Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Properties of the Founders

In a guest post on my old friend Bill Carleton’s blog in August, I speculated that what some Tea Party leaders are really concerned about is property rights:

Ultimately, I think the tea party claim to the legacy of the Founders would require them to admit that what really bothers them is that their property is not adequately represented, that the "interests" … can violate their property rights.

Logically, such an admission would also mean advocating property qualifications for voting.

Now one, Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips, has finally said it:

The Founding Fathers originally said, they put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn’t you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.

He is right that there were usually property qualifications for voting in the early republic.  What he fails to appreciate, however, is that it was the generation of the founders that also began to eliminate those restrictions on the franchise.  As Gordon Wood tells us in Empire of Liberty, in "the first decade of the nineteenth century … states that had not already done so began to expand the franchise by eliminating property qualifications or transforming the requirement into the mere paying of taxes."

In short, during the lives and political careers of many of the founders, universal suffrage for adult white males became the norm.  No state admitted to the Union after 1815 had a property qualification.  By the time of the Civil War, only one state still had one: South Carolina.

While Phillips and other Tea Partiers present themselves merely as proponents of returning to the wisdom of the founders, they are actually repudiating the history of those years, and arguably the legacy of the revolution itself.  Daniel Walker Howe, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of What Hath God Wrought, has argued that the elimination of property qualifications "reflected in part the success of the American Revolution and general acceptance of its natural-rights ideology."

The idolatry that is Tea Party ideology prevents him from seeing that basic truth.  They want to fix "the time of the founders" as a golden age, frozen in time, never to be changed.  Every deviation from the wisdom of the founders is dangerous declension from perfection.

But as this example demonstrates so well, the United States changed significantly even during their time.  Unlike today's Tea Partiers, the founders were not averse to change.  The willingness to embrace change is part of that wisdom.  And they knew change took time. 

Tea Partiers love to quote Thomas Jefferson on revolution: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."  

They would do well to listen also to an older, wiser Jefferson writing to John Adams in 1823: "The generation which commences a revolution can rarely compleat it."  His vision was one of ever-increasing freedom over time—not of one moment of perfection captured for all time.

The very Constitution that the Tea Partiers pretend to venerate takes for granted the need for change.  It was itself a product of dissatisfaction with the government created during the Revolution, the Articles of Confederation (the main failure of which, by the way, was too much power in the hands of the states and a correspondingly weak national government).  

The Constitution was a change, and, most tellingly of all, it contains within it a mechanism to change it: the amendment process.  The Constitution that emerged from the convention was changed twelve times within the first sixteen years of its existence.  It has been changed a mere fifteen additional times in the last 206 years.

The reflexive Tea Party deference to the founders always seems to ignore that key characteristic: the founders understood the necessity of change, and they were never under the illusion that they had all of the answers for all time. 

The English reformer, Thomas Macualay, said during the debate over the 1832 Reform Bill: “We talk of the wisdom of our ancestors; and in one respect at least they were wiser than we. They legislated for their own times.”  By contrast, the Tea Partiers would have us governed today by what Jefferson called “the dead hand of the past.”  I prefer the living.

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