Jonathan Chait wrote an article today with a really interesting title, No, the Founders Were Not Tea Partiers. And then he went on to write a totally different article. What he’s actually writing about is how the anti-democratic structure of the Senate was not something that the framers wanted; it was something that they had to accept to pacify the smaller states who thought that the big states would walk all over them. As Alexander Hamilton said in the debate over the new Constitution, “But as States are a collection of individual men which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition.”
In a general sense, Chait is pushing against the conservative idea that the country was meant to held in check by a small percentage of the population is little states who effectively have a veto on any legislation that they don’t like. He also makes the point that the fact that people like Hamilton and Madison were willing to compromise to get the Constitution ratified show how they aren’t like the all-or-nothing Republican base. This is all very true, but I think there is a more fundamental issue here.
People have a tendency to see people from the past in a modern context. But that makes no sense at all. The Magna Carta is bizarre to the modern reader. Pointing out that the king is not above the law when it come to feudal lords seems self-evident. But in 1215, it was the most liberal of documents. Similarly, in the minds of modern conservatives, the founding fathers are sealed in Amber. It is only in this way that they can claim Hamilton and Madison as their own.
But the historical context of our country’s founding was the effort to expand equality. These men where thus liberals. And by that I don’t mean “classical liberals” in the sense that libertarians like to use it. Most of them were that, but it gives the wrong impression. The important point is that “classical liberalism” was a reaction against hereditary rule. And that makes it liberal as we think of it today.
In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin argues that what makes a conservative—regardless of time—is their opposition to the expansion of equality. So conservatives were at best apologists for slavery. Conservatives were at best for stealing native lands, if not for full scale genocide. Conservatives were at best hostile to allowing women the right to vote. And the most notable things about modern conservatism are: easing the taxation of the rich, limiting reproductive freedom of women, and not allowing the LGBT community rights to marriage or even to jobs in some extreme cases.
So it is always galling to me to hear conservatives grab onto the founding fathers as though they are part of the same historical movement. When it latches onto the mantle of the country’s founding, modern conservatism is just trying to brush away over two centuries of progress. But the Constitution itself shows the lie of this. The preamble says “in order to form a more perfect union,” not “in order to form a perfect union.” Those men did not expect the country to ossify. It was conservatives then and now who want to stop the powerless from gaining more power: from George III to Ted Cruz. The founding fathers were liberals, and the state of the art in modern conservatism is 227 year old liberalism.