The Declaration of Independence case study

2. America’s Founding Idea
“All men are created equal”
–The Declaration of Independence
Equality, democracy, and liberty are the essential American ideas. Based ultimately on
Christian and Jewish beliefs in the value and dignity of each human being, and incorporating
Stoic concepts of the ability of all people to participate in a divine reason suffusing and
animating the universe, the values of equality, democracy, and liberty have been central and
preeminent since America’s founding. Different conceptions of equality, in particular, have
shaped discussions of what it means to be an American and what America’s purpose in the world
is. These discussions have revolved around the ideas of equality of opportunity and equality of
result. American political leaders and philosophers generally prefer the former to the latter but
also affirm that if inequality of result becomes too great–as it is at present–it threatens and even
precludes genuine equality of opportunity and a competitive free market economic order.1
What most distinguished the United States from Europe in the eyes of early visitors was
economic equality. Alexis de Tocqueville commenced his celebrated and classic Democracy in
America (1835):
No novelty in the United States struck me more closely during my stay there than
the equality of conditions. It was easy to see the immense influence of this basic
fact on the whole course of society …
I soon realized that the influence of this fact extends far beyond political
mores and laws, exercising dominion over civil society as much as over the
government; it creates opinions, gives birth to feelings, suggests customs, and
modifies whatever it does not create.
So the more I studied American society, the more clearly I saw equality of
conditions as the creative element from which each particular fact derived, and all
my observations constantly returned to this nodal point.2
Early American society was egalitarian3 and democratic as a result of the frontier and
practically free land.4 Private land ownership characterized non-slave society. Thomas Jefferson
wrote in 1814 of equality of conditions in the early republic: “We have no paupers … The great
mass of our population is of laborers; our rich 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 such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly,
clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families … The wealthy, on the
other hand, have only somewhat more of the comforts and decencies of life than those who
furnish them. Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?” 5
The society and economy of early America were not the society and economy of America
today. Although the United States in its early decades, as at other times, experienced diverse
economic circumstances, including with respect to relative equality and inequality, and
maintained different perspectives on economic as other issues, there was a different perspective
of equality during America’s founding and early decades than more recently. It is possible to
criticize the founders’ views but it should not be claimed that their views were different than they
actually were.6
America’s founding ideas grew from the British heritage of which the great majority of
European colonialists were part. We first consider leading British intellectual antecedents of the
founders’ thought. We then consider views of the founders, focusing on George Washington,
John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Marshall, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas
Paine, and Benjamin Franklin, giving special attention to the Declaration of Independence and
the Constitution. In closing, we provide a summation of the founders’ views.
British Roots of America’s Founding Ideas
Present-day conceptions of the founders often maintain they were almost exclusively
motivated by equality of opportunity without any consideration of equality of result. This is a
very inaccurate understanding. The founders were, in fact, focused on equitable social and
economic outcomes. They were democratic in outlook, moreover, and endorsed significant
government activity. These ideas rose from the British Whig tradition.
Although current appraisals often view the British heritage from which the founders
emerged as conservative, stodgy, and even reactionary, England bequeathed a revolutionary
outlook to the world in the seventeenth century. Beginning with Oliver Cromwell–who signed
King Charles I’s death warrant and oversaw the his execution in 1649–England entered a multidecade period of societal reform. This era culminated in the Glorious (or Bloodless) Revolution
of 1688-1689 in which James II was replaced by Prince William of Orange, and Parliament
became supreme.
It is not a bad revolutionary record to depose two kings in 40 years. This era of radical
social and political reconstruction was preceded by Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), which put
forward a communist and democratic vista of optimal society. During Cromwell’s reign, the
English “kingdom” was renamed a “commonwealth” on the basis that wealth should be held for
the benefit of all. In the Puritan Revolution in seventeenth century England, there arose side by
side with the main movement a more radical group called “Diggers” or “True Levelers,” who
sought greater voting rights and communal ownership of land not in use. Their efforts against
inequality based on wealth and private property made a lasting impression.
The most significant philosopher to emerge during the English civil war period of the
1640s was Thomas Hobbes, who based his work on natural human equality: “Nature has made
men so equal in the faculties of the body and mind,” Hobbes held, “as that though there be found
one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of a quicker mind than another, yet when all
is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man
can thereupon claim to himself any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he.” 7
Hobbes was among the first modern philosophers to proclaim human equality. According to
Hobbes scholar Thomas Schrock, “Hobbes is a well-known egalitarian.” 8 He supported
redistributive taxation and government provision of some social welfare.9
James Harrington was a very significant influence on American thinkers at the time of the
Declaration of Independence and writing of the Constitution. Harrington was, according to
constitutional historian Alpheus Mason, a “towering figure” 10 to America’s founders. British
historian of political thought G. P. Gooch wrote that Harrington “occupies the foremost place” 11
of influences on the founders. Among his great contributions was to emphasize the importance of
wealth on political power. Harrington believed that political power in any form of government
follows the distribution of wealth, and, therefore, the distribution of wealth is vital to the success
or failure of polities.
Harrington maintained in his landmark work, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656):
for as much as he who wants bread is his servant that will feed him, if a man thus
feeds a whole people, they are under his empire … if the whole people be
landlords, or hold the lands so divided among them, that no one man, or number
of men, within the compass of the few or aristocracy, overbalance them, the
empire is a commonwealth …
But there be certain other confusions which, being rooted in the balance,
are of longer continuance and of greater horror: as first, where a nobility holds
half the property, or about that proportion, and the people the other half; in which
case, without altering the balance, there is no remedy but the one must eat out the
Harrington also said: “Equality of estates causes equality of power, and equality of power is the
liberty not only of the commonwealth, but of every man.” 13 His goal was that “no one man or
number of men, within the compass of the few or aristocracy can come to overpower the whole
people by their possessions in lands.” 14
Like America’s founders, Harrington affirmed that some inequality is necessary for an
optimal society: “Wherefore, as in this place I agree … that a nobility or gentry, overbalancing a
popular government, is the utter bane and destruction of it; so I shall show in another that a
nobility or gentry in a popular government, not overbalancing it, is the very life and soul of it.” 15
As America’s founders, Harrington sought an aristocracy of virtue and talent–not wealth. A
moderate economic inequality in the form of a middle class society with modestly richer and
modestly poorer elements was, he believed, the crucial element in good government, a happy and
harmonious community, and human flourishing. Excessive wealth in the hands of a few was the
death of republics and of felicitous and integrated social life. The key point is not to create an
equal economic order but to disallow the existence of an overweening superrich group.
Legal scholar David Cole remarks that Harrington believed a “republican form of
government requires a relatively equal distribution of wealth–what he termed a
‘commonwealth.’ Harrington warned that when a select few control a disproportionate share of a
society’s property, they will use their economic power to gain political strength and transform the
political system into an aristocracy.” 16 The great French political philosopher Charles-Louis de
Montesquieu, also an significant influence on America’s founders, agreed with Harrington.
Montesquieu felt that Rome’s demise was a consequence of excessive economic power
concentrated in a a few through unrestricted inheritance.
Algernon Sidney was an important figure among American’s revolutionary generation.
Sidney emphasized consent of the governed as the foundation of just government, and the equal
rights of all people. He believed that inequality was based on environmental, not natural, factors.
He quoted Aristotle with respect to natural equality that “as men are by nature equal, if it were
possible all should be magistrates.” 17 Sidney maintained that those who govern humankind
should possess a “superiority in virtue as most conduces to the public good.” 18
John Locke was the most significant philosopher of the Glorious and American
Revolutions. He emphasized equality, property, and democracy. He wrote of the derivation of
intellectual faculties: “Let us suppose that the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all
characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? To this I answer in one word, from
experience: in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself.” 19
Locke approvingly quoted the “judicious” Richard Hooker that “equality of men by nature” has
“‘brought men to know that it is no less their duty to love others than themselves; for seeing
those things which are equal must needs all have one measure, how should I look to have any
part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is
undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature? … My desire, therefore, to be loved
of my equals in nature …’” 20
For Locke, labor created property. Every person has property in herself or himself.
Private property originates from mixing one’s labor with the natural resources of the Earth. But
private property is initially limited to what a person can use. Locke continued in his seminal
Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689) that it may “perhaps be objected … if gathering
acorns, or other fruits of the Earth, makes a right to them, then anyone may engross as much as
he will.” To which he replied, “Not so. ‘God has given us all things richly,’ is the voice of reason
confirmed by inspiration. But how far has He given it us? To enjoy. As much as anyone can make
use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in;
whatever is beyond this is more than his share, and belongs to others.” 21 Although Locke
sanctioned greater inequality in civil society after the transition from the state of nature, his basic
position is clear.22
The original conception of private property was to protect the poor from the rich, not the
rich from the poor.
23 Private property was to ensure that the poor received the fruits of their
labors.24 Locke and other British classical liberals were not predecessors of Ayn Rand stressing a
natural super-elite. Rather, their view was exactly the opposite. Their conception of human
nature was egalitarian and the society based on it was as well. Private property was originally
conceived as an egalitarian, not economically stratifying, institution. According to Locke: “The
preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society,
it necessarily supposes and requires that the people should have property.” 25
Concerning democracy, Locke held that the “majority have a right to act and conclude the
rest.” 26 His idea of optimal society was based on a majoritarian legislature playing an essential
role: “Civil society being a state of peace amongst those who are of it …, it is in their legislative
that the members of a commonwealth are united and combined together in one coherent body.
