Fundatores Volunt: Politicized Anachronism in American History

The Unknown Founder

Would be better at a carnival than in an editorial.

There is no more pervasive crime against history in American political discourse than our fascination with “what the Founding Fathers would have wanted.” This is a phrase for a bracelet pastors might hand out in Sunday school, not a serious consideration in judging policy. Perhaps every society needs its pantheon, even a modern, secular, materialist one. A true pantheon of gods or saints allows a society to refer to a rich and meaningful mythology to supply its cultural ethos; unfortunately, secular societies making historical figures into virtual gods have only facts to work with. Since that just won’t do for expedient and on-message legendry, the facts need to massaged, ignored, or invented to suit the pundit’s needs. Thus, real people who took real actions with real meaning become something like carnival cut-out figures, the kind with a face hole allowing a patron to pose for a photograph as a lion tamer or a bear or, in this case, a revered historical figure whose general form lends dignity to the grinning or glowering faces of our modern opinion makers. This process is ongoing, and we sometimes have a chance to watch it unfold before our eyes.

Speculation about the will of our forefathers is usually the hobby of the right. We see it most aggressively in the area of gun policy: George Washington as card-carrying NRA member. The idea is that, by gripping the tenuous theoretical thread of “supporting the right to bear arms,” 18th century statesmen can lend their support to 20th century causes, thus raising the possibility of Ben Franklin with an opinion on machine guns, or perhaps (since this should work in reverse), modern people clamoring for the right to privately own and operate battleships. It’s all pretty nonsensical, and only has power because The Founders loom over our collective political imagination. It doesn’t even have meaning, though, since it doesn’t really matter if the Founding Fathers would have supported shall-issue over may-issue, or opposed the assault weapons ban; these are ideas that can stand or fall on their own merits as consistent with precedent on interpreting the Second Amendment in the modern age. Transporting our modern ideas across more than two centuries on the gossamer strand of an abstract principle is as meaningless as it is anachronistic.

Sometimes, though, it seems to make sense to fight fire with fire. With the unsupported claim that the right has started raising the corpses of the Founders to fight for corporate greed, this essay launches into an argument that in fact, the Founders hated corporations! If this new rhetorical ploy by conservatives is a real thing (I haven’t heard of it), then this response is another example of liberals making the mistake of accepting conservatives’ framing and fighting on their terms. It simplifies and distorts a complex and meaningful history of American resistance to and accommodation with corporations that could have much to tell us, were it not cherry-picked for a hack propaganda piece.

Putting aside the fact that this kind of anachronistic speculation is only superstitiously relevant to actual modern policy, there are two specific reasons why wondering What Would Jefferson Do is inane. Firstly, it depends on a uniform gestalt entity called “The Founding Fathers” that never really existed. We only imagine a cadre of Enlightenment revolutionaries marching in lock-step. In reality, the Founders were a diverse group of thinkers and statesmen who disagreed on a lot of things, and whose opinions changed over time. Many of their accomplishments were uneasy compromises between opposing ideas. Debates about federalism, the role of government in the economy, and slavery, to name a few issues, continued long after the completion of their great compromise called the Constitution (a project that took our idealized pantheon two tries to get right, and almost immediately needed some patches).

Secondly, there’s the unelaborated speculation: what would the Founders think… under what conditions? Are we imagining that they’ve stepped into a time machine, or that they never died and have been living among us, immortal and watching, all this time? It could actually make a big difference: in the first case, cultural and technological shock would make it doubtful the the Founders would really understand much of the modern society they would observe, and in the second case, they’ve had hundreds of years to observe the changes America has undergone since their time, and may have changed their opinions in response. The fact that this question, time travel or eternal vigil, actually matters tells us a lot about the value of this kind of speculation. It also, critically, tells us how problematic it is to assume that historical perspectives correspond to our own.

With this in mind, the errors of the above essay almost jump off the page. Possibly the most egregious is in how it constructs its collective protagonist. From the quotes it uses to demonstrate the Founders’ opinions, we can conclude that there were exactly two of them: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These, at least, are the only two whose opinions are posthumously solicited, the rest are only vaguely implicated to hold similar views on the basis of a the ways in which certain historical factors affected the views of “the Revolutionary generation.” What’s worse, the first quote from Jefferson is a fabrication. Two of the quotations are actually focused on banks, which the author feels supports an anti-corporation stance because “[a]s we all know, big banks are also considered corporations,” a line of argument with a questionable basis in set theory. Even putting all this aside, we would really only need to look to the counter-example of Alexander Hamilton, who started a manufacturing corporation, to rupture this case.

