By Conor Lynch | 25 June 2015
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has some explaining to do. Last week, BuzzFeed reported that the Kentucky Senator had misquoted and taken out of context multiple quotes from the founding fathers, with the most errors linked to Tea Party hero, Thomas Jefferson. The mistakes appeared in his first two books, The Tea Party Goes to Washington and Government Bullies, where Paul wrote as if he and the whole Tea Party movement were the intellectual offspring of the founding fathers.
Of course, this is what most conservatives believe: that their movement is based on a vision of the founding fathers, particularly Jefferson, and that he and the others would have wholeheartedly supported it. Clearly, when these hardliners dress up in eighteenth century apparel, stockings and all, they do it because they consider their ideology closest to that of the fathers. But this is largely a myth. The founding fathers were not the staunch ideologues that most conservatives and even some liberals tend to believe.
The following list looks at some of the most inaccurate views that conservatives tend to associate with the founding fathers. When one looks at the history of these thinkers, rather than cherry-picking their works and making up quotes, a much more progressive vision appears.
1. The Founding Fathers wanted America to be a “Christian nation”
This whopper is one the most popular fabrications that conservatives attribute to the founding fathers; that they wanted the United States to be a Christian nation and even borderline theocratic. Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) father, Rafael, bemoaned back in 2013: “Our president has the gall to tell us that this is not a Christian nation…The United States of America was formed to honor the word of God.”
The supposed hero of the Tea Party, Thomas Jefferson, would have cringed at the very thought. Indeed, out of all the founding fathers, Jefferson was possibly the most ambivalent towards organized religion. It was Jefferson, after all, who so ardently promoted the Separation of Church and State, and wrote in his 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others, but it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Jefferson, along with other founding fathers, such as Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, were self-described deists, meaning they believed in some kind of higher power, but not that it was active in human affairs. They certainly did not believe in organized religion, and Jefferson famously predicted that the stories of Christianity would one day become mythology: “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
As for the role of religion in government, the establishment clause quite clearly explains the views of the founding fathers: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
2. The founding fathers all believed in limited government
Another big conservative misconception is that our founding fathers believed in a limited government small enough to “drown in a bathtub.” But America already tried that once, and it didn’t work out so well. In fact, the worshiped Constitution was actually written to form a strong central government after the Articles of Confederation, which had left the states sovereign and independent, created instability and national weakness. The Constitution designed a strong federal government with the power to levy taxes and regulate commerce, and also the strength to defend itself against hostile nations.
It is true enough, however, that once the new government had been created, vicious strifes formed over how much power the central government should have. This debate materialized between the two leading members of the Washington administrations Cabinet, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton imagined a new government that was not only strong in foreign affairs, but in domestic affairs as well. As Treasury Secretary, he promoted a government that was active in its countries economic affairs, especially by assisting young industries, and also created the first central bank. Jefferson, on the other hand, imagined America as a decentralized agrarian country of yeomen farmers.
Hamilton succeeded in shaping the American government under the Washington administration, and his vision was much more prophetic than Jeffersons. After Jefferson retired in 1793, he continued to oppose Hamilton from Monticello. However, when he was elected President in 1801, his administration was hardly the anti-federalist government one would have expected. In many ways, Jefferson’s administration was more Hamiltonian than Jeffersonian, though he would have never admitted it. The Louisiana Purchase, for example, was one of the largest expansions of U.S. government, and many of Jeffersons former anti-federalist allies had called it unconstitutional. While Jefferson spoke like an ideologue, he governed like a pragmatist, and was hardly the limited government extremist conservatives paint him out to be.
3. They worshipped the free market
Here is another assertion that is more complex than normally portrayed by conservatives. While many Tea Partiers assume that America was founded with strident devotion to the free market, the truth is that the United States became an economic powerhouse largely through protectionist policies and government action. This debate once again can be seen through the eyes of Hamilton and Jefferson. As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton promoted various policies that would assist developing industries in competing with foreign powers, particularly Britain. These policies included protective tariffs, premiums and pecuniary bounties (today known as subsidies), and export/import bans. He also promoted, in his own words, “Judicious regulations for the inspection of manufactured commodities” and “the facilitating of the transportation of commodities.” In other words, a strong infrastructure and regulatory apparatus.
Jefferson, along with most Southern planters, viewed protectionist policies negatively because they assisted developing industries in the North, and therefore threatened his agrarian utopia. But by the War of 1812, with anti-British sentiment in the air, America became a firm protectionist economy and doubled its tariff to an average of 25 percent. This helped American industries compete, which then resulted in a dumping campaign from British manufacturers, to “stifle in the cradle, those rising manufactures in the United States,” according to a member of Parliament. Fortunately, by 1820, the average tariff was about 40 percent, and we all know how American industry turned out.
Contrary to popular opinion among conservatives, our founding fathers did not worship the free market or free trade. They were pragmatic, and in order to compete (and to fund the government, as this was the main source of income at the time), protectionist policies were adapted.
4. They believed the constitution was a perfect document
People tend to forget how vehement the debate over the constitution was in the year leading up to its ratification. In the states of Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York, there were fierce arguments over the new document. In advocating ratification, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the now essential Federalist Papers, which were largely focused on convincing New York delegates. The foremost opponent in New York was Governor George Clinton, who changed his mind only when the Bill of Rights were introduced.
Another conservative myth is that the founding fathers wanted strict and literal interpretation of the constitution, and that they believed it to be a perfect document. In reality, the constitution was designed to progress with the times, as is clearly shown in Article Five, which states: “The Congress, whenever two-thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution.”
The founding fathers understood that human beings were imperfect, and that society changes over time. This has been one the most important factors in keeping the constitution relevant for over two centuries. Society inevitably progresses, and to chain it to a rigid and inflexible document would surely result in failure. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps, understood this better than anyone when he said, “Nothing is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.”
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