America's Founders Would Have Been Disgusted By Today's GOP & Trump
No matter how hard Republicans try to reinvent the Founders & Framers in the image of their libertarian billionaire patrons, the reality is that America was history’s first great liberal experiment...
While Trump-humping Republicans like to misquote the Founders of this nation and pretend a similar patriotism, the simple reality is that all of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution would have been disgusted by these modern-day grifters.
Today’s Republicans claim that America was founded as a Christian nation; the truth is that one of the most unique things about the “American experiment” was that we were the first explicitly secular nation in the history of the world.
Every country, throughout history prior to the 1770s, was either run by a specific religion (from King David’s day through the Holy Roman Empire to the Ottoman Empire and beyond); a collaboration between church and state (French kings and Catholic popes; English kings and the Church of England); by a hereditary leader claiming to descend from divinity (Alexander the Great, the Pharaohs, the Japanese royal family); or by a breakaway sect claiming to speak for their god (Mormons in Salt Lake City, the Pilgrim political leaders in early Massachusetts).
The United States was the first country at that time in history to openly reject any role for religion, a prohibition that appears twice in our Constitution and repeatedly in the writings of the Founding generation as you can read in great and astonishing detail here.
Religious leaders in the Founders’ day, in defense of church/state cooperation and collaboration, tried to argue that for centuries kings and queens in England had said that if the state didn’t support the church, the church would eventually wither and die.
“Father of the Constitution” James Madison, himself an active Christian, flatly rejected this argument, noting in a July 10, 1822 letter to Edward Livingston:
“We are teaching the world the great truth, that Governments do better without kings and nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson: the Religion flourishes in greater purity without, than with the aid of Government.”
He added in that same letter:
“I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”
Madison also opposed — although, as president, he couldn’t stop — the appointment of chaplains for Congress.
“Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?” he asked in 1820. His answer: “In the strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. ...The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.”
Madison went on to suggest that if members of Congress wanted a chaplain, they should pay for it themselves:
“If Religion consist in voluntary acts of individuals, singly, or voluntarily associated, and it be proper that public functionaries, as well as their Constituents should discharge their religious duties, let them, like their Constituents, do so at their own expense.
“How small a contribution from each member of Congress would suffice for the purpose! How just would it be in its principle! How noble in its exemplary sacrifice to the genius of the Constitution; and the divine right of conscience! Why should the expense of a religious worship be allowed for the Legislature, be paid by the public...”
But always, in Madison’s mind, the biggest problem was that religion itself showed a long history of becoming corrupt when it had access to the levers of governmental power and money.
In 1832, he wrote a letter to the Reverend Jasper Adams, pointing this out:
“I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points.
“The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them will be best guarded against by entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order and protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others.”
As he wrote to Edward Everett on March 18, 1823:
“The settled opinion here is that religion is essentially distinct from civil Government, and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurious to both...”
Another example of weird GOP claims:
Today’s Republicans claim America’s Founders wanted everybody armed so we could shoot at corrupt or “tyrannical” politicians.
This is one of the right’s most bizarre lies. Nowhere in Madison’s notes from the debates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention or any other founding document is there even a slight intimation of this: the Second Amendment was written to give the country a military backstop in the event Congress were to dissolve the US Army during times of peace, a process numerous Founders advocated, as standing armies during peacetime had frequently overthrown European governments throughout history.
The Framers of the Constitution were so concerned about the “mischief” a bored standing army could cause that Article I, Section 8 requires that Congress must, every two years, decide whether to keep the army at all. It’s the only prohibition on congressional spending in the entire Constitution. The document was extremely radical in that regard; it still is today, in some ways.
After the War of 1812, however, when the state militias failed to stop the British/Canadian invasion that led to the sacking and burning of the White House, the issue of ending our Army never again came up.
Not only were state militias not envisioned as a check on federal tyranny, private civilian militias like those that strut around on our streets and attacked our Capitol on January 6th are expressly prohibited by law in all 50 states, with most of those prohibitions going back to the founding of the states. It’s a crime in every state in the union to dress up in camo and “parade” with weapons, as you can read in detail here.
James Madison did write in Federalist 46 that should the federal government ever become tyrannical the “armed” militias could take it down, but read the entire paragraph rather than the fragment often quoted: Madison was explicitly talking about state-authorized militias, created and armed by state governments and commanded by state governors, not private militias, which are illegal in every state and have been since Madison’s day.
He thought that in the worst possible situation, enough states would have enough sense to set things right even if that required the use of force. But never in his wildest dreams did he mean to suggest that random groups of civilians should get together and shoot at police or government officials or blow up federal buildings.
