Getting our historical narrative right matters a lot, as we are still arguing about all the same things our nation’s founders fought over. We need to be for a government that picks the right side to be on when it comes to our fights over the economy.
The Tea Party, Our Founding Fathers, And The Fight Over Government
Credit: Reuters
March 4, 2014

This is not a blog post about the absurdist fact-free stories conservatives tell about our country’s history, as entertaining as that is. (Almost as entertaining as when they talk about Christianity without ever appearing to have read their bibles.) You could sit around all day talking about how wrong Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachman and the tea partiers and the Texas Board of Education were in not merely their interpretation of history but their most basic facts, and you could have lots of belly laughs. But my topic today is more serious and more important, which is making sure us progressives have the right narrative about American history.

What provoked my writing about this today was an interesting piece in ThinkProgress by Ian Millhiser entitled “America’s First President Was The Tea Party’s Worst Nightmare”. It described, accurately, how the US Constitution was written by the framers in reaction to the failure of the Articles of Confederation’s loose alliance of the states. George Washington and most of the other delegates to the constitutional convention were concerned that without a strong central government, the new nation would not survive, so in fact their philosophy could not have been more diametrically opposed to the tea partiers of today who are so violently opposed to a strong central government, and who are so passionate in favor of states’ rights trumping the federal government.

Millhiser’s basic premise is right: George Washington and other founders believed in a strong central government, and would have been appalled by today’s tea party movement. But as his blog post goes on, I believe he goes astray in his telling of the founders’ story. His reading of the historical narrative is profoundly important for modern day progressives to debate. He does a good job of painting a picture centered around the importance of a big, powerful central federal government, but misses a more fundamental question: whose side should be government on?

Millhiser celebrates both Washington and Alexander Hamilton for their role in creating and building a powerful federal government, specifically praising Hamilton’s role in creating the partially public and partially private national bank of the United States. The argument is very reminiscent of the historical argument made by an organization called the Hamilton Project, which was co-founded by Bob Rubin and has a number of other Wall Street investment bankers on their advisory board. The think tank was named for Hamilton because its founders admired Hamilton’s belief in a strong central government, especially including Hamilton’s eagerness to forge a close bond between the financial sector and the new federal government.

Millhiser’s article goes on to paint Jefferson and Madison as the tea party right wingers of the founding era because of their opposition to the national bank and their concerns about the way that federal power was being used, saying that they “led a faction that would have almost certainly viewed anything resembling a modern welfare and regulatory state as unconstitutional”. Millhiser sees Jefferson’s and Madison’s opposition to a national bank as evidence that he “believed that the primary goal of the Constitution was to restrain federal power”. His article goes on to trace many of conservatism’s arguments throughout history to what he describes as Jeffersonian philosophy.

This is where I profoundly disagree with Millhiser, the Hamilton Project, and others who make the argument focused on a strong vs. weak federal government. My view, which I talk about in my book The Progressive Revolution: How The Best In America Came To Be, is that progressives should spend less time worrying about the size and strength of the federal government, and more time focused on a more fundamental question: whose side should government be on? From this perspective, Hamilton (and Washington, who backed him to the hilt) looks a lot less like the hero Millhiser and the Hamilton Project revere, and Jefferson and Madison look a lot less like the intellectual forbears of the tea party. Millhiser’s argument about Madison is especially odd, given that Madison was the leading author of the Constitution itself, and the co-author (with Hamilton as well as John Jay) of the Federalist Papers, which were the key articles that convinced Americans to adapt the new constitution, and which argued strongly for a stronger federal government.

As for Jefferson, the problem with arguing that he, along with his very close ally Tom Paine, were aligned with tea party conservatives is a deep misreading of who they were and the times they lived in. As I write in my book:

Paine and Jefferson grew up in an era where the greatest threat to their freedom and happiness was a tyrannical government. Even if King George did not have absolute power, he still had an enormous amount, and in most governments around the world, the king’s rule was still absolute. And neither the American colonists nor the working-class artisans Tom Paine grew up with had much in the way of political power or a stake in the system.

