Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Tea Party is the Spirit of Jacksonian America

by Michael Kaplan

Daniel Shays (l) and Job Shattuck (r) leaders of Shays's Rebellion

The bloggers at the conservative What Would the Founders Think? posted “We’re ALL Tea Partiers Now” in response to the uproar over the Tea Party victories in the Republican primaries, especially Christine O’Donnell’s victory in Delaware. The Tea Party, they insist, is not a political organization. It is a grassroots awakening of average Americans at kitchen tables and workplaces across the country who are now engaging with politics. The Tea Party is the American people asserting their sovereignty over government.

This is very much a Jacksonian populist movement. Most Americans today, conservative and liberal alike, are mistaken about the commitment of the Founders to popular democracy. The Founders believed in liberty, which they feared could be destroyed by a tyranny of the majority, which is how they looked at democracy. In 1948, Richard Hofstadter observed that “Modern American folklore assumes that democracy and liberty are all but identical, and when democratic writers take the trouble to make the distinction, they usually assume that democracy is necessary to liberty. But the Founding Fathers thought that the liberty with which they were most concerned was menaced by democracy. In their minds liberty was linked not to democracy but to property.” (The American Political Tradition, p. 10). Fareed Zakaria, writing in Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 1997, p. 30), commented on the Founders’ concerns: “Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, democracy about its accumulation and use. For this reason, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberals saw in democracy a force that could undermine liberty. James Madison explained in The Federalist that ‘the danger of oppression’ in a democracy came from ‘the majority of the community.’” Michael Mandelbaum writes in Democracy’s Good Name (pp. 17, 21), that the Founders, looking back to ancient Athens and Rome, were convinced “that the average person lacked the education, the judgment, the temperament, and the commitment to the public good to play a constructive role in public life.” The ignorance and lack of sophistication of the common people made them susceptible to the appeals of demagogues. Such demagogues would cultivate the politics of class envy, so that if a popular majority did gain control of the machinery of government, they would promptly proceed to redistribute property and wealth. This is why the Founders established a representative republic instead of a democracy. Of the major Founders, only Thomas Jefferson took issue with their suspicion of active participation by citizens in politics—and of democracy. The idea that ordinary citizens should be empowered to “take back our government” owes more to Andrew Jackson and the democratic movement of the 1820s that it does to the Founders.

There is one paragraph in the WWTFT post which I find to be an eloquent statement of the ideals of Jacksonian democracy and nationalism:

The Tea Party is us. Don’t let the establishment politicians and media brand us. Don’t let them “identify” us as anything but Americans who believe that we are best governed by ourselves, not a power elite. They are threatened by our belief in liberty. Tyrants always are. Remember that, and vote for people of quality and character regardless of how they are made to look on television. They may not be lawyers or glib performance artists. They may be rough-hewn and not articulate. But vote for those you can trust to go to Washington and do what is right for liberty. Don’t be seduced by the media smoothies. We know all about talkers who promise change but deliver poverty and stagnation; who lie and steal from the public treasuries and our wallets and our children’s futures. We are about reclaiming liberty. That is the battle here. It’s not between Republican and Democrat, or black or white, or Christian or atheist. It’s about the liberty to “be,” to shape our own futures. The branding being done by the Establishment is a distraction, an attempt to dilute and divide us. Don’t let it happen.  Stand for liberty.
Old Hickory could not have said it better himself. Jackson was determined to prevent self-interested elites from using government to promote their own special interests to the detriment of average, hard-working Americans.

A mob of angry taxpayers in Shays's Rebellion

The Founders saw the need to balance liberty with order. The American Revolution unleashed powerful forces of social and political transformation that the Founders wanted to keep contained in stable social and political institutions. The lesson that George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the other framers of the Constitution drew from the 1780s—the period of ineffective central government under the Articles of Confederation—was that too weak a central government was as much a threat to liberty as too strong a central government. Washington was shocked by Shays’s Rebellion, the populist uprising in 1786 by farmers in western Massachusetts against unfair and burdensome taxes. Writing to his old comrade-in-arms, General Henry Knox, Washington confided his pessimism for the future of the republican experiment.
I feel, my dear Genl. Knox, infinitely more than I can express to you, for the disorders which have arisen in these States. Good God! who besides a tory could have foreseen, or a Briton predicted them! were these people wiser than others, or did they judge of us from the corruption, and depravity of their own hearts? The latter I am persuaded was the case, and that notwithstanding the boasted virtue of America, we are far gone in every thing ignoble and bad.
I do assure you, that even at this moment, when I reflect on the present posture of our affairs, it seems to me to be like the vision of a dream. My mind does not know how to realize it, as a thing in actual existence, so strange, so wonderful does it appear to me! In this, as in most other matter, we are too slow. When this spirit first dawned, probably it might easily have been checked; but it is scarcely within the reach of human ken, at this moment, to say when, where, or how it will end. There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to.
Knox had implied in his letters “that that the men of reflection, principle and property in New England, feeling the inefficacy of their present government” would support a stronger national government. Washington was in full agreement. In Virginia “a prompt disposition to support, and give energy to the foederal System is discovered.” Only a national government of “energy,” Washington insisted, could save the republic from sinking “into the lowest state of humiliation and contempt.”

