Were America’s leading founders conservative or radical?

Ideology seems to infect all schools of interpretation, and for my next example I turn to the reluctance among American conservatives today – whether one appends tea party, neo, compassionate, traditionalist, paleo, cultural, populist, or imaginative to the pedigree – to concede that most of America’s leading founders were not politically conservative, as that term is used nowadays.

In surveys that ask historians to rank the most important founding fathers, the top five who usually make the cut include (in no particular order) Hamilton, Madison, Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. I find it difficult to discern a consistent, self-conscious conservatism in any of these five titans of the revolutionary generation. More accurately, I would say that they are innovative republicans. And make no mistake: innovative here connotes radical.

Take Alexander Hamilton, who exercised a profound influence on George Washington’s thought. Even though Hamilton is often invoked by populist conservatives, he was neither conservative nor a conservative when it came to nation building. Indeed, consider five ways that Hamilton was not conservative either in his day or ours. (1) He was a devotee of one of the most revolutionary thinkers of his day, Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations helped launch the permanent revolution that a later economist would famously characterize as “creative destruction.” (2) Moreover, Hamilton’s early opposition to slavery was a relative novelty in its day: he was on the side of the innovators, not the conservators, when it came to abolishing the peculiar institution. (3) It was also Hamilton’s idea to hold an extra-constitutional convention that would brazenly disregard the Confederation Congress’s instructions to the delegates, throw out America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and write an entirely new charter. (4) Hamilton was “America’s apostle of ultra-nationalism,” notes Donald D’Elia. He wanted to locate the lion’s share of power in the national government. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he asserted that the states should be reduced to provinces — mere administrative arms of the national government. Tellingly, Hamilton’s first articles in defense of the Constitution were submitted under the name of Caesar. (5) In the Federalist essays 30 and 31 that followed, he argued forcefully to empower the new national government to raise taxes without limit, if necessary, on citizens. (How many tea-party conservatives are aware of this fact?)

What, pray tell, would be considered necessary? Hamilton provides a tough-minded hint when, in Federalist Paper 30, he writes, “I believe it may be regarded as a position, warranted by the history of mankind, that in the usual progress of things, the necessities of a nation, in every stage of its existence, will be found at least equal to its resources” [Hamilton’s emphasis]. Commenting on this passage, the Straussian Thomas Pangle observes that “whatever power a government has it will use and find a good reason for using…. The more power a government has, the more need it will find for its power” [Pangle, The Great Debate, p. 67]. Combine this thought with Hamilton’s argument for the authority of the national government to raise taxes without limit on all citizens, and you have the irresistible temptation to empire.

Hamilton, we know, was underwhelmed by the principles and examples of classical republicanism. In truth, he represents a radical break from the classical republican tradition so admired by the majority of his contemporaries. In Federalist 9 he opines, “It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust….” And in Federalist 23 he writes, “There is an absolute necessity for an entire change in the first principles” by which to govern the United States, for classical republican principles were not up to the task. Not the writing of a conservative, this.

Like Hamilton, James Madison was neither conservative nor a conservative when it came to framing the new constitution. He was downright radical in his new formulation of the republic, and his Federalist Paper 37 argued forcefully for innovation: “The novelty of the undertaking [of founding the United States on the principles of a new constitution] immediately strikes us. It has been shown, in the course of these papers, that the other confederacies which could be consulted as precedents, have been vitiated by erroneous principles, and can therefore furnish no light than that of beacons, which give warning of the course to be shunned, without pointing out that which ought to be pursued.”

It is also worth pointing out, while dwelling on the Father of the Constitution, that of the 18 congressional powers enumerated in Article I, section 8, only half deal with foreign affairs and defense. The other half invite congressional domination over the states in many matters that the states believed they were competent to handle. This, among other things, is what so vexed and frightened the Anti-Federalists about the Federalists’ work in Philadelphia.

The other titans of the American founding also present problems for conservatives. Many see in George Washington the temperament of a conservative. To be sure his personal virtue and his love of Addison’s Cato were signs of his regard for classical republicanism. But anti-imperial conservatives sometimes overlook that Washington championed the idea of American empire. His ambition to unite the Potomac watershed with that of the Ohio with a sophisticated transportation network addressed both the nation’s eagerness to expand westward and his personal ambitions to carve out an empire of real estate. Nor would he brook any challenge to the national government, as his forceful response to the Whiskey Rebellion demonstrates.

Then consider Benjamin Franklin. This celebrity of the French salons is hardly the model conservative. A man of the secular Enlightenment, he was a skeptic or deist for most of his life. While it made him popular in the salons of France, his faith in reason hardly commended him to Burke or later cultural conservatives. Franklin was “progressive” in other ways as well. He wanted to do away with classical studies as a dominant presence in the curriculum. And like Hamilton, he subscribed to the then-radical notion that slavery ought to be abolished.

