The ‘Founding Fathers’
by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken
The term "Founding Fathers" does much to mislead us about the origins of American government. The term has long been used in a quasi-religious way in which invocation of the will of the "Founding Fathers" is supposed to inspire awe and obedience to whatever point one happens to be making: "The Founding Fathers wanted…" While it is expected that the use of the term will bring to mind names like Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson, such vague images of men from the misty past tend to create an image of unanimity among all parties, ignoring the violent disagreements between them during the early years of the Republic.
The invocation of the Founding Fathers as a unified group singularly uncritical of the Constitution and godlike in their wisdom is quite convenient in creating myths of American exceptionalism. While we today lament the loss of an American consensus on the virtues of liberty, we can at least take refuge in the thought that in days long past, the American government and the Founding Father who created it, respected the liberties of the people.
The big fly in the ointment of this story is the state of American politics during the 1790’s — an era of consistent growth in government power that produced some of the most tyrannical policies and apocalyptic rhetoric in American political history. John Ferling’s short and entertaining book from last year, Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, offers an excellent and accessible treatment of the struggle between Adams’ Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans. Ferling presents this story with admirable evenhandedness, and this is not surprising given Ferling’s excellent biography of John Adams which neither abuses nor romanticizes its subject. In Adams vs. Jefferson, Ferling gives Jefferson similarly fair treatment. He provides a sympathetic narrative around Jefferson’s nullification doctrine and Jefferson’s radicalism in opposing the centralizing Federalist agenda. And while his title names only Adams and Jefferson, the dynamic in Ferling’s book is between three men: Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton. Adams disliked Jefferson, Jefferson was suspicious of Adams, and both loathed Alexander Hamilton.
Such grave political differences were no doubt partly a product of the fact that Thomas Jefferson was not at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and not surprisingly, Jefferson had never become entirely comfortable with the new Constitution. As long as it was applied properly, he believed, the Constitution could be a helpful tool, but it could only compliment the excellent and established traditions of the individual state constitutions that had long served the United States well.
Like many "anti-Federalists" of the age, Jefferson remained fearful of the Constitution being used to centralize power in the hands of a consolidated government. Not surprisingly, then, the Federalists of the 1790’s produced much to alarm Jefferson. The Federalist years had been marked by new taxes, unprecedented increases in government spending, curtailment of civil liberties, and the judiciary act of 1789 which, as Charles Beard has noted, "such were the agencies of power created to make the will of the national government a living force in every community from New Hampshire to Georgia, from the seaboard to the frontier."
As Charles Adams describes it in his history of taxes in America, the Federalist era was an era of burdensome taxation and heavy-handed enforcement. The Whiskey rebellion of 1794 that arose out of the odious excise tax dreamed up by Hamilton, was quickly put down by military force — the first action of its kind in the history of the American republic. Washington, enraged that anyone would dare oppose his government’s taxes, raged at the tax resisters denouncing them as democratic rabble. Jefferson found this whole display to be quite offensive, and labeled the effort to crush the tax rebellion as nothing more than making "war on our own citizens."
The low point of the Federalist Era was the signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts into law. The acts permitted the United States government to deport any foreign citizen that the government found displeasing. They also imposed fines and jail terms for up to 5 years "for those who uttered or published u2018any false, scandalous, and malicious’ statement against the United States government or its officials."
Led by Hamilton, Washington and Adams, the Federalists had ruled without serious political opposition for a decade after the ratification of the new constitution. Yet, by 1798, opposition to the Federalists had become a nationwide movement. The Federalists lost ground in Congress and were thoroughly defeated in a number of state legislatures, including — in a humiliating defeat for Alexander Hamilton — the legislature of New York
In 1796, when Washington was more than happy to leave the troubles of political dissent to someone else, the Federalists had become the target of significant public criticism from Jefferson and the Republicans. Events had helped to solidify party cooperation. Hamilton’s taxes, it should be remembered, were the result of a Federalist-supported treaty (negotiated by Federalist Chief Justice John Jay) approving the use of federal taxes to pay off British creditors from the war. The treaty infuriated supporters of local sovereignty and legislative primacy, including Jefferson. According to Beard, Hamilton was stoned in the streets while attempting to defend the treaty and "Jay was burned in effigy far and wide amid howls of derision from enraged Republicans." Americans had begun to experience the fruits of the new constitution. And many didn’t like what was happening.
