Eight Counter-revolutionary Founders

History is like a flowing river whose motions can be interpreted from any angle, since it is not static. As social activist Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States, “the historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports…some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual…[the] inevitable taking of sides…comes from selection and emphasis in history.” Gerald Horne took the side of the oppressed in his recent books by challenging the traditional and conventional history of the American Revolution, calling it a counter-revolution to preserve slavery. When asked by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! what he would say to the people of the United States, Horne remarked that the country needs “a more balanced presentation of the foundation of the United States of America, and I think that there’s no sooner place to begin than next week with July 4th, 2014.” A more “balanced presentation” as Horne puts it, includes challenging embedded and established orthodoxies surrounding the “founding fathers.” This article expands on ideas I’ve written about before and focuses on eight major “founders,”1 while challenging traditional histories by using twenty-three separate books, many by American historians. 2

Before getting into the specifics of the eight traditional founders, it is important to establish some context. The “revolutionary leadership” during the war for American independence deeply “distrusted the mobs of the poor,” but relied on their help. The movement of commoners who were disenfranchised and disempowered wanted economic egalitarianism, something that the traditional founders, consisting of this “revolutionary leadership,” didn’t like at all. In short, these ‘founders’ wanted a strong government to stop popular uprisings, direct democracy and self-control in state legislatures, all which were pushed by the economic egalitarian movement. Furthermore, they didn’t want a change in institutional structures. With the signing of the constitution, these wishes were fulfilled to the detriment of the people of the United States.

Samuel Adams

The story of the elder Adams, Samuel Adams, who had graduated from the elite institution of Harvard in 1741, begins in the 1740s, when he wrote that any restrictions on constitutional rights should be rejected. He said New England would become just like the failed Roman Empire if it ever abandoned Puritan values. By the 1760s, he had emerged as a prominent public figure in Boston. He was an adept organizer, working with Pennsylvania radicals who wanted to achieve independence. However, Adams did not share the radical vision of his “friends” in Pennsylvania: he had his own goals. He was a political operative, who was not as outspoken as his son, John Adams, but he had one major goal: to create what he would later call “a Christian Sparta” in Massachusetts, a Puritan paradise. In his view, the Stamp Act of 1765 was a blessing, because it furthered this goal, and not a curse, as some perceived it. At the same time, he wanted people to use legal means to resisting the Stamp Act, rather than engaging in mob violence, which was often aimed at the rich. Samuel Adams was “operating at every level of Boston protest,” but the lower classes could not be completely controlled. Tensions rose between Britain and Massachusetts later in the 1760s when Adams spread the Massachusetts circular letter, which called for an economic boycott of the Townsend Acts, and he asked the other colonies to follow suit.

As alluded to earlier, Adams organized with Pennsylvania radicals in the 1760s and 1770s to push for independence from Great Britain, but he had different objectives. He used Thomas Young and other radicals to push for independence, which propelled the populist cause forward. However, Young embraced the independence of the town of Worcester from Britain and wanted economic equality and freedom, goals which Adams opposed. There is a simple reason for this. Adams encouraged populism in Pennsylvania to push for “American independence” but he did not want the same in Massachusetts. Samuel Adams pushed forward against efforts that opposed independence, in coordination with activists on the street. At the same time, John Adams pushed a resolution calling for independence in the Continental Congress, which would later be adopted.

There was more to the elder Adams. On the issue of independence, Adams did not advocate independence in his writing until “the winter of 1775-1776,” despite the fact he had supported it in Pennsylvania for years. Before this time, Adams had argued that colonists were “good subjects” during the protests against the Stamp Act, asserted that “wicked men in America” caused Boston’s problems in 1768, instead of the occupying British soldiers, and so on. As American historian Ray Raphael, who focuses on the American Revolution, argues, Adams “does not live up the image of a flaming revolutionary” since he “opposed violent acts that threatened a well-ordered society” including riots and illegal assemblies. Additionally, he served on a committee with two other people (John Adams and James Bowdoin) that drafted a Massachusetts constitution, which is still used but has been repeatedly amended, that allowed only people with a significant amount of property to vote or be in political office. Later Samuel Adams would show his true colors when, as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, he called for the “death penalty of Shaysites,” an armed uprising of farmers in 1786, who were angry about the new Massachusetts constitution which favored the wealthy, and the refusal of the legislature to issue paper money, which made it easier for debt-ridden farmers to pay off their creditors. The specific words of Adams are even more outrageous: he declared that in monarchies people are “pardoned or lightly punished” for the crime of treason, but that those who “rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.”

