The Founders Would Be Appalled

by Don Boudreaux on July 4, 2009

in History, Myths and Fallacies, Politics

Cato's David Boaz defends the memory and principles of America's founding generation from the grotesque misrepresentations of modern politicians.

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vidyohs July 4, 2009 at 7:03 pm

First comes organization
then comes expansion
then comes administration
then comes defending territory
then comes dividing the spoils

And you sir, how would you like your piece of the pie?

Ray Gardner July 4, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Affluence always breeds apathy, and apathy is corrosive.

I used to cringe when my dad would talk about America's golden years being past, but it is true. We've peaked.

The greatest generation wasn't so great in context to their ancestors, but they just happen to be the last of those generations before we crested that hill.

dg lesvic July 4, 2009 at 9:34 pm

Isolationism was a reasonbale policy back in those days, but the world is a lot smaller now, and today Teheran and New York are not much further apart geopolitically than Lexington and Concord in those days.

Pingry July 4, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Don,

Yeah, we all know that modern politicians will do anything to oppress the many to benefit the few, but seriously, does anyone really believe in the "memory" of the "founders" and "patriots", many of whom paid lip service to ideas of liberty and justice, yet were slaveowners themselves, not the least of which was George Mason himself?

If we really want to understand the Fourth of July, I highly recommend reading a speech written by a real libertarian, Frederick Douglass, entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

Douglass gave his speech on July 5, 1852, at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, N.Y., where his powerful words rang out. "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?"

Indeed, Douglass would claim that the nation is "your nation", the fathers "your fathers." The nation's story is taught in "your common schools, narrated at your firesides, unfolded from your pulpits."

Below is a full passage:

"I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony."

So, let's not fool ourselves into thinking that the "founders" were noble people, and somehow different from modern politicians.

They were savage hypocrites who talked and wrote about freedom and liberty, but only as it pertained to them and people like them, while grossly denying it to others.

Suddenly, their memory isn't so nice after all, is it?

–Pingry

Gil July 4, 2009 at 10:05 pm

Obviously the 'founding fathers' hadn't heard of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

vidyohs July 4, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Pingry,

I understand your thoughts, and I understand those of Fredrick Douglass; I do not only understand them but I emphathize as well.

I too chafe at what I know is privilege and not freedom for you and I. I want freedom as sincerely as did Fredrick Douglass.

That being said there are two factors that we must take into consideration before condemning the founding fathers.

First is the fact that we all do the best we can with the wisdom we have at any given moment. The founding fathers acted the best that they could given the time, place, past, mores, and conventional wisdom that they had. In retrospect it is easy to condemn them; but, I suggest perhaps not justified. They set in place, codified the law, that led to the freedom for all; and, they could easily have ignored those principles, or made them specific to a race, instead of saying "all men are created equal".

I believe that if you sit back and think on it, you will realize that they knew what they were doing and knew that it would take time to make it all happen.

The second thing we must consider is though Fredrick Douglass was a formidible intellect, he too was limited in his concepts by his time, place, and education.

Fredrick Douglass had no real idea or understanding of how far his life, customs, mores, ideals, goals, and cultural outlook had changed from those of the Africans who remained in Africa.

So, in effect he was speaking no more than inflamatory rhetoric in pursuit of a goal. It does not matter that the goal was worthy and noble, he still spoke from his own personal bubble.

vidyohs July 4, 2009 at 10:25 pm

Gilduck,

Why do you say "the founding fathers"?

Shouldn't you be saying, "Your founding fathers".

Pingry July 4, 2009 at 10:40 pm

Nonsense!

Of course everyone is limited in concepts of time, place, and education, because after all, the crux of spontaneous order is that we're incredibly limited in our knowledge and experience, and the culture in which we are socialized.

So, to say that Frederick Douglass, like the founding fathers, was "limited in his concepts by his time, place, and education" is an absolutely meaningless statement, because every single person who walked this earth has been.

I, for one, would not look down upon the "founders" and "patriots" like, say, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, George Mason, etc. if they chose not to be slaveowners, even in the context of a society that thought that owning other people for dirt cheap labor was acceptable.