Also, the Federalist Papers are not law; they were merely the sales pitch that Hamilton and Madison put together in 1788 to sell ratification of the Constitution. So even if you want to take them out of context or interpret them in some bizarre fashion, it’s meaningless. Taking up arms against our government is still treason, and that is still a crime. The highest of High Crimes, in fact.
One more example:
Today’s Republicans claim the Founders didn’t want the government involved in the health and welfare of America’s citizens, but that they intended for us to all be, essentially, on our own.
In fact, George Washington put into place the nation’s first vaccine mandate (smallpox), and Washington also signed the first legislation to provide for food, clothing, housing and medical care for indigent people.
When “Father of the Constitution” James Madison became president, his first veto was on February 21, 1811, killing money Congress had appropriated for a DC poorhouse. His veto was not because of the poorhouse, however, but because some religious folks in Congress had tried to run the money through a DC church.
Thus, Madison said in his veto message to Congress, he was striking down the proposed law:
“Because the bill vests in said incorporated church an also authority to provide for the support of the poor, and the education of poor children of the same;...” which, Madison said, “would be a precedent for giving to religious societies, as such, a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty.”
The “general Welfare” of the people of the United States was on the top of the minds of the Founders and Framers of the Constitution. The preamble of the Constitution lays it out explicitly as one of the seven reasons the Constitution was written:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” [emphasis added]
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution says it again:
“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States…” [emphasis added]
Here’s another weird example of what Republicans falsely believe:
Republicans claim the Founders would have been fine with $2 trillion in student debt guaranteeing, as multi-multi-millionaire Senator Rick Scott argues, everybody has “skin in the game” by owing thousands to banksters.
In fact, the Founding generation were huge fans of free education being as widespread as possible. While modern public education didn’t get state-level government support until the late 1800s, in the early days of our republic communities routinely put together their own money and labor to build and fund a local schoolhouse and teacher.
Thomas Jefferson — who was President of the United States from 1801 to 1809 — founded the University of Virginia on the idea that it would be free of tuition forever, something he believed was essential for a functioning republic. He designed and wrote his own tombstone, reflecting his generation’s priorities that starting a university was even more important than being president. It simply says:
Here was buried Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia
And the final bizarre claim the GOP makes that the Founders rejected:
Republicans claim that the Founders were all rich guys who hated taxes, wanted rich guys to rule America, and wrote the Constitution to make that happen.
While there were some in America among the Founders and Framers who had amassed great land holdings and what was perceived then as a patrician lifestyle, Pulitzer Prize winning author Bernard Bailyn suggests in his brilliant 2003 book To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders that they couldn’t hold a candle, in terms of wealth, to the true aristocrats of England.
With page after page of photographs and old paintings of the homes of the Founders and Framers, Bailyn shows that none of those who created this nation were rich by European standards.
After an artful and thoughtful comparison of American and British estates, Bailyn concludes bluntly:
“There is no possible correspondence, no remote connection, between these provincial dwellings and the magnificent showplaces of the English nobility...”
After showing and describing to his readers the mansions of the families of power in 18th century Europe, Bailyn writes:
“There is nothing in the American World to compare with this.”
While the Founders and Framers had achieved a level of literacy, creativity, and a depth of thinking that rivaled that of any European states or eras, nonetheless, Bailyn notes:
“The Founders were provincials, alive to the values of a greater world, but not, they knew, of it – comfortable in a lesser world but aware of its limitations.”
As Kevin Phillips documents in his masterpiece book Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich:
“George Washington, one of the richest Americans, was no more than a wealthy squire in British terms.”
Phillips documents that it wasn’t until the 1790’s — a generation after the War of Independence — that the first American accumulated a fortune that would be worth one million of today’s dollars. The Founders and Framers were, at best, what today would be called the upper-middle-class in terms of lifestyle, assets, and disposable income.
Even Socialist historians Charles and Mary Beard noted that wealth and land-ownership, which in some states defined who could vote, was diffuse. Land, after all, didn’t have the scarcity it does today, and thus didn’t have the same value. Just about any free man could find land to settle, where Native Americans had either been decimated by disease or displaced by war.
“Although property was widely distributed in America,” the Beards note in The Rise of American Civilization, “and most of the free colonists were Protestants and Gentiles [some states barred Catholics or Jews from voting], the various limitations on the suffrage excluded from the polls a large portion of the population – just how large a percentage cannot be ascertained from any records now available.”
In those states where the vote was allowed based on land ownership, city-living renters were at a disadvantage.
“On the other hand,” the Beards note, “it is estimated that about four-fifths of the men in Massachusetts were eligible to vote, so numerous were the owners of small farms.”
