America’s Founding Fathers were Liberals
America’s founding fathers were classical liberals, meaning they favored liberty, private property, capitalism, freedom of religion, and a limited Republican style of government. See definition of classical liberalism.
In fact, the founding fathers of America weren’t just “liberals”, they were Republicans, Federalists, and Democrats too. They were Patriots, they were a lot of things, but one thing they weren’t were monarchists or loyalists to the crown. The father of modern political science and modern Republicanism Machiavelli said, “the governments of the people are better than those of princes” [Book I, Chapter LVIII of Livy], and in the Spirit of Montesquieu’s “Liberal” Republicanism they agreed (although they often didn’t agree on much beyond that).
I say this only as a technicality, and from a historical perspective, as the Tories, King’s men, and Loyalists (the conservatives of the day) were all but forced to choose between “The Crown” and the principles of Liberalism due to the events leading up to the Revolution and America’s victory in it.
The founders shared general ideology with both major parties of today (Democrats and Republicans), but the key here is that America is a liberal nation and what we think of as “conservative” is actually liberal-conservative (like Burke, not classically truly conservative like a King to the right of Hobbes).
This can be confirmed by thinking about the “American Revolution” where our patriot founders fought the King’s men to create a Democratically-minded Liberal Republic.
After the Revolution, many conservative loyalists were forced to flee, and those who stayed weren’t always treated kindly.
Certainly, no loyalist (no true Tory, Loyalist, or King’s men; i.e. no “true” conservative) was going to have a position in the new government. The leaders of the new government would be comprised solely of Patriots.
Even our most conservative founders like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, John Adams, and Gouverneur Morris were types of liberals (conservative liberals in terms of economics and central power… but generally social progressive liberals in terms of issues like slavery and modernization).
Those liberal-conservative founders weren’t “conservative” in the classical sense, they were just a different type of liberal than the more radically classically liberal (and often socially conservative) Anti-Federalist founders like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry (who were willing to accept conservative positions on slavery if it meant avoiding a strong central government). See types of liberalism and conservatism.
BOTTOMLINE: Although some founders were today what we call “conservative” in America (which is liberal-conservative for the most part), America was founded by liberals and principals of liberalism and is today still a liberal nation. Other countries and parties throughout the world have specifically been trying to prove that liberalism doesn’t work since about the mid 1800’s (if not just since 1776), and honestly it is what a lot of the World’s major Wars have been about. We should not forget the importance of defending liberal values in America (and in our case that is as simple as defending the spirit of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the character of the men and women who fought for them, ideally through liberal and democratic means).
PBS The American Revolution.
SEMANTICS: Liberalism is the ideology of liberty and equality. Classical liberalism emphasizes liberty, and Social liberalism emphasizes equality. Thus another way to phrase this would be, as one commenter eluded, “America’s founding fathers were liberals. Some were more liberal than others, but all were liberals (not “classical liberals”, but just “liberals”). And, even amongst the most liberal of the founders [and most the most conservative for that matter], differing ideas were held as to how best to assure human liberty [and equality] in the state.” In other words, the founders didn’t favor authority, tradition, and state control over liberty like the Tories did, and they fought for equality-for-all in their battle for human rights, sovereignty, and democracy (something rarely done in history), but that doesn’t mean that they were all what we think of as “modern liberals” or that they fully agreed on how best to ensure liberty, equality, and justice for all. Today, social liberalism is the predominate form of liberalism and we can say those who favor the liberty aspect (like a states’ rights advocate or a libertarian) are being “classically liberal”, so the distinction works, but we can still despite this say simply, “America’s founders are liberals” and “the nation was founded on the principles of liberalism”. Feel free to comment below.
TIP: Economic classical liberalism is a thing, it is what Adam Smith, Franklin’s friend and father of modern economics, presents in his Wealth of Nations… but don’t go thinking every classical liberal is a staunch Goldwater or Friedman Libertarian. That isn’t the case at all. Thomas Paine favored a wealth tax, and the term “commonwealth“, which predates the U.S. gaining independence, essentially implies a redistribution of wealth for the “common social good” within the state. In modern terms, we can say “all the founders were types of classical liberals”, but some were more progressive or conservative than others, in terms of economics and/or social policy, on a given issue. Later, those liberty minded, progressive, and conservative liberal ideologies would grow into the modern political factions, but at the time they are all liberal-left to George III’s right.
FACT: The Glorious Revolution and England, the American Revolution, and the French Revolutions were all liberal revolutions. The rebels in each case fought for principles of liberalism and against kings. America was founded on the principles of the enlightenment (as can be clearly seen in the structure of the Republican government enacted by the Constitution, and the classical liberal principles enacted by the Bill of Rights).
