Were the Founding Fathers Libertarians?

December 31st, 2010 at 9:29 pm David Frum | 25 Comments |

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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 libertarianism 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.

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25 Comments so far ↓

  • ktward

    Wait.

    After all those reader comments, now you’re combining your commentary of three previous threads into one?

    I suppose there’s no more opportune time to pull such a move than on NYE.

  • politicalfan

    ktward-

    I see this as nothing more or nothing less of an ideology battle between conservatives and libertarians fighting to rebrand the R’s. What will be the heart and soul of the Republican party? Social? Small govt?

  • Alex 0_0

    Has anyone else noticed the absurd elite circlejerk that one NY Mag article has enabled? Were the founders libertarian? Who cares, they’re dead for centuries, and the term ‘libertarian’ didn’t even exist in the 18th century, or the 19th for that matter. What’s really being discussed here? Is it that “libertarians” oppose wildly expensive foreign interventions while Frum does not?

  • Were the Founding Fathers Libertarians? - Northwest Firearms Community

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  • nhthinker

    The Founders would have loved Ron Paul.

    Frum is an idiot for even bringing up the subject.

    Ohh, wait a minute! Frum never once compared what the Founders thought good and reasonable to the most recognizable modern libertarian, now did he?

  • SmarterThanLibs

    You were losing me and then completely lost me when you said: “…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.”

    The word “honor” is a very subjective thing depending on what a person considers honourable. A libertarian would use the word “honor” to describe something completely different than would a socialist or statist. Your essay is nothing less and nothing more than sillyness full of biased assumptions.

    Me thinks you are fighting the take over of the R party by freedom loving libertarians on behalf of statist social conservatives wanting to use government force against “The People” … just like the progressives.

    People who value freedom don’t care if you want to use government force to steal money from the rich and give it to the poor or if you want to use government force to dictate who can marry who… you are ALL enemies of freedom.

  • VA Gator

    Mr. Frum has removed all doubt from my mind that The Founders were not libertarians, but were clearly Frumarians…or Frumzians…or Frumbians…or…well, you get the idea. They surely fought a war for independence against a remote, central state, and its’ claimed right to order the lives of its’ subjects in the manner it saw fit to establish a new remote, central state which would claim the power to order the lives of its’ subjects in ways The Crown could only dream of.

    Yeah, I buy that.

    Seriously though, the question of whether The Founders were libertarians is neither here nor there. The relevant question is if they were, like Frum, statists. It is the statists that claim the power to order our lives. It is up to them to justify their claims to power. Mr Frum’s deep faith in the power of experts and a credentialed elite has taken a well deserved beat down over the past two years.

    It will only get worse. Justify your faith, Mr Frum, before you challenge others.

  • eburke

    Some misconceptions here. (1) The conception of the state goes back to the Renaissance, as has been exhaustively documented by Quentin Skinner and others; (2) the sovereign in the English royal state was recognized as the King-in-Parliament as early as the 16th c.; it is quite wrong to believe that the Parliament would not have been perceived by the founding generation as a kind of Chamber of Commerce and not a constitutive element of the English state; (3) it is wrong to state that the American colonist would not have been able to tell the difference between a condominium association and a town meeting; (4) it is quite wrong to believe the American Revolution was anything other than a revolt of American colonists against the power of a state which they believed to be acting in an illegitimate and illegal fashion. Libertarians in fact have a strong case that the founding generation feared state power. Like the Romans they admired, most believed private property to be an inprescriptable right and hated the idea of power in the hands of hereditary elites rather than in the hands of the people (tempered by the counsel of an elite of wisdom and virtue). Most of them were familiar with Hobbes Leviathan and were extremely hostile to its theory of the state, one of the roots of modern socialism.
    Frum is on more solid ground to say that 18th century Americans would not been sympathetic to expressive individualism. (I find it a bit condescending for him to say they could not have ‘understood’ it.) But by identifying expressive individualism as one mark of a libertarian he effectively forces all libertarians into the Randian mold. This is in part a problem of the corruption of political terminology in the US: socialists prefer to disguise themselves as liberals (formerly) or progressives (now); classical liberals of the J S Mill variety often call themselves conservatives. We need a name for the very large proportion of Americans, perhaps as many as a third, who reject socialism (the Democratic left, including Obama), support economic freedom (can we stop calling it ‘capitalism’?), yet oppose the Right’s absolutism on issues such as homosexual marriage, abortion, and drug usage. Most of these people have hardly heard of Rand or have outgrown Rand or would have serious misgivings about her elevation of selfishness into an ethical theory. But what term is there for those who oppose socialism and the Right’s cultural absolutism but libertarian?

  • Madeline

    b>Alex 0_0 : Has anyone else noticed the absurd elite circlejerk that one NY Mag article has enabled? Were the founders libertarian? Who cares, they’re dead for centuries, and the term ‘libertarian’ didn’t even exist in the 18th century, or the 19th for that matter.

    Circlejerk is the perfect description. Beam’s article and the eleventy bajillion blog posts responding to it should be compiled for publication in the inaugural issue of “Who Gives a Shit” magazine.

