Invoking the Founders

The Fourth of July, a day of pride for all Americans, has special significance for the Tea Party. With the sound of fireworks still ringing in our ears, it is a good time to ask whether their constant invoking of our founders is anything more than political expediency disguised as history.

We really have two kinds of founders: those who protested the tyranny of George III by dumping tea into the Boston Harbor, an act which led to the Declaration of Independence; and the extraordinary figures who crafted our Constitution.

One thing we can be certain of is neither group could have told us what policies our government should pursue any more than they could have conceived of telephones and airplanes. The ballot did not exist, slavery was the law of the land, few could read or write, women often died in childbirth, and the use of leeches was regarded as a form of health care.

Nor were the founders all created equal in their grasp of democracy. We must ask, therefore, which founders the Tea Party is invoking in their across-the-board opposition to taxes, government spending, and social programs.

Even without Michelle Bachmann throwing John Quincy Adams into the mix, this not an easy question. Given its name, perhaps the Tea Party’s highest praise is reserved for those who in 1773 threw overboard the boxes of tea.

But James Madison and the others who wrote our Constitution were over a decade away from beginning their work in Philadelphia. If we are going invoke their ideals, it is to the French philosopher Montesquieu, far less known to Americans than Paul Revere, to whom we should turn.

Why? Because in his “The Spirit of the Laws,” which guided the drafting of our Constitution, Montesquieu articulated two principles: “separation of powers,” and the underlying concept of “political virtue.” Most of us are familiar with “the separation of powers.” Less well known is his notion of “political virtue.”

Political virtue, for Montesquieu, meant the ideal of equality with separation of powers protecting it. “The less we satisfy our particular passions, the more we give ourselves up to passions for the general order,” Montesquieu wrote. “Love of the republic in a democracy is love of democracy; love of democracy is love of equality.”

If equality is essential to democracy then we are today in serious trouble. While in the three decades after World War II, the gap between rich and poor significantly narrowed, it is now widening with a vengeance. Between 1979 and 2003, the average income of the lowest fifth of our population grew by only 1%; for the top one-fifth, the figure was 49%. In 2007, the top 20% of Americans held 85% of all privately owned wealth. For the top 1%, the figure was 35%.

Why should this concern us? In the words of former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “You can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, or democracy, but you cannot have both.” The drafters of our Constitution knew this.

Tea Party rhetoric will grow louder in the months ahead. As the election unfolds, let us remember that the founders who wrote the Constitution, and Montesquieu who inspired them, believed that inequality was incompatible with political virtue. What would they think of the state of our nation today? This is not something the Tea Party will tell us, but the answer is self-evident.

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