The world back then also had nothing similar to today’s big businesses, with their multinational economic and political power. As Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. explained in The Cycles of American History: “Early American corporations were quasi-public agencies, chartered individually by statute. They were granted franchises, bounties, bond guarantees, rights of way, immunities and other exclusive privileges to enable them to serve specified public needs. In many cases state government bought shares in corporations and installed their representatives on boards of directors.”

It is important to note that in the earliest days of the brand-new experiment in republican government that the United States was attempting, Alexander Hamilton was pushing the idea that a powerful, centralized government should be used in service to wealthy bankers and businesspeople. Hamilton was not arguing for the free market as conservatives today do, because the times were so fundamentally different. He was contending instead that the federal government should use all of its powers to promote economic development, and his way of doing that was to cut deals with wealthy financiers and businesspeople to get them excited about the new nation. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, he laid out his case for the U.S. economic plan in his landmark Report on Manufacturers, arguing that “a certain activity of speculation and enterprise, which if properly directed, may be subservient to useful purposes.”

In Jefferson’s and Paine’s experience, despotic kings and men allied with big-money capitalists such as Hamilton were the ones arguing for more government power. This is why, with Jefferson’s and Paine’s orientation toward democracy and common folk, they both at various times in their careers argued, as Paine did in Common Sense, that “society in every state is a blessing, but government, even at its best state, is but a necessary evil.” Jefferson, decrying business and bankers, once remarked, “Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread.” Jefferson also used the idea of states’ rights to argue for progressive principles, such as in the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts.”

In fact, any kind of a closer look at Jefferson’s overall writings and policies, his close alliance with Paine, and Paine’s writings, should put to rest any claim on on Jefferson and Paine’s alliance with modern day tea partiers. Washington and Hamilton’s Federalists left Paine to die in post-revolutionary France because they didn’t like his pro-democracy, pro-working class politics; Jefferson sent James Monroe over to rescue him, and paid for his trip back to America, which was brought him massive condemnation from Federalists. And Jefferson proudly distributed Paine’s controversial book The Rights of Man, which argued against elitism and aristocracy and for more democracy for poor and working class people, during his election campaign in 1800. In Paine’s other writings, he argued for a Social Security-style system of publicly funded old age pensions, for a safety net for the poor, for taxing the wealthy much more progressively, and for paying more to working class laborers. As for Jefferson’s policies as President, he invested heavily in roads and bridges, supported increased voting rights for the poor and working class, championed public education, and expanded the federal government’s power in a variety of ways including the Louisiana Purchase.

Jefferson was no founding era version of a tea partier. He was happy to strengthen the federal government when he thought it served the family farmers and workers he cared about. What he was reacting to in those early fights with Hamilton and the Federalists was that Hamilton wanted to firmly ally the new government with the big bankers in New York. Hamilton wanted the Federal government to take over the revolutionary war debts and pay them all off at 100 cents on the dollar, mostly because almost of all that debt was owned by the big banks in New York, who had bought it up for pennies on the dollar from farmers and small banks and businesses who were broke in the years after the war and feared it would never be paid off. And Hamilton planned to charter the federal bank in a way that benefitted a few big bankers enormously at the expense of farmers and working people. Hamilton also hated the idea of the more inclusive democracy and voting rights Jefferson and Paine were pushing. Hamilton famously started screaming at someone at a dinner party who was advocating for Jeffersonian democracy that “your people, sir- your people are a great beast.”

Why is all this important to modern day progressives? Because we should not be embracing a bigger government for the sake of a bigger government. The key question of our times is the same question that Hamilton and Jefferson were fighting over: should government ally itself with the biggest banks and businesses who currently have most of the money and power in society, or should government choose to side with working people, small business, start-up entrepreneurs, and low income and young people trying to climb the ladder into being a part of a steadily growing middle class? From the 1930s to the 1970s, government made the latter choice, Jefferson’s choice, and those decades were the most prosperous decades in American history. Since the 1980s, Hamilton’s side has won: government has kept getting bigger, but that government has mostly been on the side of big business and the powers that be instead of being on the side of working people. The result is the economic mess we currently find ourselves in, with staggering income inequality and a shrinking, stretched middle class.

Getting our historical narrative right matters a lot, as we are still arguing about all the same things our nation’s founders fought over. We need to be for a government that picks the right side to be on when it comes to our fights over the economy.

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