Perspectives: Faults of the Founding Fathers
Being Libertarian Perspectives will serve as a weekly, multi-perspective opinion and analysis piece by members of Being Libertarian’s writing team. Every week the panel, comprised of randomly selected writers, will answer a question based on current events or libertarian philosophy. Assistant Editor Dillon Eliassen will moderate and facilitate the discussion.
Dillon Eliassen: Now that this year’s July 4th jingoistic fanfare has faded, we can be a bit irreverent. What were some character faults with the Founding Fathers and/or ulterior motivations regarding seeking independence from Great Britain, or any other tidbit of info about the founding of America that is not common knowledge that isn’t included isn’t taught in grade school. I’m not looking for conspiracy theories or further indictments of slavery; rather esoteric knowledge about the Founding and the Founders that typical American citizens may not be aware of.
I always thought it was cool that three of the first five presidents, Adams, Jefferson and Monroe all died on July 4th. Though he wasn’t a Founding Father, a favored president of mine and some libertarians and conservatives, and one who conducted himself and his policies in a manner that would surely be antidotal to contemporary problems was born on the fourth of July: Calvin Coolidge.
A quick aside off topic: the Coolidge biographies by Amity Shlaes and Charles C. Johnson are interesting as both portraits of the man and how his temperament influenced his policies and in how the President should respond to budgetary and economic issues.
Nathaniel Owen: John Adams wished to be referred to as “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.” That displays some very serious psychological problems. While serving as the second President of the United States, he passed the Alien and Sedition Act, which made it illegal to criticize His Highness’ actions.
Dillon: It’s laughable now, but it was a serious matter back then. It offended many patriots. The issue of titles of nobility consumed the first Senate for a brief period of time.
Nathaniel: His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same also had a dog named Satan and a horse named Cleopatra.
Dillon: His predecessor, Washington, was also fond of giving his dogs whacky names. He had American Staghounds named Sweetlips, Scentwell, and Vulcan (I hope it had pointy ears), Black and Tan Coonhounds named Drunkard, Taster, Tipler, and Tipsy (ironic since he led the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion), and a greyhound named after his defeated counterpart, British general Cornwallis. “Eccentric” must be added to Washington’s other many personal qualities.
Bric Butler: Washington wasn’t a magnificent leader who earned his position on talent alone. He had a lot of connections due to his wealth and was in the right place at the right time.
Dillon: Washington is definitely treated like a God. He was closer to Julius Caesar in some ways, born to be a military dictator. He didn’t like being called ‘President’ and preferred to be called ‘General’ when he was president. He wasn’t some freedom radical like some of the other Founders, but he’s treated as though he single-handedly created America out of whole cloth and he’s been immortalized in American culture. There is no better example of this than The Apotheosis of Washington, painted in the oculus of the dome of the rotunda in the US Capitol building. If you can’t see it with your own eyes, check it out online.
Neil McGettigan: I think many Libertarians who worship Thomas Jefferson overlook his many flaws. They are also the same people who view Hamilton as a crafty villain rather than a Burkean Founder with a different vision of the Republic who worked with Madison in drafting the Constitution. One of the reasons the Federalists hated the Jeffersonian Republicans so much is that most of the Federalist leaders, such as Alexander Hamilton and Justice John Marshall, fought as soldiers in the American Revolution and survived cruel winters of privation at Valley Forge that were made far worse because the quibbling Jeffersonian congressmen refused to pay for more rations or better blankets. Jefferson spent much of the war in the comfort of European courts as an ambassador. You can imagine how bitter the Federalists felt when Jefferson and his supporters questioned their loyalty to a cause they had given far more to than him.
Dillon: If Hamilton were alive today he’d be maligned as a statist by libertarians, and they’d be accurate in their disparagement, but the Founders are revered as men willing to die for the freedom of everyone living in the colonies, though there is much that would put the lie to that assertion. Today, Aaron Burr is commonly viewed as a villain, but he was more of a minarchist than Hamilton ever was. Apparently the musical “Hamilton” details some of the lesser known qualities of both these men.
Hamilton believed that the United States would inevitably become a great maritime power through both industrialization and trade. Thomas Jefferson, being a disciple of Turgot’s economics, thought that almost all economic activity not related to agriculture was superfluous, especially banking. It explains why he was naïve enough to pass the Embargo of 1808 against both the British and French and not comprehend the damage it would do to the overall American economy. Jefferson didn’t appreciate industrialization and had a very Rousseau-inspired view of man, believing we were more free in the State of Nature and that society could be remade. It is why Thomas Jefferson was an outright apologist for the worst crimes of the French Reign of Terror. In the end it was the capitalist-fueled industrialization predicted by Hamilton, not the idealized semi-feudal subsistence farming vision of Jefferson, and many of the Founders, that Made America Great and lifted people out of poverty.
Jefferson was certainly one of the greatest statesman in history, possibly the greatest, and overall was a strong moral voice who did far more good than bad, but can we admit there are some serious flaws with certain aspects of the Jeffersonian vision?
Nathaniel: Jefferson felt that the Constitution should only apply to his lifetime and be replaced by an entirely new document every 19 years.
McGettigan: Let me add that I find it very annoying that people say “The Founding Fathers” as if they were all of one mind. The Founders were a very diverse bunch with different opinions about how the nation ought to be run.
Dillon: James Madison came up with a great idea that I would love to see instituted today: He proposed salaries for congressmen to coincide with the average price of wheat over the previous six years.
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