This is the soul that gives form, life, and unity to the commonwealth.” 27 Moreover, he
maintained that “governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one
who enjoys a share of the protection should pay out of his estate his proportion for the
maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent–i.e., the consent of the majority
giving it either by themselves or their representatives chosen by them.” 28 It is clear from this
passage that by personal consent Locke meant the consent of a majority of the people directly or
through a democratic representative legislature, not individual consent. He opposed monarchical,
not legislative, power. His great opposition was to arbitrary, not democratic, government.29
Contemporary conservatives and libertarians also misread Locke when they affirm he
believed that property is not defined through a democratic process. In societies with
governments: “The laws regulate the right of property, and the possession of land is determined
by positive constitutions.” 30 When Locke endorsed payment of taxes on the basis of an equal
portion of one’s estate, he advocated proportional wealth taxation (at the time, proportional real
property taxation) as the appropriate form of taxation.31 This would also be the position of
America’s founding generation.
Locke’s statement that “governments cannot be supported without great charge”
demonstrates he saw a significant role for the state. Locke was no quasi-anarchist or severe
libertarian. Like later classical liberals (as distinct from libertarians), he supported reasonable
government activity. His typical standard for government activity was the “peace, safety, and
public good of the people” 32–a purely utilitarian standard. Finally, in emphasizing that labor
creates property, he established a view in which labor is the supremely important determinant of
economic value. Locke’s work is, according to historian of political thought and my father,
William Ebenstein, the “Bible of modern liberalism.” 33
In the eighteenth century, Cato’s Letters are noteworthy.34 Written in the 1720s by John
Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, they were read widely in colonial America. Strongly egalitarian,
Cato’s Letters played a significant role in creating the intellectual climate from which the
American Revolution emerged.35 Historian of political thought Eric Nelson writes that Trenchard
and Gordon were “clear that liberty in any regime requires the absence of disproportionate
wealth in individuals … whenever the balance of property shifts to one man or a very few men,
liberty is lost.” Nelson quotes the ninety-first of Cato’s Letters: “Very great riches in private men
are always dangerous to states, because they destroy amongst the Commons, that balance of
property and power, which is necessary to democracy, or the democratic part of any government,
overthrow the poise of it, and indeed alter its nature.” 36
David Hume, although politically conservative, asserted innate human equality. He
remarked on “how nearly equal all men are in their bodily force, and even in their mental powers
and faculties, till cultivated by education.” 37 Hume wrote in his essay “Of Commerce” that a “too
great disproportion [of wealth] among the citizens weakens any state. Every person, if possible,
ought to enjoy the fruits of his labour, in a full possession of all the necessaries, and many of the
conveniences of life. No one can doubt, but such equality is most suitable to human nature, and
diminishes much less from the happiness of the rich than it adds to that of the poor … Add to this,
that, where the riches are in a few hands, these must enjoy all the power, and will readily
conspire to lay the whole burthen on the poor, and oppress them still farther, to the
discouragement of all industry” 38–certainly not a supply-side view.
Hume’s great friend Adam Smith favored some progressive taxation, nascent government
welfare state activities, and a middle class society. He possessed a thoroughly egalitarian concept
of human nature. Jacob Viner, the great historian of economic thought at the University of
Chicago, wrote of Smith that he was “not a doctrinaire advocate of laissez faire. He saw a wide
and elastic range of activity for government, and he was prepared to extend it even farther.” 39
According to economist Thomas Sowell, “Egalitarianism is pervasive in Smith.” 40 Nobel
laureate in economics James Buchanan wrote that a “returned Adam Smith would be a long
distance from the modern libertarian anarchists.” 41 Keynes wrote that the “phrase laissez faire is
not to be found in the works of Adam Smith, of Ricardo, or of Malthus. Even the idea is not
present in a dogmatic form in any of these authors.” 42
Smith supported using the tax code to discourage certain activities, including
consumption of hard alcohol, and favored a higher road toll on luxury carriages than freight
wagons in order that the “indolence and vanity of the rich [may be] made to contribute in a very
easy manner to the relief of the poor.” 43 In considering taxes on the rent of houses, he maintained
that it was “not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only
in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” 44 As America’s
founders, he opposed primogeniture and entail–the primary means by which wealth was
concentrated in their time.45 Smith believed that government has a crucial role to play in
monetary institutions. He supported labor regulations, sanitary standards, public works, public
parks, some public education, patent and copyright laws, a postal service, and government
regulation of monopolies, mortgages, rental agreements, and interest rates. He did not believe
government should do little or nothing. Rather, he thought that government is necessary to
achieve the greatest standard of living for all.
There is nothing in Smith about empowering specifically an elite of wealth-producers.
His focus was the middle class. He was often critical of businesspeople. According to historian
of economic thought Henry Spiegel, Smith considered “free enterprise carried on by the
emancipated middle class humanity’s best hope.” 46 Economist Mark Skousen comments that
Smith was concerned with the “welfare of the average working man.” 47 Smith did not praise the
wealthy. In the final edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published weeks before his
death in 1790, he disparaged the “corruption of our moral sentiments” that follows from the
tendency “to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful.” 48 He said in his lectures
on jurisprudence that “laws and government may be considered … in every case a combination of
the rich to oppress the poor.” 49 He wrote in The Wealth of Nations: “All for ourselves, and
nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the
masters of mankind.” 50
Smith stated with respect to natural human equality: “The difference of natural talents in
different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of … The difference between the most
dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a street porter, for example, seems to arise not
so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education.” 51 Smith believed in natural human
equality. Sowell also refers to his “sweeping egalitarianism.” 52
Cato Institute scholar Michael Tanner writes that Smith had an “unquestionably
compassionate view of poverty.” 53 Tanner notes that the English Poor Law and its various
amendments provided the “basis for relief programs in colonial America.” 54 According to
historian Walter Trattner, poor relief constituted between about 10 and 35 percent of municipal
funds in America during the late colonial period.55 Historian Thomas West states that “far from
throwing the needy into the streets, the founders maintained government-funded ‘safety net’
programs for them.” 56
The role of the state in seventeenth century England, which was the antecedent of
American experience, gives an idea of the extent and purpose of government in what became the
United States. Political theorist and historian of political thought Maurice Cranston depicted
contemporaneous local government in his biography of Locke, describing the career of Locke’s
father, a local magistrate: “In addition to their judicial functions, the magistrates were
responsible for administering the Poor Law and such other measures as there were for social
welfare; they even had the formidable task of regulating prices … They were ordered to inquire
into gifts for charitable uses, the training of youths in trades, the repair of highways, and
‘keeping watch and ward for the punishment of rogues and vagabonds.’ The magistrates also
‘granted licenses to and regulated tippling- and ale-houses, overlooked the building of new
cottages, ordered the maintenance of butts, and busied themselves in general with the most
minute details of county administration’” 57–similar to many current government activities.
America was in no way anarchist at its founding.
Historian Steve Pincus summarizes economic views of America’s English predecessors:
they “denounced regressive taxation” and to “maximize consumption” they believed a “country’s
wealth needed to be evenly distributed … [They] did not want to lower or eliminate taxes, they …
wanted progressive taxation.” Pincus quotes the editors of the English journal Common Sense
(which preceded Paine’s work of the same title) that the “‘wealth which is in the hands of the
great and the few goes out for luxury and lessens the public stock,’” while the “‘share which is in
the hands of the industrious and the many, is employed in manufactures and all kinds of
commerce and of consequence increases the stock.’” Accordingly: “‘It is as certain that as the
wealth of the nation runs into a few hands, arts, manufacture, and commerce will in proportion
decline.’” 58 America’s intellectual forebears did not endorse supply-side economics–and neither
did the founders, as we shall now see.
America’s Founders on Equality, Democracy, Liberty, and Government
Many current understandings, as previously indicated, of the founders are inaccurate. The
founders were democratic, progressive, and egalitarian–not anarchistic, reactionary, and elitist.
They supported a middle class society. They opposed plutocracy.
Forrest McDonald was one of the most respected twentieth century conservative
interpreters of early American intellectual currents. He emphasized that the United States at its
founding was not a pure laissez faire republic: “Property law in America was based upon English
common law, which meant that it was based ultimately upon the medieval concepts of fair value
and just price. Every state had adopted the English prohibitions of ‘offenses against public
trade,’ which banned usury, regulated the price of bread, and forbade such practices as
‘forestalling’ (buying or contracting commodities on their way to market), ‘regrating’ (buying
and reselling products in the same market), and ‘engrossing’ (buying large quantities of
commodities with intent to sell them again).” 59 There were in addition to such prohibitions on
and regulation of commercial activities many “sumptuary laws,” defined by McDonald as laws
“governing personal morality. Properly and historically speaking, sumptuary laws related only to
restrictions against luxury or extravagant expenditures on clothing, jewelry, and food, which
were deemed to be socially harmful. The term later came to designate laws comprehended under
the police power, such as those regulating or prohibiting gambling, alcoholic beverages,
prostitution, and the like.” 60
Similarly, Joyce Appleby wrote of the relationship between religious beliefs and
economic views in the United States at the founding that “men and women were prone to sin …
The values associated with free enterprise and greater productivity–what we would call
capitalism–did not inspire confidence, but rather provoked anxiety”; “Men deeply involved in
their own business … were not proper candidates for public office. Commerce which prompted
private interests … threatened civil order.” 61 According to Harry Girvetz, the founders were
“familiar with mercantilist practices in their own states where trade was controlled through tariffs
and, in the case of eight of the states, by actually fixing the price of many retail commodities.” 62
Early America was far from a completely free market.