FACT: Before the Revolution, about a third of the colonists were loyal to Britain, a third neutral, and a third wanting rebellion. All the founders were essentially patriots (those who wanted rebellion) and none were openly loyal to Britain. The Patriots called those who supported Britain, “persons inimical to the liberties of America.”
TIP: All the founders were also Republicans (in that they favored a Republic). They were almost all Democrats (favoring elements of democracy) and Federalists (favoring a federation or confederation of states; this is even true for the Anti-Federalists). The founders were generally well versed in the history of famous successful nation-states like Rome and Athens and pull their ideas from the enlightenment philosophers who examined these nation-states like Locke and Montesquieu.
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America: “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – The Declaration of Independence; where Thomas Jefferson mirrors the words of the father of liberalism John Locke.
The Political Ideology of the Founding Fathers
Some founders were conservative in terms of economics, others were liberal in terms of economics, some favored a strong central government, others wanted States’ rights, some wanted a rural nation with no central bank, some wanted a modern nation focused on trade. In these ways, our founders were diverse in their views as we are here in 2016. This is one of the reasons why we have a United States and not just a single State. the liberal principle of federalism allows for a diverse nation of United States!
The founders’ wide range of beliefs eventually led to both party politics and famous compromises, but despite their differences, they had one thing in common: They were not loyalists (and thus not true conservatives for the time).
Some founders may have wanted to keep ties with Britain, but these more classically conservative founders like Adams and Hamilton were Whig-like Federalists, not Tories and King’s men. Likewise, the more socially conservative pro-slavery founders in the southern Anti-Federalist party were true liberals, despite their social conservatisim. Thus, even the most socially or classically conservative founder is a type of liberal.
In fact, this is still true for most Americans today. We may think of a deep south politican as socially conservative, or a New York banker as classically conservative, but make no mistake, no true freedom-loving by-the-Constitution Patriot is a true Conservative in 2016 any more than they would have been in 1776.
The Constitution: A Liberal Governing Document
The Constitution was written, and the war won, by the American Patriots (pro-independence classical liberals of all kinds) rebelling against “the Crown” (conservatives).
Many of the true loyalists fled after the war. Meanwhile, of those who stayed, even the “somewhat loyal” Federalists feared political “factions“, favored freedom, wanted to get away from kings and taxes, and thus, despite their conservative character, didn’t want a “traditional, conservative” pro-monarch style of government.
While the founders didn’t agree on much, as stated above, it is largely their agreement of the principles of liberalism which kept them united.
Instead of breaking into different factions or favoring a confederacy (as the Articles of Confederation did), the founders eventually found compromise positions in a Constitutional Federal Republic (a more perfect Union), as detailed by 1789’s Constitution. They focused on a mutual agreement on a separation of powers and liberty, and other basic principles of liberalism and the democratic ideals that opposed the aristocracy of Britain.
Just like today, there is little agreement on what liberty means exactly or how government should look based on our core principles, but there is no question, despite the conflict, we uphold principles like truth, justice, and liberty for all.
You can read about each founding father. We know that the Age of Enlightenment was based on the concept of Liberalism and the works of the Father of Liberalism John Locke. Out of these ideas come Britain’s Glorious Revolution (1688), the American Revolution (1776), and the French Revolution (1788).
In sum, the United States of America was founded on the concepts of liberalism and the separation of church and state (although, to be fair, these words aren’t said explicitly in the founding documents).
Tea, Taxes, and The American Revolution: Crash Course World History #28
TIP: In Latin “liber” means “free.” So classic liberalism embodies the concept of liberty. The founders are all liberals; they believed in and fought for freedom. The Constitution establishes a Government that is evidence of this and documents like the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights back this up. Even the “loyalist” founding fathers were Liberal in many respects; such is the nature of fighting against the (already somewhat liberal) aristocracy in the name of liberty.
TIP: The main thing that divides Americans into factions and parties are differing views on the meaning of liberty. Nearly all Americans value liberty above all else (which essentially makes everyone, even today, a type of liberal), yet there is a big difference between a conservative-libertarian and a social-liberal, this is the key point to grasp. In a perfect world the factions work together to create a perfect unity, in practice our Founders disagreed with each other fervently, and the divide on what liberty means has resulted in the Civil War and battles over Civil Rights.
America and the Principles of Liberalism
The American revolution is inspired by the Age of Enlightenment in Europe which saw the birth of classic liberalism. At its core Liberalism simply means “we don’t want to be ruled by an aristocracy because we value liberty.”
Today, if we could ideologically separate the Libertarian Party of America from its conservative ideology, which favors a restrictive religious-based law, we could say that “classic liberalism” is simply libertarianism. If we can’t, then we have to concede it is closer to the social liberalism of the Democratic party, which sacrifices small government for social welfare, which isn’t classical liberalism either (it is more a mix between what Franklin set up in his Commonwealth and what Morris almost lost his position over).