In fact, these men knew what they were doing was not only morally reprehensible, but entirely against everything which they were fighting for, and yet they still held these people as slaves!

To be clear, they were hypocrites who talked a big game about liberty and justice, but were abject failures because they lacked the courage to follow their passionate convictions. They were pure cowards, and nothing better.

So, they are no different than most modern politicians of every stripe, in every country, who play the same game.

–Pingry

Ray Gardner July 4, 2009 at 10:46 pm

The beauty in the 4th (what it stands for as a holiday actually) is not the men that we call the Founders, because, as has been pointed out, they were just men who were power seeking, selfish politicians themselves.

However, the form of government that was laid down by these men set the stage for the most dynamic, and freest civilization the world has ever known.

Slavery existed at one time under this system, women couldn't vote, certain prejudices were tolerated or even codified. But in the light of the Constitution, we are all free and equal in the eyes of the law, and those things could not stand.

Thus the slave owning, greedy power seekers of our founding put in to motion a system of government that would free their slaves, empower their wives, etc.

The down side is that the culmination of so much freedom coincided with a level of affluence that our national character could not withstand.

Pingry July 4, 2009 at 11:07 pm

Okay, let me omit the curse words, and resend this:

Ray Gardner,

I agree with you when you wrote that "the form of government that was laid down by these men set the stage for the most dynamic, and freest civilization the world has ever known."

But I passionately hate this romantic notion regarding the founders of this country, purported by many libertarians and conservatives, as somehow being noble and good, and different from modern politicians, when in fact, many of them were hypocritical slaveholders.

To debunk this nonsense about these people as somehow being outstanding American citizens, I will emphasize my last post for the other readers to be perfectly clear:

"…these men knew what they were doing was not only morally reprehensible, but entirely against everything which they were fighting for, and yet they still held these people as slaves!

To be clear, they were hypocrites who talked a big game about liberty and justice, but were abject failures because they lacked the courage to follow their passionate convictions. They were pure cowards, and nothing better."

That's my beef…….that so many libertarians and conservatives look up to these cowards as somehow superior and worthy of emulation, when they failed at following up on even the most basic tenets of their writings and speeches.

In fact, had they not enslaved people, then yes, I probably would be exalting the things they wrote about too, but unlike many other libertarians, I see them for the complete cowards they were.

I mean, how can a man think, write, speak and fight for liberty and justice all day from the comforts of his home while looking out the window as the people he "owns", his slaves, are being forced to work against their will.

Really, let's stop this foolishness about the "founders" being so great and "better" than today's politicians, and get a proper perspective of history here.

–Pingry

Sam Grove July 4, 2009 at 11:23 pm

It is too easy to speak of "founding fathers" as though all the characters involved were of one mind in all things pertaining.

The reality of politics is that idealists are often lauded, but action is devoted to selfish purpose.

For elucidating the ideals we strive for, we can thank a very few for setting them to words.

The rest is up to us.

Dan Phillips July 5, 2009 at 12:42 am

You're painting with a broad brushstroke, Pingry. For example, who exactly did John Adams and Ben Franklin enslave?

As a utopian anarchist I think our founding fathers all erred by establishing a government at all. By it's very nature government enslaves everyone with whom it comes in contact.

Still, I'm awfully glad to live in America. And I'm perfectly content to celebrate my "freedom" each July 4th, especially in light of the fact that I probably won't have much freedom to celebrate in the future.

Dan Phillips July 5, 2009 at 12:42 am

You're painting with a broad brushstroke, Pingry. For example, who exactly did John Adams and Ben Franklin enslave?

As a utopian anarchist I think our founding fathers all erred by establishing a government at all. By it's very nature government enslaves everyone with whom it comes in contact.

Still, I'm awfully glad to live in America. And I'm perfectly content to celebrate my "freedom" each July 4th, especially in light of the fact that I probably won't have much freedom to celebrate in the future.

Gil July 5, 2009 at 1:01 am

"Thus the slave owning, greedy power seekers of our founding put in to motion a system of government that would free their slaves, empower their wives, etc." – R. Gardner.

