Number Fifty-One

Tealiberasophoterianistic Perspectives

The Elitism of the Founding Fathers

with 9 comments

The Elitism of the Founding Fathers

Jake Phillips

 Before I begin, I want to point out that this is an argument that is very narrow in scope.  As someone who is generally against big government, this is not meant to be read as pro-beaucracy and anti-democracy.  Thanks.  My bridge-building is done.

A comment made by Jesse, and the popular argument that it represents, inspired this post. The argument goes something like this; the founding fathers overthrew a tyrannical government and implemented a government in which the power is given to the people at large, rather than concentrated in government, which just can’t help but be tyrannical. The depravity of man (or some secular equivalent) requires that we try to spread out the power as much as possible.

Certainly the argument is probably presented more eloquently, but that’s the thrust of it. There are several problems, beyond the foundational problem that 100 men are just as capable of being tyrannical or depraved as 10. The problem is that the argument, from beginning to end, is historically inaccurate to varying degrees. What I am not interested in is to put forth ten quotes from various founding fathers and say “See! I’m right! The founding fathers agree with me!” For one thing, the group of men known as the “founding fathers” had enough ideological differences that either side could do that easily. Heck, either side could do that and only use quotes from Thomas Jefferson. What is important is what’s actually true, and what actually happened. I therefore have two points. One is that the British government was perhaps not technically tyrannical (which is unimportant, I guess, in that I’m still glad we overthrew them. God Bless America) and the second is that the founding fathers were largely skeptical of the mob, or the people, and didn’t scatter the power among them, at least not in the sense that modern revisionists pretend that they did.

 The lack of tyranny from the British government is fairly easy to prove, and I think would be more generally accepted than my second point. No taxation without representation is a valid, political argument, but it’s hardly an argument for tyranny. Colonists, after all, were taxed less than any other British citizen of any colony or even in the Motherland(1). The issue was clearly more about the autonomy that the colonists had gained because of England was distracted with other issues, issues that eventually led to them needing more revenue, causing them to more heavily tax the colonists, who, as I said at the beginning of this run-on sentence, had become used to economic autonomy(2). The political science argument was a valid one; the accusation of tyranny was probably not.

 The bigger point, though, is that the founding fathers, if their intention was to avoid tyranny by distribute the power among the people, were not very good at it. They were much better at avoiding tyranny setting up checks and balances within government. State governments and the federal government. Judicial, executive and legislative branches. Tyranny not avoided by taking power from 1,000 depraved people and distributing it among a huge number of equally depraved people. Tyranny is avoided through checks and balances(3). Of those three branches, ½ of 1 of them (the legislative branch) was elected by the people. They gave enough power to the people to avoid a 19th century mob revolt (as France, Spain, Germany etc. would all see) but they restricted those rights enough to avoid empowering mob rule. When it comes to political theory, the founding fathers were generally elitist.

[1] S.L. Engermen, “American Taxation, American Slavery” Journal of American History (1980.)

[2] Ben Baack “The Economics of the American Revolutionary War” Economic History (2003).

[3] John Philip Reid, Constitutional History of American Rights: the Authority of Rights (UW Press, 2003).

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Written by Jake Phillips

May 20, 2011 at 8:13 pm

9 Responses

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  1. Jake, I think you do a good job dispelling the common myth that America is a democracy (read mob rule) without any power structure.

    I don’t think this equals elitism. Why? Because the entire government is subjected to the rule of the constitution, the Supreme Law, and everyone, elected or appointed, is subjected to it, sworn on penalty of impeachment to uphold it.

    This is why we don’t have an elite ruling class, but public servants of the people given the task of protected our freedoms as defined in the law.

    Now, do politicians sometimes act like elitists? Yes. But the founders anticipated this and even though only one branch is elected through popular votes, they put processes in place by which any government official in the three branches could be directly removed in cases of bad behavior.

    Jesse Phillips

    May 20, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    • Impeachment by whom?

      The argument for elitism is in comparison to modern public perception, not neccessarily most other political theorists of their time.

      Jake Phillips

      May 20, 2011 at 9:00 pm

  2. Anybody can be impeached by the house (Article II, Section 4).

    I dont buy that the modern day perception means they were elitists.

    Jesse Phillips

    May 21, 2011 at 1:01 am

  3. Great piece Jake! The founders were definitely elitist by today’s tea party “populist” standards. They were much more wealthy and educated than most. Its hard for those in the tea party crowd to admit that the government has changed from the founders’ vision in ways that are undisputedly for the better. No one is arguing that we should go back to stare legislatures electing presidents and senators. No one has suggested that land ownership return as a condition for voting. It’s a weird selective hagiography that is the right wing cult of the founders.

    jamestschannen

    May 21, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    • James: nobody is publicly arguing that states elect senators, but, as a tea party we are having discussions about that very issue, and a number of tea party grassroots leaders think that’s a great idea, not because we promote elitism, but because we promote states rights.

      It’s not something that’s being advocated in any official way, but taking a long term view of things, is something that a lot of us would support.

      Jesse P.

      May 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm

      • States rights? States have the same amount of senators either way. The question is do the people directly elect them or not? By that do you just mean state legislature rights?

        Jake Phillips

        May 23, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    • For clarification: not everybody in the tea party thinks that, BTW. Just some. I’m undecided, personally.

      Jesse P.

      May 23, 2011 at 1:50 pm

  4. For the state, through it’s legislative process, to be able to nominate Senators, would increase the bargaining power of the state legislature over the federal government through the senate.

    It would increase power of a state government over the federal government, and would certainly heighten the importance of local elections.

    There’s a school of thought that says this more localized election is a better approach. Again, I don’t have a position on it, but I think that’s a fair representation of the viewpoint.

    Jesse P.

    May 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm

  5. Founding Fathers?

    Ellen

    May 24, 2011 at 6:21 pm


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