Day After July 4th

According to the American right, studying the Founders of the United States and their charter documents inspires simple patriotic respect for the nation’s supposedly “exceptional” commitment to “freedom” and “democracy.” But the founders’ legacy is complex for leftists. Drawn from the elite propertied segments of a deeply stratified society, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention shared their compatriots John Jay and John Adams’s view that “the people who own the country ought to govern it.” They may have diverged on numerous questions but they agreed on one basic principle: the common people, with little or no property, must not have too much power.

“In their minds,” historian Richard Hofstader noted in The American Political Tradition (1948), “liberty was linked not to democracy but to property.” Among the freedoms the Founders advanced, Hofstader wrote, “freedom to hold and dispose [private] property [was] paramount.” Democracy was an extremely dangerous concept for them, conferring “unchecked rule by the masses,” which was “sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.”

The men who met to write the Constitution in Philadelphia, Hoofstader noted, “were not interested in extending liberty to those classes in America, the Negro slaves and the indentured servants, who were most in need of it.” They knew that extreme inequalities of wealth such as they wished to preserve and expand in the New World were incompatible with the classic and for them unimaginable ideal of genuine democracy – “one person, one vote” and equal policymaking influence for all persons regardless of class and other distinctions. When forced to choose between wealth and power for the few and democracy for the many, the Founders quickly and easily chose the former.

“From the Consent of the Governed”

Still, it is not for nothing that radical, publicly engaged intellectuals cite key United States Founder documents and statements in formulating a critical approach to American history, past and present. The Declaration of Independence “introduced,” as Howard Zinn notes, “the idea of democracy into modern government” by granting “the people” the right to “alter or abolish” a government that becomes “destructive” of their shared and equal rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and proclaiming the revolutionary ideal that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Building on that revolutionary ideal, the Constitution stated that the federal government, representing “We the People of the United States,” works to “establish justice,” “promote the general welfare,” “provide for the common defense,” and “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” It also codified charter liberties and principles – freedom of speech, separation of church and state, freedom from illegal search and seizure, the right to a jury trial, etc. – that are justly cherished and honored at home and abroad.

Thomas Jefferson v. King George Bush II

It’s impossible to square these principles, pledges, and ideals with the readily observable actions and strategies of the current White House and its allies within and beyond the federal government. Much the same could be said with any modern U.S. Administration. Sticking just to the one currently in power, however, the relevant actions and strategies include the cynical manipulation of public opinion, with special help from the 2001 jetliner attacks, to:

* advance massive tax-cuts for the super-wealthy (in what is already the industrial world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society).

* starve social programs and services and even homeland security while feeding a military machine and an imperial campaign that increases the likelihood of future terrorist attacks on Americans and transfers billions of dollars to the already outrageously wealthy “defense” corporations.

* rollback domestic civil liberties and civil rights (e.g., Patriot Acts I and II and the White House assault on affirmative action).

* fight illegal, unnecessary, and dangerous wars cynically sold to the populace on thoroughly false premises (the blatantly manufactured pseudo-threat posed by Iraq), resulting in lucrative new contracts and awards to gigantic corporate multinationals like Bechtel and Haliburton, all with strong and intimate personal, institutional and financial linkages to the current CEO-dominated White House and its plutocratic allies in government.

Contrary to the ideal of governance on the basis of popular consent, last year’s invasion of Iraq was launched on the basis of sheer deception. The masters of American policy and opinion manufactured the measure of outward consent they needed to conduct their murderous, imperial operation by inventing imaginary threats: Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” “suicidal” leadership, and link to Islamic terror networks. In the aftermath, some policy insiders and apologists have justified the deception, arguing that policymakers sometimes have the responsibility to manipulate the people for their own good.

The chance that the frightened, frazzled and badly overworked US populace might see and act on these and other outrageous “elite” actions and attitudes is narrowed by the ever-deepening concentration of the U.S. communications industry, already dominated by a small handful of gigantic global firms. “In a strange and convoluted way,” Arundhati Roy has noted, “the sound and fury that accompanies the legal and conceptual defense of Free Speech in America serves to mask the process of the rapid erosion of the possibilities of actually exercising that freedom.” In the uncharted historical waters created in no small part by this erosion, the most outrageous facts become irrelevant. Truth doesn’t matter when the leading institutions of public information, among other institutions (including workplace and school) powerfully assault the citizenry’s capacity for rational and evidence-based political thinking, essential to meaningful democracy.