Washington wrote to another war comrade, General Henry Lee (father of Robert E.), that the government had to act swiftly and decisively to crush Shays’s Rebellion if it was to maintain its credibility. He dismissed the effectiveness of using “influence” not backed up by force “to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts.” After all, Washington went on, “Influence is no Government. Let us have one by which our lives, liberties and properties will be secured; or let us know the worst at once.” The proper way to deal with violent social conflict was to “Know precisely what the insurgents aim at. If they have real grievances, redress them if possible; or acknowledge the justice of them, and your inability to do it in the present moment. If they have not, employ the force of government against them at once.” But under no circumstances, Washington insisted, could the government allow any challenge to its authority go unpunished. “Let the reins of government then be braced and held with a steady hand, and every violation of the Constitution be reprehended: if defective, let it be amended, but not suffered to be trampled upon whilst it has an existence.” It was one thing to rise up in rebellion against King George III and his illegitimate abuses of power. It was quite another to undermine the republican government of one’s own state and open the door to a social and political anarchy in which liberty and property could be lost. Washington would not abide “mobocracy.”

Shays’s Rebellion was the backdrop for the Constitutional Convention. The framers at Philadelphia wanted to make sure that there would be no encore. Again, Jefferson, from his post in Paris, dissented from this position: “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. . . . The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” Neither did the framers want any more Boston Tea Parties. The more radical leaders of the pre-1776 Patriot movement like Samuel Adams, who led the Boston Sons of Liberty in the original Tea Party, or Patrick Henry in Virginia were sidelined by 1787. Adams and Henry would oppose ratification of the Constitution as Antifederalists. Henry, in his June 5, 1788 speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention famously said: “This Constitution is said to have beautiful features; but when I come to examine these features, sir, they appear to me horribly frightful. Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting; it squints towards monarchy; and does not this raise indignation in the breast of every true American?”

The Federalists who championed the Constitution, wanted to limit the role played by the American people in politics. They believed that Americans should be free to create wealth and pursue happiness, while politics and government should be left to the social and political elites—men of property and education who were best qualified to understand what the people needed. The people’s role was to choose between elite candidates for office at the ballot box and then mind their own business, leaving governing and policy making to their elected officials. The Founders in general, and the Federalists in particular, were unprepared for the upsurge of popular political activism set loose by the Revolution. The American people insisted that their voices be heard and be treated with respect by their political leaders. And woe to those leaders who didn’t get the message. It was Thomas Jefferson in the 1790s and Andrew Jackson in the 1820s who would successfully harness this populist energy into their political movements, which would ultimately win them the White House.

Popular historian William Hogeland who has written sympathetically of the Whiskey Rebellion—an early expression of Jacksonian populism—points out the irony that WWTFT, Glenn Beck, and other elite-bashing populist conservatives “in their opposition to what they think of as today’s liberal-elite big government machine, they look back for help to the most elite guys in the world, the guys who invented that government.” George Washington would not have given the time of day to the Tea Partiers. He was ready to use military force to crush the tax-protesting Whiskey Rebels of 1794.

The sheer disgust that any one of the famous founders would have showered on the very people who now constantly invoke their legacies seems like a telling irony to me. Not one of the founders had anything to do with “grass-roots democracy,” a term that would have made all of them, despite their differences, sick. The revulsion unified them. It’s all they had in common, really.
Hogeland does go too far in his critique of the Founders, but the Federalist Party of Washington and Hamilton definitely saw the American people as rambunctious children who needed wise fathers to guide them and keep them out of political mischief. Old Hickory, on the other hand, made faith in the people as adults who could take charge of their destiny the foundation of his political creed. His is the true spirit of the Tea Party and the Tea Party today is the spirit of Jacksonian America.

P.S. Ron Chernow, author of biographies of Hamilton and Washington just published an op-ed in the New York Times [Sept. 24, 2010] on “The Founding Fathers Versus the Tea Party.”

Correction. The second sentence of the second paragraph originally read: “The people at WWTFT are mistaken about the commitment of the Founders to popular democracy.” This has been revised.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan


  1. Thanks for the call out. We have a reply of our own to Mr. Hogeland's blog in the queue.

    Respectfully, I have to disagree with your assumption on What Would The Founders Think's position on the Founders and democracy. Happily, I have to point out that you and I are in violent agreement on your point!

    The Founders believed in liberty, which they feared could be destroyed by a tyranny of the majority, which is how they looked at democracy.

    This is a recurring theme at For example:

    - Another Pillar of the Republic Under Attack
    -Budget Deemed Irrelevant

    BTW, this looks like a very interesting blog. I am looking forward to checking it out further.

  2. Thanks for the comment--the very first that I've received. If I misread the position of What Would the Founders Think? on the Founders and popular democracy, I stand corrected.

    I look forward to reading more interesting posts on WWTFT as I develop this blog.