent bathing was considered unhealthy in colonial America), and the toothbrush did not get invented until the 1850s, though various methods were employed in an attempt to get teeth clean.
Nor did they have air conditioners or even electric fans, and there would have been no way to power them anyway. Ponder that on one of the hot, humid days we’re bound to have this summer, indeed this week.
The people who met in Philadelphia to declare independence and, later, to frame the constitution (“A republic, if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin replied to a woman — a “Mrs. Powell,” George Will says — who asked what kind of government the framers had given us) did not enjoy much that we consider very basic. Nor could they imagine it.
They met before the steam engine was invented, so reliable upstream river transportation and long-distance railroads were distant dreams — never mind the internal combustion engine or our notion of paved roads. There were no wires stretched on poles, because there was neither electrical distribution nor telephony. To them, the new cutting-edge technology would be the piping of flammable gas into homes and along streets for lighting.
Of course, none of them ever saw or rode in an airplane or was the subject of a photograph. We have no recordings of their voices or movies of them. Computers? Ha! There is no way they could have imagined computing and all the good and bad it has brought us. A letter sent to someone could take months to arrive, and months more for a reply to be delivered. “Instant gratification” was not an 18th-century notion that had much meaning.
Because there was no refrigeration as we know it, beyond a few staples — dried meats and fish, grain meal — their food was highly seasonal, though in some places it was possible to have a root cellar in which some vegetables and a few fruits could be kept long into the winter.
Theirs was a life that today we would view as primitive and terrible. Of course, they didn’t see it as such. They managed to be productive and thoughtful, to be happy. (It must be noted that probably 235 years from now, our way of life will seem lacking, too, especially to those who have the Playstation 260.) Yet when the founders are put into this context their accomplishments become all the more remarkable.
The founders of this nation did not enjoy the modern niceties. Nor could they have anticipated most of them, and the rest they could imagine in only the broadest of terms.
Somehow, though, they managed to come up with a set of principles that allowed the United States quickly to become a world leader in many fields, to become a land of nearly unlimited opportunity, to become the place to which the world’s downtrodden fled.
Now, well over 200 years later, those principles have held up well, requiring only a handful of modifications, most of those being fairly minor.
It astounds me every time I think about it.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.