We cannot. We cannot, because we have no idea how they lived their daily lives. We have come so far from what they experienced and lived on a daily basis, what actually shaped how they thought, if not what they thought, that we can read what they wrote, but have no idea how they came to that thought, how their thought processes worked to allow them the creativity of their time. We might think of that time as in the stuffiness of textbooks, slow and stodgy, but it was wonderfully creative and inventive. Oh, we are creative in our technical world, but are we really creative in our thoughts? We cannot think as they did if we only inhabit our present linear world of sterile boxes, frenetic energy, glass and steel. We cannot until we really walk in their shoes, once in awhile wake up to the world they saw in their immediate surroundings, let our eyes see what they saw and convey it to our brains to create a pattern of thought. Instead of throwing the past away, we need to walk back into it, really walk into it on a daily basis in our private lives, not just a few hours in a museum, but in every waking moment until we can begin to understand how their thoughts were formed. We need a lengthier personal encounter with the structures of their past, the things they lived with, how they lived in and with them, not merely as relics, but as windows to their lives and their way of thinking.
What they did not see was steel and glass, straight manufactured lines that leave nothing to the imagination, Ikea decorated rooms. There is nothing wrong with the 21st Century. Life now is so much easier for most of us as to our physical wellbeing. They struggled with that and would have been happy not to. Pain and discomfort are not great for the creative though process. There is much of the new technology that they would have embraced wholeheartedly. That technology is so energizing in the modern business world and just getting the job or solution accomplished, if you know what the job or solution is to begin with. Jefferson, so burdened with correspondence, his inventive mind constantly seeking shortcuts to tasks, would have loved email. (His love of proper words would have probably ruled out texting or twitter.) Abigail Adams would have loved reminding John to pick her up some straight pins while in Philadelphia and "not to forget the ladies" by a follow up text. Downloading on the latest Kindle that treatise of Locke they were looking for would have caused any one of them to do a jig around the parlor - no more waiting months for it to come by post. Because their way of thinking was already formed, these inventions would have been incredible tools to obtain the information they sought.
It is the formation of that way of thinking that we must look to. The books in Jefferson's library still would have been the starting point, as reading a paragraph by chance might have inspired a new idea or a new way of applying an old principal of government to their own, whether that principal came from their own English heritage, or from the Old Testament, Koran or even the teachings of Buddha. They read them all, often in the original language. These men that we revere had the remarkable ability to not only have the courage to move forward, but also not to forget the lessons of the past, anyone's past. They would have instantly realized that, although modern technology brings information at the speed of light, it does it basically in a linear fashion. To think out of the box, one needs curves and shadows, not just shortcuts, but sometimes the long way of getting to a place, exploring along the way, an eye to the unexpected, not just the quickest, straightest line to the solution. Solutions of any great import generally need contemplation, not the quick click of an app.
They were not an urban generation. (Yes, Hamilton is an exception, but it also can be argued that his philosophy has led us to the banking, fiscal crisis we are in today.) Their roads twisted and turned to conform with the land - inconvenient at times, of course, but it did allow for thoughts to wander. Today we do not give ourselves time for wandering thoughts. It is either a mad rush of ideas (when we are staying away from the games on our IPhone or answering all our tweets), or a complete emptying of the mind as we hum our mantras. They did not have physical buttons to push for stimulation and escape from bordom. Think of whom you might believe is the most interesting person in your acquaintance. Is it someone who spends the whole time on his or her blackberry, or is it someone who is more of a Renaissance man or woman, with many interests, complexities of ideas, and probably lives in a space surrounded by real books , old furniture and paintings.
When these men reached home, it was not filled with much. Yes, the better off could afford some artwork, but mainly it was the play of light and shadows against the lime-washed wall, curves and figures, that piqued the imagination and could change with the mood. We, today, find ourselves drawn to any painting by Vermeer with its simple quiet contemplation of the figures and the play of light and shadows upon the scene. These men who created our government did not need an actual Vermeer - the first sight upon waking might be the morning light hitting a brass bedwarmer next to the fireplace, the pewter ewer on their dresser, or a silhouette of matching birds' heads which is the inverse shape of the back of a Jacob Smith chair reflecting on the opposite wall, and they
would have smiled, just as we quietly smile at the light hitting a chalice or pearl earring in Vermeer's work. Reflection - a nice way to begin the day. We go to museums to see the furniture and objects of their day without realizing that we are drawn to it, not just for the curves and the turns of those wood parts, but also
They were not a throw away generation - mostly by necessity in their physical world, to be sure. Goods did not come easy. Sometimes they might be altered for the next generation. The same philosophy held for ideas. They were the ultimate recyclers, often making the tired and broken into something charmingly and brilliantly new. This generation has nothing on their creativity just because this generation's advances are going at a more rapid rate. So much is said now of how we must break with the present in order to insure our future. That may be true, but that does not mean breaking with our past. The creativity and complexity of thought that our forefathers exhibited combined with the creativity of the modern technological civilization can be the answer to our future.
How to get there? Fortunately,there is much of our founders' generation to still be enjoyed, to be absorbed, to immerse ourselves in by re-entering the style of life that encouraged that way of creative thought we so desperately need today. Not just in museums. That is not sufficient. Once can personally embrace their homes, or rather the homes of their contemporaries who lived and thought much as they did and carried out the hard work of creating this nation, a place where private thoughts can be retrained to think in their manner. The energy of our urban centers is wonderful, but it is in our ability to give our children and the next generation to govern this country a mixture of the energy of the city, the haven of capitalism, and the Baroque thought of the past that can inspire the future of our country. Now, our children's eyes are most often filled with only new, straight cold lines with the only reflection being glass reflecting other straight steel lines. We think this is all that interests them, but how do we know if they have never been exposed to the idea of thinking and living with our past. It is our duty to expose them. If they wish to reject it, fine, but have you ever seen a bored child at Williamsburg or Sturbridge, for instance, or walking the Freedom Trail? I believe that the young, if only subconsciously, crave this. It has been my experience of living in an old house to witness the wonder of the young upon entering. It would never occur to them to request to live in this way or to even visit, but they never want to leave once here. We hear responses from the older children of "I wish I could live in a house like this" to the subconscious embrace of the younger ones. I can put all the DVD's and modern gadgets I can muster in the library and tell them at family events that they are welcome to retire there to their technology, but I still find them hours later sitting in the parlor, with not an electric gadget in sight and actually talking to each other. When I ask why or remind them they do not have to be polite, I hear "Oh, no. We love sitting here in front of the fire and watching all the candles (think shadows as well)", with their eyes dancing around the room. We are not giving them enough of these personal encounters with the past that can create so many layers to their future thoughts.