Samuel Adams would continue to not tolerate dissent, wanting to squash the Western Pennsylvanian rebellion,3 since he believed that “people should never break laws, but work to change them by legal means.” In this manner, Samuel Adams “never advocated ‘revolution’ in the modern sense, a complete overthrow of the government and a radical resurrecting of the social order,” but he was, in the parlance of his time, considered a “revolutionary.”

John Adams

The younger Adams, John Adams, has been featured in a HBO series based on a book by establishment historian David McCullough that salivates over Adams. It is important to remember that from time to time Adams supported monarchy and aristocracy, never really having a consistent position for or against it. In 1776, in a piece titled Thoughts on Government, Adams wrote, as a response to a request from North Carolina’s provincial Congress and as a rebuke to the ideas of Thomas Paine’s forty-eight page pamphlet, Common Sense, that “the very definition of a republic is an ’empire of laws, and not of men’,” since it was, in his view, the best form of government. Later, in 1787, in his work written in Britain titled A Defense of Constitution of Government of the United States, he savoured on aristocracy, writing that “the rich, the well-born and the able” should dominate one branch of the legislature, since he opposed unitary legislatures. This is no surprise since he was the “principal architect” of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, which empowered those with large amounts of property.

Now, let’s flash back to the revolution and before. It was clear that John and Samuel Adams, with the help of others, wanted to push independence in Pennsylvania forward. At the same time, they were afraid of people bucking Britain and forming their own government. Rather, they wanted people to work within the system, as they coordinated their efforts with the “radical street.” It is clear, however, that both John and Samuel Adams wanted full independence (not just Pennsylvania) from England by 1775. The younger Adams showed this by rejecting the “Olive Branch” petition as weak, since he wanted nationhood instead. At the same time, John Adams served as the “top operator in 1776 Philadelphia” for the elder Adams.

The younger Adams did not want power in the hands of the common people, explaining, along with James Madison, the “reasons for keeping power in the hands of the reasonably well-propertied.” At the same time, he collaborated for tactical reasons with Thomas Paine and even though he deeply disagreed with Common Sense, his collaboration with Paine was “tactical to forming our nation.” Despite this, Paine’s radical ideas didn’t become the foundation of American government, rather Adams’ ideas won out. His major disagreement with Paine is evident when he read the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, which was influenced by radical egalitarianism, predicting that “Pennsylvanians would soon want King George back,” but he was wrong. This view might be the reason he pushed for the balancing of the social classes in government.

Despite the almost elitist nature of John Adams, libertarian historian Thaddeus Russell claims that the younger Adams saw disorder as “inevitable among people controlled by a standing army and external force,” but never realizes that Adams pushed ideas that benefited the rich, not the commoners. Later in his life, Adams still feared “democracy,” but for another reason: the rise of political bosses and “powerful machines” which he said will “control elections and constitutions…like Kings.” While this is a valid concern, he still never endorsed a people’s democracy, a direct democracy, a government which is designed for the people, not the wealthy elite.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is usually seen as an inventor and fighter for liberty. This notion is smashed by the fact that Franklin “bought and sold slaves.” Even Naomi Wolf, who largely glorifies the traditional founders, wrote that “when a male slave escaped from Benjamin Franklin in England,” he then sold that slave back into slavery! However, more than just participating in the buying and selling of slaves: Franklin was a printer and a loyal supporter of the British Crown all the way up to 1775. This loyalty to the crown is easily confirmed by his actions. He wanted to bring a royal government to Pennsylvania and he wanted a role in it for himself, all while he did not like what he saw as “popular tyranny” under the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 which included radical egalitarian principles. This is not a surprise since he was an agent for the British Crown in the 1760s and he wanted to be a savior of the British empire in 1775, all while he stayed as a loyal supporter of Samuel and John Adams. Interestingly, he presided over the radical constitutional convention in Pennsylvania in 1776, even marking up a draft version of the constitution, despite his disagreement with its principles.

