Best of FF: Were the Founders Libertarians?

December 30th, 2011 at 12:00 pm David Frum | 52 Comments |

| Print

As 2011 comes to a close, sovaldi FrumForum plans to re-run some of our best featured pieces from the year. The piece by David Frum discusses whether or not the Founding Fathers would be recognized as libertarians.

Let me toss in my 5 cents worth on the question of whether the Founders were “libertarians.”

This seems to me a question approximately as meaningful as asking whether the Founders would have preferred Macs or PCs: it exports back into the past an entirely alien mental category.

Libertarianism fuses two ideas, one political, one psychological. The political idea is that the central state should be confined within the narrowest possible limits. The psychological idea is that each person should enjoy the widest possible scope to live as he or she thinks best.

Libertarians see these two ideas as very consistent. But that libertarian perspective only feels consistent if you can accept a previous assumption: that the central state is the most important limit on our ability to live as we think best. For most people in most advanced modern democracies, that hypothesis does not ring true. For most people, it’s the bill collector, or the ex-wife, or the boss that imposes the most onerous restraints.

If this tandem set of ideas seems remote even in our modern era, back in the 18th century, each on its own would have been inaccessible, never mind both together.

Start for example with the need to confine government. Modern libertarians draw a very clear line between “the state” and private associations. I.e.: If a town council passes an ordinance requiring all houses to be painted white, that’s an outrageous violation of personal liberty, but if a condominium association adopts such a rule, that’s a reasonable exercise of freedom of association. But suppose you lived in an 18th century New England town, and the town meeting adopted such a rule. Is the town meeting more like the modern town council? Or the condo association?

That distinction, so legible to us, was not nearly so legible in the 18th century. Were the Penn family the “government” of Pennsylvania or its owners? Even at the highest level, things were fuzzy. The king of England was yes clearly equivalent to something we’d call “the state.” But Parliament? Was that “the state” also? Or was it more like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: a permanent standing body to monitor the government and with some ability to protest and block the government’s actions?

The fact is that the concept of the “state” as presented in some modern libertarian writing owes much more to 19th century German ideas than to the 18th century Anglo-American legacy. In 18th century Britain, the question of whether ministers owed obedience to the king or to Parliament was a blurry and uncertain one. In 19th century Germany and Austro-Hungary, the question was clear: ministers obeyed the monarch. Period. “The state” as experienced by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek was something outside civil society, something that society could not reliably control, and therefore had to be contained. A John Adams might think of the king of England that way, but that’s not how he’d think of the legislature of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Libertarian psychology would have been even more indigestible to the 18th century mind than libertarian politics. Libertarianism argues that each individual should enjoy the widest possible scope to live as he or she thinks best. It’s an attractive ideal, one widely shared by 21st century people. Modern liberals share the libertarian commitment to “autonomy,” as this ideal is generally called – they just disagree about the institutions needed to support autonomy.

But to an American of the Founding generation, the ideal of autonomy would have contradicted four of the most fundamental physical and psychic facts of life:

  • Latinity
  • Calvinism
  • material scarcity and
  • slaveholding

Let’s take them in turn…

Elite Americans of the Founding generation were deeply shaped – not literally by Roman ideas, but by the 18th century understanding of Roman ideas. Here’s a perfect example: George Washington’s favorite play was Joseph Addison’s Cato, published in 1713. Washington adapted words from that play in his famous speech quelling the Newburgh mutiny in 1783. Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” was likewise a paraphrase of a speech from Addison’s play. Ditto Nathan Hale’s “I only regret I have but one life to give for my country.” So – influential, right?

And what was the message of that play? That the most precious thing in life is honor. And what is honor? It is the esteem of the wise and the good. Better to die in a way that earns the admiration of others than to live without that admiration. It is hard to imagine a more radical antipode to Ayn Rand’s formula, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Less elite Americans of the Founding generation were shaped less by Addison and the Latin classics than by religious traditions heavily tinged by Calvinism.

If ever a religious tradition emphasized the danger of giving scope to the individual will, Calvinism was that tradition:

Man, having been corrupted by his fall, sins voluntarily, not with reluctance or constraint; with the strongest propensity of disposition, not with violent coercion; with the bias of his own passions, and not with external compulsion: yet such is the depravity of his nature that he cannot be excited and biased to anything but what is evil… (From Institutes of the Christian Religion).

