“Our Founders were not the 1%.”
~ Thom Hartmann
Often you hear the canard that economic freedom consists in allowing the very wealthy to dominate the economy. This is usually justified by pointing to some abstract notion such as “capitalism” or the “intent of the founders.” In fact, this is not what the nation’s founders intended, and it does not reflect the reality of their lives.
The founders, while landowners, lived in a time when land was cheap, and were far from wealthy. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both died bankrupt. George Washington reluctantly assumed the role of first president because he needed the money.
What follows are excerpts of a broadcast by Thom Hartman in which he explains it:
“There’s a myth floating around right now about our Founding Fathers – and the men who wrote the Constitution – the Framers. And that myth is that America was created by rich white men who wrote the Constitution to protect their own interests and the interests of other wealthy, rich white men like themselves. It’s a myth that’s conveniently used…by people who argue for more corporate power in government and more advantages for the wealthy by saying that’s simply a continuation of the intent of the Founders and Framers of the Constitution.
And it’s also a myth used on the Left – especially during times of economic crisis when it seems like the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer…You know, it’s enticing to think that way. Especially at a time when nearly half of all the Members of Congress are millionaires – and laws are being passed that exclusively benefit millionaires and billionaires at the expense of the rest of us.
…But it’s not true – it’s the myth of the super-wealthy Founding Fathers.
Of course there were very, very rich people in America at the time of the Revolution – but they were not the ones taking part in the Constitutional Convention. In fact – all of the truly rich people here in the 1760s fled this new nation during the Revolution – they went up to Canada or back to Britain. There wasn’t a millionaire – in today’s dollars – living in the United States until the 1790’s – a generation after the Revolution.
In terms of lifestyle, assets, and disposable income – the Founders were upper-middle class at best…Toward the end of his life – Washington didn’t have enough money to buy the slaves his wife inherited so that he could set them free, which he genuinely wanted to do. And Jefferson died in bankruptcy.
These guys weren’t bankers – they weren’t rich investors – they weren’t land speculators. They might have owned a lot of land – but that was about it, and land didn’t have that much value back then.
Historian Forrest McDonald did an exhaustive analysis of each state that ratified the Constitution – and looked at the make-up of the delegates and what they did for a living.
As McDonald found in, for example, Delaware: 77% of the delegates were farmers. And we’re not talking rich farmers. In fact – 2/3s of those farmers had meager incomes between 75 cents and 5 dollars a week. Only 23% of the delegates were professionals – people like lawyers, doctors, and judges. Not one delegate was a banker – not one was a manufacturer – not one was a rich merchant…not one. The same was true in New Jersey – where 64% of the delegates were farmers.
The point is – the people who hammered out, and then ratified the Constitution weren’t thinking about money…They were voting for democracy instead of oligarchy. They were voting to create and maintain a middle class instead of creating a nation of, by and for the rich.
As Thomas Jefferson said:
Those seeking profits, were they given total freedom, would not be the ones to trust to keep government pure and our rights secure. Indeed, it has always been those seeking wealth who were the source of corruption in government.
People, for some reason, think the Constitution said that only rich, white, male landowners could vote – but none of those things are anywhere in the Constitution. While our new country was far from perfect, in many of the states in our early years women voted, blacks voted, and even people who lived in the poorhouses that George Washington appropriated federal money to pay for, voted. Although over time most of the states individually took away many of those rights…none of that was – or is – in the Constitution.
Today – our lawmakers could learn a lot from our Founding Fathers.”
So could our business leaders and every individual who has been persuaded to believe in the myth that our purpose as a nation and as an economy is to make the rich richer and deprive the rest of us of economic opportunity.
The fact is today’s right wing and civil libertarians stand in opposition to everything that the founders in fact stood for. The nation’s founders, including Thomas Jefferson, understood, and explicitly expressed, that the unnbridled influence of the very wealthy undermine both democracy and the economic viability of the middle class.