THE FOUNDERS WERE MANY THINGS, BUT THEY WEREN’T LIBERTARIANS…. As part of the right’s newfound interest in all things constitutional, there’s been a related push of late to recast the framers of the Constitution. Today’s far-right activists, we’re told, are the ideological descendents of the Founding Fathers.
Indeed, in Christopher Beam’s widely noted piece this month, we’re told, “The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them.”
This is certainly a welcome characterization for those who prefer to believe most of the progressive bedrocks of modern American society — Social Security, Medicare, etc. — are not only unconstitutional, but are wholly at odds with the vision of limited government established by the framers.
The problem, of course, is that the framers weren’t libertarians. John Vecchione had a good piece on this the other day.
George Washington belonged to the Established Church (Episcopalian) of the State of Virginia; he also was the chief vindicator of national power in the new republic. Thomas Jefferson determined to wage war by simply denying foreigners the right to trade with the U.S. So did Madison. What libertarian has ever thought the government could cut off trade between free individuals?
Further, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine supported the French Revolution. That revolution denied there was anything the state could not do in the name of the people. Jefferson never repudiated his support for that tyranny and Thomas Paine was only slightly more dismissive even after it nearly killed him. […]
The Founders believed in carefully delineated federal powers either broad (Hamilton) or limited (Jefferson, sometimes) but all believed in a more powerful state than libertarians purport to believe in. If ever there was a libertarian document it was the Articles of Confederation. There was no national power. The federal government could not tax. Its laws were not supreme over state laws. It was in fact, the hot mess that critics of libertarians believe their dream state would be … and it was recognized as such by the majority of the country and was why the Constitution was ratified. The Articles of Confederation is the true libertarian founding document and this explains the failure of libertarianism.
Jon Chait noted a recent piece from historian Gordon Wood that touches on this, emphasizing the similarities between the debates of the framers and those of today. “The great irony, of course, is that the Anti-Federalist ancestors of the Tea Partiers opposed the Constitution rather than revered it,” Wood explained.
And this, too, speaks to a larger truth. As Ezra Klein noted yesterday, “In reality, the tea party — like most everyone else — is less interested in living by the Constitution than in deciding what it means to live by the Constitution.” Or as Matt Yglesias added this morning, “The field of constitutional law has always featured a great deal of what’s known as ‘motivated belief’ where people look at the document and tend to see it as supporting their preexisting policy conclusions.”
The same is true of the nation’s founders, and the drive on the right to convince themselves that they think as the framers did, which somehow gives contemporary conservatism a weighty, historical legacy, and a strong foundation from which to attack the modern welfare state.
This might be more compelling if it weren’t transparent nonsense.