by Robin McMeeking
Historical Context of the Founding
The discovery (by Europeans) of America and its subsequent settlement was a product of the Renaissance, the period following the Dark Ages when a renewed interest in the natural world sparked intensive exploration and the beginnings of science as an identifiable process for determining things about the nature and behavior of the physical world. The first permanent English colony in America was founded in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. Galileo, who invented the telescope and revolutionized human perception of the world, published his first account of telescopic observations in 1610. Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica in 1687. In it he presented his theory of “universal gravitation”, and “laws of motion”. In the 1750s Ben Franklin began experimenting with electricity and at about that time James Watt in Scotland was working on a steam engine. The first commercial use of a steam engine occurred in 1776. During these years numerous “laws” of the behavior of physical things were established. Formulas were developed for calculating the amount of “horse power” that could be achieved by converting heat energy into “work”. These and other developments led to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
The first colonies in America were formed as business ventures. Investors were hopeful of making money from crops, raw materials, and as yet undiscovered natural resources that would be shipped back to Europe. The people who came were looking for an escape from poverty, famine, and religious persecution. Because of the time required to travel between America and England/Europe, the colonies had to be largely self sufficient and self governing. Before long each colony established some form of representative legislative body that was overseen by a governor who was royally appointed or appointed by the venture company.
Early hardships and whatnot made the colonies not particularly rewarding to the investors, nor interesting to the Crown. The colonies operated with little interference from England, which over time acquired the American colonies of the other European countries. However, by the early 1700s the American colonies had become a significant source of raw materials for England and an important market for English goods. So, the Crown began to take more interest in colonial activities and to assert more authority here. Not too surprisingly, the colonists were somewhat displeased by this interference.
By the late 1700s the colonists could no longer tolerate the interference and taxes. They formed a loose confederation so that they could declare independence as a block and face the consequences together. Almost miraculously they prevailed in the long and bloody war which ended in 1783. After four years of difficult “cooperation” under the Articles of Confereration, a new arrangement was decided upon. The Constitution was ratified in 1787 and the United States of America was born.
The group of men we refer to as the “Founding Fathers” were a remarkable lot. They were generally exceedingly well read and very open minded. Perhaps this was due in part to nature of the times. They were true “Renaissance Men”. In Jefferson’s writings you will find that he was equally comfortable discussing morality, education, geological findings and theories, hot air balloons, architecture, political systems, and just about anything else. When he wrote about something it seems that he must have examined all the literature pertaining to the subject and then conducted his own analysis. Click here for an example.
It is widely known that Jefferson was a slaveholder. Information that has evidently been long suppressed about the operation of his plantation at Monticello shows that at least some of the slaves received harsh treatment from his overseers. His writings frequently condemn the practice of slavery, but he avoided taking personal action to try to end it. The impression I get from his writings is that he wanted it to go away, but he wanted a plan for orderly compulsory termination. I think he would have supported legal emancipation but he was unwilling to take unilateral action. Even Washington’s example of freeing his slaves in his will failed to move him.
Of particular influence to the founders was the British philosopher John Locke. Elaborating on the work of earlier philosophers, Locke wrote persuasively about the ideas of “natural rights” and the need for government to recognize and protect individual rights. “Locke was an important political thinker, whose Second Treatise on Government is credited with influencing Thomas Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence. He also influenced other protagonists of the American Revolution including Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. Locke’s emphasis on the role of the individual and his questioning of the Divine role of the monarchy serve to this day as key underpinnings of modern democracy.”
The founders had their faults and bitter disputes, but they shared an intense distrust of concentrated political power. They studied many forms of government from the earliest Greek, Roman, Chinese, etc up to the current systems in place. Each colony had a unique form of government and constitution. The founders could see the strengths and weaknesses in each of these. They also had a good understanding of the existing European governmental systems.
This analysis of historical forms of government is evident in the Federalist Papers, a series of essays by the founders written to explain to the public the Constitution and the rationale behind its structure.
