The Tea Party and the Founding Fathers

By Vicki Warner

The rise of a grass-roots protest organization calling itself the Tea Party has aroused my curiosity.  The name reminds me of the story every child used to learn in elementary school, along with the Pilgrims and George Washington and the cherry tree – the story of the famous Boston Tea Party in 1773, when American colonists threw chests of tea off of British ships into the sea to protest the high British tax on the tea, leading to the famous slogan “No taxation without representation.”  Although the colonies did have a representative in London, Benjamin Franklin, he had no role in British decision-making.

This new Tea Party, as I understand it, wants to return to the ideas, to the Constitution, of the founding fathers.  They want, in essence, to throw overboard all that has been added to U. S. government since the days of the original Tea Party.  The word “originalist” has been coined to represent this point of view – “an originalist interpretation of the U. S. Constitution,” i.e., looking at the Constitution as the original writers did.   But to do this, it would be necessary to see the world as the founding fathers did, to live in the world they lived in.  These founding fathers lived in the last part of the 1700s.  Benjamin Franklin was an old man – he was born in 1706,  Thomas Jefferson, born in 1743, was relatively young.  In 1787, several years after the end of the American Revolution, the U. S. Constitution was formally adopted and then ratified by the several states.  The world they lived in was vastly different from the world we live in.  I decided to take a look at the world of the founding fathers.

Although feudalism, the world of kings, barons and serfs, had declined in the late middle ages, most of the nations of the world were still ruled by kings or emperors.  The idea of a nation in which the people were sovereign was unique – the history of democracy shows us that after the Roman Empire broke up, taking with it its Senate of nobles and Assembly of commoners, anything approaching a democratic government disappeared from the face of the earth.  The founding fathers realized that all of the problems associated with such a radical departure from traditional ruling structure could not be anticipated and wisely provided for methods of revising and amending the Constitution to compensate for the inevitable changes, leaving us a “Living” Constitution.

At the time of the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the Industrial Revolution had barely started in the textile mills of England.  Life was very different before the Industrial Revolution.  Most people lived a self-sufficient farming life, without electricity or hot and cold running water.  They grew most of their own food, and made most of their own clothes. Most people lived in small towns or villages.  Life was centered in communities, and people had to help each other, to depend on each other.  Transportation was difficult and slow – there were no paved highways, no cars, no railroad trains, no airplanes.  Communicaton was slow – although Ben Franklin made sure that provisions for a post office were included in the Constitution, mail was really snail mail.  There were no telephones, no radios, no television, no computers, no e-mail, and no smart phones.

There was no public education – although Thomas Jefferson was an ardent advocate, it wasn’t until 1840 that Horace Mann came along to promote the need for common schooling.  Massachuetts and New York, in the early 1850s, were the first states to pass laws requiring public schools. At the time of the writing of the U. S. constitution, education was private, and home-schooling, if any, was the rule.  There were private tutors for the wealthy, and Catholic schools for Catholics.  Actually, some people were afraid that educating the lower classes would make them dissatisfied with their lot and therefore cause trouble.

The founding fathers were not confronted with the enormous influence of corporations facing the legislators of today.  The only major corporations were the two East India Companies sponsored by the Dutch and British governments.  The first corporation of any consequence in the U. S. was The Boston Manufacturing Company, an industrial corporation which didn’t come along until 1813.

At the time of the writing of the U. S. Constitution, vast areas of the world had  not yet become nations.  Russia was still living in the dark ages – serfdom wasn’t abolished until 1861, about the time of our own Civil War.  Our closest ties continued to be with England and France, and to a lesser extent, with the rest of Europe.  Since information travelled so slowly, it was challenging, though not impossible, to know what was going on in the rest of the world.

At the time of the writing of the U. S. Constitution, England and France were experiencing the revolution in thinking that has been called “The Enlightenment,” a movement that wikipedia describes as  a “movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in Church and state.”  At the same time, founding father Thomas Paine was writing his influential book, “Common Sense,” advocating America independence, and Adam Smith was publishing his influential “Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” the bible of free-market capitalism.  The framers of the Constitution were educated men and were aware of the intellectual ferment of the times.  Although ihe U S. Constitution makes no mention of capitalism, nor indeed of any economic system, some historians equate the rise of capitalism with the rise of democracy.

The original seven Articles of the Constitution were concerned first, with the formation of a functioning government uniting the states under a system of three branches, Legislative, Executive. and Judicial, separate but interacting to assure mutual checks and balances; second, with specifying the means of changing the Constitution by Amendment; and third, with declaring the Constitution to be the supreme Law of the Land.  The original Constitution did not deal with the individual rights of man – the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, took care of that.

In short, I believe the founding fathers could never in their wildest flights of fancy imagine the world we live in today, nor can we really know how it was to lead the relatively uncomplicated life of the founding fathers, and any attempt to return to the state of mind of the past is futile – to understand it, perhaps, but to live it, no.  Given the nature of human beings, one thing we should have in common is mutual respect for individual rights and responsibilities, and by individual, I do not mean an artificial corporate “person,” and the key word is “responsibilities.”


This essay was written by UNA-NC member Vicki Warner earlier this month.

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