Later, in an effort to destroy the Republican threat, Federalist newspapers, emboldened by the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, had begun to demand that "traitors must be silent," and the Federalist Gazette of the United States decreed that "He that is not for us is against us. It is patriotism to write in favor of government — it is sedition to write against it."
Jefferson, now regularly called a traitor by half the newspapers in the land, had had enough. Ferling recounts Jefferson’s impassioned plea against an unchecked federal government:
Jefferson took to his desk at Monticello…and wrote that the framers of the Constitutional Convention — delegates who represented twelve separate states, not the nation — had formed a "compact" to vest the national government with certain explicit powers but leave the "residuary mass" of the people’s "rights to their own self-government" within the states. Yet, Jefferson asked, who now was to determine if the national government had overstepped the bounds assigned to it in the Constitution? No "common judge" existed, and it would be ludicrous for federal authorities to be the "final judge of the extent of power delegated to itself." Each state would have to decide. Each state, he insisted, must have the authority to declare improper steps taken by the national government to be "void and of no force" within its jurisdiction. The vice president had drafted a doctrine of state nullification.
Knowing the rage these writings would produce in the minds of Federalists, Jefferson cloaked his personal support of these doctrines in secrecy. But, according to Ferling, Jefferson was confident that most Americans had never desired the kind of national government that the Federalists had been trying to impose on the public for a decade. He believed that time was running out for the Federalists.
Adams became a rather marginal figure in the public debate at this time. Adams was no doubt a Federalist, but Jefferson’s real target was what Ferling calls "The Ultra-Federalists" — men like Alexander Hamilton and his close disciples who not only agitated constantly for greater consolidation of power, but who were willing to resort to increasingly unethical means to a attain such ends. Adams himself had long hated Hamilton and had declared him "great an Hypocrite as any in the U.S. a proud spirited, conceited, aspiring mortal always pretending to Morality, with as debauched Morals as old [Ben] Franklin." Adams had witnessed Hamilton not only try to embroil the United States in a war with France, but also to use the Virginia resolution as a means to goad Virginia into open rebellion so that Hamilton could personally lead an army to crush the independent spirit of Virginia permanently. Adams wanted no part of this, and the Federalist Party began to implode.
Jefferson would take advantage, and by the fall of 1800, Ferling writes that Jefferson had gained nationwide support with a simple platform:
"I am for government rigorously frugal and simple," and for retiring the national debt, eliminating a standing army and relying on the militia to safeguard internal security, and keeping the navy small, lest it drag the nation into "eternal wars…I am for free commerce with all nations; political connections with none."
Before the campaign was over, the rhetoric would reach a fever pitch predicting the most apocalyptic conditions if the other side were to win. The Federalists accused Jefferson and his Republicans of naïve pacifism, atheism, and of possessing Jacobin sympathies. The Republicans, they said, wanted to disarm the United States and incite a new revolution in America that would include a Terror much like that imposed by the French Radicals. In short, the Republicans, like Jefferson himself, were traitors intent on sowing chaos throughout the new nation.
The Republicans accused the Federalists of being monarchist warmongers and of "inaugurating an economic bonanza for the affluent." While the Federalists made appeals to patriotism and "economic stability," The Republicans appealed to the public so that the country might "never again u2018have such acts as the alien and sedition laws…or…too intimate a connexion with any foreign power" imposed on the nation; so that u2018dangerous and expensive armaments’ financed by heavy taxation did not continue; and in order that u2018peace may be established and wars avoided.’"
Certainly the rhetoric of the time employed its fair share of hyperbole, but the historical record does little to absolve the Federalists of the accusations that they were for high taxes, favors for the wealthy, and high government spending — especially military spending. Ferling offers his readers a succinct but powerful look into the ideological battles of the early American republic. It quickly becomes clear just how truly radical Jefferson was — and how fully we modern Americans have resigned ourselves to the immense power of the central government.
The election of 1800 was only one battle in the ideological war that had characterized politics in the United States even before the end of the Revolution. The Anti-Federalists who had wanted local sovereignty, low taxes, and a tiny government had gone down to defeat again and again throughout the 1780’s and 1790’s. After a decade of Federalist rule, Jefferson organized the opposition on a national scale for the first time, and the Federalists would never recover. Yet, in time the Federalists would be replaced by the Whigs, and eventually by Lincoln’s Republican Party which would carry on the Federalist tradition of corporatism, high taxation, centralization, and big spending into the 20th century. Today, we look in vain for a major party that reflects the values of Jefferson and his Republicans, but their political agenda of limited government, local control, free trade, and peace still has much to teach us.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.