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The Founding Fathers Were Not Libertarians

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Less government, more freedom -- four words that encapsulate the central tenet of libertarianism, the nutshell within which the seed of anti-federal sentiment gestates into a full-grown nut. As political philosophies go, it seems rational enough; even though I strongly disagree with the priorities of the modern libertarian movement, I understand why my government-averse friends believe the things they believe, as opposed to, say, my friends who are Yankee fans, or my friends who liked Avatar.

If you are the type of person who conceives of freedom as a measurable commodity, it makes perfect sense to oppose the EPA, the Department of Education, mandatory health care, civil rights legislation, banking regulations and taxes -- each represents a limitation on your range of personal choices. Even though I have a wholly different conception of what "freedom" means, I welcome the libertarian voice in our national discourse; I think the debate makes us a civically stronger nation, despite my frustration with what I honestly see as the moral bankruptcy of the vision of governance espoused by Cato's congregation.

While I welcome a good verbal spar with an Ayn Rand acolyte, I have no stomach for the heaping helping of historical revisionism that has been appended to the libertarian cause by its leaders. It's one thing to argue on, ahem, principle that the federal government should not be allowed to control carbon emissions or which races of people get to eat in which restaurants, but it is quite another to assert the frankly ludicrous claim that our country was established by a group of libertarians who intended to bequeath to us a toothless national government. The idea that our Founding Fathers envisioned a regime opposed to regulation and the protection of its citizens' welfare from private actors, laughable to any serious historian, has nevertheless become the signature bromide of the libertarian vocabulary. The Constitution, it is often remarked, establishes a government of limited powers -- an unobjectionable truth -- but the fact that its powers are limited does not negate the mountain of evidence that those venerable lions who invented American democracy were far more concerned with corporate usurpations of freedom than by any threat posed by a government fairly elected by the people.

"The power of all corporations ought to be limited," wrote James Madison, the framer whose influence echoes most resoundingly in the Constitution, as "the growing wealth acquired by them never fails to be a source of abuses." Madison's preference for a strong national government was borne of a distaste for the debtor relief laws being passed by state legislatures during the post-war economic downturn of the 1780s. Like fellow Federalists James Wilson and Alexander Hamilton, he saw the Constitutional Convention as an opportunity to craft a central government powerful enough to serve as an effective check on the states -- an entity that for all intents and purposes hadn't existed during the ill-fated tenure of the Articles of Confederation. In the Virginia Plan, the Convention's initial blueprint for what would ultimately become the Constitution, Madison argued that Congress should have the power to veto state laws, that the president should serve for an unlimited number of seven-year terms (nine years for senators), and that the country should be ruled by what Thomas Jefferson called the "natural aristocracy" -- that is to say, elites. He left the Convention frustrated that the national government, despite being granted broad commerce powers, was not made to be as powerful as he had hoped.

Jefferson, of course, is the Founding Father most often cited for his supposedly libertarian sentiments, perhaps due to his wariness of the national government with respect to its interference in the rights of states. To draw from Jefferson's anti-federalism that he was anti-government, however, would be a mistake, as he too was infinitely more guarded against corporate tyranny than the public variety. "I hope we shall... crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations," he wrote in 1816,* "which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country." While Jefferson was not technically a Framer -- he was in France for the duration of the Constitutional debates -- challenges to the Constitution among those delegates who shared his less-than-enthusiastic views on Federalism likewise centered on, well, anything but modern libertarian concerns. Some thought that states would be better equipped to levy taxes than a central government, some thought that Congress would eliminate elections once in power, some thought that state legislatures should be permitted to recall their senators, and some thought that there needed to be a religious oath requirement for elected officials.

As corporations metastasized in the nation's early years, the proto-libertarians of the 19th century learned quickly that their personal profits depended upon their ability to equate government regulation with the destruction of freedom in the minds of the American people. "Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow," wrote Abraham Lincoln five months before his death, "and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed." Like the founders, Lincoln understood that a subdued government lacking in regulatory power would invite a tyranny far worse than anything which could arise under our deliberately incorruptible system of checks and balances:

The money powers prey upon the nation in times of peace and conspire against it in times of adversity. The banking powers are more despotic than a monarchy, more insolent than autocracy, more selfish than bureaucracy. They denounce as public enemies all who question their methods or throw light upon their crimes. I have two great enemies, the Southern Army in front of me and the bankers in the rear. Of the two, the one at my rear is my greatest foe.

Lincoln held off the southern army, but the corporate artillery has yet to relent. This nation was founded on the principle, now proven, that a vigorous government bred of our collective will is the only sure defense against those predators without and within who might seek to work against the general welfare of our people. Those who decry federal intrusion into the private sphere have every right to argue the merits of their position, but they have no right to claim falsely that history is on their side. Our founding fathers knew that public regulation of the private agglomerators of wealth and power would mean liberty for us all; they saw good faith government actions not as hostile incursions, but as "those wise restraints that make men free." We have beheld the tragedies that have come from ignoring them -- massive financial disasters following stretches of gleeful deregulation of the banking industry, a growing income gap that ought to embarrass every American, the consistent repression of women and minority groups, and violent outbursts against federal employees at the hands of a desperate and directionless mob.

And every time, it was our bogeyman who stepped in to restore us. It was the government of us, the creature of Madison, of Jefferson, of Lincoln, and today of you and me, that was strong enough to end slavery and Jim Crow, to make sure that businesses couldn't dump toxic waste into our water, to insist that we take care of the oldest among us, and the weakest among us, and our troops coming home from war. It was our wisdom that offered us a New Deal, our vision that put a man on the Moon. Our forefathers didn't protest taxation -- they protested taxation without representation, and they won! We get to vote, and if we don't like the regulations, or the taxes, or the vision, we get to vote again. But the regulations protect our children and our savings, and the taxes pay for our schools, our military, our roads, and our parks.

Freedom shouldn't mean a license to indulge every last ounce of our self-interest without regard for the consequences we impose upon our fellow citizens. The founding fathers never intended to give us a hands-off government -- they just wanted the hands to be our own. libertarians have ignored this truth; at great effort, they have redefined corporatism to mean capitalism, and responsible capitalism to mean socialism. They are entitled to their own view of freedom, of course, but it is well beyond time for the rest of us to vigorously challenge the assumption that Madison and his ilk would have opposed the notion that an elected government could prevent unelected corporate entities from preying upon the American people. Of the people, by the people, for the people: what our government should be, what on its best days it is; the fundamental tenet of this nation that the libertarian movement would prefer that you forget.


*This article originally indicated the incorrect date of 1812.