Government Shutdown Question: Would the Founding Fathers Fight Liberalism?


Editor's Note:Although this article was originally published on March 8, 2012, we felt it would be valuable to offer the perspective of a PhD student in history on the ideological debate accompanying the current government shutdown.

If there is one point on which far too many conservatives and libertarians agree, it is that there is something deeply un-American about economic progressivism. It can be found in Ron Paul's references to his liberal opponents not understanding the Constitution or Michele Bachmann's insinuations about "anti-Americans" on the left, and it manifests itself more directly in the jeremiads of Glenn Beck and Mark Levin.

It's easy to see why this line of thinking has so much appeal for economic right-wingers. As a talking point, its effectiveness is hard to surpass; by linking their own ideas to those of America's major leaders and juxtaposing them with the allegedly antithetical beliefs of their opponents, they make it possible to brand those who disagree with them as being at best uninformed and at worst agents of a radical or even downright sinister un-American agenda. Of course, such polemics are only justifiable if they sync up with the facts. A brief overview of American history quickly reveals, however, the truth is much more complicated than any set of sweeping assumptions.

We can start with the Constitution itself. Although often cited as the bulwark in the laissez-fairest's defense of limiting federal involvement in the economy, one of the primary impetuses behind the calling of the Constitutional Convention was the need for central economic authority. Under the initial governmental pact known as the Articles of Confederation, Congress lacked the power to lay or collect taxes, found that requisitions asked of the states were almost always ignored, and couldn't even impose uniform tariff policies throughout the nation. Most significantly, the federal government lacked the instruments with which to effectively confront economic crises that were national in scope, such as the post-war conflict between debtors and creditors which, as James Madison later wrote, "contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Constitution and prepared the mind for a general reform" than any other issue.

The Constitution was thus viewed as an instrument which would solve these problems by granting more power to the central national state. Newly enumerated powers included the ability to pass commercial regulations, "coin money" and "regulate the value thereof," impose taxes, and even regulate how states could punish citizens who had gone bankrupt, then considered to be one of America's most pressing humanitarian issues. While Founding Fathers like Madison wanted even more powers expressly delegated to the federal government (such as being able to establish universities, promote the arts and sciences, secure payment of the public debt, etc.), they didn't push to have them to be listed because, as Madison explained nearly a half-century later, "the rejection or not adopting of particular propositions" was never intended to imply that those powers were thereby excluded from the federal aegis (given the nuances of parliamentary protocol, different enumerations were rejected for any number of reasons). "In expounding the Constitution and deducing the intention of its framers," he explained, "it should never be forgotten that the great object of the Convention was to provide, by a new Constitution, a remedy for the defects of the existing one."

In short, the Founding Fathers did not want Americans to so fear losses to their liberty that they avoided implementing policies needed to meet national exigencies, economic or otherwise. From Madison reminding his readers to avoid "a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names" to Alexander Hamilton scoffing at the notion of people avoiding a given measure "from a remote possibility of its being abused," they believed that state authority should endeavor to avoid extremes - be it the tyranny of King George III or the chaos of the Articles of Confederation -- and instead opt for a middle-ground, with federal authority being usually limited so as to maximize personal freedom but still increased whenever pragmatism called for it. While these arguments did not prevent the Constitution from being fiercely maligned by its opponents (the Antifederalists), the arguments of its supporters (the Federalists) ultimately prevailed, with each of the 13 states eventually deciding to join the union structured around the increased federal powers called for in that document.

Subsequent presidents then interpreted those powers as they deemed appropriate. George Washington chartered the First National Bank, created the federal post office, and enforced the government's right to levy unpopular taxes by quashing the Whiskey Rebellion. Thomas Jefferson, despite espousing a non-interventionist approach to economic questions, saw no inconsistency in championing generous federal subsidies for public school education, the promotion of the arts and sciences, and job-creating transportation infrastructure. Abraham Lincoln formed the Department of Agriculture, passed both the first income tax and the first progressive income tax, and used federal money to build the transcontinental railroad and create land-grant colleges (the forebears of today's public universities). Theodore Roosevelt, responding to how the rise of big business in the mid-19th century fundamentally transformed America's economic landscape, passed laws regulating food and drugs for cleanliness and safety, broke up corporate trusts, and advocated social insurance, minimum-wage laws, pro-union legislation, and eight hour workdays.

While most of these measures are taken for granted by Americans today, they constituted major expansions of state power into areas of the economy that had previously been entirely private at the time they were proposed. More important, they weren't backed by presidents who are currently viewed as controversial by the bulk of the right-wing (such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Barack Obama). Indeed, to see how firmly Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt are etched into the rock of America's national identity, one doesn't need to look any further than Mount Rushmore.

It's important to note that I'm not trying to invert the fallacy made by economic conservatives to liberals' advantage - i.e., my goal is not to argue that America's most important leaders would have definitely favored the progressive economic policies detested by the right-wing today, be it health care reform and New Deal-esque stimulus packages or measures protecting labor organizing rights and welfare policies aiding the poor and disadvantaged. For one thing, the voluminous quantity of writing produced by the Founding Fathers makes it very easy for supporters of both laissez-faire and economic interventionism to find material supporting their respective philosophies (the views of Madison and Hamilton on the general welfare clause being one prime example). In addition, progressives should welcome the debate sparked when conservatives claim that too much government regulation inhibits economic growth, that having the government provide certain goods and services stifles creativity and hinders efficiency, that welfare programs to assist the poor and unemployed disincentivize individual initiative, or that progressive stimulus programs are too expensive to be fiscally safe. While liberals may disagree with these arguments, there is nothing intellectually dishonest about their use by the right-wing in political debate, and if we are confident in the correctness of our position (which we should be), there is no reason to object when we are expected to rebut them.

That said, if conservatives are confident in the merits of their positions, they should not feel the need to fight liberals with calumnies. While socialists want all economic power centered in the state and radical libertarians want it pared down to a bare minimum, the vast majority of Americans are sensible enough to realize that there is a happy medium between those two dangerous extremes, and are conflicted primarily on ascertaining where that medium rests. When conservatives attempt to win them over not by appealing to fact, but by wrongly claiming – either directly or by implication – that their opponents are somehow "un-American," they engage in the strategy of winning hearts by cheating instead of earning minds through honest persuasion.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it best: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

For more reading, feel free to check out the sources I used, including: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn, The Great Challenge: The Myth of Laissez-Faire in the Early Republic by Frank Bourgin, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse by Richard John, The Foundations of American Economic Freedom: Government and Enterprise in the Age of Washington by E. A. J. Johnson, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln by Philip Shaw Paludan, The Rise of Big Business, 1860-1920 by Glenn Porter, and The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt by Lewis L. Gould. I also encourage you to look at primary sources, including Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 by James Madison, The Federalist Papers by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, and The New Nationalism by Theodore Roosevelt.

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