The Founders in Left Opposition

It’s not far-fetched to suspect that were they alive today, the “father” of the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson) and the leading “father” of the Constitution (Madison) would be in left-aligned opposition to all of this. It is quite remarkable, in fact, to note the significant extent to which U.S. policies and practices today have been predicted and warned against by Jefferson and Madison. Listen, for example to Madison’s observation and warning that “the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.” Consider also Madison’s statement that “a popular government without popular information or the means to acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or to a tragedy, or perhaps to both.” Or Jefferson’s comment to Edward Carrington from Paris: “if once the people become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I and Congress and Assemblies and Judges shall all become wolves,” pillaging with public purse with selfish impunity.

Freedom vs. the Employer/Employee Society and the “Money Incorporations”

Looking beneath and beyond shifting policy, at the authoritarian structure of U.S. social relations, we might also note the Founders’ widely shared sense that a society of a few employers and many employees could never function in a way consistent with principles of popular government. “Free men,” they were sure, largely on the basis of the nation’s founding republican ideology, did not rent themselves out to others except on a distinctly temporary basis. Permanent wage- and salary-dependents, they felt, could never provide the basis for an intelligent, engaged, or free citizenry. This was an idea that stayed with many Americans, richly informing the development of the early labor movement and the core founding ideology of the anti-slavery Republican Party, well into the 19th century and beyond.

As Noam Chomsky has reminded us more than once, Jefferson warned quite explicitly and stridently against the “insidious power” of the “banking institutions and money incorporations.” If these selfish interests of concentrated private power were not “curbed,” Jefferson knew quite well, “they would become a form of absolutism that would destroy the promise of the democratic revolution.” Jefferson shared with Aristotle the belief that “widespread poverty and concentrated wealth cannot exist side by side in a democracy.” Observing the rise of early industrial capitalism, Jefferson in his later years drew a portentous “distinction between ‘aristocrats’ and ‘democrats.’ The ‘aristocrats,’” Chomsky noted, were “‘those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.’ The democrats, in contrast, ‘identify with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as honest and safe…depository of the public interest, [even] if not always ‘the most wise.’ The aristocrats of his day were the advocates of the rising capitalist state,” Chomsky writes, “which Jefferson observed with rising dismay, recognizing the obvious contradiction between democracy and capitalism – or more accurately, really-existing capitalism, linked closely to state power.”

The emergent class distinctions and disproportionate organized capitalist power that Jefferson witnessed in the early 19th century reminded him of nothing more than the “rotten,” class-ridden and aristocracy-dominated Old World he toured and chronicled with great disdain in the 1780s.

Even Madison, who quite consciously and explicitly advocated the crafting of government that would “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” came to recognize and worry quite early and seriously about the capitalist takeover of policy and opinion. Already, by the 1790s, he was denouncing the “daring depravity of the times” as “the rising class of business people become ‘the tools and tyrants’ of government, overwhelming it with their force and benefiting from its gifts….when he saw that the minority of the opulent are not nice gentlemanly aristocrats or Enlightenment philosophers who are going to make sure everyone is healthy and happy,” Chomsky observes, “he was outraged and infuriated,” concerned for the fate of the republic.

It’s true that the nation’s Founders thought that the people who own the country should run it. But none of them, not even the aggressively state-capitalist Hamilton, thought that those people should run the country into the ground by turning “popular government” into an accounts-receivable machine for private profit and a mechanism for deepening the chasm between the rich and the rest of the population. This is because the Founders were largely pre-capitalist, imbued with a traditional aristocratic spirit of noblesse oblige – a sense of their duty to maintain the stability and integrity of the broader societal whole, albeit in a way that sustained their own already remarkable but for them essentially sufficient wealth and privilege. There was for them more to life and society than the endless pursuit of individual wealth , power, and advantage. At the same time, they were participants in an age of popular upheaval, acutely conscious of the need to use mass energies, albeit carefully, without antagonizing the people into revolution of the truly radical, leveling variety – the sort that are needed to “turn the world upside down” and put meat on the bones of freedom’s pledge.

Seen from a left perspective, the Founders fall far short of genuinely democratic ideals. At the same time, they bequeathed a legacy that is not without use for modern-day anti-capitalists. The promises of their all-too-partial revolution remain terribly unfulfilled and forces that Madison and especially Jefferson feared stepped into the breach left by the betrayal, whose terrible consequences are visible to those who care to look.

Paul Street is a researcher and writer in Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at [email protected] This essay is excerpted and adapted from his article “By All Means, Study the Founders: Notes from the Democratic Left,” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies Volume 24, Number 4 (October-December 2003): 281-303.


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