Following the recent election, much has been made of the alternative reality created by the “conservative entertainment complex.” However, conservative media has not only created its own contemporary reality; it has also created its own historical reality, through what one might call the historical wing of the conservative entertainment complex.
In recent years, men like David Barton, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, among numerous others, have written a number of books on eighteenth-century figures and events. But though they claim to be getting their principles directly from “the founders,” what they are really doing is giving their principles to the founders and the eighteenth century, more generally. This revisionism, promoted by conservative think tanks, was lapped up by hardcore conservatives and perhaps no group of people has been a more receptive audience than those who identify themselves as supporters of the Tea Party.
A few years ago, Tea Partiers began appearing at public rallies dressed in inaccurate historical garb and carrying homemade signs, some of which took a decidedly eighteenth-century approach to spelling. The rank-and-file claimed (and believed themselves) to be independent of the GOP and sincerely called for a return to the Constitution and to our “founding principles.”
But, as the agenda of the right-wing intelligentsia and their interest groups insidiously took greater precedence, the Tea Party and the historical wing of the conservative entertainment complex were forced to twist the founders into ideological and historical pretzels until they appeared to be nothing less than spokesmen for the 21st-century GOP agenda, i.e., the founders as right-wing “fellow travelers.”
Through this revisionism, the founders have not only become honorary NRA members, they have also by turns become monolithically anti-tax, anti-government, pro-free market, pro-individualism, and deeply religious fundamentalist Christians.
Undoubtedly, there were some at the time who held some of these views, but claiming rigid ideological positions attributable to all of the founders is a historical fool’s errand. Nevertheless, it was something relatively easy to push on rank-and-file Tea Party members whose actual knowledge of eighteenth-century thought on politics, social organization, political economy, and theories of government was limited at best and, more often than not, non-existent. Since many of their claims have been debunked by much better historians than myself, I’d like to subject to scrutiny a few of this conservative revisionism’s broader characterizations of the eighteenth century and to show that even the founders themselves took opposing positions.
“He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free and we were going to be armed.”
Perhaps the easiest of all of which to convince the rank-and-file was the anti-tax argument. After all, the Tea Party itself was a protest against a tax, right? And didn’t we all learn in elementary school that the founders revolted against the tyrannical King George III and his unreasonable taxes? Unsurprisingly, the reality was more complex than either your fourth-grade teacher or the Tea Party rank-and-file would have you believe. The reaction against British taxes was not due solely to a rigid anti-tax ideology, but against taxes designed specifically to raise revenue for Britain by a legislative body in which they were not represented.
Indeed, throughout the eighteenth century, taxes were not considered tyrannical in and of themselves and most well-off white men understood the benefits of taxation. The colonies’ had taxed themselves since the beginning and used that money to build roads, bridges, and public buildings, as well as contribute to British war efforts. Indeed, the “cheerful taxpayer” was an eighteenth-century ideal; he was “an informed taxpayer, freely consenting to the tax and intelligently acknowledging its necessity.“ In a hierarchical society /characterized by striving and an uncommon level of social mobility, the ability to owe and pay one’s taxes was itself a marker of wealth and status. Hence, the title of Benjamin Franklin’s 1758 essay, The Way to Wealth and a Plan by which Every Man may pay his Taxes.
The founding generation, unlike modern Tea Partiers and Libertarians, generally had no problem with being taxed by their own elected representatives, i.e., with their own consent. That is because they were not rigidly anti-government and pro-individual. The myth of “rugged individualism” that so many conservatives associate with the founders was actually a product of the nineteenth century.
This mistaken identification also contributed to Tea Party characterizations of the founders as pro-free trade, pro-capitalism, and anti-regulation, or, in today’s terms, anti-socialist. But both the society and economy of eighteenth-century America were far more collective than individualistic. From England, the settlers had also brought over their own “corporatist” practices or moral economy. Towns regularly instituted price controls on necessary goods in an effort to keep merchants from manipulating local markets and driving up prices.
Indeed, in 1774, when the First Continental Congress signed the Articles of Association, they actually included rather strict and well-defined price regulations (designed to keep greedy merchants from price gouging) and created a revolutionary bureaucracy to enforce them. Article 9 states, “Such as are venders of goods or merchandize will not take advantage of the scarcity of goods, that may be occasioned by this association, but will sell the same at the rates we have been respectively accustomed to do, for twelve months last past,” while Article 14 demands, “That all manufactures of this country be sold at reasonable prices, so that no undue advantage be taken of a future scarcity of goods.” Hence, in one of the first official documents of the Revolution, the men in the Continental Congress felt it both necessary and appropriate to use the revolutionary government safeguard the economic interests of the many over the few.