George Washington made statements tinged with pro-government and even egalitarian
sentiments. He was unquestionably democratic. The great nineteenth century classical liberal
scholar Lord Acton characterized Washington’s “so powerful” type of statesmanship as
“revolutionary doctrine in a conservative temper.” 63 Washington said during the Revolutionary
War: “Let vigorous measures be adopted … to punish speculators, forestallers, and extortioners,
and above all to sink the money by heavy taxes, to promote public and private economy.
Encourage manufactures … Measures of this sort … would strike at once at the root of all our
evils, and give the coup de grace to British hopes of subjugating this continent.” 64 Washington
supported a society of relative social, political, and economic equality. He favored heavy taxes
and activist government in certain circumstances. He advocated government encouragement of
manufacturing, industrial enterprises, and commerce throughout his career. He endorsed the
Bank of the United States against those who maintained that its establishment would violate the
enumerated powers in the Constitution. He supported public works and government
encouragement of science and education.
Washington affirmed the democratic nature of the United States in his first inaugural
address. He said of the “people of the United States” that theirs is a “Government instituted by
themselves.” 65 America’s founders advocated democratic governance–something never before
practiced on as extensive a numerical and geographical basis–irrespective of the terminology
they used. Alpheus Mason wrote of the “different meanings of the word ‘democracy’ in 1787 and
the twentieth century. The framers tended to use the term to denote either a direct form of
governance or invidiously as something close to mob rule. Yet eighteenth century terms such as
‘popular government,’ ‘republican form,’ or ‘free government’ won wide approval,” 66 as did
“consent of the governed” and “self-government.” America’s founders recognized that
government is inevitable in human affairs, and they sought democratic governance. This was the
key point in their minds of the American Revolution.
The most famous Revolutionary slogan, “No taxation without representation,” was not a
statement against taxation but against lack of representation–it was a statement for democracy.
Early tax revolts in American history were against taxes on the many, not the few. The original
Revolutionary protest, the Boston Tea Party, was against a tax on a generally consumed good.
The Whiskey Rebellion during Washington’s presidency similarly protested taxation of a product
commonly consumed. The first American Congress, the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, stated that
it was “inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen,
that no tax should be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their
representatives.” 67 Elliot Brownlee, the leading historian of taxation in the United States, writes
that American colonists “largely approved of the uses of their taxes: the funding of roads,
schools, poor relief, and warfare with France and Native American peoples.” 68
Washington declared in 1788 that the United States, “under an efficient government, will
be the most favorable country of any in the world … It will not be less advantageous to the
happiness of the lower class of people, because of the equal distribution of property, the great
plenty of unoccupied lands, and the facility of procuring the means of subsistence.” 69 Property
ownership was a reality for most early European Americans. It was not restricted, as in Europe,
to a few. Non-slave American society was at the time of the Revolution the politically,
economically, and socially most equal in the world. The relative economic equality of early
white Americans, especially in the North, underlay their advocacy of democratic governance.
The United States’s great gift to the world was democracy based on human equality.
Consonant with the Enlightenment, whose intellectual leaders considered him to be an
important figure, Washington advocated the expansion of education by government. He said to
Congress in his first state of the union message: “There is nothing which can better deserve your
patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest
basis of public happiness”;70 in 1795, that a “plan of Universal education ought to be adopted in
the United States”;71 and in 1796, that “education generally [is] one of the surest means of
enlightening and giving just ways of thinking to our citizens.” 72 The Northwest Ordinance,
passed under the Articles of Confederation and reaffirmed in Washington’s presidency, stated that
“schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” 73 Among the provisions of the
Northwest Ordinance was that government land could be sold to fund public education.
John Adams was much influenced by James Harrington.74 Adams held that the “balance
of power in a society accompanies the balance of property in land.” 75 In complete harmony with
the present work, he believed: “Property monopolized or in the Possession of a few is a Curse to
Mankind. We should preserve not an Absolute Equality–this is unnecessary, but preserve all
from extreme Poverty, and all others from extravagant Riches.” 76 It was by making the
“acquisition of land easy to every member of society … so that the multitude may be possessed of
landed estates” that social power would be on the “side of equal liberty and public virtue.” 77
Adams did not believe that economic and political power are distinct and that great private
economic wealth was of no public or governmental influence or concern. He deplored that a
“natural and unchangeable inconvenience in all popular elections” is that “he who has the
deepest purse, or the fewer scruples about using it, will generally prevail.” 78
That all should possess property is essential to the American dream. The founders
intended the United States to be a middle class society in which almost all (at least, Europeans)
were property owners and without a chasm between rich and poor. They condemned plutocracy.
They did not advocate complete equality of income and wealth–knowing such to be neither
possible nor desirable–but they opposed great inequality and believed that government should
prevent and mitigate great inequality. At the time of the Revolution, the top 1 percent of free
Americans owned about 10 percent of the nation-to-be’s wealth,79 and distribution was even
more equal in the North. In the present United States, the top 1 percent own about 40 percent of
the nation’s wealth.80 The founders opposed a society of unpropertied masses, as at present.
Adams served along with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson on the committee that
drafted the Declaration of Independence. In his correspondence with his wife, Abigail, following
the Declaration’s adoption,81 Adams emphasized such statements in the Declaration as the right
of the new nation to “establish commerce” and to “do all the other acts and things … which other
states may rightfully do.” Further, that the introduction of the Declaration includes “the pursuit
of happiness” as well as “life” and “liberty” among the unalienable rights of humankind that
governments are instituted to secure indicates a larger role for government than protection of
mere private material and financial property. The phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness” 82 was meant to apply to all, not just a few.
That, moreover, immediately following its enunciation of self-evident truths, the
Declaration affirms “the right of the people” when instituting a new government includes to lay
its “foundation on such principles” and to organize its “powers in such form … as to them shall
seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness” demonstrates some discretion in the
powers of government. The Declaration is not a mandate for staunch libertarianism. Its
affirmation that governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed”
demonstrates the founders’ commitment to a democratic form of polity. The specific charges in
the Declaration against King George included his abrogation of the rights of elected colonial
legislatures: “He has refused to pass … Laws for the accommodation of large districts of People,
unless those People would relinquish the right of Representation in the legislature; a right
inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only”; and “He has dissolved Representative
Houses repeatedly.” 83
The Declaration goes as far as to state, indeed, that the “Right of the People” includes to
“alter” or “abolish” government–a highly democratic principle, following Locke, differentiating
the United States from other societies. George Mason wrote in the Declaration of Rights in the
new Virginia Constitution that Jefferson consulted when writing the Declaration of
Independence: “All power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; … magistrates
are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.” 84 The idea, again, of some
present-day conservatives and libertarians that America’s founding was largely unconnected to
and unconcerned with democratic principles and institutions is fundamentally in error. The
founders supported democracy, as they believed in equality, as much as or more than anyone else
in the world of their time. They defined liberty in large part as incorporating democratic
government. According to historian of political thought Bradley Thompson: “Eighteenth century
American society was the most egalitarian society in history.” 85
Jefferson wrote James Madison in 1785 that a way to “silently lessen the inequality of
property is to exempt from all taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of
property in geometrical progression as they rise” 86–a statement not merely of progressive
taxation but of progressive taxation of wealth. This letter was later used by advocates of
inheritance taxes to justify their position.87 Jefferson as well wrote Madison that “enormous
inequality” causes “much misery to the bulk of mankind,” and therefore, “Legislators cannot
invent too many devices for subdividing property.” 88
On the eve of becoming secretary of state in 1790, Jefferson said that the “will of the
majority … is the only sure guardian of the rights of man.” 89 Democracy is essential to liberty:
there can be no liberty without equality and democracy. Furthermore, democracy requires
equality. Jefferson considered among his most important accomplishments to be the elimination
of primogeniture and entail in Virginia–primogeniture was a law by which land was passed to
the oldest son, and entail directed that land was to be left to a line of heirs so that no heir could
sell or otherwise dispose of it. Both primogeniture and entail led to the concentration of property.
In an 1813 letter to Adams, Jefferson remembered that “these laws [against primogeniture and
entail], drawn by myself, laid the axe to the root of Pseudoaristocracy.” 90 Jefferson also remarked
that to “annul this privilege, and instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger,
than benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent … was deemed
essential to a well-ordered republic.” 91
Elimination of primogeniture and entail created a less economically unequal society.
