Were the Founding Fathers Libertarians?
Let me toss in my 5 cents worth on the question of whether the Founders were “libertarians.”
This seems to me a question approximately as meaningful as asking whether the Founders would have preferred Macs or PCs: it exports back into the past an entirely alien mental category.
Libertarianism fuses two ideas, one political, one psychological. The political idea is that the central state should be confined within the narrowest possible limits. The psychological idea is that each person should enjoy the widest possible scope to live as he or she thinks best.
Libertarians see these two ideas as very consistent. But that libertarian perspective only feels consistent if you can accept a previous assumption: that the central state is the most important limit on our ability to live as we think best. For most people in most advanced modern democracies, that hypothesis does not ring true. For most people, it’s the bill collector, or the ex-wife, or the boss that imposes the most onerous restraints.
If this tandem set of ideas seems remote even in our modern era, back in the 18th century, each on its own would have been inaccessible, never mind both together.
Start for example with the need to confine government. Modern libertarians draw a very clear line between “the state” and private associations. I.e.: If a town council passes an ordinance requiring all houses to be painted white, that’s an outrageous violation of personal liberty, but if a condominium association adopts such a rule, that’s a reasonable exercise of freedom of association. But suppose you lived in an 18th century New England town, and the town meeting adopted such a rule. Is the town meeting more like the modern town council? Or the condo association?
That distinction, so legible to us, was not nearly so legible in the 18th century. Were the Penn family the “government” of Pennsylvania or its owners? Even at the highest level, things were fuzzy. The king of England was yes clearly equivalent to something we’d call “the state.” But Parliament? Was that “the state” also? Or was it more like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: a permanent standing body to monitor the government and with some ability to protest and block the government’s actions?
The fact is that the concept of the “state” as presented in some modern libertarian writing owes much more to 19th century German ideas than to the 18th century Anglo-American legacy. In 18th century Britain, the question of whether ministers owed obedience to the king or to Parliament was a blurry and uncertain one. In 19th century Germany and Austro-Hungary, the question was clear: ministers obeyed the monarch. Period. “The state” as experienced by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek was something outside civil society, something that society could not reliably control, and therefore had to be contained. A John Adams might think of the king of England that way, but that’s not how he’d think of the legislature of the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Libertarian psychology would have been even more indigestible to the 18th century mind than libertarian politics. Libertarianism argues that each individual should enjoy the widest possible scope to live as he or she thinks best. It’s an attractive ideal, one widely shared by 21st century people. Modern liberals share the libertarian commitment to “autonomy,” as this ideal is generally called — they just disagree about the institutions needed to support autonomy.
But to an American of the Founding generation, the ideal of autonomy would have contradicted four of the most fundamental physical and psychic facts of life:
- material scarcity and
Let’s take them in turn…
Elite Americans of the Founding generation were deeply shaped — not literally by Roman ideas, but by the 18th century understanding of Roman ideas. Here’s a perfect example: George Washington’s favorite play was Joseph Addison’s Cato, published in 1713. Washington adapted words from that play in his famous speech quelling the Newburgh mutiny in 1783. Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” was likewise a paraphrase of a speech from Addison’s play. Ditto Nathan Hale’s “I only regret I have but one life to give for my country.” So — influential, right?
And what was the message of that play? That the most precious thing in life is honor. And what is honor? It is the esteem of the wise and the good. Better to die in a way that earns the admiration of others than to live without that admiration. It is hard to imagine a more radical antipode to Ayn Rand’s formula, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
Less elite Americans of the Founding generation were shaped less by Addison and the Latin classics than by religious traditions heavily tinged by Calvinism.
If ever a religious tradition emphasized the danger of giving scope to the individual will, Calvinism was that tradition:
Man, having been corrupted by his fall, sins voluntarily, not with reluctance or constraint; with the strongest propensity of disposition, not with violent coercion; with the bias of his own passions, and not with external compulsion: yet such is the depravity of his nature that he cannot be excited and biased to anything but what is evil… (From Institutes of the Christian Religion).
It would be hard to imagine a mental outlook less conducive to the libertarian celebration of individual choice than that bequeathed by Calvinism not only to New England Puritanism but also to the “hardshell Baptists” of the South — such as for example the parents of Abraham Lincoln.
