Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 blog. Originally published Monday, February 21, 2011.
by William Hogeland
In a brand new series at ND 2.0, “Founding Finance”, author William Hogeland challenges Tea Party myths about the early days of our Republic and reveals the rich progressive tradition of Americans fighting for economic justice.
At a recent speech in Iowa, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann induced widespread cringing with her claim that Americans of the founding period, no matter who they were, enjoyed exceptional freedom to pursue their hopes for betterment. Slavery and the U.S. Constitution’s three-fifths clause don’t qualify as little-known facts, and Bachmann seemed ignorant, too, of women’s original exclusion from rights secured by the representative government established in the Constitution. Who knows how she’d evaluate the native population’s historic situation.
There’s another group that Bachmann might be surprised to learn suffered exclusion from political participation in founding-era America: Most of the free, white male artisans, laborers, and small farmers. That’s right, an overwhelming majority of the white men in early America would dissent heartily from the idea that they were free to advance themselves, through work and pluck and luck, regardless of who they were and what they owned. Ordinary, working Americans of the period — the very type the Tea Party constantly evokes — were engaged in a ceaseless struggle against the wealthy, well-connected American merchants and landowners who sewed up business and barred the unprivileged from political power.
In that struggle, 18th-century populists came to articulate a radical new idea about the relationship of liberty and equality, anathema to the Tea Party politics of today. Securing true liberty, working Americans of the founding period insisted, requires government to regulate business and finance in the interest of economic fairness. They demanded such things as debt relief, an end to the regressive gold standard, the severing of rights from property, and legal curtailment of mercantile interests. Some wanted progressive taxation; some envisioned a social security program. Their real political ethos directly contradicts current right-wing efforts to cast passive government, unfettered markets, and wholesale tax resistance as the founding values of ordinary America.
Many progressives, too, will find it counterintuitive to contemplate an 18th-century American economic radicalism. Getting a clearer look at the period requires revisiting Philadelphia in 1776 — but this time walking eastward on Chestnut Street, away from the soaring State House, one day to be called Independence Hall, where the Continental Congress meets, and peeking instead into the smaller but ruggedly beautiful artisan headquarters Carpenter’s Hall. Delegates noisily crowding the floor here are writing a constitution for the newly independent Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In dress, speech, and attitude these men are nothing like the well-heeled members of the fabled Congress up the street. These are small farmers, artisans, and laborers, the ordinary free white men of the period. They boast no well-placed family connections. They lack fancy educations and professions. Almost all of them are new to representative office.
While in some ways the men of Carpenter’s Hall might appear to be ancestors of Sarah Palin’s “real Americans”– they hunt, fish, build, farm; they keep and bear arms (and serve in militias); they’re political newcomers — Palin would brand them socialists. They’re here to create a radically new kind of government, one that restrains wealth, regulates business, and empowers labor. For the first meaningful time anywhere, their 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution will break the ancient connection between property and the political franchise, writing what we now call progressivism into law. Its legacy will survive in the Square Deal, the New Deal, the Great Society, and those programs’ reverberations in the very policies that today’s right condemns as categorically un-American.
Did that radical Pennsylvania constitution gain approval from the better-heeled founders up the street? Hardly. (John Adams on the Pennsylvania document: “Good God!”) Did it last? Only until 1790 (it was overturned by upscale forces whose power it had tried to restrict). Do historians give it much credit? Many do — but not Samuel Eliot Morison, for example. His suggestion in The Conservative American Revolution that the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution impressed nobody but French revolutionaries epitomizes the mood of dismissal, at once airy and leery, that many big-name historians, both liberal and conservative, have adopted when considering our earliest radical movements for economic equality. Historians across the political spectrum who prefer American consensus to American conflict have downplayed the long struggle that came to a kind of fruition in 1776 Pennsylvania. So we don’t know much about it.
Historical marginalizing of our founding challenges to economic elites damages current political thinking. Modern progressives seeking precedents in history tend to travel backward through the New Deal, come to a screeching halt at the Populist and Progressive movements, squint approvingly back at Jackson, and fail to focus on the horizon where an economically egalitarian American spirit, more truly radical than Jackson’s, seethes, neglected. Reclaiming that spirit — at the very least exploring it — would have the virtue of denying the Tea Party a monopoly on anything supposedly fundamental about the American founding and American values.
Reclaiming our founding tradition would also give a rest to the endless ideological tug of war over the famous founders. One of the most exciting things about our early popular movement is that it centered — in a way that Jefferson’s and Madison’s philosophies of government, as brilliant as they are, didn’t — on just the kinds of real-life economic issues that still confront so many Americans today. Foreclosure epidemics, insider high-finance corruption, predatory lending, recessions and depressions, income disparity, mercantile exploitation of labor . . . ordinary 18th-century Americans applied themselves to these problems with both sophistication and courage.
So in succeeding posts, I’ll dig into and expand on the welter of people, ideas, and actions that make the founding era such a surprisingly fertile and compelling one — sometimes a problematic one too — for progressive economics and politics today. My guiding theme, especially relevant these days, involves finance. As the historian Terry Bouton shows in his benchmark study Taming Democracy, ordinary 18th-century Americans had a grasp of public and private finance that many otherwise sophisticated people lack today. Further posts in this series will therefore get into 18th-century foreclosure crises and debtor uprisings; the founding bonded national debt; early labor organizing and popular demands on government; the structure and economic intentions of the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution; the gold standard versus paper and other popular currencies; founding-era real-estate and debt-securitization bubbles; etc. Stay tuned . . .
William Hogeland is the author of the narrative histories Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion and a collection of essays, Inventing American History. He has spoken on unexpected connections between history and politics at the National Archives, the Kansas City Public Library, and various corporate and organization events. He blogs at http://www.williamhogeland.com.