Since they can't speak now for themselves, no certain answers are to be found. That doesn't stop discussions, even arguments, over whether Lincoln could be elected today, whether he would be a Republican or a Democrat and whether the Founding Fathers would be pleased or dismayed if they could see America now.
"The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers."
Nasty political attacks didn't just start. Jefferson was attacked viciously at times. He no doubt disliked seeing that stuff printed.
I've suggested in some recent talks that Jefferson quite likely would revise that quote today to include women as well as men and to reflect the decline in the influence of newspapers and the rise of the opinionated cable news commentators. Here's what he might now say:
"The men and women who view nothing at all are better educated than those who view nothing but cable news commentators."
That would be updated wisdom if referring to people who listen only to the most outspoken spielers and spinners for one side, the side they want to believe, no matter the facts. Those folks don't want facts; they want to know their side is right, always and completely, and those who disagree are stupid or evil or probably both.
They don't want objective news; they want "news" they believe.
They want "news" reinforcing that the other side must be lying, must be cheating, must be stealing the election and, thus, must be defeated.
Listening to polarizing views as gospel leads some Americans to believe that the candidate on the other side really does hate women, hate the poor and favor only the filthy rich billionaires who bought him. And leads other Americans to believe the candidate on the other side really does hate business, hate real Americans and favor only blacks and his fellow Muslims.
Perpetuation of polarizing views leads to polarized voters who send polarizing figures to Congress, where compromise becomes a dirty word.
Thinking back again to the Founding Fathers, it's a good thing they would compromise. There would have been no Constitution, no United States without great compromises.
Lest this be misunderstood, I'm not suggesting that folks should never listen to opinionated commentators on cable TV and talk radio and never even glance at the wild stuff on Internet blogs.
Neither Rush Limbaugh nor Al Sharpton should be silenced. Each can be entertaining. Really funny, sometimes when not intending to be.
Nor am I suggesting that conservatives should listen nightly to Rachel Maddow or that progressives must hear Sean Hannity.
There would be less divisive stalemate in the nation, however, if they didn't always listen to and believe one side, never thinking for themselves about the possibility of finding truth somewhere in the middle. They don't have to make themselves sick listening to someone they can't stand, but they can at least turn to more objective presentations of actual news. They could sometimes listen to mainstream fact-checkers without concluding that any challenge to "facts" they want to believe can't be factual.
Internet sites cannot only polarize but also spread flat-out untruths. A partisan website told a story of Chuck Hagel, then in the midst of confirmation hearings for defense secretary, taking a large fee for speaking to "Friends of Hamas." The rumor flew across the Internet and onto cable news and drew critical comments from senators. There's no such group. Hagel never spoke to any group even remotely similar. It begun as a joke that was spread as "news."
Some Americans list Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central as prime sources of news. At least they don't pontificate like cable news commentators, expecting to be taken seriously. But then there was a study showing that a sizeable portion of viewers take Colbert's mock conservative comments seriously.
I bet Lincoln, with his sense of humor, would today understand that comedy satire. And he would warn that you can't believe all of the cable commentators all of the time.
Jack Colwell is a columnist for The Tribune. Write to him in care of The Tribune or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.