In Defense of "America's Founders Were Not Anti-Government"

Editor's Note: The author is responding to Michael Suede's article here. Suede responded to the author's original article.

This is my response to PolicyMic pundit Michael Suede's editorial “America’s Founders Were Pro-Big Government, But Only Because it Suited Their Interests.” I respond to each passage in its own right, with the different sections indicated by quotes and ellipses.

"Recently, PolicyMic pundit Matthew Rozsa... On this point, I disagree with him 100%."

The sole thesis of my editorial was that the Founding Fathers were not inherently opposed to the idea of a federal government that intervened in economic matters. My goal, as made clear in the opening paragraphs, was to draw a contrast between the historical facts and the assertions made by figures like Ron Paul and Glenn Beck, who insist that a stronger central state ran counter to the will of the Founding Fathers, at least insofar as economic questions were concerned. Although Suede subsequently picks my editorial apart in an effort to attribute subjective interpretations of their agenda to me (i.e., that they had "purely benevolent reasons"), the reality is that my main goal — as made clear in the concluding statements as well as the opening paragraphs — was to rebut the laissez-fairest interpretation of our Founding Fathers' intent, not state whether that intent was a positive or negative one. His effort to shift attention away from my argument in the name of promoting his own agenda is, at best, disingenuous.

It is also worth noting that, although Suede focuses his analysis on Alexander Hamilton and cites him as an example of a Founding Father on whom I lavished praise ("Rozsa then goes on to claim that Federalists like Alexander Hamilton wanted a centralized state for purely benevolent reasons"), Hamilton was only mentioned twice, and briefly at that, in my piece. James Madison, whose motives and ideas factored much more heavily into my analysis, isn't mentioned once by Suede in his attempted rebuttal.

Incidentally, one of the things with which Suede "agrees" isn't something I actually argued. Although he concurs that the Founding Fathers wanted a "progressive" state, I actually wrote that "my goal is not to argue that America's most important leaders would have definitely favored the progressive economic policies detested by the right-wing today."

"Rozsa states that... such a system."

While I will address the alternative reasons cited by Suede in a moment, I first need to contest his notion that these claims of mine were "entirely false." Suede's choice of quotations is telling here — although he mentions that I wrote "the federal government lacked the instruments with which to effectively confront economic crises that were national in scope," he conveniently leaves out the remainder of that sentence, in which I provide an example of one such crisis. That crisis, namely, was "the post-war conflict between debtors and creditors which, as James Madison later wrote, 'contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Constitution and prepared the mind for a general reform' than any other issue."

In the entirety of Suede's piece, he never once addresses the issue of the crisis between debtors and creditors. Does he deny that it existed? If so, how? If not, does he deny the link between its severity and the motives of many of the Founding Fathers who called for the Constitutional Convention? His analysis is incomplete unless he addresses all of the points that I raised, rather than cherry picking the ones which fit into his own polemic. Likewise, he cannot effectively argue that it is "entirely false" to claim that the Federalists created a centralized state to deal with national economic crises without addressing this issue, to say nothing of the other issues I mentioned (including "that requisitions asked of the states were almost always ignored" and that the government "couldn't even impose uniform tariff policies throughout the nation").

"Historian Murray Rothbard... Revolutionary War bonds."

Bernard Bailyn and Frank Bourgin, the two historians who I used in my own analysis of constitutional history (in addition to referring to the Federalist Papers, the Madison transcripts, and the Constitution itself), both concur with Rothbard insofar as mercantilist influences are concerned. That said, unlike Rothbard, they do not attribute purely sinister motives to these efforts. To quote Bourgin (p. 93), Hamilton "viewed some of the methods of mercantilism as the efficient means of combating European trade discrimination, and to an even greater extent, of planning the growth of American industry." This is not to say that Hamilton and his allies within the industrialist class did not hope to financially profit from such a system, just as one can't deny that Madison and many in the Southern plantation class adopted laws that they hoped would benefit them as slaveowners (more on that later). That said, it is important to separate one's political biases from how one analyzes the existing historical data. If you're going to address the motives of the Hamiltonians, it behooves you to either (a) rely on both the positive and negative reasons attributes to them, rather than merely citing the one that is convenient to your case or (b) mention both and then explain how the one you dislike happens to be in error. Suede does neither of these things.

"Douglas Adair... a massive one."

