“There never was a good war, or a bad peace,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1783. What would Franklin, and the other founders, do about the war in Iraq?

The founders were all revolutionaries, which meant they accepted the likelihood that they would have to fight for their beliefs. And many of them did – Gen. George Washington, Col. Alexander Hamilton, Col. James Monroe, Capt. John Marshall. The pledge of “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” that ends the Declaration of Independence was no idle rhetoric.

Franklin wrote his pacific remark as he was negotiating the Peace of Paris (1783), which ended the American Revolution on terms very favorable to America; he couldn’t have gotten those terms without the seven years of struggle that preceded the peace talks.

Several elements of the Iraq war were already present in the founders’ world. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush put Iraq in the Axis of Evil, along with Iran and North Korea. The founders had their own list of rogue nations – countries that defied civilized norms. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the Barbary States of the North African coast ran a naval protection racket in the Mediterranean, preying on the ships of countries that had not paid them tribute in advance, and ransoming the crews; if their demands were not met, their prisoners were held as slaves. This was done in the name of Islam, since the Barbary States were Muslim and their victims infidels, though the Muslim extortionists were chiefly interested in the infidels’ wallets.

Four presidents had to deal with Barbary piracy. George Washington and John Adams tried to buy off the Barbary States. Thomas Jefferson sent the Navy to fight them. “Nothing will stop the eternal increase of these pirates,” he wrote, “but the presence of an armed force.” Jefferson captured one of the Barbary States’ larger towns in 1805 (hence the line in the Marine Corps hymn, “to the shores of Tripoli”) and got the Barbary pirates to lower their prices. The menace didn’t end, however, until James Madison sent a second navy in 1815, which compelled the Barbary States to pay damages for what they had done.

Pre-emptive war

The founders were also familiar with the concept of pre-emptive war. When Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, his old enemy Alexander Hamilton congratulated him on his “important acquisition.” His only quarrel with Jefferson was that he had not simply taken the city of New Orleans by some “prompt, bold and vigorous” action.

The administrators of the Louisiana Territory had been interfering with America’s commercial use of the Mississippi River, guaranteed by a previous treaty, and this, in Hamilton’s opinion, justified “resistance against the injustice.”

The founders were not strangers to the grim prospect of weapons of mass destruction, in the form of germ warfare. In 1775, the first year of the Revolution, George Washington suspected that the British who occupied Boston were releasing people infected with smallpox to the Americans’ lines. In 1781, the last year of the fighting, British general Alexander Leslie proposed a similar scheme to his commander, Lord Cornwallis, sending infected slaves who had sought British protection back to their rebel masters.

Then as now, it was hard to know what the enemy actually did: Smallpox raged generally in North America throughout the 18th century, and since targeting civilians was against the laws of war, the British had excellent reason to conceal anything they may have done. Thinking it better to be safe than sorry, Washington gave his troops a primitive form of inoculation against smallpox during the winter the army spent at Valley Forge in 1778.

The founders tried to get the best intelligence they could. Washington grew in stature as a spymaster throughout the revolution, developing human intelligence close to and behind enemy lines.

One of his many agents in occupied New York during the Revolution was Hercules Mulligan, a merchant tailor who supplied uniforms to British officers. Still, there were many failures and near-misses, from the capture and hanging of the American agent Capt. Nathan Hale, to the fortuitous discovery of the most highly placed enemy mole in American history, Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold.

Cautious men

The diplomacy of the founders, in war and peace, was generally cautious. Jefferson once wrote that Washington never acted “until every circumstance, every consideration was maturely weighed”; the same applied to all the founders as foreign policymakers. They knew America was a small country, threading its way in a world of battling superpowers; the French Revolution, which began four months after Washington was inaugurated as president, led to more than two decades of world war. America kept out of it until the very end, the War of 1812; we were lucky to have waited so long, because that war, our second, was a dicey draw.

Still, they knew caution would not always be enough. At their most hopeful, they offered, in Jefferson’s words, “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations.” But at their most realistic they expected passion and conflict. Hamilton put it most bluntly in the “Federalist Papers”: “Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age” and realize that we “are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”

The founders would have weighed every consideration before going into Iraq. But if they had concluded that Saddam Hussein menaced them, they would not have hesitated to take him down.

Richard Brookhiser, senior editor of National Review, is the author of “What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers,” to be published this week by Perseus Books.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.