From Federalist No. 30
“In the Ottoman or Turkish empire, the sovereign, though in other respects absolute master of the lives and fortunes of his subjects, has no right to impose a new tax. The consequence is that he permits the bashaws or governors of provinces to pillage the people without mercy; and, in turn, squeezes out of them the sums of which he stands in need, to satisfy his own exigencies and those of the state.”
From Federalist No. 37
“It has been shown, that the other confederacies which could be consulted as precedents have been vitiated by the same erroneous principles, and can therefore furnish no other light than that of beacons, which give warning of the course to be shunned, without pointing out that which ought to be pursued. The most that the convention could do in such a situation, was to avoid the errors suggested by the past experience of other countries, as well as of our own; and to provide a convenient mode of rectifying their own errors, as future experiences may unfold them.”
“The genius of republican liberty seems to demand on one side, not only that all power should be derived from the people, but that those intrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people, by a short duration of their appointments; and that even during this short period the trust should be placed not in a few, but a number of hands. Stability, on the contrary, requires that the hands in which power is lodged should continue for a length of time the same. A frequent change of men will result from a frequent return of elections; and a frequent change of measures from a frequent change of men: whilst energy in government requires not only a certain duration of power, but the execution of it by a single hand.”
From Federalist No. 38
“IT IS not a little remarkable that in every case reported by ancient history, in which government has been established with deliberation and consent, the task of framing it has not been committed to an assembly of men, but has been performed by some individual citizen of preeminent wisdom and approved integrity.
Minos, we learn, was the primitive founder of the government of Crete, as Zaleucus was of that of the Locrians. Theseus first, and after him Draco and Solon, instituted the government of Athens. Lycurgus was the lawgiver of Sparta. The foundation of the original government of Rome was laid by Romulus, and the work completed by two of his elective successors, Numa and Tullius Hostilius. On the abolition of royalty the consular administration was substituted by Brutus, who stepped forward with a project for such a reform, which, he alleged, had been prepared by Tullius Hostilius, and to which his address obtained the assent and ratification of the senate and people. This remark is applicable to confederate governments also. Amphictyon, we are told, was the author of that which bore his name. The Achaean league received its first birth from Achaeus, and its second from Aratus.”
In the structuring of the Constitution they did everything they could to prevent giving any person or political body concentrated power by segregating the power into three branches, the Executive, a Legislative branch that they split in two (the House of Representatives and the Senate) and the Judiciary. In addition, they specified different elective periods for these branches; Representatives two years, President four years, and Senators six years. The shorter period was intended to heighten the responsiveness of the House to the immediate concerns of their constituents, while the longer Senate term was intended to insulate the Senators from short term trends and promote a more deliberate long term view of issues.
Furthermore, additional provisions were intended to prevent the federal government from usurping “states rights”. The states had been self governing for over a hundred years and they liked it that way. Smaller states feared that their political concerns would be lost amongst the concerns of the much larger states. So, while Congressional representation was to be based on state population, each state would have two Senators. Additionally, Representatives were to be elected by the general population, but Senators were to be selected by their state legislatures. The President was to be elected by a group of people known as the Electoral College. Each state had as many members in the college as its total of Representatives and Senators. Electoral College members were selected by state legislatures.
Amendments have changed much of this, making the system more “democratic”, but some of our practices that seem puzzling today are derived from this original design. The Founders would likely agree with Woodrow Wilson’s statement equating democracy with socialism and consider the changes that have been made to have weakened the Constitution.
Early Political Concerns
Driving the politics of the first 20 years or so were the following; testing the scope and limits of the constitution, westward expansion, gaining international respect while trying to avoid entanglements, and the War of 1812 which ended in 1815 with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.
Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France following the French Revolution that began in 1789 and went on until 1799. It was easy for Americans to sympathize with the revolution. We identified with the quest for liberty, and France had been our most important ally during our own Revolution. However, there were many differences between these revolutions which we will return to later.