Jefferson presented his draft of the Declaration of Independence only to four people, including Franklin and John Adams. To expand on Franklin, he was a “successful publisher, writer, and diplomat” who is now considered by some as a “respected advocate for American rights.” He became a wealthy publisher by publishing books such as Poor Richard’s Almanack, and he was a slaveowner for much of his life. By 1770 he had freed his slaves and criticized the international slave trade, yet he did not debate slavery during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, since he hadn’t fully divested himself from slavery. Franklin didn’t even became part of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society until the last five years of his life (1785-1790). On other matters, he was religious, and he even tried to introduce daily prayer during the Constitutional Convention but it was resisted and was never even voted upon. There is one aspect that shouldn’t be forgotten: earlier in Franklin’s life, he was a propagandist, waging a PR campaign, securing secret aid, joining privateers, and churning out “effective and inflammatory propaganda” for the patriot cause after 1776. His propaganda was so successful that even members of the opposition party in the British Parliament believed it and used it to criticize the government.

Thomas Jefferson

For many, Thomas Jefferson is seen as the paragon of liberty with people such as the late Gore Vidal, as argued by Marc Cooper, wanting the United States to retreat back to what he considered was the country’s “Jeffersonian roots.” Public intellectual Cornel West described Jefferson best, calling him “a courageous fighter against British imperialism and a cowardly aristocratic slaveholder of hundreds of Virginians.” West also wrote that Jefferson’s “slaveocratic views were popular with his constituencies,” and he “intimately and directly contributed” to the suffering of slaves.

Jefferson had been raised with “privileges and expectations of a Southern gentleman.” This privilege is evident when he thought his own version of the Declaration of Independence, which Vidal quotes in his 1998 classic, The American Presidency, was superior, a version which was struck down by Congress. Still, Jefferson seemingly “tried” to oppose slavery as an “enlightened” individual. However, as social activist Howard Zinn noted, “the structure of American society, the power of the cotton plantation, the slave trade, the politics of unity between Southern elites,” and the culture of radical prejudice kept Jefferson as a “slaveholder throughout his life.” Still, this seems to give Jefferson too much credit.

Jefferson was an interesting fellow indeed. He studied law and was active in organizing resistance to the British. He even said in 1786, during the so-called “Shay’s Rebellion,” that “uprisings were healthy for a society” and that a revolution should happen every twenty years. He was “critical” of slavery, yet he owned “more than a hundred slaves at Monticello” which is deeply hypocritical, unlike John Adams who opposed slavery and owned no slaves. There is, however, one part of his life as a slaveowner that is not talked about.  American historian and journalist Henry Wiencek, who has endured, in the words of the New York Times, a “fierce barrage of criticism” for a critical book on Jefferson, wrote an article in October 2012 in Smithsonian magazine titled ‘The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson.’  In the article, Wiencek wrote about the cruelties of Jefferson as a slavemaster including how the “enslaved were yielding him a bonanza,” that his “Monticello machine operated on carefully calibrated brutality,” that he hired cruel overseers “to impose a vigor of discipline,” and much more. As investigative journalist Lindsay Beyerstein noted in her reflection on the article, “Jefferson treated slavery as a lucrative investment,” commenced numerous beatings of slaves, “breathed new economic life into bonded servitude by devising profitable models for slave labor in factories and wheat fields,” and didn’t release his slaves at his death unlike George Washington. In the final part of her article, she writes that “Wiencek’s essay was a wakeup call,” which is valid since his essay challenges the traditional history of Jefferson.

There is something more. Jefferson supported the “populisms of the French Revolution” and he “approved of Virginia’s yeoman farmers…labouring in the earth,” but not having those laborers sit at his dinner table. At the same time, he imagined a future where the children of these farmers would attend the University of Virginia, “one of his favorite projects,” so they could comprise “a natural aristocracy,” which was part of his plan for “social mobility.” Additionally, he “feared and loathed the labouring mobs of the crowded cities,” meaning that for him, “the love of equality,” which comes from a misreading of the Declaration of Independence, “was always a tricky matter.” After all, the Declaration, itself, made no “radical statements about new forms of social and economic equality” and it didn’t even refer to “any responsibility of the government to promote equality.” Rather it was just hollow principles. Jefferson was established as a “prophet of egalitarian principles” by President Abraham Lincoln, despite the fact that Jefferson “enslaved a multitude of other human beings” and acknowledged that the Declaration of Independence was an “expression of the American mind, nothing new” or visionary.