Bwahahahahaha! The U.S.A. was as slow as the rest of the Western nations to do all those things. Heck! The U.S.A. was one of the last Wesern nations to formally illegalise slavery and it was one of the main reasons for some of the States to separate. Puhhh-leeeease!

Ray Gardner July 5, 2009 at 1:04 am

Pingry:

Really, get a grip and act in a logical fashion so you don't bring down the rest of the room. Really, you're being childish.

I said myself that these men were selfish politicians who were merely seeking power. But you put my name at the top of your screed and then quote other posters.

Bad form man.

More to the point, through much consternation, backbiting, cheating, and even out and out warfare, these not so noble men came up with a Constitution that centered on the limitation of government, and the individual rights of men.

And that really is the crux of the matter. Those who look to men instead of ideas are the same people that identify themselves first as a Democrat or a Republican or even a libertarian. They forget the supposed ideals that these groups are supposed to be representing and promoting, and fall into the "my team is better" mentality.

Obviously you are acting more on emotion than logic, and you really should find a hobby that does not require the use of computers, firearms or alcohol.

Randy July 5, 2009 at 2:58 am

The phrase used to be "Life, Liberty, and Property". Any idea why the "founders" dropped the property? I mean, "pursuit of happiness" is just another way of saying "liberty", so what was the point?

"The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property…" John Locke.

The founders had clearly read Locke, and presumeably understood him, and so the ommission seems deliberate. Maybe not. Maybe they were just trying to be poetic. If so, it was a huge mistake.

Babinich July 5, 2009 at 5:36 am

Posted by Pingry on 07/04/09 @ 10:40:38 PM

"To be clear, they were hypocrites who talked a big game about liberty and justice, but were abject failures because they lacked the courage to follow their passionate convictions. They were pure cowards, and nothing better."

John Adams, Alexander Hamilton?

K Ackermann July 5, 2009 at 9:01 am

Stop screaming.

It's only going to hurt for a little while. Soon, you will go into shock, and then eventually die.

Quit being such a crybaby.

K Ackermann July 5, 2009 at 9:07 am

As a utopian anarchist I think our founding fathers all erred by establishing a government at all. By it's very nature government enslaves everyone with whom it comes in contact.

A utopian anarchist… that's a tough one. You sort of need everyone to be that, or it won't work.

Also, to get it off the ground, don't you sort of need some kind of organization? Like for a meeting?

K Ackermann July 5, 2009 at 9:14 am

I drank beer all day with the neighbors on the 4th.

Two of them got in a fist fight. It was great.

Dan Phillips July 5, 2009 at 9:45 am

You have no idea how tough it is, K. Ackerman! Sometimes I feel all alone in this world!

True_Liberal July 5, 2009 at 10:10 am

(Donning rumpled trenchcoat…)

When founders cautioned: "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible" were they not a bit hypocritical? Our independence, our liberty, is due in no small part to the active intercession of others (notably the French) on our behalf, during the Revolutionary War.

Does not the same principle apply in Iran today?

muirgeo July 5, 2009 at 10:44 am

The founders certainly supported some degrees of public education. I think indeed they would be appalled to see such massive accumulations of wealth and power as exist today.

A nation under a well regulated government, should permit none to remain uninstructed. It is monarchical and aristocratical government only that requires ignorance for its support.

Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1792

The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths. Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to establish and endow with proper Revenues, such Seminaries of Learning, as might supply the succeeding Age with Men qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country.

Benjamin Franklin, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, 1749

It is too early for politicians to presume on our forgetting that the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; and that no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object.

James Madison, Federalist No. 45, January 26, 1788

"I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it." –Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1810. ME 12:393

Bill Stepp July 5, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Don,

If the U.S. Conjobstitution isn't a prime example of Hayekian constructivism, I don't know what is. Read art. 1, section 8 of the Conjob. It's nothing but a hound dog, er I mean monopoly laundry list.
You can have the so-called Founding Fathers.
I'll take Lysander Spooner any day!

S Andrews July 5, 2009 at 12:15 pm

I am not an American citizen, but this is for imbecile muirgeo's reference – not that I have hope that he has the necessary skills of comprehension.