It would be hard to imagine a mental outlook less conducive to the libertarian celebration of individual choice than that bequeathed by Calvinism not only to New England Puritanism but also to the “hardshell Baptists” of the South – such as for example the parents of Abraham Lincoln.

Only a very few Americans of the Founding generation enjoyed anything like material security. While most white Americans enjoyed a higher standard of living than European peasants, that comparative abundance was a desperately precarious state. An American who drank too much, who had too many children, who got into a fight and suffered a wound that could be infected – in short anyone who did not tightly control his impulses – risked disaster not only for himself or herself, but also for his or her loved ones. In such a world, the psychology of modern libertarianism – the desire to live unrestrained by any force outside oneself – would be seen by most as an invitation to self-destruction.

Libertarianism is very much a movement of post-1945 affluent society America, a society that has developed birth control and drug rehab, antibiotics and antidepressants. We are a society abounding in second chances. 18th century America was a society in which a personal misstep could easily lead to premature and unpleasant death. Self-actualization through self-expression was a concept not imaginable until GDP per capita rose many, many thousands of dollars higher than the level prevailing in 1776.

Fourth and finally: the libertarian ideal was psychologically unavailable to 18th century Americans because 18th century America was a slaveholding society.

If a libertarian is one who believes, as I suggested at the outset, that each person should be free to live as he or she thinks best, then a libertarian in 1776 would have been obliged to be an abolitionist. After all, the one-fifth of Americans who were defined as property on the eve of the revolution were obviously unfree to live as they thought best.

Yet it’s a very striking fact that the language that to our ears sounds most “libertarian” in the Founding generation tended most often to issue from those most committed to slavery. By contrast, the Founding Fathers who sound most “statist” — Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams — tended also to be most hostile to slavery.

This disjunction is more than some odd little paradox of history. It is a resounding klaxon warning of the enormous gap between the 18th century mindset and our own. Samuel Johnson jeered at the American colonists: “How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Johnson’s accusation of hypocrisy is obviously well-founded, but there is something more going on here than hypocrisy. It was precisely the intimate awareness of the horror of unfreedom — and possibly guilt for the denial of freedom to others — that inspired the passionate concern for liberty among so many slaveholders. When Patrick Henry said that he would rather be dead than share the fate of the 75 slaves he owned, he was not engaging in metaphor. But he was also not expressing 21st century libertarianism.

One last thing needs to be said to enter into the mind of 18th century Americans.

Most 18th century Americans originated on an island that had been one of the most politically unstable kingdoms in Europe. Between 1640 and 1745, the British executed one king, and sent a second into exile. The British Isles suffered three invasions backed by foreign powers: one in 1688, another in 1715, a third in 1745. They were governed by three different foreign-origin royal families (Stuart, Orange, and Hanover), plus a native military dictatorship. They had experienced a succession of radical changes in church organization, almost equally radical changes in land owning patterns.

In the years after 1689, however, that same country steadily evolved into the most stable in Europe. The dynasty established in 1714 lasts until the present day. Britain had a population only one-third that of its great power rival, France. Yet Britain built a military-fiscal state that fought and inflicted defeat after defeat upon the French.

Yes for sure there were Americans who, following John Trenchard the author of Cato’s Letters, reviewed this history and saw the creeping menace of Big Government. Some of the Anti-Federalists of the 1780s do seem to have thought this way.

But if “Founders” refers to the people who designed the government Americans actually instituted in the 1780s, then I think it’s safe to say that most of the Founders accepted these British achievements as achievements to emulate: not only Alexander Hamilton, but also James Madison. (The Bank of the United States that was destroyed by Andrew Jackson was chartered by President Madison.)

The people of the 18th century retained intense memories of what Europe had looked like before the growth of states: not a libertarian paradise, but a marauder’s free-fire zone in which dynasts and warlords despoiled the weak and disorganized. The Founding generation had absorbed the Enlightenment ideals of John Locke. But Locke had taught that the state was the vindicator of natural rights, not the enemy of those rights.

From Locke’s Second Treatise:

If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property

Locke did not argue against government. He argued against arbitrary government, against the divine right of kings.

