J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Romney’s False Picture of the Founders

According to Mitt Romney’s website, yesterday he delivered an economic policy speech that stated:
The Founding Fathers wrote that we are endowed by our Creator with the freedom to pursue happiness. In America, we would have economic freedom, just as we would have political and religious freedom. Here, we would not be limited by the circumstance of birth nor directed by the supposedly informed hand of government.  We would be free to pursue happiness as we wish.

The Founders were convinced that millions of people, all freely choosing their individual occupations and enterprises, all pursuing their individual dreams, would produce great prosperity. 
This picture of the beliefs of America’s founding generation’s beliefs is wrong—in some ways so wrong as to be offensive.

In the American economic and social structure of the early republic, millions of Americans were “limited by the circumstances of birth” because by law they were slaves. Millions more were limited by being women under the property laws of the time. The “hand of government” constrained the economic freedom of most American adults. And the elite men at the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention, and U.S. Congress supported that system because they benefited from the inequality.

It’s quite possible to praise those rich white politicians, an overwhelming number of them slaveowners, for formulating ideals of equality and freedom while also acknowledging the obvious fact that most of them were unable to fathom, much less act upon, the full implications of those ideals.

But that’s not what Romney and his speechwriters did. Instead, they said the “Founders were convinced” of a vision of society that they clearly didn’t pursue. Romney’s repeated use of the word “all” as he discussed Americans “freely choosing their individual occupations and enterprises” in the Founders’ vision simply disregards all Americans who were not white and not male.

And that’s not even going into the issue of how much early Americans expected government to manage the economy. Boston’s selectmen determined the size and price of bread loaves, for goodness’ sake!


Daud said...

Brace yourselves... I feel a flamewar coming.

Bill Harshaw said...

In the interests of accuracy let me offer these facts:
. In 1790 the US population was about 4 million, so a couple millions of females. Slaves were about 700,000. So a big proportion, but not quite "millions".

As for the Founders, a quick Google reveals a claim that a majority of the significant members of the Convention were slaveowners, but maybe only (sic) half of the 55 delegates owned slaves.

Anonymous said...

Ah, those pesky Republicans - once again, the laughing stock of our country! What a shame - However, I think it is unfair to assume that politicians with an (R) after their name are the only ones to point the finger at (as this blog often does). This is an issue that transcends politics...For example, as RealClearHistory states:

"We’re now a country led by a man who thought JFK talked Khrushchev out of the Cuban missile crisis (he didn’t); claimed that our country built the “Intercontinental Railroad” (must be from New York to Paris); and bragged that his uncle liberated Auschwitz (was he in the Soviet Red Army?).

And I’m not picking on just Obama. His political detractors are every bit as ignorant on history: Ask them about the American Revolution, and you’d find that Michele Bachmann thought the battles at Lexington and Concord were in New Hampshire; Rick Perry believed the war was fought in the 16th century; and Sarah Palin claimed it all began when Paul Revere warned the British."

This is not a Republican or Democrat problem, is a societal problem. If only this wonderful blog could be as unbiased about modern day politics as it is about the history is shares daily with its readers.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the specific stats, Bill Harshaw. The most common definition of the "Founding Fathers" encompasses the men of the Continental Congress, Constitutional Convention, and first U.S. Congress. Sometimes it's restricted to the men who signed or voted on the Declaration, Articles of Confederation, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. As you note, the more influential the men were, the more likely they owned slaves.

When I considered what the sort of society those men envisioned, it made sense to look through the presidency of James Madison—an obvious contributor to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. In 1810 there were well over a million Americans in bondage, and that figure doesn't count those who had died enslaved in the preceding thirty-five years of the republic. So I felt "millions" was appropriate.

J. L. Bell said...

Anonymous, I think you're mixing apples and oranges in your examples. Romney delivered a prepared speech which his campaign touted as important. Bachmann and Palin repeated their misstatements, the latter going on television to defend hers.

In contrast, Perry and Obama made verbal slips during casual, extemporaneous remarks. A more appropriate analogy to Romney's statement might be Obama's recent criticism of Rutherford B. Hayes for dismissing the telephone (a story he or his staff probably got from Ronald Reagan via the recent Steve Jobs biography).

Even so, I can't see the same importance in missing Hayes's technophilia and claiming that the "Founding Fathers" wanted economic freedom for everyone in society.

John L. Smith said...

J.L. - I can always count on you to accurately call anyone on any misstatements; whether they argue for or against someone with a (D) or an (R)...or an (I) following their name or claim. We regular readers know you're accurate and fair to a fault. You think before you type. Thank you!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks. John L. Smith. I readily acknowledge that I've written about more misstatements from Republicans than from Democrats, but that's because in the lifetime of this blog Republicans and conservatives have made many more political claims about the founding generation than Democrats.

It seems to have become a tenet of Tea Party faith that the Founders essentially (a) all agreed, (b) were right about everything, and (c) agreed with modern conservative positions. That makes it difficult for Romney to say (at least until the general election) that on the issue of "economic freedom" the Founders (a) had a range of opinions, (b) held some views we dislike, and (c) never considered many modern issues.

Chris said...