Until the New Deal era, a general acknowledgement that individual social welfare, more specifically the use of public monies for the purpose of charity by the national government, was unconstitutional on the national level prevailed in government. Charity was known not to be an enumerated power nor one reasonably implied by the "necessary and proper" clause and therefore considered unconstitutional. Yet around the time of the New Deal, government began overlooking this clear unconstitutionality. The Supreme Court temporarily checked this until the Court Packing Scandal led to pro-welfare rulings by an incapacitated court, fearing dismantling by FDR and therefore under duress, in 1937. Since then the use of public monies for charity, or social welfare, has expanded in what is reasonably termed direct defiance of the Constitution. This page will, using the three interpretive tools described above, demonstrate how today's social welfare state remains in direct defiance of the United States Constitution.

——————————————————————————–

The Framers Speak:
Long has it been acknowledged that Congress's powers were limited as described above by Article I, Section 8. Here the framers acknowledge this Section as a limiting factor, proving that today's misinterpretations, which allow full justification for practically anything Congress desires to do under the guise of this often misread and forgotten section, are both erronious and absurdly illogical.

Proof of intentional and strict limitations on the authority and power of Congress:
"[Congressional jurisdiction of power] is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any." – James Madison, Federalist 14

"The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined . . . to be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce." – James Madison, Federalist 45

"If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but
an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions." – James Madison, 1792

More here…

"If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare,
and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare,
they may take the care of religion into their own hands;
they may appoint teachers in every State, county and parish
and pay them out of their public treasury;
they may take into their own hands the education of children,
establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union;
they may assume the provision of the poor;
they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads;
in short, every thing, from the highest object of state legislation
down to the most minute object of police,
would be thrown under the power of Congress…. Were the power
of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for,
it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature
of the limited Government established by the people of America." – James Madison ( Father of the Constituion )

To refer the power in question to the clause "to provide for common defense and general welfare" would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation, as rendering the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper. Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms "common defense and general welfare" embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust. It would have the effect of subjecting both the Constitution and laws of the several States in all cases not specifically exempted to be superseded by laws of Congress, it being expressly declared "that the Constitution of the United States and laws made in pursuance thereof shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges of every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding." Such a view of the Constitution, finally, would have the effect of excluding the judicial authority of the United States from its participation in guarding the boundary between the legislative powers of the General and the State Governments, inasmuch as questions relating to the general welfare, being questions of policy and expediency, are unsusceptible of judicial cognizance and decision.

link here

With respect to the words "general welfare," I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.
Letter to James Robertson (1831-04-20)

Flash Gordon July 5, 2009 at 1:18 pm

I don't often agree with John McCain, in fact I don't think I ever do. But on the U.S. being more aggressive in support of the protesters in Iran, McCain is right and David Boaz and Cato are wrong.

They are wrong about the policy and they are wrong about what the founders would say on this subject. Jefferson and his Anti-Federalists were against any foreign entanglement but they were not unsympathetic to an oppressed people seeking to escape bondage. Hamilton, Madison and the Federalists would likely have agreed with McCain since he is not calling for committing troops to Iran but only lending encouragement and moral support.

Jefferson himself was openly critical of the barbary pirates and fought a war with them to protect American interests on the high seas. It would be easy for him to see that the interests of the United States are involved in the outcome of the protests in Iran.

This is another sad misreading of things by American libertarians that prevents them from gaining political ascendancy in any venue other than a three-ring circus.

Lee Kelly July 5, 2009 at 1:27 pm

"If the U.S. Conjobstitution isn't a prime example of Hayekian constructivism, I don't know what is." – Bill Stepp

If I understood what Hayek meant by constructivism, then you don't know what it is.

DAVE July 5, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Why is isolationism a libertarian principle per se? It can be (and has been) argued both ways.

Sam Grove July 5, 2009 at 2:37 pm

But on the U.S. being more aggressive in support of the protesters in Iran, McCain is right and David Boaz and Cato are wrong.

I don't think this is an appropriate role for elected officials, for anyone else, no problem.