Although political stability had thickened in Britain by the 1770s, the Founders had a vivid example of a stateless world before their eyes: the world of the American Frontier. That was a world of violence, not a world of freedom. They had seen in the 1780s a real possibility of the breakup of the Colonies into distinct and then warring sovereignties like those of Europe. The Constitution represented a rejection of both those futures. The Founders were state-builders, very much in the model of the British statesmen of the 18th century. And if the government they built has become too big and too expensive, if the libertarian impulse summons us to take action to contain and constrain that government, very well let us take up the task. But we can do that task without duping ourselves with a false history that denies the reality of the past and – ironically – belittles the Founders’ actual achievements by measuring them against standards they would surely have rejected, if they had ever understood them.

Originally Published on December 31, 2010.

Recent Posts by David Frum

52 Comments so far ↓

  • indy

    It’s a common theme among Randians, Paulites, and some Libertarians: the government is preventing me from reaching my full potential. If only it could be eliminated, I would flourish like the proverbial desert flower after a rain, become the rich and productive individual that is my true nature, and build railroads and stuff.

    Then you meet them and quickly realize they can barely tie their own shoelaces. Yeah, right, it’s the government that’s the problem.

    • Baron Siegfried

      Yeah, it’s the MAN who be keepin’ ‘em down!

    • Geprodis

      Yes, the Cato Institute is full of retards who can’t tie their shoes.

      Your post is just an ad hominem – all the Libertarians I know were in gifted and talented programs, have good jobs, and are well educated.

      The so-called dumb, racist Libertarians aren’t even libertarian..they’re just dumb. They don’t really have a political philosophy.

      • indy

        You may want to read for comprehension. I said ‘some Libertarians’. Many libertarians are indeed how you characterize them. Their particular philosophical failing is not in intelligence or education, but in their lack of understanding of human nature, which oddly enough, I usually think is a product of insulation, the kind of insulation you often find in gifted programs.

        I, like many people, have an intellectual soft spot for it in theory. In practice, it would be a disaster.

        • bubba11

          Glad to see someone else thinks the way I do . . . the last time that happened to me, it was Zinn. I sent him a letter . . . he wrote me back; no lie.

  • Graychin

    The conceit that 21st Century Americans can (or should!) live within the mindset of 18th Century men of British culture infects both libertarians and “constitutionalist” faux-conservatives – including judges of the Federalist Society bias. Asking whether the Founders were libertarians is like asking whether Plato was a Catholic or a Protestant.

    The other false – and downright destructive – assumption that underlies libertarianism is that “government isn’t the solution to the problem – government IS the problem.” I have no idea what moron came up with that stinking turd of ignorance, but I surely wish we could banish it from our society’s overflowing collection of glib stupidity.

    • Geprodis

      “The other false – and downright destructive – assumption that underlies libertarianism is that “government isn’t the solution to the problem – government IS the problem.” I have no idea what moron came up with that stinking turd of ignorance, but I surely wish we could banish it from our society’s overflowing collection of glib stupidity.”

      Yes, government is the solution. The genius politicians we elect will lead us to the promised land.

      • sweatyb

        And the libertarian replies with some of the very “glib stupidity” Graychin complained of. How very meta.

        • Geprodis

          Sweatyb: “I don’t agree with you, but I can’t really express myself so…you’re stupid”

      • Jack E. Lope

        In addition to being meta (as previously pointed out), binary. If one thing is 100% Good, the other must be 100% Bad:

        “Yes, government is the solution. The genius politicians we elect will lead us to the promised land.”

  • dphenderson

    Thanks for providing a nice survey of 18th century American political, social, and economic thought. It makes a good starting point for those interested in really understanding the motivations behind the Revolution and the Constitution.

    One of the things that I’ve been engaged in during this period of unemployment is reading many of the texts and treatises that our Revolutionary leaders and Framers used as the basis of their understanding of what a nation/government should be. As I’ve said to many of my Libertarian friends since starting this endeavor, “quit reading Rand and start reading Hume, Locke, Adam Smith, Hobbes, Paine, et al”. Smith’s “Wealth” was eye opening given how much one hears about the “invisible hand”; anyone who uses that phrase has either never read it or failed to understand it.

    • Sinan

      If I am correct, he mentioned it only two or three times and did not expand on it at all. In fact, it was not an important point in his book.