Virtually all of the founders opposed primogeniture and entail, recognizing that these and similar
institutions were the means by which aristocracies emerged and developed in agricultural
societies in which almost all wealth was in land. Accordingly, to support the elimination of
primogeniture and entail was to endorse the break-up of large estates and to support a more
equitable distribution of wealth. When North Carolina adopted a bill to restrict primogeniture
and entail, the bill gave as its justification that it would “tend to promote that equality of property
which is the spirit and principle of a genuine republic.” 92
Jefferson was, with Tom Paine, probably the most democratic and philosophically
egalitarian founder. Jefferson praised tariffs as a source of government revenue because they
were paid disproportionately by the wealthy: “We are all the more reconciled to the tax on
importations, because it falls exclusively on the rich.” 93 As a result of tariff revenue, he looked
forward to the day when the “farmer will see his government supported, his children educated,
and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone.” 94 Thomas
Jefferson was no supply-side economist.95
At the federal level, most tax revenues through the first century and a half of the United
States, except during war, were provided from tariffs; at the local and state levels, most
government revenue was from property taxes.96 Historically, governments at all levels in the
United States were funded mostly by progressive taxation. This was particularly true in the midAtlantic states. In his second inaugural address, Jefferson approvingly observed that tariffs were
paid “chiefly by those who can afford to add foreign luxuries to domestic comforts” and called
for a constitutional amendment to allow surplus federal funds to be spent on “rivers, canals,
roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great objects.” 97
According to the Maryland Declaration of Rights: “The levying [of] taxes by the poll is
grievous and oppressive, and ought to be abolished; … paupers ought not to be assessed for the
support of the government; but every other person in the State ought to contribute his proportion
of public taxes, for the support of government, according to his actual worth in real or personal
property.” 98 A draft of the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights read: “An enormous Proportion of
Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights, and destructive of the Common
Happiness of Mankind.” 99 A colonial New Jersey constitution placed a limit on the amount of
land that any person could own.100 The Vermont Declaration of Rights stated that “private
property ought to be subservient to public use.” 101
The early American lexicographer Noah Webster believed that the “very soul of the
republic” and the “whole basis of national freedom” depended on a “general and tolerably equal
distribution of landed property.” 102 Webster maintained that the “causes which destroyed the
ancient republics were numerous, but in Rome one principal cause was the vast inequality of
fortunes”;103 and the “power of the people has increased in an exact proportion to their
acquisition of property.” 104 Gouverneur Morris, an American Revolutionary leader and delegate
to the constitutional convention, said it was “confessed on all hands that taxes should be raised
from individuals in proportion to their wealth.” 105 Anti-Federalist Thomas Tudor thought the
“true principle of taxation is that every man contribute to the public burthens in proportion to
their wealth.” 106America’s founders supported property-wealth taxes as a, or even the, primary
source of government revenue, as well as tariffs the rich mostly paid.
The democratic intent of the founders and their commitment to reasonably extensive
government were reaffirmed in the Constitution, which commences, “We the people,” and states
in its preamble that its purpose is “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure
domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure
the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” 107 An early and key Supreme Court
decision, Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816), invoked the preamble and stated both the democratic
nature of the United States and a permissive range of government activities: “The Constitution of
the United States was ordained and established, not by the states in their sovereign capacities, but
emphatically, as the preamble of the Constitution declares, by ‘the people of the United States.’
There can be no doubt that it was competent to the people to invest the general government with
all the powers which they might deem proper and necessary; to extend or restrain these powers
according to their own good pleasure, and to give them a paramount and supreme authority.” 108
John Marshall, who served as Chief Justice from 1801 to 1835, was the last of the great
founders.109 He declared in his landmark McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) opinion:
The government is acknowledged by all to be one of enumerated powers … But
the question respecting the extent of the powers actually granted, is perpetually
arising, and will probably continue to arise, as long as that system shall exist …
Among the enumerated powers, we do not find that of establishing a bank
or creating a corporation. But there is no phrase in the instrument which, like the
articles of confederation, excludes incidental or implied powers: and which
requires that everything granted shall be expressly and minutely described … A
constitution, to contain an accurate detail of all the subdivisions of which its great
powers will admit, would partake of the prolixity of a legal code … Its nature,
therefore, requires, that only its great outlines should be marked …
Although, among the enumerated powers of government, we do not find
the word ‘bank’ or ‘incorporation,’ we find the great powers to lay and collect
taxes; to borrow money; to regulate commerce; to declare and conduct war; and to
raise and support armies and navies. The sword and the purse, all the external
relations, and no inconsiderable portion of the industry of the nation, are entrusted
to its government.110
The Constitution of the United States does not, according to Marshall, establish severely
limited government. He also said here: “The government proceeds directly from the people; is
‘ordained and established’ in the name of the people”; “The government … is emphatically, and
truly, a government of the people.” 111 The democratic nature of the United States is indicated by
the placement of the legislative powers under the Constitution as its first article and the vesting
of all these powers in the Congress of the United States. A census was required every ten years
so there would be no “rotten boroughs” (as parliamentary districts in England became, with few
residents), and the requirement of decennial reapportionment was based on the democratic
principle. The electoral college was based on democratic representation. The entire principle of
rotation in legislative and executive offices was democratic. The United States government both
plays a significant role and possesses a democratic form.
In contrast to the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation granted few powers to the
national government, which was considered to be the Articles’ great weakness. The purpose of
the Constitution was, according to Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, to “create a
strong federal government.” 112 Powers specifically entrusted to the national government by the
Constitution are significant:
To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises; to pay the debts and provide
for the common defense and general welfare … To borrow money … To regulate
commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states …. To establish a
uniform rule of naturalization, and uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies …
To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the
standard of weights and measures … To establish post offices and post roads … To
promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to
authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and
discoveries … To declare war … To raise and support armies … To provide for
calling forth the militia … To exercise exclusive legislation … over such district …
as may … become the seat of the government of the United States, and to exercise
like authority over all places [used] … for the erection of forts, magazines,
arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings;
and, finally, “To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution
the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the
United States, or in any Department or office thereof.” 113
The powers of the federal government and of the federal government compared to state
governments were strengthened by subsequent amendments to the Constitution. States were,
further, precluded by the Constitution from engaging in certain activities, including to enter into
treaties or alliances, maintain troops in time of peace, coin money, and, crucially, “lay any
imposts or duties on imports or exports”–thereby creating a national free trade area. The
Constitution granted the federal government the power to assume state debts, which occurred
during the Washington administration and Hamilton’s tenure as treasury secretary, enabling
major tax reductions at the state level.114 New states were to be admitted by Congress.
When present-day conservatives and libertarians philosophically inveigh against
government as well as against democracy, they are not in the tradition of the founders, but
opposed to it. According to George Nash, the leading historian of post-World War II American
conservative thought, contemporary conservatives seem at times to “infuse an almost antiFederalist understanding into the Constitution.” 115 Constitutional scholars Philip Kurland and
Ralph Lerner write that there could be “no grounds for expecting justice, tranquility, and the rest
to prevail in America until there was a national government with energy enough to secure the
preconditions … If one had to err, it was better–indeed safer–to err on the side of sufficient
energy rather than too little.” 116 The constitutional convention was an exercise in democratic
decision-making as was its ratification by state conventions.
The Anti-Federalists believed and argued that the Constitution gives broad powers to the
federal government. According to the pseudonymous “Brutus,” one of the chief Anti-Federalists:
“The powers of the general legislature extend to every case that is of the least importance–there
is nothing valuable to human nature, nothing dear to freemen, but what is within its power. It has
authority to make laws which will affect the lives, the liberty, and property of every man in the
United States.” 117 Some of the arguments of the Federalists were intended for political reasons to
emphasize a weaker national government than the Constitution in fact establishes.
Madison advocated in 1792 “withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few …
[which] increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited,
accumulation of wealth.” Madison endorsed the “silent operation of laws, which, without
violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth to a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme
indigence toward a state of comfort.” 118 He wrote in a letter to Jefferson that he had “no doubt
that the misery of the lower classes will be found to abate wherever the Government assumes a
freer aspect, and the laws favor a subdivision of property.” 119 Madison believed that
“freeholders” (that is, property owners) are the “safest depositories of Republican liberty.” 120 At
the constitutional convention, he favored a relatively strong and democratic national government.
He thought the federal government should be able to veto any state law and that representation in
the Senate, as well as House of Representatives, should be on the basis of population.
Laws regarding material property, Madison recognized, are inevitably and naturally
various: “Those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct
interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like
discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed
interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations … The regulation of
these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation.” 121 He held,
following Locke, a broad concept of property embracing more than material or financial property
alone. For neither Locke nor Madison was property merely the right of rich people to accumulate
a vastly disproportionate share of a community’s wealth. This was not the founders’ idea of
property, much less of liberty, at all.122
Madison affirmed in The Federalist (1787-1788) that the “most common and durable
source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” His other
comments here about liberty help to clarify the founders’ meaning: “Liberty is to faction what air
is to fire … But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life
because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to
animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.” 123 When the founders spoke of
liberty, they meant that the members of a society should have free speech, freedom of religion,
democratic participation, fair trial procedures, comprehensive property rights, and an effective
government that serves all. They did not mean by liberty the capacity of a superrich group to
make and keep as much private wealth as possible.
The democratic nature of the Constitution was affirmed by Madison in The Federalist:
The first question that offers itself is, whether the general form and aspect of the
government be strictly republican? It is evident that no other form would be
reconcilable with the genius of the people or America; with the fundamental
principles of the revolution; or with that honourable determination which
animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the
capacity of mankind for self-government …
On comparing the constitution planned … with the standard here fixed, we
perceive at once, that it is, in the most rigid sense, conformable to it. The house of
representatives … is elected immediately by the great body of the people. The
senate … derives its appointment indirectly from the people. The president is
indirectly derived from the choice of the people.124
The Cato Institute’s James Dorn writes that Madison sought to establish a “viable democratic
republic.” 125
Like the other founders, Madison supported education’s expansion: “Learned institutions
ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind
which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.” He
thought that the “more costly” of educational institutions could “scarcely be provided by
individual means” and endorsed a system that “unites with the more learned institutions a
provision for diffusing through the entire society the education needed for the common purposes
of life.” 126 He believed that public education should be supported “by a general tax on property,”
as it was “better for the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer … than that every parent
should provide at his own expense for the education of his children.” 127 The founders strongly
supported public education.