The dream of an agrarian society that many attribute to Jefferson is suspect. By 1803, as the third President of the United States, he spoke of opening the “vast American lands to agriculture, commerce [and]…to the development of the modern capitalist economy.” This came with the federal government committed to removal of indigenous peoples, the opposite of what he said in 1791: that indigenous peoples “should not be interfered with” outside or inside state boundaries. Jefferson was the first president in US history to consider a plan for removing indigenous people, a plan which would later morph into Andrew Jackson’s murderous efforts against indigenous peoples. Part of Jefferson’s plan was trying to assimilate the indigenous peoples into the capitalist US economy, purported to help their well-being, which would ultimately happen in the 20th century, after the genocidal practices by the US government against indigenous peoples had ended. In December 1813, Jefferson wrote in a letter to Alexander Van Humboldt, four years after the end of his presidency, that indigenous peoples had taken up arms against Americans, committing “cruel massacres” on the frontier, which he said made the US obliged to “pursue them to extermination” or to forcibly remove them. As time went on, the US government would do both.

Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry is usually known for his speech in 1775, “give me liberty or give me death!” Yet, there is a problem with this: he never said those words and “the speech was invented many years later, based on distant recollections of those…present at the time.” In reality, Henry did give a speech, but there is no transcript for it, only a letter dated April 6, 1775 from an eyewitness who heard the speech, saying that Henry called the British king “a tyrant, a fool, a puppet, and a tool to the ministry.” In this same speech, Henry also rebuked charges he was treasonous, saying that he was loyal to the British Crown, while he also called Englishmen, Scots, and Britons “wretches.”

On the eve of the American Revolution, Henry’s fellow whites panicked, preparing for black slaves to rise in “murderous” slave revolts against them. But black slaves didn’t revolt, and instead there was a rebellion by whites because the royal governor had seized the “gunpowder that whites could use to defend themselves.” At the time, Henry was a colonel in the 1st Virginia Regiment of the state’s militia, and he declared that the act of Lord Dunmore, then the Governor of Virginia, offering to free those slaves that joined the British army, was “dangerous” and “fatal to the publick safety.” He likely said this is because he was, just like Benjamin Franklin, a slaveholder. Unlike Franklin, he was one of the largest slaveholders in the country. It is not surprising that an orator like Henry would prey upon “the fears of slaves and Indians” by whites, while he speculated on Western lands, coveted land of indigenous peoples, and advocated for “military invasions of Indian country,” since he was “an unrepentant expansionist.”

There was more to Henry than his oration. He was born into the middle ranks of Virginia’s landed gentry, and he began as a planter, then later he became a lawyer. Like Samuel Adams, he cared about the law. He became the “ultimate antifederalist,” fighting ratification of the US Constitution in Virginia while also complaining that the Constitution “did nothing to protect property rights,” which is false. He may have said this because he was a slaveholder and a slavemaster.  Still, he worried about the Constitutional Convention, claiming it was leading to monarchy, so he subsequently pushed for a Bill of Rights. In the final version of the Bill of Rights, most of Henry’s amendments, which were focused on individuals, and not states, did not appear. Strangely enough, later in his life, he became a federalist, voting for George Washington, and denouncing nullification measures (the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions). This was an interesting end for someone who acted with demagoguery and drummed up racial fears of indigenous people and blacks, mostly for his own personal interest.

James Madison

James Madison is often seen as the “Father of the Constitution.” A paper I wrote back in December of last year, which compares views of numerous thinkers on private property, provides some interesting insights on Madison’s views on the subject. Madison argued in Federalist #10 that government’s first objective is to “protect people’s ability to get property rights,” which echoes English philosopher John Locke, while also saying that the government “is an arbitrator” of societal interests. In a weird way, Karl Marx has a similarity with Madison, since both describe concentration of power in the hands of a few which Marx is concerned about, but not Madison. Importantly, Madison never stands against inequality, wanting the “government to control the governed” and opposing the “radical populist movement…at the time,” along with “general equality.”