      • Evolved Deep Southerner

        Sinan, the overwhelming body of the book is basically devoted to outlining methods to circumvent all the worst aspects of “the invisible hand.” The way its referenced, it’s like an evangelical always citing the “God smites” parts of the Bible and leaving out the “helping the least of these” and “love your neighbor” parts of it.

        Which, come to think of it, some evangelicals tend to do. So maybe there is a consistency to it all that I just hadn’t grasped until now. A sad, pitiable consistency, but a consistency.

  • Dex

    The debate that raged among the founders was whether the federal government should have broad powers or more limited powers. The libertarian position – that it should have virtually none at all – is nowhere to be seen. Actually, that isn’t exactly correct – it is present in the form of something that is being repudiated. The Articles of Confederation provided for virtually no national power. And they didn’t work, and so were supplanted by the Constitution.

    Libertarians, Tea Baggers, Christianist Republicans – all love to wrap themselves in the flag and make false claims that they are the heirs to the founders and think as they did, in order to give their flimsy reasoning a veneer of gravitas and credibility.

  • _will_

    were the Founder’s libertarians? good question. another good question: are the nitwits running around currently cloaking themselves in “libertarianism” actually libertarians?

    the deterination seems to have become a catch-all for younger, disaffected Republicans, embarrassed Republicans in general, ‘states rights’ uber alles neo-Confederates, apolitical hop-heads, and creepy militia dudes — all of which describe the bulk of Paul’s base.

    you want an actual libertarian alternative? vote for Gary Johnson. i’ll be really curious to see if Paul’s base comes out for Johnson when Mitt’s nom becomes inevitable (and assuming Paul doesn’t go for a third party run, which i really don’t think he will). my prediction: hell no. because these people are not libertarians per se; just angry, easily-addled @ssholes.

    (though i’ll be the first to admit that those two things are far from mutually exclusive!)

    • Geprodis

      Gary Johnson is fine, but he has even less charisma than Ron Paul!

      What are the main policy differences between Gary Johnson and Ron Paul?

      Why do like Mitt Romney?

      • _will_

        *gay marriage – GJ supports marriage equality, short of the government getting out of the marriage game altogether. Paul, like with nearly everything else, wants to “leave it to the states”. hey maybe we should just leave anti-miscegenation laws to the states, too? DOMA is by no stretch “libertarian.”

        *abortion – GJ does weasel a bit here, claiming that Roe v Wade expands powers of the Constitution, and it’s a decision best left to the states. i think he’s personally against late term abortions and “ultimately it is a woman’s right to make such a decision during the early stage of pregnancy,” which he defines as up until to the viability of the fetus.’

        Paul, on the other hand, believes life starts at conception, which leads me to believe he could get behind the “personhood” initiatives that are popping up at the state level. pure insanity.

        *global warming – GJ believes that human carbon emissions impact the climate negatively – you know, like 98% of the world’s scientists do. and cites the EPA as an example of “good government”, even if in his opinion they tend to overreach w/r/t certain regs. does Paul even subscribe to mainstream scientific consensus? i’m thinking not…

        *Johnson also calls for more transparency regarding the Federal Reserve, rather than outright abolishing it.

        those are just a few areas, but here’s Johnson’s Wikipedia on political positions:

        i agree that he is charisma-free, but i appreciate his proclivity towards tolerance and forward-thinking. Paul’s dalliances with racists and Bircherism should give every American pause. let me be very clear: i’m NOT a pure libertarian; i would say i’m a civil libertarian who’s moderated his fiscal views the more i read and the more i’m exposed to demonstrable economic fact. but if i were hardcore, i would definitely get behind someone like Johnson rather than an addled crank like Ron Paul.

        Why do like Mitt Romney?

        are you asking why i like Mitt? because i assure you i do not. he’s a cipher who has indulged the very worst of the GOP in order to remain in play. despite my dissatisfaction with Obama, i will certainly vote for him over Mitt.

        • Geprodis

          I agree more with Gary Johnson than Ron Paul, but I saw him in one of the debates…he has no fire in his belly!

        • Graychin

          Roe v. Wade grants no additional power whatsoever to the federal government. It only takes away the power of the states to to regulate what, in the view of the Court’s majority, is none of a State’s business.

