We are once again—as in the days of the early republic and not in the heyday of the Progressives and the New Dealers—a republic of property owners.
“No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” So reads a portion of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights passed by the First Congress and ratified by state legislatures, sponsored originally by Thomas Jefferson’s friend and political ally James Madison. It echoed, of course, Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence: “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.”
Madison and Jefferson followed the tradition of John Locke, the British philosopher whose Two Treatises on Government was taken as the justification for the transfer of power known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89—the subject of my 2007 book, Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America’s Founding Fathers. Locke believed that men could be free only if their lives, liberty, and property were protected by the rule of law. And he believed that only men with property could be relied on to self-govern.
Locke, therefore, thought that the responsibility for choosing legislators in representative government should be limited to property owners, as it was in elections to the House of Commons. In English counties, the franchise was limited to 40-shilling freeholders—owners of property that brought in two pounds a year. The franchise in the more numerous boroughs was limited in different ways, in some cases to the owners of specific pieces of property.
The American people, the property-owning majority, even in this time of economic distress, seem to be embracing instead a culture of independence, a culture as old as the republic itself.
The Founders anticipated a limited but broader franchise in America. They provided that senators should be chosen by legislatures, whose members were typically selected by a large electorate, and that members of the House should be chosen by voters with “the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature.”
The Founders had different ideas of the worthiness of commerce. Jefferson envisioned a republic of freeholding egalitarian farmers. Alexander Hamilton envisioned a republic on the path toward commercial and industrial preeminence. But Jefferson’s vision was a more accurate picture of the United States in the early years of the republic, where land was plentiful and labor scarce, where the large majority of white men were farmers and most of them owned the land they worked.
In this freeholders’ republic, it was natural to move toward universal manhood suffrage, to allow every white male adult to vote. Some states took longer than others to reach this goal—South Carolina still had the legislature choose its presidential electors until 1860. But the principle was widely accepted elsewhere: since almost everyone owned property, everyone should be allowed to vote. There was a danger, recognized by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, that the poor would vote to strip the rich of their wealth and, in President Obama’s words to Joe the Plumber, “Spread the wealth around.”
The New Deal was an attempt to freeze an economy, then in a downward spiral, into one place.
Tocqueville pointed to another danger as well, the danger of what he called “soft despotism,” in which a seemingly benevolent government would channel citizens into docile obedience like a herd of sheep. But that danger seemed distant, even to Tocqueville, in an America whose dominant and more populist party, Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, opposed government spending on public works projects and feared the power of a central bank.
Up through the end of the 19th century there did not seem to be a significant tension between universal democracy and property rights. The Founders’ vision prevailed.
A New Vision Based on Fear
But that was no longer the case in 1910. By then, another vision was being advanced, the vision of the Progressives—the vision of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, of political philosophers Herbert Croly and John Dewey.
The Progressives explicitly repudiated the Founders’ vision of limited government. They argued that government needed to redistribute property, to take money from one group of citizens to help others, and to regulate economic activity in ways previously considered unconstitutional. The Constitution, they said, was a “horse and buggy” document, suited perhaps to the simpler society of the 18th century, but dangerously out of date in a complex industrial society which could not expect ordinary citizens to make their way without government guidance and assistance. They were acting, they said, in the interests of the people. Their critics said they were acting out of hunger for power.
I want to advance another thesis: That they actually acted more out of fear than of benevolence. They feared revolution. [...]
Read the whole thing. There is lots to chew on here. It's pretty clear where we went wrong. But can we make corrections, and make it right?