  • snxster

    These two quotes from our 1st and 3rd President, both of whom were Founding Fathers, echo the meaning of the word ‘libertarianism’ and invalidate your pathetic excuse for an article:

    Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. – George Washington

    A wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government. – Thomas Jefferson (1801)

    Many of the Founding Fathers of the United States agreed with the philosophy of libertarian and the idea that people should be able to do as they please so long as they do not impede upon the rights of others.

  • Nanotek

    “Many of the Founding Fathers of the United States agreed with the philosophy of libertarian and the idea that people should be able to do as they please so long as they do not impede upon the rights of others.”

    hence, they bought, beat and sold slaves freely, oppressed women’s political rights as against their own and oversaw the slaughter of native people?

  • peterverkooijen

    The key point that conservatives and socialists don’t understand about classic liberalism or libertarianism; it is not about against or for government, it is about the role of government.

    Anarchists advocate a “stateless world”, not libertarians or classic liberals.

    In the classic liberal view the role of government is to write law and uphold the rule of law, which includes protection of private property, individual rights and national security.

    That is it! No more, no less. The government should not be in the business to provide services, fix social ills, be state-builders, etc. The Founding Fathers would agree.

  • Poptech

    Mr. Frum, this is a laughable mash-up of straw-man arguments. Your confusion of anarchists with limited government libertarians is amusing. As is your mention of Mises and Hayek and then an absolute failure to provide their position on the founding fathers, government or slavery. Could you please provide this context as I am sure you had no intent of smearing either as in support of slavery or anarchy. You have read them and are not just making assumptions I hope?

  • Nanotek

    “In the classic liberal view the role of government is to write law and uphold the rule of law, which includes protection of private property, individual rights and national security. That is it! No more, no less. The government should not be in the business to provide services, fix social ills, be state-builders, etc. The Founding Fathers would agree.”

    so how would they agree: is a slave private property or does she/he have individual rights?

  • snxster

    “hence, they bought, beat and sold slaves freely, oppressed women’s political rights as against their own and oversaw the slaughter of native people?”

    The actions of some of the Founding Fathers didn’t match their words. No shit. No part of your post refutes anything I stated about the Founders beliefs, you fool.

  • Nanotek

    “No shit. No part of your post refutes anything I stated about the Founders beliefs, you fool.”

    personal actions are based on personal beliefs …

  • jg bennet

    Libertarians?

    Prior to the 20th century, classical liberalism was the dominant political philosophy in the United States. It was the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration of Independence and it permeates the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and many other documents produced by the people who created the American system of government.

    Basically, classical liberalism is the belief in liberty. Even today, one of the clearest statements of this philosophy is found in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. At that time, as is the case today, most people believed that rights came from government. People thought they only had such rights as government elected to give them. But following the British philosopher John Locke, Jefferson argued that it’s the other way around. People have rights apart from government, as part of their nature. Further, people can form governments and dissolve them. The only legitimate purpose of government is to protect these rights.

    So I guess the founders were classical liberals not libertarians.

    Adopting Thomas Malthus’s population theory, classical liberals saw poor urban conditions as inevitable, as they believed population growth would outstrip food production; and they considered that to be desirable, as starvation would help limit population growth. They opposed any income or wealth redistribution, which they believed would be dissipated by the lowest orders.

    The whole classical liberal idea of let the poor starve, no wealth distribution, free markets with no questions asked and me me me (unless you are gay) sure fits into the modern day “conservative” crowd of Limbaigh, Beck, Demint & Palin although Palin probably does not know what a classic liberal is she is just a band wagoneer.

    Maybe David should ask if they were classical liberals instead of the libertarians.

  • WillyP

    “Let the poor starve.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Poor_Laws

    Incendiary rhetoric. Wasn’t your beau, Barry Goldwater, a self-described classical liberal?

  • rcthompson

    Frum’s argument about the modern nation-state not existing at the time is laughable. There is two hundred years of scholarly material before the American Revolution pointing towards the existence of the modern nation-state. Most political scientists believe the modern nation-state started sometime around the Treaty of Westphalia, far before the American Revolution.

    This debate over the Founding Fathers being libertarians or not is hogwash as their political views were shaped by their life experiences, which are radically different than the life experiences of most of us. The left-right breakdown of the political spectrum did not exist in their time.

    The only way we really can judge the Founding Fathers based off the modern political spectrum is their individual reactions to the French Revolution. If that is the case, Hamilton, Washington, and Adams were conservatives and Jefferson was a flaming liberal.

  • Nanotek

    “The only way we really can judge the Founding Fathers based off the modern political spectrum is their individual reactions to the French Revolution.”

    why is that the only metric?

  • rcthompson

    Nanotek… well it is the best thing to a metric we got. The Founders lived in a different world when it came to economics as mercantilism not capitalism reigned. It is really hard to place their understanding of economics on a right – left spectrum when they did not even have capitalism or socialism to compare against each other. Additionally, you cannot judge the Founders on economics as they lived in a pre-industrialized world. Beyond Hamilton, very few of them understood what was about to happen in terms of industrialization. If anything, he was the only one who understood that capitalism was coming.

    The French Revolution, especially its latter stages, serves as a good metric because it shows how they viewed humanity in general. Clearly the likes of Hamilton and Washington took a very conservative view of humanity and thought the Revolution had got out of hand while Jefferson took a completely different view and seemed to love it longer than most.

  • Nanotek

    rcthompson, thanks; much appreciated.

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