Only a very few Americans of the Founding generation enjoyed anything like material security. While most white Americans enjoyed a higher standard of living than European peasants, that comparative abundance was a desperately precarious state. An American who drank too much, who had too many children, who got into a fight and suffered a wound that could be infected — in short anyone who did not tightly control his impulses — risked disaster not only for himself or herself, but also for his or her loved ones. In such a world, the psychology of modern libertarianism — the desire to live unrestrained by any force outside oneself — would be seen by most as an invitation to self-destruction.
Libertarianism is very much a movement of post-1945 affluent society America, a society that has developed birth control and drug rehab, antibiotics and antidepressants. We are a society abounding in second chances. 18th century America was a society in which a personal misstep could easily lead to premature and unpleasant death. Self-actualization through self-expression was a concept not imaginable until GDP per capita rose many, many thousands of dollars higher than the level prevailing in 1776.
Fourth and finally: the libertarian ideal was psychologically unavailable to 18th century Americans because 18th century America was a slaveholding society.
If libertarianism is one who believes, as I suggested at the outset, that each person should be free to live as he or she thinks best, then a libertarian in 1776 would have been obliged to be an abolitionist. After all, the one-fifth of Americans who were defined as property on the eve of the revolution were obviously unfree to live as they thought best.
Yet it’s a very striking fact that the language that to our ears sounds most “libertarian” in the Founding generation tended most often to issue from those most committed to slavery. By contrast, the Founding Fathers who sound most “statist” — Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams — tended also to be most hostile to slavery.
This disjunction is more than some odd little paradox of history. It is a resounding klaxon warning of the enormous gap between the 18th century mindset and our own. Samuel Johnson jeered at the American colonists: “How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Johnson’s accusation of hypocrisy is obviously well-founded, but there is something more going on here than hypocrisy. It was precisely the intimate awareness of the horror of unfreedom — and possibly guilt for the denial of freedom to others — that inspired the passionate concern for liberty among so many slaveholders. When Patrick Henry said that he would rather be dead than share the fate of the 75 slaves he owned, he was not engaging in metaphor. But he was also not expressing 21st century libertarianism.
One last thing needs to be said to enter into the mind of 18th century Americans.
Most 18th century Americans originated on an island that had been one of the most politically unstable kingdoms in Europe. Between 1640 and 1745, the British executed one king, and sent a second into exile. The British Isles suffered three invasions backed by foreign powers: one in 1688, another in 1715, a third in 1745. They were governed by three different foreign-origin royal families (Stuart, Orange, and Hanover), plus a native military dictatorship. They had experienced a succession of radical changes in church organization, almost equally radical changes in land owning patterns.
In the years after 1689, however, that same country steadily evolved into the most stable in Europe. The dynasty established in 1714 lasts until the present day. Britain had a population only one-third that of its great power rival, France. Yet Britain built a military-fiscal state that fought and inflicted defeat after defeat upon the French.
Yes for sure there were Americans who, following John Trenchard the author of Cato’s Letters, reviewed this history and saw the creeping menace of Big Government. Some of the Anti-Federalists of the 1780s do seem to have thought this way.
But if “Founders” refers to the people who designed the government Americans actually instituted in the 1780s, then I think it’s safe to say that most of the Founders accepted these British achievements as achievements to emulate: not only Alexander Hamilton, but also James Madison. (The Bank of the United States that was destroyed by Andrew Jackson was chartered by President Madison.)
The people of the 18th century retained intense memories of what Europe had looked like before the growth of states: not a libertarian paradise, but a marauder’s free-fire zone in which dynasts and warlords despoiled the weak and disorganized. The Founding generation had absorbed the Enlightenment ideals of John Locke. But Locke had taught that the state was the vindicator of natural rights, not the enemy of those rights.
From Locke’s Second Treatise:
If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property
Locke did not argue against government. He argued against arbitrary government, against the divine right of kings.
Although political stability had thickened in Britain by the 1770s, the Founders had a vivid example of a stateless world before their eyes: the world of the American Frontier. That was a world of violence, not a world of freedom. They had seen in the 1780s a real possibility of the breakup of the Colonies into distinct and then warring sovereignties like those of Europe. The Constitution represented a rejection of both those futures. The Founders were state-builders, very much in the model of the British statesmen of the 18th century. And if the government they built has become too big and too expensive, if the libertarian impulse summons us to take action to contain and constrain that government, very well let us take up the task. But we can do that task without duping ourselves with a false history that denies the reality of the past and — ironically — belittles the Founders’ actual achievements by measuring them against standards they would surely have rejected, if they had ever understood them.