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. Continue reading