          How can wanting to increase the power of State governments without a corresponding reduction in federal power be called “libertarian”?

          Call Roe v. Wade wrong if you want, but don’t call its repeal “libertarian.”

  • Houndentenor

    The founders had basically the same argument we are having today. It’s foolish that some pretend that at some point it was settled. It never will be.

  • Baron Siegfried

    Libertarianism reminds me a lot of Wicca – both are modern inventions that lay claim to roots lost in the mists of antiquity. Both lay claim to transcendental wisdom and to open a path for personal autonomy. But in reality, both are simply social masturbation.

    Wiccans, as with libertarians, like to be the contrarians, rebelling against an omnipresent and near omnipotent power they see as repressing them (organized religion in the case of the wiccans, big gov’t in the case of libertarians), holding forth their enlightenment while disdaining anyone not agreeing with them (wiccans – ‘mundanes’, libertarians – ‘liberals’), and rewriting history to conform to their worldview. Facts optional . . .

    Both have a corpus of literature that’s nonsensical to anyone not holding those views already, a pantheon of saints and devils, and nerve endings that extend several inches beyond their skin which triggers an outburst in response to anything which challenges (or expresses disagreement with) their dogma.

    And in both cases, their grip on reality is such that it would extremely unwise to place them in any position of responsibility

    • valkayec

      Well, that let’s out about half the House and several in the Senate!

    • Geprodis

      Lousy analogy.

      Wicca is a religion.

      Libertarianism is a political philosophy.

      Wiccans are just young people going through an identity crisis, like goth kids.

      These types usually are young liberals, not libertarians.

      • Baron Siegfried

        Mmm . . . actually, wicca is less a religion than an immersive fantasy role playing game with a novel dress code and loads of bling. I work around a lot of them, and watching them gambol about is incredibly amusing. Be glad they don’t have a interest in ‘mundane’ politics, as the infighting between covens and power / personality issues in wicca makes what goes on in congress look like a lady’s tea.

        Libertarians generally live in cloud-cuckoo land, where repercussions of policies never implemented never come back to haunt them. They don’t just build houses of cards, they build entire condo developments of cards. I find them to be walking testimonials to man’s ability to function normally while blithely ignoring the cognitive dissonances inherent in their lives and beliefs that would vex lesser men . . .

        I have had many interesting and entertaining evenings conversing with them, but in the final analysis, libertarians are for the most part bright, well meaning doofuses who don’t have a clue about how the world REALLY operates or the interpersonal skills to operate within it. They also tend to have vastly inflated opinions of their own opinions as well, and get their noses out of joint if you fail to appreciate their genius. I think of them as the D&D players of the political realm . . .

        • Geprodis

          Baron, I dated a girl a long time ago that was Wiccan. She was cute…so I didn’t really care about her religion. It’s more of a kiddie religion…I don’t think there are too many older Wiccans.

          Libertarians are bright doofuses, got it

          Libertarians don’t know how the world REALLY operates, but you have everything mapped out perfectly

          “They also tend to have vastly inflated opinions of their own opinions as well, and get their noses out of joint if you fail to appreciate their genius.”

          You mean when you call them idiots…that’s what you mean by “if you fail to appreciate their genius” . I never see the Baron making a substantive argument: “Libertarians generally live in cloud-cuckoo land”

          You don’t want an actual conversation; you want to paint your opponents as crazy and not worth talking to.

          I might as well be talking to David Frum

        • Baron Siegfried

          Actually, I enjoy talking with them. Though I have also learned which ones walk about in a constant state of righteous indignation, and to keep any criticisms and / or gales of laughter I might have of their brilliant notions to myself when around those. The rest, we can bend an elbow and not get all that worked up over theory that we can’t affect anyhoo . . ..

          The problem with True Believers (see Eric Hoffer’s excellent book on the subject) is that anything you say which flies in the face of their beliefs makes you ‘the enemy’. Either you agree with them, nod your head noncommittally, or remain silent. Challenge their beliefs even in the slightest, and they won’t defend theirs, they’ll attack yours instead. And I’ve seen this happen dozens of times, often to people who simply said “umm, no, I don’t think so . . .” and were then shocked by the intensity of the response.