Alexander Hamilton held that “experience has by no means justified us in the supposition
that there is more virtue in one class of men than in another.” 128 He said in debate defending the
Constitution that “while property continues to be pretty equally divided, and a considerable share
of information pervades the community; the tendency of the people’s suffrage, will be to elevate
merit even from obscurity.” 129 He also remarked that as “riches increase and accumulate in few
hands … the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard.” 130 As Madison,
he considered the most likely source of faction to be “inequality of property.” 131 In his closing
address to the constitutional convention, Hamilton called for a “principle of strength and stability
in the organization of our government, and vigor in its operations.” 132
Hamilton wrote in the first letter of The Federalist that “vigor of government is essential
to the security of liberty” and a “noble enthusiasm of liberty is too apt to be infected with a spirit
of narrow and illiberal distrust.” 133 He maintained in the twelfth letter that “prosperous
commerce is now perceived and acknowledged, by all enlightened statesmen, to be the most
useful, as well as the most productive, source of national wealth.” 134 He sought to use the power
of government to promote commercial activity. As the first secretary of the treasury, he delivered
a “Report on the Subject of Manufactures” to Congress in 1791 calling for more federal activity
in economic affairs.
Economic historian Douglas Irwin writes that Hamilton’s “brilliant report ranks among
the most important and influential policy documents in U.S. history. Hamilton made a broad
ranging and powerful case for government promotion of domestic manufacturing.” 135 Hamilton
here said of the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause that it was as “comprehensive as any that
could have been used” and applied to a “vast variety of particulars, which are susceptible neither
of specification nor definition,” including “whatever concerns the general interest of learning, of
agriculture, of manufactures, and of commerce.” 136 The key criterion for Hamilton with respect
to the “general welfare” was that the interest that would be promoted would be broad and not
local. Even this requirement, though, he averred, “must be a matter of conscientious discretion
involving considerations of expediency” and “not of constitutional right.” 137 Irwin observes that
despite criticism of Hamilton’s program by Madison and Jefferson, the Jefferson administration
“made few changes to the system in place” 138 when it came to power in 1801.
As the other founders, Hamilton advocated progressive taxation. He wrote in the thirtysixth letter of The Federalist on making it a “fixed policy in the national administration, to go as
far as may be practicable in making the luxury of the rich tributary to the public treasury, in order
to diminish the necessity of those impositions, which might create dissatisfaction in the poorer
and most numerous classes of society.” He considered this the “proper distribution of the public
burdens, and tends to guard the least wealthy part of the community from oppression!
[exclamation point in original]” 139 In addition, as the other founders, Hamilton believed that the
appropriate measure of taxation was property: “Every man by a definite and general rule should
know what proportion of his property the state demands.” 140
Charles Pinkney held at the constitutional convention that the “people of the United
States are perhaps the most singular of any we are acquainted with. Among them there are fewer
distinctions of fortune and less of rank than among the inhabitants of any other nation.” He
approvingly observed that the United States possessed “greater equality than is to be found
among the people of any other country,” remarked favorably on the “equality of condition which
so eminently distinguishes us,” and said that “equality is … the leading feature of the United
States.” Pinkney also commented that by “rich men” he meant those “whose riches may have a
dangerous influence,” and asked rhetorically of the riches and wealth of the United States: “Are
they in the hands of the few who may be called rich …? Certainly not. They are in the great body
of the people, among whom there are no men of wealth, and very few of real poverty.” He
supported “destruction of the right of primogeniture.” 141
Thomas Paine advocated human equality. He wrote in Common Sense (1776)–the key
work in galvanizing American public opinion immediately before the Revolution–that
humankind were “originally equals in the order of creation.” 142 He opposed primogeniture and
entail, proposed taxation of real property at death, and advocated proto-welfare state measures
and progressive taxation. He defended the French Revolution in The Rights of Man (1791-1792),
calling for representative democracy: “What Athens was in miniature, America will be in
magnitude.” 143 In his last work, Agrarian Justice (1797), he identified and condemned the
concentration of property as the main source of poverty.
Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice that “civilization has operated in two ways: to make one
part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either
in a natural state … The accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of
paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand
perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.” 144 He dedicated the first volume of
The Rights of Man to Washington, who, together with Paine, Madison, and Hamilton, were made
honorary citizens of France following the French Revolution. Washington’s response, like that of
most Americans, to the early phase of the French Revolution was enthusiastic: “The revolution
which has been effected in France is of so wonderful a nature that the mind can hardly recognize
the fact.” 145
The founders to whom Paine was closest were Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Historian Henry Steele Commager said that Franklin was a “good democrat, and his democracy
was more authentically American even than Jefferson’s. For democracy was, with Franklin, an
instinct, not a reasoned conclusion. Middle class in his origins, he took equality for granted … he
carried equality into the arena of everyday life.” 146 Franklin wrote in France that two attitudes
hindering European development were “one, that useful labor is dishonorable; the other, that
families may be perpetuated with estates.” 147
Franklin expressed disapproval at the constitutional convention of “everything that
tended to debase the common people.” Rather, the “virtue and public spirit of our common
people” during the Revolution contributed “principally to the favorable issue of it.” 148 He
believed that private property is necessary for the “conservation of the individual and the
propagation of the species,” but “all property superfluous to such services is property of the
public, who by their laws have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it.” 149
Following Locke, the founders did not believe that property in civil society existed apart from
government: rather, property exists in civil society through government.
None of the founders’ advocacy of equality, a middle class society, democracy, and
appropriate and reasonable government should be considered in opposition to their
fundamentally individualistic perspective in which each person is supreme and entitled to life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rather, their conceptions with respect to the former create
the basis in which the latter can occur. Equality and individualism are connected. When all are
considered, in fact as well as theory, to be equal, liberty blooms. The practical expression of
equality of opportunity in society requires that extremes of material inequality are limited,
although lesser economic differences are allowed and even encouraged.
Neither did the founders endorse expansive government. Their concerns included that
government had a tendency to become wasteful and tyrannical. But they were not opposed to
government on principle. As Madison said in among the most famous words in The Federalist:
“What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were
angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor
internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government, which is to be
administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the
government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” 150
The principal founders were progressive personally with respect to religion. Mark David
Hall, although he seeks to make the opposite case, acknowledges that at least Franklin, Adams,
Jefferson, and Paine were deists and that there is not definitive evidence to the contrary for other
leading founders.151 At the same time, the founders were united on the importance of religion.
Washington, as so often, provided the best example. He said in his farewell address that of “all
the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are
indispensable supports.” 152 According to Gordon Wood, the leading contemporary historian of
the Revolution and early America, the founders’ ideas on equality “secularized the Christian
belief in the equality of all souls before God.” 153
Views and practices of the founders concerning slavery were contradictory. Almost all of
the leading founders condemned slavery in the abstract:
Washington–“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to
see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].” 154
Adams–“Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the
eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States … I have, through my
whole life, held the practice of slavery in … abhorrence.” 155
Madison–“We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most
enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever
exercised by man over man.” 156
Franklin–“[Slavery is] an atrocious debasement of human nature.” 157
Jefferson included in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence a charge against King
George that he had “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights
of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and
carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.” 158
Yet many of the leading founders–including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and
Marshall–owned slaves. The response to this basic challenge to American ideals is that slavery
was an ancient and worldwide practice. America’s founders did not consider slavery to be a
positive good but a necessary evil that would eventually end.159 What was essential about the
founders was not that they owned slaves, but their thought led to the abolition of slavery. Slavery
was inconsistent with human equality.
Summation of the Founders’ Views
The great American and British political leaders and philosophers of the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries were on the side of the people, not the masters. They were the most
egalitarian thinkers of their time. Their thought led to the equal dignity and worth of all human
beings. They did not support complete equality, but they opposed great inequality. They opposed
a superrich group. They sought to create the optimal society possible, using government. They
favored a broadly middle class society in which property was widely owned. They strongly
supported private property, but they did not believe its protection was the sole end or purpose of
The founders’ definition of property, following their English forebears, was broader than
material possession or monetary interest. They advocated public works, policies and institutions
to encourage economic development, public education, emerging welfare state practices
(particularly, in the United States, at the state and local levels), a government monetary system,
trade and immigration policies, protectionist and revenue-generating tariffs, and progressive
taxation through property taxes and tariffs. They supported taxation of property as the primary
source of government revenue. They opposed institutions and tax policies that resulted in the
concentration of wealth, especially laws of inheritance that led to the agglomeration of wealth.
There was nothing in the words of any of them about specifically encouraging an elite of wealthproducers. They were in no way antecedents of supply-side economics.
The founders rightly feared and opposed excessive and tyrannical government, but they
were not no-government absolutists. They did not hate government. They were for minimal and
frugal government, not no government. They were for freedom of religion. They opposed, in the
case of the Americans, an established Church but believed that religion is essential to societal
well-being. They countenanced slavery but looked forward to its ultimate elimination. They
supported democratic representative institutions and a free market.
The great American and British political leaders and philosophers most strongly endorsed
the continuing advance of knowledge and science–which they considered government to have a
key role in furthering–seeing in this progress the greatest hope for the future of humankind.
They were tentative and provisional in their concept of knowledge and secular in their
conception of truth. They did not believe that truth is ever spoken once and for all, from on high,
never to be challenged, changed, or modified again. They looked to the future, not the past. They
believed that all people are morally and spiritually equal and should be treated equally by society
and the law.
Presentation of the early United States as severely minimalist in government,
inegalitarian in its conception of human nature, nondemocratic in its approach to governance,
and almost exclusively focused governmentally on protecting material and financial property is
not merely profoundly mistaken but historically revisionist. The American founders were not
opposed to government on principle, nor did they restrict it to the present-day libertarian and too
often conservative minimum of defense, police, and courts. The founders often asserted a wider
and more extensive role for government, even at the national level, in the primitive, rural, and
agrarian society in which they lived (in which transportation and communication were so much
less developed than they have become and in which society was so much less complex) than
many conservatives and libertarians do today. The founders sanctioned and practiced more
progressive forms of taxation than conservatives and libertarians today.