Still, these descriptions are only scratching the surface. Madison wanted to “control the factional struggles” that came from wealth inequalities and protect the minority faction, which is the code word for “wealthy men.” This shouldn’t be surprising. He wanted a “good constitutional government” that was representative, but not a direct democracy, that refined public views by “passing them through a medium of a chosen body of citizens.” Likely, this “chosen body” became part of the constitution and morphed into the elitist US Senate. Still, Madison did not want to violate people’s prejudices, saying at the end of the Constitutional Convention that the “mass of citizens should not be without a voice in making laws which they are to obey, and in choosing the magistrates who are to administer them.” Yet, he did not say how much power this “voice” would have in the political arena. These ideas for Madison are not surprising, considering he did not want the “propertyless majority” to work with others “against the established order.” This put him in the same boat as John and Samuel Adams who did what they could to preserve the existing order. One must remember that he was not personally wealthy, even though he came from a wealthy family. Still, he believed that a republican form of government offered the best stability for the existing social order. This is why he played a major role in pushing the Constitution forward, even as he was disappointed by the first independent republican government in the United States, the Continental Congress.

It is important to explain the rest of the story around Madison. He was clearly part of the “elite push back against democracy” and he even defended Robert Morris from claims that the programs of financiers like Morris had “corrupt and tyrannical goals.” Despite this, Madison never accepted the idea of founding nationhood in debt. This is likely why he did not accept all of Alexander Hamilton’s financial proposals, including his opposition to the chartering of a national bank, while he “sought implicit powers to carry out other Morris projects.” Madison even worked with Hamilton, also a lawyer, on the push for federal taxation, since he developed the doctrine of “implied powers” while in the Continental Congress.

This doctrine of “implied powers” was tied to something more: the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution. Anti-federalists like Patrick Henry hated it, while Madison, whose idea of implied power the clause was based on, tried to pass a federal impost based on this idea in the Continental Congress. This impost, or a federal tax, became the basis for the “direct tax” power in the US Constitution, which Madison said “he could not tolerate amending” and George Washington said that the Constitution would have no purpose without. Madison, along with other nationalists like Gouverneur Morris and Alexander Hamilton, wanted something more extreme. They wanted to “extinguish states as governments altogether” and make them “regional departments of the national government.” Even though this proved to be impossible, the Constitution weakened the powers of the states dramatically. Madison expressed this idea himself as he opposed amendments to the Constitution, fearing that states “would amend their powers back into the document.” When the amendments seemed inevitable, the process of amending the Constitution was postponed “until after ratification,” when it was discussed in the newly-formed U.S. Congress. Supposedly, Jefferson had convinced Madison to support the Bill of Rights, while Madison cautioned against another Constitutional Convention. This could be because the first draft of the Bill of Rights was not only non-controversial and mild, but many of Madison’s amendments were added in.

After supporting the enactment of a Bill of Rights, Madison started his transformation into an anti-federalist. He opposed measures like central banking, yet he said the chief purpose of government was to “support the bondholders’ investments.” This, in and of itself, is not a surprise since Madison supported efforts to “fund the national debt” as strongly as Hamilton did. However, Madison began to part ways with Hamilton. He proposed to only reward the “original holders” of public debt “with full interest” which was framed as helping the mass of people, but actually benefited the rich merchant class. Hamilton, on the other hand, ruled out such compromises, saying that “all bondholders must be included,” and he eventually won out. This was partly because Madison had agreed to restrain opposition to key parts of Hamilton’s proposal (the whiskey tax and assuming state debts) in exchange for the “national capital [being]…located on the Potomac.” This agreement was an example of Madison’s idea that an elected official acts not on behalf “of constituents’ interests but of their judgment,” since in his view, “sincere debate…shapes the representative judgment of the people.” By 1798 Madison had changed from joining with others to support the “federal taxing power for paying interest on the debt” to working with Jefferson to try and “nullify federal law in the states.” Madison had become a writer of the Virginia Resolution which said that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional and that states had the ability to declare a law, which was not constitutionally authorized as unconstitutional.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton is one of the lesser quoted and known traditional founders, yet, he is still important. He was not only a lawyer but he was an “up-and-coming member of the elite” and also one of the most “forceful and astute leaders of the new aristocracy.” This is not a shocker if you consider his other positions. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton argued that the President and Senators should have life terms and that there should be a “permanent body to check democracy.” This “permanent body” would later become the US Senate, which also reflected Madison’s view of a “chosen body of citizens” to filter public opinion. At the same time, Hamilton had invested personal property, also called personalty, “in lands for speculation,” just like Ben Franklin and George Washington. He also pleaded for the “holders of public securities,” even though he personally held only a small amount of public securities. Such positions in the Constitutional Convention are tied to Hamilton’s work on public debt.

