Since the July 4 holiday is approaching, I’ve been reflecting on the Founding Fathers and their monumental contributions to this great country. That made me begin to think about the right wing Republican claim that the Founding Fathers would be Tea Party conservatives in the 21st century.
I can tell you from my historical research that claim is flatly wrong and is quite frankly an insult to the Founding Fathers. I don’t think those great men would want to have anything to do with the leadership of today’s Republican party which in the words of prominent political scientist Norm Ornstein is “an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited and social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Just how accurate are the Republican claims about the Founding Fathers? Did they truly believe in limited or smaller government? Were they scornful of compromise and unpersuaded by empirical evidence? I think the answers will surprise our conservative Republican friends.
One of the greatest Americans — if not the greatest — was George Washington — our first President. Washington was very close to Alexander Hamilton and Hamilton was Washington’s most influential adviser. Hamilton was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers and the first Treasury Secretary.
The historical record indicates that Hamilton was no advocate of limited government and would be rejected with contempt by right wing Republicans if they were familiar with his actual record and views. As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton clashed with the small government conservatives of his day in advocating for a national bank, government assistance to manufacturers and the encouragement of immigration.
Washington’s successor — John Adams — was certainly no advocate of small or limited government. While he was President, Adams signed into law the infamous Alien and Sedition Act which among other things restricted speech that was critical of the government. Under this act, the Adams Administration criminally prosecuted several journalists and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
During the Adams Administration, Jefferson and Madison were very critical of the Alien and Sedition Act and wrote several pieces in response to that law which extolled the virtues of small and limited government. That’s where one will find many of the passages cited by present day conservatives when they make the case the Founding Fathers would be Tea Party Republicans today.
Once Jefferson and Madison took power, they were not hesitant to use the power of big government to achieve their ends. (Madison served all eight years of the Jefferson Administration as Secretary of State and was Jefferson’s hand picked successor.)
During the debate over the Louisiana Purchase, the advocates of smaller government took the position that the federal government lacked the power to acquire land and demanded that the Constitution be amended to give the federal government that power. Jefferson and Madison liberally construed the Constitution and took the position that the Louisiana Purchase fell under the treaty powers of the Constitution and submitted the Louisiana Purchase for it’s eventual ratification by the U.S. Senate.
Jefferson and Madison were responsible for one of the greatest power grabs in U.S. history during Jefferson’s second term. At that time, the Napoleonic Wars were raging in Europe and both the British and the French navies were seizing U.S. ships in the Atlantic Ocean. Both the British and the French wanted to deprive each other of the benefits of trade with the U.S.
In response, Jefferson and Madison convinced the Congress to pass the Embargo Act of 1807 — which made illegal any and all exports from the U.S. In other words, during Jefferson’s second term, the federal government banned businesses from selling goods to foreign countries. This exercise of federal power pales in comparison to any exercise of power by the federal government during the recent Obama Administration. If today’s conservatives had been around in 1807, they would have called Jefferson and Madison “communists” and “socialists.”
The embargo on foreign trade ultimately proved to be a failure and did immense damage to the U.S. economy. It was eventually lifted in 1809 shortly after Madison became our nation’s fourth President.
These episodes from early American history that I cite here aren’t exhaustive. There are many other examples that would clearly indicate that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t be right wing ideologues today. Instead, the Founding Fathers were intelligent, reality based, practical, and willing to compromise to get things done. They wouldn’t be right wing, Tea Party Republicans in the 21st century.
I think you can say the same things about modern day Democrats that I’ve said here about the Founding Fathers. We Democrats are willing to consider all practical measure to create a better country. We are more than willing to compromise to achieve our goals. For example, the ACA is based upon a Republican health care plan that was hatched by the Heritage Foundation and first implemented by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.
As Democrats, we need to re-claim the Founding Fathers. We can’t allow the current GOP leadership and conservative media to claim some kind of monopoly on the great men who founded and established our country against great odds. This attempt by the radical right to appropriate the Founding Fathers is merely a public relations attempt to give political cover and legitimacy to their extreme policies.
On a final note, I wish everybody a happy and safe 4th of July holiday as we celebrate the 244th anniversary of our great country’s independence.