America’s founders believed that relative economic equality, democratic institutions, and
a reasonable amount of government are inextricably linked and together constitute liberty. By
way of contrast, plutocracy and opposition to democracy and to government are also linked and
together constitute tyranny. Acquiescence in plutocracy–not taking active steps to ameliorate and
eliminate it–supports plutocracy and is therefore in opposition to the philosophy of America’s
Nash writes of the Great Seal of the United States and in particular its motto, Novus Ordo
Seclorum (“A New Order of the Ages”): “Adopted in 1782, the Great Seal of the United States
symbolized America’s self-image as it embarked upon nationhood. America, the seal suggested,
was not simply another nation-state; it represented something novel in history. Moreover, it
portended the future–‘a new order of the ages,’ a break with the past. The Old World, with its
kings, oligarchies, and regimes of oppression, was to be left behind forever … America was to be
a polity created by conscious design, an unprecedented experiment in self-government on a
continental scale.” 160 He quotes de Tocqueville: “I confess that in America I saw more than
America; I sought there the image of democracy itself.” 161
Genuine equality of opportunity, the economic growth and societal cohesion that follow
from it, and the absence of extreme inequality of result are interlinked. Similarly, a society that
exalts material wealth, focuses on individuals to the detriment of the community, and confers
excessive material rewards on a few will not possess equality of opportunity, economic growth,
or social cohesion, as recent decades in the United States and elsewhere demonstrate. America’s
founders supported a society in which–other than, crucially, for slaves–property ownership was
widely spread and extremes of wealth and poverty were largely limited by government policy,
including tax and inheritance policies. Opportunity is not divorced from result. The social,
political, and economic order largely determines relative as well as absolute financial and
material rewards. According to the founders, the society in which these rewards are individually,
as distinct from collectively, greatest is not the optimal society.162
In closing, I hope I have persuaded my fellow conservatives and libertarians–those who
also love, cherish, and revere America’s founders and who believe that their names and ideas
should live forever–that, if they do not entirely agree with the presentation here, the founders
possessed a more capacious view of government, were more committed to democratic
governance, and, critically, favored and supported a middle class society more than most
conservatives and libertarians do today. Many contemporary conservatives’ and libertarians’
presentations of America’s founding ideas are incomplete and often mistaken. A fuller and more
accurate understanding of the founders and their ideas helps not only to enlighten the nature of
the American experiment and experience but public policy at this time, a statement with which,
whatever our other differences, many conservatives and libertarians agree.163
America’s founding and history largely concern the political, economic, and social
expression of intrinsic human equality. Passionate concern for human equality is a fundamental
ethos of the American idea. Previous democratic societies neither extolled nor practiced equality.
What was unique and distinct about the United States was the value it places on equality.164
The idea that all men and women are morally and spiritually equal is not compatible with
a plutocracy. Liberty, as well as democracy, is founded on equality. The ideal of human
autonomy on which liberty is based flourishes only in an environment of equality. Neither liberty
nor democracy is possible without equality.
Human equality is the core American belief. That all human beings are created equal is
not just the first, but the greatest, American truth.
1 I am indebted to Bob Casier for his suggestion to include this introductory paragraph. I also thank
Jeremy Levine for his work on this chapter.
2 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1969), p. 9.
Tocqueville also wrote: “All [colonies], from the beginning, seemed destined to let freedom grow … a
middle class and democratic freedom of which the world’s history had not previously provided a
complete example” (ibid., p. 34). Also see James Traub: “Tocqueville used the word democracy to
describe, not a set of political institutions, but the social fact of equality and all that resulted from it.
America was the most democratic of nations because it was the most equal” (What Was Liberalism? The
Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea [New York, NY: Basic Books, 2019], p. 32; emphasis in
3 By “egalitarian,” I do not mean a completely equal society economically but one in which extremes of
wealth and poverty are limited.
4 The classic statement of this view is by Frederick Jackson Turner: “The effective force behind American
democracy was the presence of practically free land … Economic equality fostered political equality” (The
Frontier in American Life [New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co., 1921], p. 274).
5 Thomas Jefferson in Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall
of Everyone Else (New York, NY: Penguin, 2012), p. 11. Charles Ingersoll wrote similarly in 1810:
“Patrician and plebeian orders are unknown … Luxury has not yet corrupted the rich, nor is there any of
that want, which classifies the poor … Were it not for the slaves of the south, there would be one rank” (in
Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution [New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1992], pp.
6 Contemporary conservatives endorse in many respects an inverted version of the work of Charles A.
Beard, whose An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) argued that the
Constitution was drafted by economically powerful interests opposed to democracy who sought to protect
their property. The difference between Beard’s thesis (which was subsequently discredited) and the
position of contemporary conservatives is that he thought this was a very bad thing while they think it is a
very good one. Cf. George H. Nash: “In sharp contrast with many (including some of the Founding
Fathers) who believed that the Constitution was intended to set up a stronger national government …,
many [contemporary] conservatives stressed the powers of individuals and states under the federal
system … In effect, the anti-majoritarian conservatives were often simply–and cheerfully–turning much
old Progressive doctrine upside down … Yes, they were saying, our system is antidemocratic. And
properly so” (The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 [New York, NY: Basic
Books, 1976], pp. 210-211; emphases in original).
7 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1946 [1651]), p. 80.
8 Thomas S. Schrock, The Law of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes as a Working Legal Philosopher
(forthcoming). I thank Tom, my former teacher, for his support and encouragement throughout my career.
9 Gregory S. Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
1986), pp. 210-211.
10 Alpheus Mason and Gordon E. Baker, Free Government in the Making, 4th ed. (New York, NY: Oxford
University Press, 1985), p. 25.
11 G. P. Gooch and Harold J. Laski, English Democratic Ideas in the Seventeenth Century, 2nd ed.
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1954 [1927]), p. 299.
12 James Harrington (J. G. A. Pocock, ed.), The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 11-12.
13 Ibid. p. 20.
14 Ibid., p. 33.
15 Ibid., p. 15.
16 David Cole, “Taxing the Poor,” New York Review (May 10, 2018), p. 25. I thank Barbara Lindemann
for this reference.
17 Aristotle in Algernon Sidney (Thomas G. West, ed.), Discourses Concerning Government (Indianapolis,
IN: Liberty Fund, 1996 [1698]), p. 452.
18 Algernon Sidney in George Van Santvoord, Life of Algernon Sidney (New York, NY: Charles Scribner,
1851), p. 302.
19 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, vol. 1 (New York, NY: Dover, 1959 [1689]),
pp. 121-122.
20 John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1946 [1689]), pp. 4-5.
21 Ibid., p. 17.
22 See J. W. Gough: “Locke does not justify unlimited property” (in ibid., p. xvi).
23 Cf. Thomas G. West: “The Founders regarded the protection of private property rights as a necessary
means of the poor to escape the kind of subjugation by the wealthy that they had experienced in Old
Europe” (Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America [Lanham,
MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997], p. xiii).
24 Cf., from a governmental standpoint, Joyce Appleby: “The idea of limiting government became firmly
associated with egalitarian goals” (Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the
1790s [New York, NY: New York University Press, 1984], p. 4)–that is, limited government, as private
property, was intended to help the poor, not the rich.
25 Locke, Second Treatise, p. 69. According to Richard Ashcraft, Locke’s discussion of property was
intended to “provide a defense of ‘the industrious’ and trading parts of the nation … against the idle,
unproductive, and Court-dominated property owners” (Revolutionary Politics & Locke’s Two Treatises of
Civil Government [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986], p. 264).
26 Locke, Second Treatise, p. 48.
27 Ibid, p. 104.
28 Ibid., p. 71.
29 See Russell Kirk: “Locke’s objectives in the practical politics of the seventeenth century may be stated
simply. Political sovereignty belongs to the people” (The Roots of American Order [Wilmington, DE: ISI
Books, 2003 (1974)], p. 284).
30 Locke, Second Treatise, p. 26.
31 Locke also remarked that the legislative power in a society “must not raise taxes on the property of the
people without the consent of the people, given by themselves or their deputies” (ibid., p. 71), again tying
personal consent to legislative consent and indicating he thought that taxation should primarily be on
32 Ibid., p. 64.
33 William Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers: Plato to the Present, 4th ed. (New York, NY: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, 1969), p. 394.
34 The Cato Institute is named after Cato’s Letters.
35 See Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1967).
36 Eric Nelson, The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Press, 2004), p. 142. Jim Powell says that John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon had, of any authors, the
“most direct intellectual impact on the American Revolution” (The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000-Year
History, Told Through the Lives of Freedom’s Greatest Champions [New York, NY: Free Press, 2000], p.
37 David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (Indianapolis, IN: LibertyClassics, 1987 [1777]),
pp. 467-468.
38 Ibid., p. 265.
39 Jacob Viner, The Long View and the Short: Studies in Economic Theory and Practice (Glencoe, IL:
Free Press, 1958), p. 244.
40 Thomas Sowell in Gerald P. O’Driscoll (ed.), Adam Smith and Modern Political Economy (Ames, IA:
Iowa State University Press, 1979), p. 5.
41 James Buchanan in ibid., p. 117. Buchanan held that “for Adam Smith, persons are natural equals,” and
that “the liberal, whether defined as classical or American modern, must be a small ‘d’ democrat” (Why I,
Too, Am Not a Conservative [Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2005], pp. 4-5).
42 Adam Smith in William Ebenstein and Alan (Lanny) Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers: Plato to the
Present, 6th ed. (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000), p. 495.
43 Adam Smith in Viner, Long View and the Short, p. 243.
44 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, vol. II (Oxford, UK:
Oxford University Press, 1976 [1776]), p. 842.