Robert Morris and Hamilton began to work together starting in the 1780s. Both of them pushed ideas forward with Morris enlisting Hamilton’s help for getting the country focused on “paying interest to the federal bondholding class.” Eventually, Hamilton would bring back “Morris’s embattled plans of the 1780s,” since he believed, like Morris, that nationhood was “predicated on a well-funded public debt to the country’s rich.” He would become so committed to the idea that he united with the Morrisses to threaten an officer coup against the fledgling Continental Congress, in what some have called the Newburgh Crisis of 1783. In this crisis, officers were told to “make a common cause with the investor class by insisting on pay in federal bonds.” The result of this threatened officer coup, which was pushed by both Gouverneur and Robert Morris, and had the tacit approval of George Washington, was two-fold: more power to the national government and a win for the creditors since officers became bondholders when the government paid them in bonds. This “daring, even reckless plot” to threaten military takeover of the government was part of the effort to care and feed the national debt, with an ultimate goal of concentrating wealth and building a nation out of that wealth. In the words of American historian William Hogeland, specializing in America’s ‘founding finance,’ Alexander Hamilton would represent, “the height of hard-working American meritocracy.”

Hamilton was clearly not on the side of the people, just like all the other traditional founders mentioned in this article. He was, after all, a person who was the “creator of both American finance and the founding wealth of the United States,” and wanted to hang Jefferson for treason. He also wanted to fund the national debt and worked to dismantle ways for ordinary people to “move up” the socioeconomic ladder. This anti-populist, pro-rich view is obvious in one of the defining features of Hamilton’s thought: “the essential relationship between the concentration of national wealth and the obstruction of democracy through military force,” since in his view, the government “must ally itself with the richest elements of society to make itself strong.” This concentration with the military in Hamilton’s thoughts is logical since he fought in the war and was an “early advocate for strong central government,” pushing what became his economic plan to the Continental Congress, while he took a leading role in suppressing the Western Pennsylvanian rebellion.

This push for a strong central government has its roots in the Constitutional Convention. He argued, like James Madison at the time, that a Bill of Rights wasn’t needed, but he went further: he felt that that Constitution itself was a Bill of Rights. At the same time, he was involved in speculation with Gouverneur Morris, and he had a direct financial interest in a new government created by the Constitution. Interestingly enough, Hamilton had “little part in the formation of the Constitution,” even though he was one of the main proponents who called for the Convention, because he was concerned about populist governments. This made his role in the Convention, which was consolidating the interests of different “groups of property rights in society” into the Constitution, more understandable. At the convention, he was joined by Madison, who had worked closely with him “for nationalism in the early 1780s,” and Elbridge Gerry, whom gerrymandering is named after, with the former proving important in the future.

Through the 1780s, Hamilton had wanted to fund the debt and help the creditors, in order to “grow” the nation. With a new government in 1789, this could become a reality. The federal domestic debt was already $54 million, and Hamilton worked up a plan to assume state debts, an idea borrowed from Gouverneur Morris, in an effort to create a “government industrial policy” encouraging size and efficiency while discouraging artisanal production. At the same time, in his view, “war, industry, and high finance combined in a great nationhood.” Hamilton proposed to fund these combined debts with “a single new…tax on spirits distilled in the United States,” the first federal tax “laid on a domestic product,” which was part of a plan to have “good credit” for the country by “sustaining a debt,” not paying it off. In 1790, Hamilton first introduced his 81 page plan to Congress called the First Report on Public Credit which explained his ideas in excruciating detail and was only the first step in his long-range plan for “an American society based on public credit, central banking, and public-private industrial development.” This plan had three main parts: expansion of the federal debt by absorbing state debts; paying interest on the federal debt, and raising revenue to pay interest on the debt, which went to bondholders, by having a federal tax on distilled spirits (the “whiskey tax”). Hamilton said that the whiskey tax was a “public-health effort” since many doctors testified on its behalf and that the law was a way to restore order against “debtor-class protest.” By March of 1791, the bill passed and became law.