Thomas Jefferson is more complicated. He is rarely credited with being a forerunner of post-war conservative thought as defined and reclaimed by Russell Kirk. One must turn to a more libertarian cast of mind — for example, to Albert Jay Nock and Clyde Wilson — to read apologia for the Sage of Monticello. Although Jefferson has been roundly attacked by traditionalists, especially because of his enthusiasm for the French Revolution, he actually had many ideas to commend him to conservative thinkers today. To cite just two examples, his skepticism of the money men rings truer than ever after the criminal behavior in recent years on Wall Street. Further, his defense (if not practice) of the strict construction of the U.S. Constitution counters the loose interpretation upon which conservatives heap scorn.

Not only were many of the most prominent founders not conservative; they were also deeply divided among themselves. There is the unfortunate tendency among populist conservative ideologues to see the founders as a relatively unified bloc of thinkers who championed a unitary set of principles. This is not at all true. They were not all carbon copies of that hotheaded brewer, Sam Adams, or that intemperate pamphleteer, Thomas Paine. It surprises many to learn that John Adams sought to reclaim what was best in the then-best constitution on earth — that of the British.

Other Patriots were reluctant revolutionaries. Consider John Dickinson. In 1776 Dickinson differed with most of the Second Continental Congress over the Declaration of Independence. Hopeful that there could be a reconciliation with the king, he steadfastly opposed the break with London, refused to sign the Declaration, yet volunteered to fight in the war.

Dickinson possessed great political talent — easily the equal of that of his more illustrious colleagues. Known as the “Penman of the Revolution,” he wrote the influential Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania and was a principal author of the Articles of Confederation. Notably, he was one of only five Americans who signed both the Articles and the Constitution. When Jefferson learned of Dickinson’s death he said, “A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us. Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last [to be] the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government, and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.”

Yet because Dickinson was not enthusiastic about revolution, he is nowadays relegated to the back bench. Few conservatives today honor him for his opposition to revolution. This neglect is unfortunate because, endowed with the virtue of prudence and enlightened by the lamp of experience, Dickinson posed excellent questions to the generation of 1776:

(1) Why sign and publish the Declaration of Independence when reconciliation with London might still be possible?
(2) Weren’t there friends back in England whom we did not want to alienate?
(3) Are Americans in 13 disparate colonies united enough on key issues to wage a war and form a new government?
(4) Does anybody think that the Continental army and navy are prepared to duke it out with the most powerful nation on earth? Throughout the autumn of 1776, Washington’s army was losing battles, and the number of men under his command dropped from 19,000 to 5,000.* The military prognosis could not be more bleak.
(5) Given the bleak military picture in the autumn of 1776, can Americans assume that France will come to the new republic’s assistance?
(6) Will Americans have the perseverance to prosecute a terrible war to the end?

Good questions, all — prudent questions enlightened by the experience and wisdom of the species — but not always persuasive to other founders of a conservative temperament. There is a telling story from the Second Continental Congress. John Adams was dumbfounded that Dickinson would not sign the Declaration of Independence. In his diary Adams speculated that Dickinson wouldn’t sign because of problems he was having with his wife and mother, devout Quakers both, who opposed violence and thus independence. “If I had such a mother and such a wife,” wrote Adams, “I believe I should have shot myself.”*

It is odd that today’s populist conservative ideologues lionize the most radical founders — Hamilton, Madison, and the rest — but ignore the true conservative of 1776, John Dickinson.

The founders not only divided over the Declaration, but also over the extremely innovative Constitution of 1787. Of the 55 delegates who met in Philadelphia in 1787, 16 refused to sign the document. Even state delegations were divided. Alexander Hamilton was the only delegate from New York who supported the new frame of government. Most historians speculate that had the Constitution been presented for a simple up-or-down vote among citizens in the 13 states in October 1787, it would not have been ratified.

Ponder: There is the tendency of today’s conservatives to overlook how shockingly original much of the thinking of the Founding generation was. The newly drafted Constitution of the United States did not represent the conservative-leaning climate of opinion following the War for Independence. It would take the herculean efforts of a faction of elites to move public opinion to support the new frame of government.

Also ponder: There is the tendency of today’s conservatives to use shorthand words like “republic,” “empire,” “culture,” and “founding principles” in sloppy, ill-defined ways. What really does it mean “to restore the Republic?” (Whose republic do you have in mind — Cicero’s or Montesquieu’s or Jefferson’s or Hamilton’s?) To which principles do you recur? (Those of the older civic republican tradition or those of the more modern commercial republican tradition?)

But back to the Big Five among the founders. Hamilton, Madison, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson – what all five iconic founders had in common was the ambition to make the United States not just an empire, but the greatest republican empire the world had ever seen. Whether they were imperial republicans or republican imperialists is an interesting question. Regardless, as my good friend Winston Elliott put it after two whiskey sours, these innovative republicans were the original neocons. However much populist conservatives draw from this pedigree, the imperial ambitions of America’s Founders cannot sit well with conservatives in the tradition of Robert Taft or Russell Kirk.

Many cultural conservatives follow in the footsteps of the great Anti-Federalists – George Mason, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Randolph, Mercy Otis Warren, Luther Martin, and others. Do they seek to “restore” their idea of the republic – paradoxically, a republic that never existed?

Question: Were America’s founders conservative or radical?

Yes!

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*Source of the Adams-Dickinson story and George Washington’s diminished troop strength: Peter C. Mancall, Origins and Ideologies of the American Revolution (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2006), lectures 25-26.

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