          Probably the best thing I can say about wiccans and libertarians alike is ‘Mostly Harmless’.

        • Geprodis

          I see your point. Ron Paul is a True Believer, and that is a little kooky. Personally I wish Ron Paul was not the Libertarian’s candidate, because he is a kinda kooky.

          I like that he is making Libertarianism more popular, but…

          He treats the Constitution as a holy document…again, a little kooky, but..the Constitution is probably the best thing he could view this way.

          I have heard that Ron Paul doesn’t believe in Evolution. That is, well, not sure what that is, but it’s not good.

          Ron Paul has plenty of faults…I don’t think being a racist is one of them though. There are the Newsletters, but I don’t think he wrote them or even read them. He has talked about the drug war and the racism behind it, and he talks about the individual and includes blacks specifically.
          He doesn’t appear racist or even hateful. He just seems like a True Believer, a little kooky as you mentioned, but the foreign and domestic policy he believes in is much better than the other Presidential candidates.

          Who are the other choices?

          Perry believes there should be a Constitutional Amendment for prayer in school.

          Romney has flip-flopped on every issue, he wants to be president to satisfy his ego, he doesn’t have any core policies.

          Gingrich is a completely corrupt Washington insider.

          Santorum and Bachman are theocrats

          I can’t see a difference between Hunstman and Obama.

    • sweatyb

      +1 for an apt analogy

  • valkayec

    Wonderful essay, Mr. Frum. I’d not read it previously so I was delighted to read an exposition that accurately described the thinking of our founders and why they held the views they did.

    One of the things David McCullough often mourns is the lack of history education in our schools. While it does exist, it’s usually taught in a rapid over view that provides little insight and indepth coverage. I very enjoy these political history essays.

  • indy

    If a libertarian is one who believes, as I suggested at the outset, that each person should be free to live as he or she thinks best, then a libertarian in 1776 would have been obliged to be an abolitionist.

    Well, I do think this to be overly simplistic. As is pretty evident in the Confederate constitution, slaves where not considered ‘persons’, so I don’t think it would have been particularly problematic for them to have been simply dropped from consideration.

  • Geprodis

    I see Frum is being a little more subtle about his Ron Paul bashing.

    I love how he points out that the more “statist” Founders were in favor of Abolition, of course meaning the more Libertarian, aka Ron Paul types were in favor of slavery.

    Frum calling Ron Paul racist again, same sh!t, different day.

    His argument that the Founders were Calvinist and therefore did not believe in freedom of the individual is funny.

    Frum thinks George W. Bush is the model President the Founders would have praised.

    Frum is wrong.

  • think4yourself

    David, one of your better articles.

    Where the Founders Libertarian? Since Libertarians don’t agree as to what they are, it really doesn’t matter.

    The Founders were a collection of men who had a diverse group of beliefs and a willingness to compromise on them. Some of those men, modern day Libertarians would be happy to follow, others not so much.

    Maybe a better question goes to the Conservative fantasy with “original intent”. The Federalist Society and guys like Thomas and Scalia base their opinions on what the Founders intended – as they had mindmeld with them (okay a little sarcasm – better said based on their reading of the Constitution).

    I wonder if you were to ask the Founders, what their thoughts were on original intent. Did they intend that all governance in the future would be set in stone based on the Founder’s intention? These guys knew Adam Smith, read Locke, Voltaire, Hobbs, Greek & Roman Classic (Plato, Pliny, etc.), through compromise they devised the best system of government that they could. That doesn’t mean that they thought there should never be any advances or changes with the times. I suspect they would more likely feel that their “American Experiment” was simply a stepping stone and improvement on 1,500 years of government and there would be room for improvement in the future.

    But maybe that’s just my imagination.

    • valkayec

      Actually, you are quite right. The founders never expected the nation to be static. They understood, as Madison expressed in his letters, that the nation would change and need new laws to deal with those changes – which is why they included the ability to modify the Constitution, although none of them ever expected the nation to grow as large as it is or as diverse as it is. Even Jefferson, who purchased the Louisiana Territory (unconstitutionally I might add), never seems to have expressed any written thought about how such as change would affect the national identity via large groups of non-Anglo-Saxon inhabitants or how to deal with it. As a result of the enormous expansion of the US changing the Constitution is a long and arduous process so is, therefore, used infrequently.