Whereas Murray Rothbard is a controversial libertarian polemicist, Douglass Adair is indeed one of the most brilliant historians of the twentieth century, helping to trace the influences of Western European intellectual traditions on the ideas of Founding Fathers like Madison and Hamilton, to say nothing of many others (he even helped determine the authorship of disputed Federalist Papers, no mean feat). He was extraordinarily prolific, and his analysis of Hamilton's pecuniary self-interest is indeed as Suede describes it... but again, alas, Suede is selective in what he cites. Ironically, the best summary of Adair's overall position on Hamilton, which Suede ignores, comes from the author William Hogeland as he criticizes Adair for his liberal bias:

"Adair’s liberal style of Beard debunking (a reference to acclaimed historian Charles A. Beard), in contrast to McDonald’s right-wing one, makes Hamilton a social conservative living in hysterical fear of a chimerical class war. So Adair doesn’t have to deny Beard’s contention that Hamilton’s efforts in public finance involved an attack on the less advantaged; he just sees the class attack as baseless, even silly, off the point of founding history as he’s defined it. Since balancing fights among Americans is what interests Adair and his liberal-intellectual progeny, not the fights themselves, both Hamilton and the his enemies in the eighteenth-century popular-finance movement exist by definition outside the mainstream of the American founding."

What is noteworthy here is what Suede left out - i.e., the fact that Adair, even as he lambasted Hamilton for being an elitist who wished to skew the government to his own financial interest, also placed him outside the mainstream of America's Founding Fathers. Many scholars disagree with this analysis (including Hogeland himself, which is why he summarizes it), but they at least see fit to cite it. Suede neglected to mention it altogether.

"Rozsa also states... its property value."

It is noteworthy that Suede doesn't list his source here, although I suspect it is Rothbard. Either way, does his historian provide primary sources proving that George Washington agreed to a central national bank for the sole reason that it would increase the property value of his Mount Vernon estate? Showing that this was the major motive would be quite serious, and such a charge requires more than mere "historical interpretation" or circumstantial evidence (like whether or not the northern Virginian real estate bounding the new capital increased in value), but actual primary documents showing that Washington was directly motivated by a desire to accumulate profit. When making such a serious charge, one needs direct and irrefutable proof. I would be especially curious given that the Residence Act of 1790 was passed one year before the bill chartering the National Bank, which was chartered on February 25, 1791.

"As for the Whiskey Rebellion... the excise tax.”

Once again, what claims in my editorial is Suede refuting? Did I argue that the Whiskey Rebellion was localized (as opposed to being national) or swiftly put down (as opposed to being more difficult to quell)? Let's look at the quote:

"George Washington chartered the First National Bank, created the federal post office, and enforced the government's right to levy unpopular taxes by quashing the Whiskey Rebellion."

That, in its entirety, is my mention of the Whiskey Rebellion. Regardless of whether I share Rothbard's interpretation of those events, Suede once again uses a straw man fallacy to respond to my editorial. A straw man fallacy, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is defined by The Nizkor Project as follows:

The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of "reasoning" has the following pattern:

Person A has position X. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X). Person B attacks position Y. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.

"Any discussion that... Hamilton could have imagined."

This brings me back to my earlier reference to the role of slavery in the founding of our nation. As historians like George William Van Cleave have identified in books like "A Slaveholders' Union," many of the ideas of our Founding Fathers were specifically tailored to guarantee the preservation of slavery in our nation, including ones that strengthened as well as weakened the central state. Why did I neglect to mention this in my editorial, even though it has obvious implications insofar as the question of race in modern America is concerned?

Simple: I did so for the same reason that I decided not to mention the unsavory special interests of Hamilton and his backers, which is that the main goal of my editorial was to refute the charge that our Founding Fathers wanted the republic to be established on laissez-faire principles. Given the wealth of information through which I had to sift in order to explore this argument (as indicated by my list of sources cited at the article's conclusion), it was critical that I provide my piece with focus by only including data which directly pertained to the rebuttal I was providing to the laissez-fairest interpretation of our nation's past, disregarding a lot of other information (much of which I would have loved to include if for no other reason than I find it interesting) so as to keep my eyes on the central point. This also explains why I included a great many details about America's government after the 18th Century (including the Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt administrations) and mentioned other new powers given to the federal government (imposing uniform tariff policies, dealing with bankruptcy issues, or implementing commercial regulations), all of which Suede overlooked in his desire to disproportionately emphasize the emphasis placed on Hamilton and Washington.

This traces back to the fundamental problem with Michael Suede's editorial; instead of looking at my piece for what it was — an effort to debunk an inaccurate interpretation of history — he instead insisted on injecting a straw man agenda into it alongside the goal that was actually there. Because Suede is clearly very passionate about issues like central banking, he understandably wishes to disseminate his views to others. This is entirely appropriate. Where it becomes inappropriate is when he uses that as an excuse to misinterpret other people's work in order to promote his own ideological agenda. Considering that the very purpose of my editorial was to contest how certain politicians warp the work of our Founding Fathers to suit their own purposes, the fact that Suede attempted to do the same thing with my own words is an ironic footnote to that piece.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Matthew Rozsa

is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published in "The Morning Call," "The Express-Times," "The Newark Star-Ledger," "The Baltimore Sun," and various college newspapers and blogs. I actively encourage people to reach out to me at matt.rozsa@gmail.com.

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