For the very reason these words are being written, it’s important to begin with a disclaimer. Our nation’s founders were an ideologically diverse group of people, and it’s intellectually dishonest for either side to claim that all the Founding Fathers held the same beliefs they do. That said, we can certainly classify arguments. There were federalists and anti-federalists.
Conservatives are right that they have a comparable worldview to the people who helped form the constitution, but it’s those who opposed its ratification with whom their ideology aligns.
Madison and Hamilton
When conservatives talk about the founders, James Madison’s name is always the first to come up. If they were honest, they would praise Patrick Henry instead.
So what did Madison actually believe? Far from the small government libertarian Republicans would have you believe, Madison believed very strongly in the ability of the federal government to effectively govern. In the Virginia Plan, the blueprint that would become the US constitution, Madison advocated for a federal government that could veto state laws. He also opposed term limits for Presidents and thought Senators should serve for 9 year terms.
Madison wrote insistently about the power of corporations, writing “the growing wealth acquired by them (corporations) never fails to be a source of abuses.” He said big banks were administered with “partialities and corruption.” He thought elites or, “representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior” ought to rule the country.
So what about the rest of the federalists? The case doesn’t get much better for conservatives.
Jefferson was a staunch advocate for separation of church and state, Franklin argued those who refuse to pay their taxes should have no right to societal benefits, John Adams railed against “property monopolized or in possession of a few,” Hamilton believed in “equality of political rights exclusive of all hereditary distinction,” and George Washington wrote “over grown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”
Hardly a match for today’s bootstrap, neoconservative, free market worshipping Republicans.
The anti-federalists opposed the ratification of the constitution on a number of premises. The most powerful were states’ rights, anti-taxation, and individualism.
The rhetoric of today’s conservatives and libertarians is far more emblematic of Patrick Henry and George Mason than Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The Anti-Federalists Papers read almost identical to modern day rhetoric.
George Clinton thought the federal government was despotic and tyrannical, Samuel Bryan called attempts to establish a system of taxation “effrontery to attempt the destruction of our liberties,” and Patrick Henry opposed the separation of church and state, remarking that this nation was “founded on the gospel of Jesus Christ,” and thus “people of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”
So let’s summarize.
Federalists created the constitution to form a strong central government that had the ability to tax, spend, and regulate commerce. The anti-federalists who opposed it did so on the grounds of states’ rights and anti-taxation.
Which ideology sounds more aligned with the Republican Party today?
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