In 1791, Hamilton, then the Secretary of the Treasury, submitted a his “Report on Manufactures” to Congress, with his own project, the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (SEUM), as its centerpiece. The SEUM was a public-private project that operated a water-powered mill on the Passaic River in New Jersey. Hamilton suggested that the federal government encourage the growth of such manufacturing corporations by offering seed money and tax breaks to investors, in addition to the characteristic limited liability of a corporation. The SEUM enjoyed such advantages under its charter with New Jersey. So, here we have a Founding Father who supported government patronage of corporations as a way of increasing the nation’s manufacturing capacity.

An anti-corporation sentiment did exist at the time, and the proposal received criticism. A Pennsylvania statesman, George Logan, writing under the signature, “A Farmer,” delivered such criticism in a series of letters. Logan’s perspective was informed by the ideal of an economy of small, independent producers, such as family farms and artisan shops, and by political egalitarianism, focusing on the need for a government accountable to and serving all citizens equally, rather than granting special privileges. In his mind, the entire incorporation project Hamilton proposed was the enfeoffment of a new aristocracy which, through its special advantages, would be able to monopolize America’s resources and labor pool with a rapacious efficiency undreamed-of by Britain in its mercantilist control of the colony. Interestingly, he identifies among these advantages not only special perks for the owners, but for workers as well: employees of Hamilton’s corporations would receive tax breaks and exemptions from militia duty. While the idea of of corporate CEOs and major stockholders as a kind of aristocracy of wealth might be comprehensible to modern readers, it would be a mistake to translate this directly to Logan’s time. To him, all the personnel of the corporation formed a special class, granted special advantages and status by the government, and the grounds of its operations were like unto a fief. Today, when thinking about the dangers of corporate power, the common employees are not considered among its beneficiaries.

This provides a useful segue to an examination of the essay’s lack of perspective. Oddly, the author seems to be aware of some important differences in historical context, noting that corporations used to be special projects started by governments, and only created by specific legislative acts for a limited term and purpose. The significance of these facts seems not to register, however. It stands to reason that opposition to modern corporations, private ventures created by automatic licensing, might differ from opposition to institutions created by a special act of the government for a set purpose. We can get a glimpse of how shallow the author’s understanding of this distinction is with the following explanation of the Boston Tea Party: “The East India Company was the largest corporation of its day and its dominance of trade angered the colonists so much, that they dumped the tea products it had on a ship into Boston Harbor…”

A passage near the begining of the essay informs us that “[t]he economic world we live in today is dominated by corporations…” The reader might be forgiven for conflating these two forms of domination as the same expression of the same malignancy inherent to corporations. Taking into account Logan’s perspective on incorporation, as a form of ennoblement and a native mercantilism, we can see the error in this: 18th century corporations did not dominate trade in the same way that modern corporations vaguely “dominate our economic world.” While Logan was concerned, as many are today, about the government serving the interests of a monied elite rather than those of all its citizens, today we worry that this elite will corrupt the government to its ends, while Logan worried that the government would create the elite as a privileged class. Modern corporations are not vehicles of a government’s colonial policy: they do not restrict America’s manufacturing capacity in order to maintain it as a source of raw materials and a market for finished goods. In fact, they will flexibly shift their investments in capital, labor, and resources from one nation to another in order to cut costs. This is the starkest difference, and a good example of the mismatch between modern and historical perspectives on corporations. In colonial America, corporations were effectively vehicles of a nationalist economic policy that bound colonies into dedicated trade with the metropole. These restrictions were odious to the businessmen of early America, and corporations today favor free trade policies that place as few restrictions as possible on the flow of goods, resources, labor, and capital between nations. In this, there is some reason to doubt that 18th century opponents of corporations would oppose them today, at least on one front.

