Founding Fathers & Classic Liberalism

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    I’ve heard it stated often that many of the Founding Fathers were Classic Liberals. Specifically Washington, Jefferson (most obviously), Franklin, Madison and others. Provided I’ve understood that correctly I wanted to ask you for recommended sources / reading on how it is we affiliate the Founding Fathers with the Classic Liberal school of thought.


    This is a very good question and one that graduate students spend weeks discussing in their reading seminar courses.

    There are two competing schools of thought concerning the founding generation and their political thought. One is typically called the “court” or “hard” position and argues that the founding generation were generally motivated by practical matters in forming the Constitution, i.e. economics or security. The most famous expression of this position was by the progressive historian Charles Beard in his “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution,” but others, such as Joyce Appleby, followed the same approach. They may have been influenced by men like Adam Smith (this could be argued), but they were not classical liberals and did not believe in a radical transformation of the political order present under the Crown. Think Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Robert Morris, etc.

    Forrest McDonald responded with his famous “We the People” and argued that ideology was in fact a dominant factor in the American War for Independence. He later softened his approach and argued that Beard and the “court” historians may have had a point in an introduction to Beard’s “An Economic….” Regardless, this “soft” or “country” position found a great deal of favor with historians such as Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and J.G.A. Pocock. Wood, for instance, called the American War for Independence a “radical” event influenced by 18th century Enlightenment politics.

    I would recommend Carl Richard’s “The Founders and the Classics” for a more accurate assessment of the founding generation’s political thought. I don’t necessarily buy either the country or court positions. Certainly self-interest motivated some men in the founding period and by the time of the French Revolution, Americans in general recoiled at the horrors of the Terror. That event sparked a clear division in American politics. John Marshall, for example, feared a French style revolution in American politics and in his mind used the bench to quell that type of event. He called Jeffersonians “terrorists”.

    I hope that helps.


    Certainly Hamilton was a classic mercantilist, and Washington signed Hamilton’s proposals into law. (The notable exception was the Report on Manufactures, which Congress rejected.) One might demur that Washington had a different understanding of the president’s role in the legislative process than do today’s chief executives, and so we should not read his signature as signifying endorsement. (See Ketcham, PRESIDENTS ABOVE PARTY.)

    Such as Jefferson, Madison, et al., certainly did favor free trade — what Jefferson called “the right to trade freely with all the world.” This was a perfectly anti-mercantilist program, in inspiration and in detail. The best account of the Jeffersonians as heralds of a free trade-based New World Order is Onuf & Onuf, FEDERAL UNION, MODERN WORLD.

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