The Napoleonic Wars in Europe were a major contributing cause of our 1812 conflict with England. England and France were enemies. France had the superior army while England relied on naval power to contain the French. The U.S. tried to remain neutral, but England’s need for sailors for its war ships prompted them to intercept our merchant shipping and confiscate sailors. There were also problems in the Great Lakes area with English forces that had remained there since the American Revolution. They supported Indians in the area in their efforts to harass settlers by providing some weapons, lots of encouragement, and broken promises of military support. Diplomatic efforts didn’t resolve the problem, so we declared war. There was no real winner. Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo eliminated England’s need for our sailors.
Following this conflict westward expansion and complications arising from it increasingly dominated political considerations. In forming the United States the constitution included a deal that most framers considered to be a necessary evil – slavery. The majority of the Constitutional Convention recognized that slavery was incompatible with the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However they also believed that it was necessary for the survival of independence for the 13 colonies to remain united. At this point in our history the southern states, particularly Virginia, were more economically successful than the north giving them a strong voice in the deliberations. They were unwilling to commit to ending slavery at that time. So we wound up with constitutionally recognized slavery, but only in the certain states.
Over the ensuing years slavery did not fade away as some of the founders had hoped. Anti-slavery sentiment was getting stronger in the north. As the country expanded new territories petitioned for statehood and the southern politicians realized that if new states did not recognize slavery the slave states would be outnumbered in congress. Too complicated to explain here was the “Missouri Compromise” of 1820 that resulted in equal addition of slave and free states for the next 30 years. Several of these new “slave” states had few if any slaves and were not suitable for the plantation type of agriculture that sustained slavery.
During this period the economic balance of power shifted north. English law had prevented the colonies from manufacturing finished goods. With independence, and aided by the industrial revolution, manufacturing quickly developed in the north.
Other important issues of this period were ongoing attempts to solve the “Indian problem” and a war with Mexico that resulted in the U.S. acquiring California and what is now Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming. This war ended in 1848, the same year gold was discovered in California. Texas, which had been part of Mexico, successfully fought its own war of independence. The Republic of Texas was also annexed by the U.S..
The presidential election of 1860 created a tipping point for the south. Lincoln was perceived by the south as an abolitionist. This was an exaggerated view of his position which is too complex for me to try to summarize. A review of the Lincoln-Douglas debates will provide a better understanding. Nevertheless, his election triggered fear in the south that their genteel way of life was severely threatened. They decided it would be better to secede from the Union than to face a loosing battle in congress. President Lincoln considered this an illegal rebellion and wanted to prevent it. But it was the South that initiated hostilities by attacking Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
The Civil War was catastrophic to both sides but particularly to the south. It is difficult to comprehend the staggering loss of life in battle after battle. Midway through the war Lincoln issued his “Emancipation Proclamation” ending slavery in the U.S.. Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the war leaves us with no way of knowing whether the reconstruction of the south would have gone any better under his leadership. It certainly couldn’t have gone any worse.
By this point in time the industrial revolution was having major impact both here and abroad. For the U.S. it was largely beneficial, and it was a period when large corporate empires were being formed. Vanderbilt with railroads, Carnegie with steel, and soon to follow, Rockefeller with oil. It is around this time when a new political philosophy began to take shape here. The process started sooner in Europe.
Enlightenment, Rationalism, or
The Age of Reason
The ideas that have shaped our political positions in the U.S., both at the founding and after the Civil War, are primarily European. We need to back up to the 1700s to explore the impact of The Enlightenment. We could go even further back, to at least the 1500s when there was a revival of philosophical methods for which Aristotle and Plato are so famous. The reexamination of religious and moral doctrine at that time resulted in the Reformation and the splintering of the Catholic church and the formation of a multitude of Protestant denominations. Incidentally, it was the persecution of some of these denominations that persuaded some of the early colonists to strike out for the New World. By the 1700s, with the printing press helping to make philosophical writings widely available, a network of “Enlightened” thinkers was active all over Europe. These thinkers, also called “Intellectuals”, branched out from analyzing religion into examining law, government and social institutions.