Much of the text of the essay is an insipid history of corporations in America, which seems excessive in a piece supposedly about the opinions of the Founding Fathers, full of generic descriptions of the advance of corporate power, its misdeeds, and worried quotes from various luminaries. This is another of the author’s unfortunate failings: a missed opportunity to look into the real history of American anti-corporate ideology. Such a history doesn’t rely on scattered (and questionable) quotes by the high-and-mighty. Besides forging an authentic link to the ideas and concerns of the Founding Fathers and the “Revolutionary generation,” it contains instructive examples of events and issues which evoke modern concerns, such as:

  • Big Box chains vs. local small business:  Tench Cox, who co-authored Hamilton’s prospectus on the SEUM, had a number of points to make in reply to George Logan. His overall defense of federally-backed incorporation was that Logan’s concerns were alarmist. Citizens would have the opportunity, as those of New Jersey had, to reject incorporation grants on the land of their states and localities through their local or state governments. Additionally, citizens would likely welcome incorporation projects for the benefits to commerce they bring. Corporations’ advantages, he claimed, would not be great enough to offer a destructive competitive advantage, and they would not use them to outbid or undersell the competition of small artisans. Even if they did, the public would benefit in any case from lower prices of goods. Participants in debates about the advantages and disadvantages of Wal*Mart will find many of these points familiar.
  • Misuse of Eminent Domain: One of the common complaints about railroad corporations was that the government reserved land for them by the force of eminent domain. This land, out on the western frontier, was valued as a potential refuge for the small farmers and independent producers which corporations managed to out-compete, where they might seek freedom from oppression as wage laborers. So, in essence, the government took land away from ordinary people for the benefit of corporations under the guise of encouraging economic development. Sadly, it seems that the atrocity of Kelo vs. New London was not a new phenomenon.
  • The Balance of Power: In 1858, the Workingmen’s Union of Trenton published a charter with a radical, revolutionary preamble (noting that the working class does all the labor that produces “all the wealth and blessings of civilized society,” but is disenfranchised compared to the wealthy, capitalist class, which “work[s] not and yet consume[s] the labor of others”), but mundane and, to modern readers, uncontroversial objectives. In establishing their union in opposition to the power of corporations to dispossess the livelihoods of small producers, they noted the ability of the rich to buy elections, prefiguring modern concerns over campaign finance. Yet despite their antagonism to Big Business, some of their proposed solutions seem oddly conservative. They favored trimming the fat in government bureaucracies in order to reduce the tax burden on workers. Additionally, they called for reforms in litigation to reduce frivolous lawsuits which only the wealthy could afford to keep up. Today, litigation reform to reduce “frivolous” suits protects corporations by raising the costs and risks of taking them to court for damages. Some modern issues and ideas have a deep history in America, but their proponents and motives may be surprisingly different from what we’re used to.
  • The Hazards of a Business Friendly Environment: Muckraker journalist Lincoln Steffens, in his 1906 book The Struggle for Self-Government, described New Jersey as a “traitor” state. Written at the height of the antitrust reform movement, he observed that while many states put strict limits on the power of corporations in the terms of the charters they were willing to grant, New Jersey’s regulations on incorporation were lenient. Through the collection of licensing fees for incorporation, New Jersey enriched itself (having, at that time, some of the finest infrastructure and social services in the country while not levying any state taxes) while empowering corporations to operate in other states free of their restrictions, vastly increasing their impact on the national economy. Today, Delaware holds the dubious honor of having the nation’s friendliest incorporation laws, which in some circles would be called a public good. Local benefit to national detriment is a possibility we would do well to keep in mind when evaluating the kind of “race to the bottom” policies underlying the so-called “Texas Miracle.”
Besides its shallow and selective reading of history, then, the essay misses many points of historical interest, substituting tacky quotes and polemics for enlightening analysis. While one has to be careful, in studying history for insights on the present, not to lose sight of the great distances in perspective between the past and the present, with care, those insights are possible. When partisans abuse history to their ends, the appropriate response is to engage in critical analysis and a take closer look, not to match inane historical propaganda on its own terms.

Note on the title: “Fundatores Volunt” is a very sketchy and probably laughable attempt at rendering “The Founders Will It” into Latin, in the spirit of “Deus Vult.”

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5 thoughts on “Fundatores Volunt: Politicized Anachronism in American History

  1. Good article, man. You write like a pro. It’s shame there’s so much garbage out there, good writing and good content like this doesn’t get a fair shake against idiot republican sloganeering.

  2. No, I don’t mean that. More like, it is much more comfortable to reinforce what you already “know” and read stuff about immigrants shooting flags with stolen guns while collecting unemployment and stealing jobs. Or whatever. Right-sided noise appeals to American psyche for some reason. Otherwise talk radio wouldn’t be so popular!

    • Well, something worth noting is that the essay I’m critiquing is something liberals would pass around… but, it seems to me that in this case, it’s an effect of liberals always being in a rush to play catch up in the bullshit race.

  3. Pingback: Democracy: The Greatest Threat to Democracy? « A Register of Follies

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