      Moreover, there was a huge rhetorical battle over the development of the Constitution. The original idea of a new Constitution, as opposed to continuing on with the Articles of Confederation, came from Madison, Mason, Jay, et al – mainly the elite of Virginia political thinkers. They wrote to Washington expressing almost exactly the same views on the design of a new constitution, and once they had Washington’s approval to move forward with a Convention – over riding and negating the Confederation Congress – they sent letters to political elites in all the others states, particularly in the North.

      The biggest battles during the Convention appears to have been about two things: States primacy over people’s primacy. Which should come first: the states or the people. Many Southerns, in particularly, stated the new constitution should deem the right of states second to national federal law with the People in third position. Others, particularly in the North, argued that the People came before the states. In the end, the primacy of the People won out, effectively reducing the power of the States over the People. The new Constitution would be for the People, not the States.

      Another big rhetorical – and often physical – battle surrounded the issue of federal powers. The original Constitution, as written by Madison et al, did not include the first ten amendments. Many, even outside the Convention, argued that the original document was too inspecific and would permit the federal government to do whatever it chose. A raging battle went on in newspapers, in pubs and tea rooms, and even in ladies sewing circles about what the powers of government should be. In the end, the original Constitution was ratified with the Bill of Rights following. Washington was elected; Hamilton set up the Treasury including the first central bank (a la the Fed), while though unconstitutional strictly speaking, to manage the newly acquired federal debt and the nation’s monetary system which was approved by Washington and thus by the new Congress. Within a few years of the new central bank and a single national monetary currency, the nation’s balance sheet was under control, the US had a high credit rating in Europe and the ability to borrow unlimited amounts at low rates, and business within and among the states boomed.

      Those men, above all else where business elites, and therefore recognized the need for a stable, powerful central government in order for businesses to grow and compete. They chose a single federal monetary denomination to encourage that growth. Their choices were not ideological – all were highly well read – but were pragmatic and business oriented with a firm belief in equity of opportunity (except of course for blacks and women who were considered lesser beings without the ability to make rational, intelligent decisions). Moreover, the Constitution represents a comprise between north and south and between business and individual that all of them chose to ratify. As the penultimate politician Franklin stated, the Constitution is the best we can hope for.

      The Constitution represents the art of deal making: not perfect, no one is truly satisfied, everyone had to give up something, but in the end a deal was made to which no one objected.

      All that being said, the modus operendi of modern libertarians negates much of the thinking, as I understand it, of our founders. Even the Federal Society – such an Orwellian name – fails to understand the thinking posited by our founders in that nations change and thus laws and ideas must change with the times in which people live. After reading about the founders and their ideas, I believe they’d be appalled at the idea of a static system that refused to advance human rights, dignities, and freedoms – or allow modern day corporations to buy the kind of legislation and legislators that they currently do now.

      • Traveler


        Great comment. I might add that the 3/5 of a person that came out of the Congress was part of the messy compromises that were necessary. In essence they punted on that one. David’s post was remarkably apt, and long before the Paulites come to the fore. It is worth remembering that. The evolution of how state, debt, honor and security were perceived during those centuries was remarkable.

  • cranky_engineer

    Why exactly are we even thinking of the founding fathers in these terms? They were the intellectual elites of the time and lived in a largely agrarian society. The population of the country was around 2.5 million. Mostly they were wealthy men. The country was exclusively white anglo saxon except for the slaves. Their world has no resemblance to the world we live in.

    Todays Libertarians are, as best I can figure, a group of mostly self centered ideologues. None of them are actually interested in solving the country’s problems or helping advance society. They only want to try and force the world to comply with their own ideology.

    Finally, why is everyone paying so much attention to Iowa and Ron Paul there. It has around 1% of the current US population. Demographically it doesn’t represent the rest of the country. Worst of all something like 4% of the voters there actually participate in the caucuses. Yet we are all focused on the great libertarian Ron Paul wondering if he’ll get 25% of the votes.

    • Geprodis

      Imagine people on a Republican political forum interested in a Republican presidential primary. Ridiculous.

      • valkayec

        Come on, be a bit less sarcastic. Everyone has a right to his or her own opinions. Live and let live, right? First Amendment and all that?

