Archive for the ‘Political History’ Category

First Principles: The Founders, Part 1

January 24, 2008

First, I want to say that I am not an Historian. But I have been a history buff for many years. So, if you want to think of this as a bit of history buffery, so be it. With that out of the way, let’s proceed.

Second, some observations about what seems to me a total disconnect between current political philosophy among the electorate, and that of the founders of the United States. There are surely serious scholars of current political philosophy out there, but they aren’t very visible to ordinary citizens.

The Founders were concerned with First Principles, while in the din of everyday current life, these first principles are rarely if ever mentioned. Here are some writers from just before, during and after the American Revolution:

Thomas Paine: Agrarian Justice

To preserve the benefits of what is called civilized life, and to remedy at the same time the evil which it has produced, ought to [be] considered as one of the first objects of reformed legislation.

Whether that state that is proudly, perhaps erroneously, called civilization, has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man is a question that may be strongly contested. On one side, the spectator is dazzled by splendid appearances; on the other, he is shocked by extremes of wretchedness; both of which it has erected. The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.

In this treatise, Paine asserts some rather startling ideas. Here is what he says about property ownership:

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions,vegetable and animal.

But the earth in its natural state, as before said, is capable of supporting but a small number of inhabitants compared with what it is capable of doing in a cultivated state. And as it is impossible to separate the improvement made by cultivation from the earth itself, upon which that improvement is made, the idea of landed property arose from that parable connection; but it is nevertheless true, that it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.

Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund prod[sic] in this plan is to issue.

Paine continues to develop his idea that no one can ever own property, only the improvements on it, and this is how he proposes righting what he sees as a wrong against the natural order of things:

Having thus in a few words, opened the merits of the case, I shall now proceed to the plan I have to propose, which is,

To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person,when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property:

And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.

In other words, at the age of 21, everyone is paid a lump sum from a fund generated by a “land rent” (so they can get started in life), and then an annual stipend beginning at age fifty for the rest of their life.

Notice the theme running through this piece about happiness. The same thread runs through the writings of nearly all of the Founders. Some were more explicit than others, but the underlying assumption is that the only purpose of society, and government in particular, is to create the maximum happiness for the greatest number of persons.

Here is John Adams on the subject: Thoughts on Government

We ought to consider, what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all Divines and moral Philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

Again, the theme is repeated by Thomas Jefferson: Inalienable Rights

“The only orthodox object of the institution of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it.” –Thomas Jefferson to M. van der Kemp, 1812. ME 13:135

How very different it seems today.

The Enlightenment wasn’t the only influence on the Founders when they looked for models of First Principles. Both Jefferson and Franklin admired governing practices of Indian tribes they came in contact with. Here is an ethnographic sketch by Franklin (archaic language cleaned up by the author) where he describes a tribal council meeting: Franklin on Native Americans

The Indian men, when young, are hunters and warriors, when old, counsellors; for all their government is by the counsel or advice of the sages. There is no force, there are no prisons, no officers to compel obedience or inflict punishment. Hence they generally study oratory, the best speaker having the most influence.

The Indian women till the ground, dress the food, nurse and bring up the children, and preserve and hand down to posterity the memory of public transactions ….

Having frequent occasions to hold public councils, they have acquired great order and decency in conducting them. The old men sit in the foremost rank, the warriors in the next, and the women and children the hindmost. The business of the women is to take exact notice of what passes, imprint it on their memories—for they have no writing—and communicate it to their children. They are the records of the council, and they preserve tradition of the stipulations in treaties a hundred years back, which when we compare with our writings we always find exact.

He that would speak, rises. The rest observe a profound silence. When he has finished and sits down, they leave him five or six minutes to recollect, that if he has omitted anything he intended to say or has anything to add, he may rise again and deliver it. To interrupt another, even in common conversation, is reckoned highly indecent.

How different it is from the conduct of a polite British House of Commons, where scarce a day passes without some confusion that makes the Speaker hoarse in calling to order; and how different from the mode of conversation in many polite companies of Europe, where if you do not deliver your sentence with great rapidity, you are cut off in the middle of it by the impatient loquacity of those you converse with and never allowed to finish it.

Statements alluding to Indian governing practices and admiration of their way of life are sprinkled through many of Franklin’s letters. Within fifty years, however, much of this devotion to First Principles, and to an admiration of the folkways of Indians was to change radically. The question is, why and how did this change happen? In part 2 of this sketch, I will attempt to outline these changes and speculate about the causes.