“He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven in the States where it prevailed.” – 1787. James Madison Report on Gouverneur Morris’ Address to the Federal Constitutional Convention
Liberalism and the Religious Views of the Founders
The liberal ideology of the founders is true not just in terms of politics and rights, but in terms of faith too.
Despite many having strong faiths, the Founding Fathers explicitly agreed on a secular government and structure for the state based on reason.
The separation of powers, including the separation of branches of government and the separation of church and state, are core classical liberal values discussed by Montesquieu (early America’s most cited author and an obvious influence of Madison’s Virginia Plan). They are mirrored by Locke, Kant, and many more. Other, more traditional liberal-conservative thinkers like Hume and Burke, are were also considered, and an ongoing debate between empiricism and rationalism also affected things.
Other Liberal Documents
The Bill of Rights, Constitution, Federalist Papers, Declaration of Independence, and Party Platforms of each year all read like a classic liberal manifesto. This is because Britain itself was the aristocracy trying to oppress the nation who demanded liberty (America).
Rebelling against the King and taxes created what can arguably be called by no other name than “liberal revolution” and thus the patriots which won it can be called by no other name than liberal.
Despite the truisms above, and as noted above, it should be made clear that many founders and Americans of the time were then and are today “conservative” in that they favor tradition and order. During the American Revolution, this could mean favoring the church, the rule of law, and/or ties to Britain. Later this would mean favoring states-rights for slavery, favoring temperance, favoring states rights over Civil Rights, or favoring big business over people and public welfare, which is something both parties have historically done at times in the US. The definition of conservative is subject to change depending on what it is opposing.
What is a Liberal (Social Liberalism)? Notice how this explains that if you are poor and oppressed you can’t be free? That is social liberalism (the dominant liberalism of today). Libertarianism says, “sorry friend” freedom trumps your meal; you’ll have to starve on the street. Traditional classical liberalism (libertarianism) led to the Civil War, rejection of Civil Rights, and lots of other troubles. Many modern social liberals reject the idea of completely free-markets. Some Libertarians reject the idea of Keynes and the social liberals.
What Is Libertarianism (Classical Liberalism / Modern American Libertarianism)? Libertarianism is classical liberalism. The only problem is the American Libertarian party is no more classically liberal than the modern Democratic party. They both favor the core ideology, but the interpretation is very different. Social liberals, like the Democrats, believe liberty can only exist with a strong safety-net (they believe in Keynes and the welfare state).
Types of Liberalism
Shortly after the birth of liberalism, the ideology split into a few types of which the modern parties have grown out of.
We can say the great Americans have typically fallen into roughly five groups:
- Classic Liberals: A libertarian with no right-leaning ideology. Favors a capitalist economy in the style of Adam Smith
- Social Liberal: A liberal who believes that liberty can only be obtained with some government intervention. Favors mixed-market capitalism (Keynes).
- Conservative Liberal: Pro-business liberal or conservative who favors trade and free markets, but has an elitist outlook. This is a type of classical liberal.
- Conservatives: A response to whatever the liberalism of the day is, typically pro-religion (even to the effect of recombining church and state).
- Social Conservatives: Conservatives who are against the use of government to provide for social welfare.
- Socialist: A rejection of capitalism and liberalism, ideologically and economically in favor of Marx. A Communist is an extreme socialist who doesn’t want any sort of mixed-socioeconomic system.
Which founding fathers were liberals? The founders can be thought of as a few types of liberals (some of which we actually associate with the term “conservative” today. We can express this roughly as: radical liberals like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, conservative liberals like Alexander Hamilton, centered liberals like Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, and early social liberals like Gouverneur Morris (whose family were loyalists and who almost became a traditional conservative, but sided with the Whigs). Today we may describe figures like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry as social conservatives, or Hamilton as a Neoliberal or traditional conservative, but in their day the Tories of Britain and King George III where the conservatives and the patriot founders were not.
Federalists and Anti-Federalists: Despite us being able to retroactively place founders in groups with accuracy, the founding fathers and their original two factions were classic liberals (Jefferson and Anti-Federalists) and conservative liberals (Hamilton Federalists), the other factions don’t arise until later in history.
Today’s Democrat is a Social Liberal
Today when we say liberal we mean Democrat, but modern Democrats are only liberal in three ways. 1. the Democratic party originated as the party of Jefferson (a progressive, despite his socially conservative qualities); 2. they aren’t conservative regarding the separation of church and state and other such issues; 3. they hold most of the core liberal values, they just interpret liberty differently than their ancestors and favor a “welfare state.”
Thus, modern Democrats are mostly social liberals, although they are often classically conservative as well. Meanwhile modern Republicans are typically social conservatives and classical liberals. Thus, still today, Americans are generally all types of liberals.
TIP: For more reading see “how to understand the basic political parties.”
Chomsky on Classical Liberalism, Freedom, & Democracy