        But Cranky does make an interesting point that I’ve often wondered about. The Iowa caucuses do represent only .0004 of the population in the US, so why so much attention to that tiny minority? I understand it from Iowa’s point of view: lots of stimulus for the state. But nationally? Why have the parties not chosen to begin with a large population state where the views might be more representative of the national voting population?

        • Geprodis

          Political junkies are just anxious for a fix. I don’t think the Iowa primary is too important and I don’t think many people do. Ron Paul is going to stay in the campaign through all the primaries though, so winning the first primary might prove somewhat important.

        • valkayec

          Ron Paul is going to stay in the campaign through all the primaries though, so winning the first primary might prove somewhat important.

          Such as?

          Moreover, you failed to answer my question.

  • camus32

    Enough of this nonsense. I’ve had an epiphany. If Ron Paul is the Republican nominee, I will vote for him. Otherwise I’m voting for Obama

  • Frumplestiltskin

    Happy and prosperous new year everyone.

  • nhthinker

    Frum’s arguments regarding slavery and libertarianism are indeed hare-brained.
    The Founders thought only certain people had attained the wisdom sufficient to vote- in many cases, the determination was property ownership.

    Eligibility to vote for representatives would be based on each state’s rules for voting on the state legislature’s lower house. For example, the 1777 New York State Constitution required that a man have considerable wealth to be able to vote for the state Assembly – he had to pay taxes as well as own property worth at least 20 pounds or pay an annual rent of 2 pounds. Ten of the original 13 states had property and/or tax requirements when the U.S. Constitution came into effect.

    Those people were deemed sufficiently free and thoughtful to make their own decisions and to form a limited bond on a federal level and to be free from tyranny of the federal government.
    To the state governments of the founders, voters had to be actualized. In many respects, those people without property ownership were thought of much like children of today- To be accommodated in society, but to be limited by the laws that the actualized voters decided.

    To use Frum’s definition, a person could not be a libertarian unless they viewed that children needed to be allowed all the same rights and privileges as adults. Such a definition is comical on its face.

  • Petersoa

    I’m a liberal Democrat. This article was thoughtful and illuminating. The comments on this blog are often equally thoughtful, but “nhthinker” is slightly alarming. He/She may only be offering an historical observation, but seems to imply that such a limited electorate would be a good idea. I think Mr. Frum’s assertions about slavery and libertarianism are correct.

    • Jack E. Lope

      If you read some of the Libertarian echo-chamber blogs – in particular, the Ayn-Rand-inspired ones – you will find that many of them want to reduce or eliminate democracy in one way or another. There is an authoritarian streak (and you may notice a tendency of Paulta, um, Paulites to emphasize that
      he’s a doctor) and a disdain for common people…in the guise of freedom.

      Maybe Ron Paul’s first act would be to modify the Statue of Liberty by removing the wording from it, so it better reflects his definition of liberty.

      The ideal government for many of them will protect property rights, maybe even including the right to indentured servitude, and do little or nothing beyond that.

    • nhthinker

      What is the reasoning for children not having the right to vote? They are, of course, citizens.

      If a country gets to a point where the majority of its voters are personally financially incompetent, can that country have any chance of remaining viable?

      Fully inclusive democracies and democratic republics are relatively new constructs in the social order of humans- they obviously have been successful at creating much higher levels of both wealth and consumption. The real question of the next century or two is whether consumption continues to outstrip wealth creation and if non-elected authoritarian control (for example, as what is happening in Greece) becomes the norm.

  • JoshSN

    One critical distinction between the free market philosophies of Jefferson and Jackson, as described by T. J. Stiles in “The First Tycoon” and those of the libertarians gets to the heart of the matter, if you ask me.

    Jefferson and Jackson were against the government grant of limited liability, which distorts the markets, which creates corporations. The Whigs believed a few, public-spirited projects of large scale sometimes justified corporations, but the Democratic-Republicans never saw it that way, and “stock-jobber,” again, according to Stiles, was a big insult, if not their biggest.

    So, what do you call someone who appears to be against every government regulation except the one with the biggest effect on the economy? Not a libertarian, but a corporatist.

  • David Frum: Were the Founders libertarians? | D Gary Grady

    [...] this article on his website, conservative writer David Frum addresses a commonplace notion on the right, namely, [...]