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The (ironic) anti-capitalism of the Founding Fathers

The "Founding Fathers"

In the footnotes to chapter 6 of Chomsky’s Understanding Power are these illuminating remarks: “[Thomas] Jefferson did not support capitalism; he supported independent production… The fundamental Jeffersonian proposition is that ‘widespread poverty and concentrated wealth cannot exist side by side in a democracy.’ This proposition is dismissed by liberals making peace with the rich and coming to terms with inequality, but Jefferson perceived the basic contradictions between democracy and capitalism… In 1817 he complained that the banks’ mania ‘is raising up a monied aristocracy in our country which has already set the government at defiance…’ A year earlier he said he hoped the United States would reject the British example and ‘crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country…’” “Men divide naturally into two parties, ‘aristocrats and democrats,’ [Jefferson] wrote. On one side stood ‘those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes’; on the other stood ‘those who identify with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the honest & safe, altho’ not the most wise depository of the public interests…’”

Among all the Founders Jefferson had the most positive view of democracy, but later in their lives even John Adams and James Madison were disgusted by the growth of American capitalism. After all, they had been trained in the Ciceronian school of civic virtue, republican ideals of engaged citizenship, liberty and independent-mindedness, public-spiritedness—all the very opposite of capitalism, this tornado of privatization that has been laying waste to the world since the fifteenth century. The tragedy of our Founding elitists, including even Jefferson, was that they were mere tools of historical forces they didn’t understand: in thrall to the conservative, antiquity-derived ideology of republicanism, which incorporated the naïve Enlightenment notion that in the sphere of politics men of property (unlike the propertyless) could act in disinterested and virtuous ways, they were blind—until it was too late—to the fractionating and mammonizing tendencies of commercialism and early industrialism. The republican empowerment of the opulent and crushing of the poor had the opposite effects Madison and Adams wanted it to: it helped clear the ground for the most rapacious tyranny in history, the tyranny of capital. This is the Founders’ true legacy.


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