During this period the revival of an ancient philosophical idea that all men have equal rights and should be treated equally by the law came to be a centerpiece of philosophical thought. These ideas were well known to America’s founders and influenced the language in the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. In 1789 a formal document called the Declaration of the Rights of Man was published in France. It was prepared by the Marquis de Lafayette who had spent so much time in America during our Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was in France at the time as a diplomat and corresponded with Lafayette.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man has many similarities to our Bill of Rights. It was intended as a global statement of rights, not just French rights. It should also be noted that “Man” in this declaration is sexist. Women’s rights were addressed later in another document.
Shortly after its publication the French Revolution got under way. This revolution was much more brutal than ours. It progressed through several stages including a brief attempt at a constitutional monarchy. Eventually the king was beheaded and the whole thing devolved into retribution against the aristocrats and nobility. In a period known as the “Reign of Terror” over 16,000 people went to the guillotine and as many as 40,000 other executions were performed. A variety of constitutions were tried, until eventually in 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte took the helm.
These events in France were very disturbing to the remaining European monarchies. Over the next few years various “coalitions” of European countries declared war on France with the intent of restoring the monarchy. Demonstrating extraordinary military capabilities, Napoleon dealt with each coalition handily. Following the War of the Fifth Coalition (1809 – 1810) France controlled much of Europe and he made his fateful attempt to subdue Russia in 1812. Stubborn Russian resistance and a brutal Russian winter resulted in massive losses for Napoleon’s army. He abdicated in 1814 but managed a quick return to power and suffered his final defeat at Waterloo at the hands of the British in 1815.
Things in Europe did not return to “normal”. The combined effects of the Napoleonic Wars, the philosophies of the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution had changed everything.
Before we skip ahead there are two other key figures from the late 1700s that need to be discussed – Adam Smith, the Scottish author of The Wealth of Nations published in 1776 and Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), author of several philosophical works.
Adam Smith is generally considered the father of modern economics. His work presented an analysis of the operation of “markets”, anyplace where things are bought and sold. He presented the theory of “supply and demand”, identified the harmful effects of monopolies, and numerous other economic concepts. His book presented a strong argument for “free markets” where the cost of things is determined by market activity. His free market model is based on the assumption that each person buying something will try to get the most for their money and each seller will try to get as much as possible for their goods. If something is in short supply and has a high cost, that will be incentive to produce more of it bringing the price down. If something it so abundant that the price drops below the cost of providing it, then less of it will be produced until the price goes back up.
Although each person in the market is only concerned with their own benefit, the overall effect leads to a good supply of things at a reasonable price. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Of course this kind of market never fully stabilizes, and it can be severely upset by outside influences. Smith believed that external purposeful intervention in the market could only lead to harmful effects. Things like price or production controls would always create unintended results that would do more harm than the problem supposedly to be fixed. A modern example of this is the housing market crash of 2008, largely the result of government imposed market policies intended to make housing affordable to all.
Marquis de Condorcet was a close friend of some of the earlier philosophers such as Voltaire, and by the time of the French Revolution he was well known and respected in Paris. He participated in revolutionary activities by serving on commissions to develop revolutionary policy and devise a new constitution. Inevitable differences of opinion within these groups eventually led to him becoming a victim of the revolution. He is best remembered for works written before the revolution.
His view of humanity was one of continuous gradual improvement, not only in terms of general living conditions, but also in the evolution of human nature. He was remarkably prescient in forecasting advances in science and machinery that would revolutionize how work was done. He also foresaw that agriculture would benefit from science and that crop yields would increase dramatically with improved practices. He anticipated improvements in medicine that would eradicate many diseases and extend the human life span. He further believed that as these improvements occurred people would be more satisfied in their lives and begin to act less out of self interest. He believed that people would use their intellect or “reason” to devise superior governmental forms directed by elite intellectuals. He expected crime to disappear and people to base their actions on the greater good of the community rather than personal gain.
