Did America’s Founders Want Government Small?

The pillars of American conservative thought and action–top officials from over a dozen national groups–assembled along the Potomac last month. At Northern Virginia’s historic Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, these luminaries met to “recommit” themselves to the one ideal they believe all conservatives can share. That ideal: small government.

“Through the Constitution,” the solemn conservatives declared in a position paper they dubbed the Mount Vernon Statement, “the Founders created an enduring framework of limited government based on the rule of law.”

That “principle of limited government,” the Mount Vernon Statement urges, ought to be applied to “every proposal” that comes before America’s lawmakers.

Americans of a more progressive bent tend, of course, to consider all this solemnity around the “principle of limited government” as just so much mumbo-jumbo, meant to keep the rich and powerful safe from any challenge to their wealth and power.

And progressives also don’t much appreciate conservative moves to claim the generation of 1776 as the original carriers of the conservative torch. But right-wingers, on this one, have a point. The founders, the most progressive of them included, did believe in limited government. The question for us today: Why?

Today’s conservatives don’t bother with that question, and for good reason, as historian James Huston explained over a decade ago in his still timely epic, Securing the Fruits of Labor: The American Concept of Wealth Distribution 1765-1900: The founders believed in “limited government” because they wanted to limit what today’s conservatives celebrate– the concentration of wealth.

America’s revolutionaries had read their history. Every previous attempt to establish republican rule, they knew, had failed. Athens. Rome. Venice. Florence. The cause of that failure, as the founders saw it: a deep and divisive maldistribution of wealth.

The founders came to believe, notes Huston, that a republic could only endure with “an equal or nearly equal distribution of landed wealth among its citizens.” OK, at least the land-owning white male citizens, but bear with me.

To the generation of 1776, equity seemed nature’s way. Most colonials lived on small, semi-subsistence family farms. In this overwhelmingly agrarian setting, grand fortunes hardly ever accumulated. Some farmers did work harder than others, but the earth could yield, no matter how much work was performed upon it, only so much wealth.

That reality, observes historian Huston, had kept gaps in colonial income and wealth relatively limited. And those gaps would stay limited, the generation of 1776 devoutly believed, so long as all who labored were guaranteed the “fruits of their labor.”

America’s original revolutionaries agreed that republican liberty would surely fail if their new nation ever let elites expropriate what average citizens labored so hard to earn. And how did elites expropriate? By manipulating politics to gain economic advantage. The aristocrats of Europe did that manipulating all the time.

If the economy were just left alone, America’s original revolutionaries believed, equality would grow naturally. No one could ever become fabulously wealthy in an economy where labor, and labor alone, determined a citizen’s worth.

The founders, in sum, cared deeply about the link between democracy and equality and worried that vast extremes of wealth and poverty would doom their new republic. You won’t find one whit of that worry in the new conservative Mount Vernon Statement. The founders wouldn’t be pleased.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online newsletter on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. www.toomuchonline.org