45 Adam Smith said of primogeniture that it was “founded upon the most absurd of all suppositions, the
supposition that every successive generation of men have not an equal right to the Earth” (An Inquiry into
the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, vol. I [Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1976
(1776)], p. 384). John Locke also opposed primogeniture (Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics, p. 283).
46 Henry William Spiegel, The Growth of Economic Thought, 3rd ed. (Durham, NC: Duke University
Press, 1991), p. 435.
47 Mark Skousen, The Big Three in Economics: Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes
(London, UK: M. E. Sharpe, 2007), p. 6.
48 Adam Smith in Joseph Cropsey, “Adam Smith,” in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (eds.), History of
Political Philosophy, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 642; Smith also said
that this “disposition” is “necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order
of society” (ibid.).
49 Adam Smith in Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the
Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 69.
50 Smith, Wealth of Nations, vol. I, p. 418.
51 Ibid., pp. 28-29.
52 Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (New York, NY:
William Morrow, 1987), p. 134. Since Adam Smith’s follower Jean-Baptiste Say is usually considered to
have been an “uncompromising defender of laissez faire” (Mark Skousen, The Making of Modern
Economics [Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001], p. 49), it merits mention that Say was a strong advocate
of progressive taxation. Edwin R. A. Seligman called him the “most celebrated French advocate of
progressive taxation” (Progressive Taxation in Theory and Practice [London, UK: Forgotten Books, 2017
(1894)], p. 60). Say wrote in one work: “After a certain point, there is in every income an imperceptible
progression, so that a family can satisfy ever less necessary wants, until the wants become almost unfelt …
A tax which is simply proportional to income would hence be far from just. I shall go further and shall not
hesitate to say that the progressive tax is the only just tax” (in ibid., pp. 161-162); and in another: “Is not a
simply proportional tax heavier for the poor than for the rich? Ought the man who earns only enough to
feed his family to be taxed in exactly the same proportion as the man who, because of his ability, his
original capital or his landed property, earns enough not only to defray all the expenses of a luxurious life,
but who, in addition, yearly adds to his capital? Do you not find in this demand something that shocks
your feeling of justice?” (ibid., p. 162).
53 Michael D. Tanner, The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor (Washington, DC:
Cato Institute, 2018), p. 21.
54 Ibid., p. 24.
55 Walter I. Trattner, From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America, 6th ed.
(New York, NY: Free Press, 1999), p. 31.
56 West, Vindicating the Founders, p. xiii.
57 Maurice Cranston, John Locke: A Biography (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1985 [1957]), p.
58 Steve Pincus, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government (New
Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 19, 33.
59 Forrest McDonald, “Economic Freedom and the Constitution: The Design of the Founders,” in James
D. Gwartney and Richard E. Wagner (eds.), Public Choice and Constitutional Economics (Greenwich,
CN: JAI Press, 1988), p. 336.
60 Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence, KS:
University Press of Kansas, 1985), pp. 15-16. McDonald provided an excellent discussion of the nature of
property as conceived by the founders. Property was a “complex and subtle combination of many rights,
powers, and duties, distributed among individuals, society, and the state.” He described William
Blackstone’s conception of property, current at the time of the founding, which included “limitations upon
private ownership involv[ing] rights that were reserved to the public in its corporate or governmental
capacity. These included the power to regulate economic activity in the public interest and the power … of
taking private property for public use” (ibid., pp. 10, 13).
61 Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order, p. 9.
62 Harry K. Girvetz, The Evolution of Liberalism (New York, NY: Collier, 1963), p. 77.
63 Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution [London, UK: Macmillan, 1910], p. 60.
64 George Washington (Saul K. Padover, ed.), The Washington Papers: Basic Selections from the Public
and Private Writings of George Washington (Norwalk, CN: Easton Press, 1989), p. 180.
65 Ibid., p. 263.
66 Mason and Baker, Free Government in the Making, pp. 177-178. Similarly, Irving Kristol wrote the
“fact that they [the founders] used the term ‘popular government’ rather than democracy is an accident of
historical semantics. They were partisans of self-government–of government by the people” (On the
Democratic Idea in America [New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972], p. 53).
67 In W. Elliot Brownlee, Federal Taxation in America: A History, 3rd ed. (2016), p. 15.
68 Ibid.
69 Washington, Washington Papers, p. 382. Kevin Phillips remarks that, though one of the very richest
Americans, Washington was “no more than a wealthy squire in British terms” (Wealth and Democracy: A
Political History of the American Rich [New York, NY: Broadway Books, 2002], pp. 7-8). Edward
Vernon, the British admiral and politician after whom Washington’s Mount Vernon was named, opposed a
proposed salt tax in 1732 on the grounds that it was “only to ease the rich at the expense of the poor” (in
Pincus, Heart of the Declaration, p. 34).
70 Ibid., p. 268. Washington also wrote in his first state of the union message that government was
required by “the inevitable exigencies of society” (ibid.)–not at all a doctrinaire libertarian view.
71 George Washington in Scott A. Cook and William Earle Klay, “George Washington and Enlightenment
Ideas on Educating Future Citizens and Public Servants,” Journal of Public Affairs Education (2014, vol.
20, no. 1), p. 51.
72 Ibid.
73 Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Third Article.
74 John Adams wrote: “Harrington has shown that power always follows property. This I believe to be as
infallible a maxim in politics as that action and reaction are equal, is in mechanics” (in Mason and Baker,
Free Government in the Making, pp. 25-26).
75 John Adams in Sean Wilentz, The Politicians & the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American
Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), p. 33.
76 John Adams in Thomas E. Ricks, First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks
and Romans and How that Shaped Our Country (New York, NY: Harper, 2020), p. 286.
77 John Adams in Wilentz, The Politicians & the Egalitarians, p. 33.
78 John Adams in Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, American Amnesia: How the War on Government
Led Us to Forget what Made America Prosper (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016), p. 112. Adams
also wrote that in “every society known to man an aristocracy has risen up … consisting of a few rich and
honorable families who have united with each other against both the people and the first magistrate” (in
Joseph J. Ellis, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us [New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018], p.
79 Wilentz, Politicians & the Egalitarians, p. 35.
80 Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, “Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence
from Capitalized Income Tax Data,” Quarterly Journal of Economics (May 2016), p. 520.
81 Pincus, Heart of the Declaration, p. 112.
82 United States Declaration of Independence.
83 Ibid.
84 George Mason in Michael Waldman, The Fight to Vote (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016), p. 4.
85 C. Bradley Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution
and the Declaration that Defined It (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2019), p. 106.
86 Thomas Jefferson in Ganesh Sitaraman, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic
Inequality Threatens Our Republic (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), p. 73.
87 Romain D. Huret, American Tax Resisters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), pp.
88 Thomas Jefferson in Hacker and Pierson, American Amnesia, p. 112.
89 Thomas Jefferson in Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (New York, NY: Random
House, 2012), p. 229.
90 Thomas Jefferson in Sitaraman, Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, p. 72.
91 Thomas Jefferson in Nelson, The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought, p. 202. Jefferson wrote
elsewhere: “My observations do not enable me to say I think integrity the characteristic of wealth” (in
Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 [New York, NY: Oxford
University Press, 2005], p. 629); and in a letter on the Declaration of Independence written less than two
weeks before he died: “The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the
palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few,
booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God” (in David McCullough, John
Adams [New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001], pp. 645).
92 In Sitaraman, Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, p. 72.
93 Thomas Jefferson in Michael Lind, Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (New
York, NY: Harper, 2012), p. 46.
94 Ibid.
95 Thomas Jefferson was also a great advocate of public education: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and
free, it expects what never was and never will be”; and: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and
oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day” (in George Seldes [ed.], The
Great Quotations [New York: Pocket Books, 1967], p. 392).
96 A great expansion of more progressive taxation took place during the Revolutionary War. See Robert A.
Becker, Revolution, Reform, and the Politics of American Taxation, 1763-1783 (Baton Rouge, LA:
Louisiana State University Press, 1980).
97 Thomas Jefferson in Lind, Land of Promise, p. 46.
98 Cited in Sitaraman, Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, p. 330, n. 93.
99 Cited in ibid., p. 70.
100 Gooch and Laski, English Democratic Ideas, p. 306.
101 In Matthew Schmitz, “The True Con,” First Things (August/September 2019), p. 71.
102 Noah Webster in Hacker and Pierson, American Amnesia, p. 112, cf. Sitaraman, Crisis of the MiddleClass Constitution, p. 68.
103 Noah Webster in David Cay Johnston (ed.), Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality (New
York, NY: New Press, 2014), p. xx.
104 Noah Webster in Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner (eds.), The Founders’ Constitution, vol. I, Major
Themes (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 597.
105 Gouverneur Morris in Sitaraman, Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, p. 70.
106 Thomas Tudor in ibid.
107 United States Constitution, Preamble.
108 Cited in Erwin Chemerinsky, We the People: A Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the TwentyFirst Century (New York, NY: Picador, 2018), p. 56.
109 John Marshall served in the Revolutionary War, including at Valley Forge. He played an important part
in Virginia’s convention to ratify the Constitution. He remains the longest serving Chief Justice.
110 John Marshall in Saul K. Padover and Jacob W. Landynski (eds.), The Living U.S. Constitution, 2nd
ed. (New York, NY: Mentor, 1983), pp. 99-100.
111 Ibid., pp. 100-101.
112 Warren Burger in Catherine Drinker Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional
Convention May to September 1787 (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, & Company, 1986 [1966]), p. ix.