The progress of the sciences secures the progress of the art of instruction, which again accelerates in its turn that of the sciences; and this reciprocal influence, the action of which is incessantly increased, must be ranked in the number of the most prolific and powerful causes of the improvement of the human race…
…All the causes which contribute to the improvement of the human species, all the means we have enumerated that insure its progress, must, from their very nature, exercise an influence always active, and acquire an extent for ever increasing. The proofs of this have been exhibited, and from their development in the work itself they will derive additional force: accordingly we may already conclude that the perfectibility of man is indefinite. Source
A key thing to remember here is the idea that human perfectibility expressed here is based on material improvements rather than spiritual. As life became less focused on survival needs people would become better people. This concept is a common thread in all left leaning philosophies since that time. We will see further elaboration of this idea in the writings of Karl Marx, John Dewey who wrote prolifically in the early to mid 1900s, and in President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” speech of 1964.
In Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions he demonstrates that a key distinction between progressive and conservative philosophies is their attitude toward “human nature”. Conservatives regard human nature as constant throughout history. They believe that the things that motivate people to good and evil are distributed across all classes and races as they have been since before recorded history. Conservative policies are intended to be compatible with it. Policies of the left concentrate on providing material goods in an effort to uplift humanity. They are indifferent or even hostile to moral and spiritual values. The reader is challenged to reflect on this as we proceed.
The Romantic Period and the Industrial Revolution
Even before the close of the 1700s, some philosophers were beginning to react negatively to aspects of Enlightenment philosophy. Writing in 1754, Rousseau regarded property ownership as a primary source of inequality and human suffering. “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.'”
In Germany Immanuel Kant, a philosopher in search of “reality” (the meaning of life, the nature of God, proper moral code, etc.) had concluded that reason was incapable of providing the answers. His writings formed a foundation for the “Counter-Enlightenment” – a rejection of the “Age of Reason”.
However, it was the absolute brutality of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars that made people look back at the thinking that led to it. The result was an almost immediate turning away from the Enlightenment emphasis on individual rights. The period from roughly 1810 to 1850 is referred to as the Romantic period particularly when talking about the art of the time; music, painting, literature. It is also called the Counter-Enlightenment period when referencing the philosophical work of the time. There was more emphasis on individual duty to the state, emotional experience and nature. A lot of rethinking was going on, but no real consensus of opinion arose. The hub of philosophical thought left France. Germany became dominant. Science had acquired the fundamentals of its own process which was firmly attached to reason, so science and philosophy drifted apart.
Probably more important to us today is impact of the Industrial Revolution. The development of steam engines as a source of power for mills and railroads resulted in a rapidly expanding need for coal, iron, and steel, and the manpower to produce it. At the same time clever new machines running on this power began to produce many of the things that had been cottage industry products. A major displacement of people occurred.
Faster transportation by canal and railroad made it practical to centralize manufacturing. Large factories sprang up with a need for mostly unskilled workers. Vast numbers of people relocated from rural areas to factory towns. Working and living conditions were appalling. Vacation days and sick days were unheard of. Work days were generally 12 hours, six days a week, with maybe a shorter day on Sunday. Child labor was commonplace. The crime rate was high. Pollution from manufacturing processes was everywhere.
England began to experience these changes in the late1700s. Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) describes some of this in his works. In Europe the effects came after the Napoleonic wars, and in the U.S. the process was more gradual until the conclusion of the Civil War. By the mid 1800s there was a general recognition in Europe that an intolerable social situation had developed. Similar, but weaker, feelings followed in America. Due to our still rapid national expansion we absorbed the changes more readily.