IAC, U.S. support for the protesters gives the regime a propagana point.

K Ackermann July 5, 2009 at 2:40 pm

@Flash Gordon, interesting view on Iran.

What would you recommend we do to help the people of Iran?

War would be foolish, I hope we can agree on that.

I can't think of anything we could do that doesn't run the risk of killing them by the thousands.

The US has zero credibility there. If we were to supply arms, that would be seen as just another attempt by the US to get them to kill each other.

It's something I noticed. No country is clamoring to do much of anything with the US anymore. They look at our methods, and look at our results, and they are just waiting for us blow ourselves up.

The Albatross July 5, 2009 at 6:51 pm

"The founders certainly supported some degrees of public education."

Which is why the majority of the Founders were graduates of Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. Oh, and like our modern politicians they all sent their kids there too–no public schools for our ruling class!

vidyohs July 5, 2009 at 7:37 pm

Ahh Pingry,

Yes we are all limited in our concepts by time, place. etc. but good sir in your dismissal of what I said, you seemed to neglect this:

"Fredrick Douglass had no real idea or understanding of how far his life, customs, mores, ideals, goals, and cultural outlook had changed from those of the Africans who remained in Africa."

Which, good Pingry, was my whole point.

Daniel Kuehn July 6, 2009 at 5:59 am

Ah yes – nothing like hijacking the legacy of the Founders to support your own political agenda on the fourth of July.

We all do it, I suppose. I'm not naive about that at all. After all – the Cato publication mentions that both Obama and McCain cited them as well.

The difference is, I doubt Obama and McCain have any naive assumption that the Founders uniquely buttress their own particular viewpoint, the way Cato seems to think they do.

Γερώνυμος Αμάτι Nώνυμος July 6, 2009 at 8:22 am

"
hypocrites who talked a big game about liberty and justice, but were abject failures because they lacked the courage to follow their passionate convictions. They were pure cowards, and nothing better.

So, they are no different than most modern politicians of every stripe, in every country, who play the same game.

–Pingry

Posted by: Pingry | Jul 4,
"

Although their is great doubt that donkeys and elephants are distinguishable, have you had the eerie sensation that Republicans represent heresy, but Democrats represent hypocrisy?

Thanks heaps, Pingry!

Randy July 6, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Certainly the Democrats do represent hypocrisy, but I've given up on the hope that the Republicans actually represent heresy. That is what's needed though. Heresy, and lots of it.

vikingvista July 6, 2009 at 7:25 pm

Pingry–

You need to recognize your own values and then look to history to see which events and decisions have furthered those values.

I value individual liberty. When I look to history I see many people from ancient Greece to today who contributed enormously to that value. Jefferson wasn't unique in being a slaveholder or a hypocrite. Those therefore are not rational distinguishing characteristics of him. His writings on liberty and work in the formation of a new nation are, however, as rare in history as they were influential. Jefferson contributed almost nothing to the preservation of the age-old and widespread practice of slavery. His contribution towards slavery's abolition was, however, profound.

You are right to hate those things which are counter to your values. You are wrong to conflate those things with what has most promoted your values.

You would probably do better to focus more on ideas and less on people. Just beware that doing so will bring you closer to many of those you have criticized.

SaulOhio July 7, 2009 at 6:41 am

If Bill Clinton believed in universal health care, why didn't he give it to us? Why didn't he pay for it all out of his own pocket?

The Founders did believe slavery was wrong. But what would you have done at that time if you had inherited slaves, but believed slavery was wrong? Freeing them would not be a good idea, because at that time, most people did not believe there was anything wrong with slavery, and they believed that it was the natural condition for blacks. Freeing your own slaves would simply put them on the street, where they would have either become someone else's slaves, or starved. The Founders did the next best thing. They worked, very hard, often at the risk of their own lives, towards creating a society in which all men could be free. Such progress takes time.

And this is all just a distraction from the discussion of the Founders' ideas, and the fact that the people quoting them, President Obama and John McCain, are acting on ideas completely antithetical to the principles of freedom the Founders believed. Any time you want to talk about freedom, lefties try to change the subject.

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