113 United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8. Douglas A. Irwin and Richard Sylla describe these
constitutional provisions as a “vast set of new powers” that “opened up new possibilities for economic
policy” (Founding Choices: American Economic Policy in the 1790s [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
Press, 2011], p. 3).
114 Douglas A. Irwin, Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy (Chicago, IL: University
of Chicago Press, 2017), p. 78.
115 Nash, Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, p. 210.
116 Kurland and Lerner, Founders’ Constitution, vol. I, p. 301.
117 In Michael Kammen (ed.), The Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History (New
York, NY: Penguin, 1986), p. 305.
118 James Madison in Sitaraman, Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, p. 72; emphasis in original.
119 James Madison in Kurland and Lerner, Founders’ Constitution, vol. I, p. 539.
120 James Madison in Mason and Baker, Free Government in the Making, p. 176.
121 James Madison in Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (Max Booth, ed.), The
Federalist (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1948 [1787-1788]), p. 43.
122 James Madison made a good statement of the equitable material outcomes that characterize a properly
ordered society: “When it is considered … that in Governments like ours, a constant rotation of property
results from the free scope to industry, and from the laws of inheritance [eliminating primogeniture and
entail] …, there can be little ground for objections from any class to plans of which every class must have
its turn of benefits. The rich man, when contributing to a permanent plan for the education of the poor,
ought to reflect that he is providing for that of his own descendants; and the poor man, who concurs in a
provision for those who are not poor, that at no distant day it may be enjoyed by descendants from
himself. It does not require a long life to witness these vicissitudes of fortune” (James Madison [Saul K.
Padover, ed.], The Complete Madison: His Basic Writings [Norwalk, CN: Easton Press, 1988 (1953)], p.
314). The founders neither foresaw nor countenanced an America of great individual wealth or of great
inherited wealth.
123 Ibid., pp. 42-43.
124 Ibid., pp. 190-191. Martin Diamond wrote that The Federalist “treats its republican regime as
belonging overwhelmingly to the democratic kind of rule” and, presenting the views of The Federalist’s
pseudonymous author, Publius: “How may Publius’s republic be fitted into the traditional distinction of
three kinds of rule, by the one, few, or many? The answer is obvious: Publius espouses a democratic
[emphasis in original] republic. Indeed, what is remarkable is the extent to which Publius gives the word
republic, in the key passages, an exclusively democratic content” (“The Federalist,” in Leo Strauss and
Joseph Cropsey [eds.], History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed. [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press,
1987], p. 665). Diamond also wrote that the “main object of The Federalist was to urge the necessity of a
firm and energetic Union” (“Democracy and The Federalist: A Reconsideration of the Framers’ Intent,”
American Political Science Review [March 1959], p. 62).
125 James A. Dorn, “Public Choice and the Constitution: A Madisonian Perspective,” in James D.
Gwartney and Richard E. Wagner (eds.), Public Choice and Constitutional Economics (Greenwich, CN:
JAI Press, 1988), p. 57. In a series of articles in addition to this one–including “Equality: A Constitutional
Perspective,” in Thomas R. Dye (ed.), The Political Legitimacy of Markets and Governments (Greenwich,
CN: JAI Press, 1990); and “The Rule of Law and Freedom in Emerging Democracies: A Madisonian
Perspective,” in John Samples (ed.), James Madison and the Future of Limited Government (Washington,
DC: Cato Institute, 2002)–Dorn presents a different perspective of Madison than depicted here. As noted
in the main text, Dorn correctly states that Madison sought a democratic form of constitutional
government. At the same time, he presents too limited a conception of Madison’s definition of property
(“In the Madisonian vision, the powers of government are delegated and limited to those necessary to
safeguard persons and property” [“Public Choice and the Constitution,” p. 57]), leading to the impression
that Madison held a narrow concept of the appropriate role of government. Madison favored significant
government activity, but, as distinct from Hamilton, thought this should largely occur at the state and
local as opposed to national level.
126 Madison, Complete Madison, pp. 313-314. Madison also wrote in this 1822 letter: “The liberal
appropriations made by the Legislature of Kentucky for a general system of Education cannot be too
much applauded.” He here praised as well the “enlightened patriotism which is now providing for the
State a Plan of Education embracing every class of Citizens, and every grade & department of
Knowledge. No error is more certain than the one proceeding from a hasty & superficial view of the
subject: that the people at large have no interest in the establishment of Academies, Colleges, and
Universities” (in George H. Nash, Books and the Founding Fathers [Louisville, KY: Butler Books, 2007],
pp. 55-56).
127 Ibid., p. 56.
128 Alexander Hamilton in Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions (New York, NY: William Morrow, 1987),
p. 134.
129 Alexander Hamilton in Sitaraman, Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, p. 89.
130 Ibid., pp. 89-90.
131 Ibid., p. 101.
132 Alexander Hamilton in Hacker and Pierson, American Amnesia, p. 312.
133 Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, Federalist, p. 3.
134 Ibid., p. 54.
135 Irwin, Clashing Over Commerce, p. 80.
136 Alexander Hamilton in Girvetz, Evolution of Liberalism, p. 379. James Madison opposed Hamilton’s
reading of the Constitution and advocated a stricter interpretation of the powers of Congress. Whether
Madison’s position truly was a libertarian one is, however, very doubtful. Madison’s point was not with
respect to government activity in general but to government activity at the national as distinct from the
state and local levels. He wrote in The Federalist that the “powers delegated by the proposed constitution
to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are
numerous and indefinite … The powers reserved to the several states will extend to all the objects, which,
in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people; and the internal
order, improvement, and prosperity of the state” (pp. 237-238). In the late 1930s, the U.S. Supreme Court
agreed with Hamilton’s interpretation, including in Helvering v. Davis (1937), upholding the
constitutionality of Social Security. Amy Barrett includes Helvering as one of seven
“superprecedents”–“cases that no justice would overrule, even if she disagrees with the interpretive
premises from which the precedent proceeds” (“Precedent and Jurisprudential Disagreement,” Texas Law
Review 91 [2013], p. 1734).
137 Alexander Hamilton in Girvetz, Evolution of Liberalism, p. 379.
138 Irwin, Clashing Over Commerce, p. 99.
139 Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, Federalist, p. 174.
140 Alexander Hamilton in Adams, For Good and Evil, p. 290.
141 Charles Pinkney in Kurland and Lerner, Founders’ Constitution, vol. I, p. 545.
142 Thomas Paine (Gordon S. Wood, ed.), Common Sense and Other Writings (New York, NY: Modern
Library, 2003), p. 11.
143 Thomas Paine in Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (New York, NY: Hill and
Wang, 2005), p. 74.
144 Thomas Paine in ibid., p. 86.
145 George Washington, letter to Gouverneur Morris (October 13, 1789).
146 Henry Steele Commager in Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (New York, NY:
Modern Library, 1944), p. xi.
147 Benjamin Franklin in Jens Beckert, Inherited Wealth (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,
2008), p. 159.
148 Benjamin Franklin in Mason and Baker, Free Government in the Making, p. 176.
149 Benjamin Franklin in Schmitz, “The True Con,” p. 71.
150 James Madison in Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, Federalist, p. 265.
151 Mark David Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding? Separating Modern Myth from Historical
Truth (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2010).
152 George Washington, Washington Papers, p. 318. Washington’s religious views are presented in
Stephen J. Vicchio, George Washington’s Religion: The Faith of the First President (Eugene, OR: Wipf &
Stock, 2019), which argues persuasively that Washington is appropriately considered to have been a
Christian. At the same time, Vicchio also persuasively argues that the United States was not founded as a
Christian nation. Also see Gordon S. Wood, “Ch. 16. Republican Religion”, Empire of Liberty: A History
of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), for an excellent
discussion of the evolving place of religion in the early United States.
153 Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution, p. 235.
154 George Washington in West, Vindicating the Founders, p. 5.
155 John Adams in ibid.
156 James Madison in ibid.
157 Benjamin Franklin in ibid.
158 Thomas Jefferson in in Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind, p. 133.
159 See discussions of the founders’ views on slavery in Thompson, “Ch. 5. Equality and Slavery”,
America’s Revolutionary Mind; West, “Ch. 1. Slavery”, Vindicating the Founders; and Wood, “Ch. 14.
Between Slavery and Freedom”, Empire of Liberty. According to Bernard Bailyn: “What is significant in
the historical context of the time is not that the liberty-loving Revolutionaries allowed slavery to survive,
but that they … went so far in condemning it, confining it, and setting in motion the forces that would
ultimately destroy it” (Faces of Revolution: Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American
Independence [New York, NY: Random House, 1990], p. 222); and Wood: the Revolution “created for the
first time in American history the cultural atmosphere that made African American slavery abhorrent to
many Americans” (Empire of Liberty, p. 508).
160 George H. Nash, Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of Conservatism (Wilmington, DE: ISI
Books, 2009), p. 3.
161 Alexis de Tocqueville in ibid.
162 Nor was enunciation of these views restricted to America’s founding. Daniel Webster
163 See, e.g., C. Bradley Thompson: “We can accept the Declaration’s freedom principles as true, or we
can adopt very different moral principles” (America’s Revolutionary Mind, p. 386).
164 America’s founders did not believe that women should vote, countenanced and sanctioned slavery,
oppressed Native Americans, and were homophobic. What was essential in their thought included the
directions it pointed as well as immediate application. Jacob Viner wrote that in “moral matters, I am a
historical relativist … I believe that each century except one’s own has a right to its abuses, but that no
century has an obligation to condemn, to praise, or to offer apologies for, another century’s lapses from
perfection” ([Douglas A. Irwin, ed.], Essays on the Intellectual History of Economics [Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1991], p. 35).
3. Top Tax Rates and Economic Growth

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