Love the blog. I think your more important point...and one I would love to see you elaborate on is the idea of a controlled economy. My research seems to indicate (and yours is much more extensive than mine), that instead of the laissez-faire capitalism that there was a fair amount of control and merchantilism that was present in early colonial economics. In addition, at what point did the we start allowing all men to vote and not just landowners? Very interested in seeing any future posts you might have on this topic.

J. L. Bell said...

Those are huge questions, Chris. Well beyond the scope of a comment or blog posting, possibly well beyond me. But there’s no question that the Founding generation's economy and understanding of economics were very different from our own. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations came out during the Revolutionary War, and it took years for its ideas to filter out. People believed more strongly in a "moral economy" than in "free markets." The very idea of corporations was still under debate in the early republic, much less how society should license, manage, or treat them. But that’s not to say people were financially unsophisticated. The calculations necessary to decide how much to honor a bill from a bank or merchant in another colony were immensely complex.

As for extending the franchise to men who didn't own property, that's usually associated with the period leading up to and through Jacksonian politics. It coincided with yanking the vote back from non-white men (and in New Jersey, women), no matter how much property they had.

steenkinbadges said...

While I don’t always agree with Mr Bell's comments, I agree emphatically with his scholarship. I may draw different conclusions politically from him, but I think he makes a valid point, for which we find evidence time and time again: conservatives would rather have the doughy comfort food of traditional historical myth than chew on the hardtack of documentable historical truth.
This does conservatives no good, and as we have seen from all manner of politicians from Sarah Palin to Mitt Romney and beyond, since it makes us look like we are deluded old fuddy-duddies, which in my experience should not be. The Left do not care much about colonial history other than to shame white America about slavery and the slaughter of the Indians, so they don’t comment on the Founding Fathers and the problematic (well, for them anyway) American Revolution all that much.
Thankfully, Mr Bell does care. He may be continuing in the tradition of debunking our national myths and shattering the porcelain gods of our cherished beliefs, but- if he’s right, he’s right! I relish his views and his research. He makes you think! I think we conservatives should embrace this. We should not make apologies for politicians who can’t even get their facts straight. These facts form the foundation of their beliefs. But if the foundation is built on sand…
If conservatives swept aside all the flag-waving mumbo jumbo and concentrated upon what's real, we'd have much better philosophical and historical underpinnings for ideas. A good conservative can take heart from Mr Bell's exhaustive research and make up his or her own mind. There's a lot to work with here, if only we'd take our blinders off to see it!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the compliments, and the emphasis on factual accuracy foremost.

I disagree with the statement that “The Left do not care much about colonial history other than to shame white America about slavery and the slaughter of the Indians, so they don’t comment on the Founding Fathers and the problematic (well, for them anyway) American Revolution all that much.”

When President Obama invoked Thomas Paine and Common Sense in his inaugural address, he was in the American left’s tradition of remembering the Revolution as a bottom-up mass movement, not just an initiative of the elite. When people on the left invoke the separation of church and state, they recall a concept that came directly out of the Revolution. The left reminds people that the Declaration spoke of equality, not just rights.

Of course, the left, with its supporters from/concern for parts of society that were oppressed then and since (women, blacks, &c.), can't afford to ignore the historical realities that the Revolution didn’t bring equality, separation of church and state, or popular government. That does make invoking the history more problematic, but it should be equally problematic for the American right to invoke the Revolution on liberty for all. There are many wrinkles in both views.

The left, with its emphasis on ongoing reform, can also praise other historical periods since the Revolution, such as the Civil War, the New Deal, World War 2, the civil rights struggle, &c. Not emphasizing the Founding above all other periods makes it less prominent, to be sure, but it's still a big part of the left's ideal of American as a progressive nation.

Robert S. Paul said...

It seems weird that someone who essentially introduced government healthcare to his state while governor would then go on to claim things about freedom from government interventions.

Except that he's a politician, so it's not actually weird at all, I suppose.

Michael Hattem said...

I think you're exactly right about the Left's relationship with the Revolution. As usual, there is much more nuance and complexity in that relationship than the usual right-wing screed about how the Left "hates America."

On a contemporary note, it amazes me how Romney's rhetoric on this topic implies that corporations themselves and their high-level employees do not receive benefits from the government that others do not receive.

Finally, I have often wondered whether a book on the moral economy of the colonial period (what Ed Countryman has called "corporatism") would inspire the same kind of virulent reaction from the right as have books on guns and the religion of the founders.

J. L. Bell said...

I think you’re right about the huge gap between the moral economy of the eighteenth century and the free-market orthodoxy of modern conservatives. The loudest calls for free commerce and individual liberty in Revolutionary Boston came from Loyalists.

I actually think that when it comes to their own government benefits and help, most conservatives are willing to forgo the free market. That extends to business-oriented conservatives like Romney, whose economic plans include a lot of government support for business, and small-government advocates who nonetheless balk at any changes to their Social Security or Medicare benefits, mortgage deductions, or free transportation systems.

There’s also a lot of natural appeal in the idea of a “moral economy,” I think—the notions of fair prices and fair wages, the linkage of purchasing with ethical behavior. But the electorate disagrees as strongly as ever about how to define what’s moral.