Divided We Fall

Roundup
tags: Founding Fathers, economic inequality



Ganesh Sitaraman is an associate professor at Vanderbilt Law School and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

... If you ask many Americans today, they’ll tell you exactly who the Founding Fathers were: a pack of rich white men who rigged the Constitution to serve their own financial and political interests. Sure, they talked like radical egalitarians. But they also denied women the vote, slapped a specific numeric value on the political worth of slaves, and enshrined human bondage as wholly compatible with a democracy founded on “unalienable rights.”

That’s true enough. But it’s easy to forget, at the historical distance that separates us from the eighteenth century, that America in its founding era was, in the relative terms of the time, the most economically equal place on Earth. Unlike their revolutionary counterparts in France, the Founders didn’t have to account for—or break from—centuries of entrenched wealth and property. There was no hereditary nobility in America. No property rules that concentrated wealth. No history of feudalism. Instead, there were vast lands to the West, which meant that any white man could work his way into the middle class. Even William Manning, one of America’s first great champions of “the many” versus “the few,” acknowledged in 1799, “We are on an equality as to property [compared] to what they are in the old countries.”

The Founders shaped their new republic around its economic parity. Nothing short of “equality of property,” declared Noah Webster, could ensure the social stability and national solidarity that any constitutional system needs to function properly. This, Webster added, was “the very soul of a republic.” Our Constitution, in short, was literally founded on an egalitarian distribution of wealth. Without property being “pretty equally divided,” the anti-federalist Samuel Bryan warned during ratification, “the nature of the government is changed, and an aristocracy, monarchy, or despotism will rise on its ruin.”

For most of the world’s constitutional history, property had been anything but “pretty equally divided.” Political systems were often created to accommodate economic inequality, and to ward off catastrophic clashes between the rich and poor; social stability was achieved, at least theoretically, by giving each class a share in governance. Think, for instance, of Britain’s House of Lords (for the rich) and House of Commons (for the masses) or Rome’s tribune of the plebs, which allowed poor citizens to veto the decisions of the patrician senators.

Our Constitution, by contrast, made no such accommodations to economic inequality. There are no wealth requirements for U.S. senators, and no cap on wealth for admission to the House. In fact, there are no provisions in our constitutional structure—not one—that account for differences in economic class. This represented an extraordinary transformation in the way countries govern themselves. Instead of drafting a constitution to resolve divisions created by wealth and poverty, the Founders asserted that all men were created equal, and established a government that depended on all men remaining economic equals.

The Founders understood full well that if severe economic inequality emerged, their democratic experiment would collapse. The rich would gradually take over the government, passing laws to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else. When America’s wealthy began to “plunder the poor,” a Virginia politician warned in 1814, it would be “slow and legal.” Sooner or later, the masses would respond—but not through a violent uprising. Instead, they would turn to a figure who would know how to manipulate their resentments. Of “those men who have overturned the liberty of republics,” Alexander Hamilton observed in The Federalist Papers, “the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

But in preindustrial America, the onset of mass inequality—and the social and political divisions that grow from it—was only a distant possibility. In a society with relative equality, the only “checks and balances” needed were between three separate—and equal—branches of government. “The Founding Fathers devised a scheme to deal with conflict,” the political scientist Louis Hartz once observed, “that could only survive in a land of solidarity.” ...




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