As Occupy Wall Street emerged in 2011, the issue of economic inequality entered our political discourse. The right-wing’s founders—ruggedly pro-individual and doggedly anti-government—felt no desire to address such an issue or simply would not have recognized it as a problem. After all, they would argue, there was surely more wealth and income inequality in the eighteenth century than there is now and they didn’t do anything about it then. But, in fact, those assertions are false.
First, there was significantly less wealth and income inequality in 1774 than in America today, according to Alice Hanson Jones’s study of wealth in colonial America:
Top 1% (wealth) 14.6 34.6
Bottom 80% (wealth) 26.8 14.9
Top 1% (income) 8.9 21.3 (2006)
Indeed, the lack of gross wealth and income inequality and the social mobility it indicated was a point of pride and one of the defining features of early America for those of European descent. In a letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families. [. . .] Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”
And Benjamin Franklin, in a pamphlet from the early 1780s entitled Information to those who would remove to America, wrote,
“The Truth is, that though there are in that Country few People so miserable as the Poor of Europe, there are also very few that in Europe would be called rich; it is rather a general happy Mediocrity that prevails.”
After all, a successful republic required virtuous and independent citizens, which required a more even distribution of wealth (or, in eighteenth-century terms, land). This is why, in his first draft of the Virginia state constitution, Jefferson included a provision that would have entitled “every person of full age” to “an appropriation of 50 acres of land.” Later in the early national period, Jefferson and Madison sought to craft economic policies that would stave off the inequality that naturally arose in manufacturing societies. Franklin deplored the conditions of the laboring poor he saw while in Britain and attributed it directly to the rise of manufacturing and industrial capitalism. He also believed it was morally just for the wealthy to pay taxes that provided a safety net for the laboring poor, from whose exploitation the rich benefited.
They were also keenly aware of the possible dangers of speculators and many were deeply mistrustful of the “stock-jobbers” of the young nation’s emerging financial sector to the economic well-being of citizens. All three believed it was the responsibility of the government to help foster economic equality or at least minimize economic inequality. Even Alexander Hamilton, the one founder held up by those on the right as the man who “made” modern capitalist America, believed the government had a significant role to play in fostering economic growth.
The Tea Party’s founders are not those of the eighteenth century, but individuals trapped in a time warp between then and now. Ironically, when they use the term “founding fathers” to mean a group of men in the eighteenth century opposed to strong centralized government they are really talking about the antifederalists, who were the original opponents of the Constitution, for which the Tea Party professes such deep affection. The field of early American history is perhaps the most politicized in our current political culture, so much so that historians or works that challenge the construction of the founders as right-wing fellow travelers can find themselves under attack by monolithic and endlessly funded lobbying organizations.
As Americans, we have a connection to the founding generation of our nation that is quite unusual in the modern world. In many ways, we see them in the sort of mythic terms in which the ancient Greeks saw their “lawgivers,” Lycurgus and Solon. Yet, the distortions of the founders’ thought and the eighteenth-century world in which they lived for distinctly partisan purposes does a serious disservice to both them and their time and actually detaches us from rather than getting us closer to their ideals and hopes for the country which they helped to establish.
That is, of course, if you are so inclined as to believe that were the founders alive in the twenty-first century they would be prescribing and pronouncing the exact same ideas and policies which they used and developed in their own unique context and that of the eighteenth century more generally. But that is another piece entirely…
Michael D. Hattem is a PhD student at Yale University.
1. Anthony Joseph, “The Decline of the Cheerful Taxpayer: Taxation in Pennsylvania, c. 1776-1815,” in Pennsylvania’s Revolution, ed. William Pencak (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 284.
3. The Articles of Association, October 20, 1774, Avalon Project. See Articles 9-14.
4. Alice Hanson Jones, Wealth of a Nation To Be: The American Colonies on the Eve of Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 162. Her raw data can be accessed at “America Colonial Wealth Estimates, 1774,” (website). For the subsequent context see, Peter H. Lindert, Jeffrey G. Williamson, “America’s Revolution: Economic disaster, development, and equality,” (website). For the current statistics, see “Who Rules America?” (website).