In 1958, one of America’s great professors of history, Forrest McDonald, published an extraordinary book debunking Charles Beard’s 1913 hypothesis that the Constitution was created of, by, and for rich white men. McDonald’s book, titled We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, bluntly states:
“Economic interpretation of the Constitution does not work.”
Over the course of more than 400 meticulously researched pages, McDonald goes back to original historical records and reveals who was promoting and who was opposing the new Constitution, and why. So far as I can tell, he is the first and only historian to do this type of original-source research, and his conclusions are startling.
McDonald notes that a quarter of all the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had voted in their own state legislatures for laws that would have helped debtors and the poor and thus harmed the interests of the rich.
“These [debt relief laws] were the very kinds of laws which, according to Beard’s hypothesis, the delegates had convened to prevent,” says McDonald. He adds: “Another fourth of the delegates had important economic interests that were adversely affected, directly and immediately, by the Constitution they helped write.”
While Beard theorizes that the Framers were largely drawn from the class of wealthy bankers and businessmen, McDonald shows that:
“The most common and by far the most important property holdings of the delegates were not, as Beard has asserted, mercantile, manufacturing, and public security investments, but agricultural property.”
Most were farmers or plantation owners and, as noted earlier, owning a lot of land did not always make one rich in those days, particularly compared to the bankers and mercantilists of New York and Boston.
“Finally,” McDonald concludes, “it is abundantly evident that the delegates, once inside the convention, behaved as anything but a consolidated economic group.”
After dissecting the means and motivations of the Framers who wrote the Constitution, McDonald goes into an exhaustive and detailed state-by-state analysis of the constitutional ratifying conventions that finally brought the U.S. Constitution into law.
For example, in the state of Delaware, which voted for ratification:
“[A]lmost 77 percent of the delegates were farmers, more than two-thirds of them small farmers with incomes ranging from 75 cents to $5.00 a week. Slightly more than 23 percent of the delegates were professional men – doctors, judges, and lawyers. None of the delegates was a merchant, manufacturer, banker, or speculator in western lands.”
In other states, similar numbers showed up. Of the New Jersey delegates supporting ratification, 64.1 percent were small farmers. In Maryland, “the opponents of ratification included from three to six times as large a proportion of merchants, lawyers, and investors in shipping, confiscated estates, and manufacturing as did the [poorer] delegates who favored ratification.”
In South Carolina it was those in economic distress who carried the day: “No fewer than 82 percent of the debtors and borrowers of paper money in the convention voted for ratification.” In New Hampshire, “of the known farmers in the convention 68.7 percent favored ratification.”
But did farmers support the Constitution because they were slave owners or the wealthiest of the landowners, as Charles Beard had guessed back in 1913?
McDonald shows that this certainly wasn’t the case in northern states like New Hampshire or New Jersey, which were not slave states.
But what about Virginia and North Carolina, the two largest slaveholding states, asks McDonald rhetorically. Were their plantation owners favoring the Constitution because it protected their economic and slaveholding interests?
“The opposite is true,” writes McDonald. “In both states the wealthy planters – those with personality interests [enslaved people] as well as those without personality interests – were divided approximately equally on the issue of ratification. In North Carolina small farmers and debtors were likewise equally divided, and in Virginia the great mass of the small farmers and a large majority of the debtors favored ratification.”
After dissecting the results of the ratification votes state by state — the first author in history to do so, as far as I can determine — McDonald sums up:
“Beard’s thesis — that the line of cleavage as regards the Constitution was between substantial personality interests [wealth and slave ownership] on the one hand and small farming and debtor interests on the other — is entirely incompatible with the facts.”
No matter how hard Republicans try to reinvent the Founders and Framers of this nation in the image of their libertarian billionaire patrons, and no matter how imperfect and even brutal their time was, the simple reality is that in 1770’s America this nation’s Founders undertook history’s first truly great progressive experiment.
And they all put their lives on the line to do it: when they signed their names on the Declaration, a death warrant was issued against each one of them by the largest and most powerful empire in the world.
But in the end, they believed they had succeeded.
As President George Washington wrote on March 15, 1790:
“As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow, that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the Community are equally entitled to the protection of civil Government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.”
It could as easily have been written by abolitionist Alexander Hamilton (and may have been: Hamilton often ghost-wrote for Washington).
With the exception of the past 40 years, America has almost always been a leader among nations in advancing progressive values and experimenting with progressive taxation and business regulation.
We were slowed down in our forward motion by the Reagan Revolution, but one of these days America will again be the positive example for the world that Washington envisioned…