Were the Founding Fathers Liberal?

When America was 225 years younger than it is today, there were no liberals and no conservatives. And there was no liberalism and no conservatism. Such terms, and the clusters of political views they represent, were unknown in America at least through the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. How Americans eventually divided into liberals and conservatives, and how liberalism and conservatism came to represent distinct political worldviews, are questions too big to answer fully in this tiny blog space. But we can make some headway by looking at the word “liberal” as it was understood in the era of America’s founding.

At that time, “liberal” was almost always used in a positive sense and almost always referred to the virtue of liberality. A person was liberal not by having a particular set of political beliefs but by possessing this particular virtue. Following the ancients, especially Aristotle, Americans understood liberality first as the virtue of free and rational generosity. Liberality was the capacity to give of one’s own free will and to give with purpose–in the right way, at the right time, for the right end. Giving that lacked these qualities was not virtuous. Bestowing a hundred dollars cash on a homeless alcoholic, for example, would not be an act of liberality. It would be an act of prodigality–a vice, not a virtue.

For Americans, liberality also referred to a quality of intellect. A liberal person in this sense is broad-minded, open to reasoned argument and to new evidence. A liberal person views truth as growing, developing, and inclusive, not changeless and exclusive. A liberal person can think and plan on a large-scale–can apply big solutions to big problems. He or she does not shrink from such a task but relishes it.

In these eighteenth-century senses of “liberal,” the Founding Fathers were, indeed, liberal. The Constitution itself was an act of intellectual liberality. Its framers deliberately set out to craft a new national government. They did not give in to the temptation to blow up the project as too complex for human reason. And their invention of federalism–the division of power between one central government and multiple state governments–revealed their openness to thinking in new directions in light of a virtually unprecedented political situation.

I also believe the founding generation was liberal in the other sense. They were generous.  Both at the federal and state levels, the first holders of public office in the United States did not stingily cling to the power they possessed. Instead, they tended to distribute their power outward from the national and state capitals. They kept taxes low. When surplus revenues arose, they spent them on roads and other infrastructure projects of broad, general benefit. When private initiative created new forms of economic enterprise –textile mills, turnpike companies, banks, and so on–they did not jealously constrict the freedom of such enterprises but instead liberally dispensed charters of incorporation to them.  American capitalism is founded on the liberality of America’s first federal and state legislators.

The relationship between this eighteenth-century liberality and modern American liberalism has never really been explored. I take a stab at it in my book (shameless plug ahead), From Liberty to Liberality: The Transformation of the Pennsylvania Legislature, 1776-1820. I do believe liberalism today has at least part of its origins in this early American liberality. Liberals today certainly think of themselves as broadminded, flexible, big thinkers. Liberals confidently carried out a massive and daring overhaul of the nation’s health care system as though smaller fixes were the work of smaller minds. Across vast stretches of human inquiry, liberals believe truth changes over time as circumstances change and new evidence comes to light. Above all, perhaps, liberals embrace generosity, especially government generosity, as a value.

On the other hand, there are some big differences between eighteenth-century liberality and modern liberalism. Modern liberals do not have a strong belief in the Aristotelian idea of virtue of which liberality is an example. Hence they lack the vivid sense of constraints that that idea imposes on acts of giving. Liberals today have no problem taxing a rich man, giving the money to a poor man, and calling that generous. But such a manuever lacks key requirements of liberality in Aristotle’s sense. There is insufficient freedom in it: the rich man may not want to give over his money. And there are also problems of reasonableness and purpose. What good will the poor man do with the money, and what good will the rich man not be able to do without it? Liberals are also advocates of increasing government debt in hard times–the so-called Keynesian strategy. In the eighteenth century, by contrast, there would have been no clearer mark of prodigality than borrowing in order to give.

Such difficulties point to the great gap that has developed between the liberality of our Founding Fathers and modern American liberalism. My preference lies with our eighteenth century founders. If we could all return to their idea of liberality, we would have, no matter what we called ourselves, a greater capacity to do real good with the governments the founders gave us.

7 responses to “Were the Founding Fathers Liberal?”

  1. I think it’s an amazing thing to have written this article and not used the words: The Enlightenment. For surely, the founders or some among them (Jefferson and Franklin to be sure) were the New World recipients of the the thoughts and ideas swirling around Europe in the same decades. Perhaps the modern label is what fails us. Progressive instead of Liberal would cover a lot of what you are writing about, and speak to the first period of the last Century when a movement in this country started to look at social ills and the idea that government could do something. How shattering of the lockstep mentality of the time was Roosevelt’s mission to set aside vast tracks of America not for capitalistic gain but to preserve them in their natural state. What of the very creation of the government of the U.S.? Was there not among the founders support for a reformed version of a monarchy? A Republic with a bicameral legislature was certainly earth shattering to the Royal families and empires across Europe and beyond. Were the Federalists the Conservatives of the Era for defending the Constitution or were they the Liberals for creating the amendments that protect individual rights to this day? I think you are right to mention Keynes. For perhaps it is economic liberality that really opens the door to the concept of Liberal we hold today and first initiated the fervent opposition against it.

  2. From Paul Joseph: Tony. I am not sure it’s fair to say that modern liberals embrace, above all, government generosity. Of course, I may need to read your book. It would be nice if you would quote some well respected modern liberals. Thanks for making this article an easy read. As usual, you present some interesting points to say the least!

  3. You make excellent points about the difference between liberals of the 18th/19th century and modern times. It seems to me that one of the great differences is that reason guided classical liberal decision making. Even when they performed acts of compassion and charity, classical liberals were more likely to use their reason and knowledge as a guide. Modern liberals, on the other hand,often claim to be using reason and knowledge when, in fact, they use emotion as the primary guide. They have an incomplete understanding of human nature, history, economics, etc. which they combine with emotional decision making. It’s not about what would be effective based upon knowledge and experience, but what feels good. Frankly it’s an adult mentality versus a child mentality.

    • Spoken like a conservative? I absolutely agree with you, but I think it would be more accurate to say that “SOME modern day liberals mistake childish emotion for grown-up and informed reason.” This of course can be said of many modern day conservatives that pose for populism and even pretend to be less educated and informed than they are–to appeal to low brows in their electorate. Santorum appealed to GED level voters by calling Obama a snob–because he wanted more kids to go to college. The obviously childish denial of evolutionary biology and climate change science in the GOP is anti-liberal emotionalism. So there.

  4. David Donohoo, you obviously aren’t a Liberal, so please stop speaking for us. You have no understanding of what it is to be a liberal.

  5. […] Of the three, at least “libertarian” has a sort of concrete value, since it is anchored in a particular ideological set. Conservative and liberal don’t even pertain to a specific ideology, but rather, a method of producing and prioritizing ideologies.  1960s liberal icons like John F. Kennedy were far more conservative than many modern Republicans, and if you go further back you’ll find that the founding fathers who have now been sainted by conservatives were actually the liberals of their day. […]

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