For the popular finance movement, the law was a disaster. The whiskey tax itself was aimed at hurting the movement, while also benefiting big, industrial distillers and deeply hurting consumers. This was part of Hamilton’s approach to “republicanism from the authoritarian side.” This was evident when Hamilton used his power to cartelize the whiskey business for the rich and military-connected operators, which had the effect of removing access to cash for poor people and pushing small producers from the market. At the same time, Hamilton was pushing to charter the country’s first central bank, justifying it under the “necessary and proper” clause of the US Constitution. While industrial distillers, commercial farmers, merchant lenders and others were gaining from the whiskey tax, radicalism suffered a blow when the tax passed Congress. By 1794, dragoons jointly commanded by Hamilton and Henry Lee entered the rebellious area of Western Pennsylvania at the forks of the Ohio river. They began making mass arrests of US citizens, administering warrantless searches and seizures, and interrogating and intimidating detainees to produce false testimony. Hamilton not only pushed these harsh, authoritarian measures, but he wanted “an executive branch run by him, strong enough to do anything deemed in the national interest.”

The Western Pennsylvanian rebellion was crushed by brute military force. Alexander Hamilton’s dreams had long been “obstructed by ordinary people’s tactics” and he wanted revenge against ordinary people, who wanted egalitarianism, in order to enforce his vision which included “a moneyed class with the power to spur industrial progress.” The conflict that Hamilton was wading into was “really a conflict between the creditors and debtors,” with the new cadre of federal officers put in place to enforce Hamilton’s whiskey tax, and work on the side of the creditors. By the 1790s, Hamilton had “reconnected national finance with domestic military power” and the US, by 1791, had a government “with direct power over citizens throughout the states.” The suppression of the rebellion was brought on by sending federal marshals to the Forks region of Pennsylvania, and when the marshals were attacked, the federal government used this as a justification for a military invasion of the region. When the federal government occupied the region, they suspended civil liberties and used the military to police the citizenry. By 1793, many people across the country had been convinced by Hamilton’s newspaper articles and pro-war sentiment to express “hatred of the rebels” and support military action against them. Hamilton declared that the presence of federal troops made the area a battlefield and that the Bill of Rights didn’t apply. On what was called the ‘dreadful night,’ in Forks lore, all who were suspected to be guilty of a long list of offenses were arrested and their families were told that the offenders were “taken to be hanged.” Washington completely approved of these actions as Hamilton worked to “remove the heart of the people’s movement.” The captured rebels were released not long after but the damage was done. Hamilton even boasted that the rebellion “had strengthened the government…and…made national finance flourish,” by which he meant the suppression of the rebellion. After 1800, when Jefferson came to power, the whiskey tax was repealed. By this time, the forces of economic egalitarianism had been brutally defeated by military force and the power of the federal government, along with the creditors, had won.

George Washington

Usually, Americans think of George Washington as a star general and the country’s first president. While this is true, it is only a part of the picture. He was a respected political leader, a seasoned military officer and a “man of character.” He was also a law violator: he bought thousands of acres of land beyond the Appalachian Mountains, just like a contemporary, Robert Morris, violating the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Still, this law violating was really about resisting the British Crown, since he did not want the established order to be disturbed. This was because Washington supported and endorsed a strong federal government which made “the goal of national taxation a reality,” allowing him to argue that nobody favored these goals more than him. At the same time, he warned of engagement in Europe but he did not oppose Western expansion, resulting in “imperial subjugation of indigenous peoples.” He was also the richest person in the United States at the time, possessing a “large amount of fluid capital which he…invested in Western lands,” property in the form of slaves, and fear of policies pushed by economic egalitarian forces.

While he was pushing these goals, the Continental Army, under his command, was successful in Yorktown with French naval assistance. As Cornel West has noted, Washington’s army during the battle in Yorktown was 25% black, an interesting reality considering that Washington had a degree of “slaveholder’s mentality,” but freed his slaves when he died. Throughout the war, he had another dilemma. He thought that there were too many women within his Continental Army. Such women were “camp followers,” a name for thousands of poor wives and widows “who had nowhere else to go,” serving as cooks, nurses, washerwomen, etc… for the Continental Army.

Washington’s experience after the war and into his presidency is  glossed over in many histories. He played an important role in quashing a social movement, at the time. which was agitating for “democratic finance.” Other than his financial interests at stake, the military and investing class wanted a strong government that could “protect the creditors,” and Washington completely agreed with them, calling the Western Pennsylvanian rebellion prediction of the British. He was clearly standing against the movement led by commoners that challenged the power of “high finance,” and along with Hamilton, he wanted to end the movement. Washington had even played a part in supporting the threatened military coup, the Newburgh Crisis of 1783, pushed by Hamilton and the Morrises, against the Continental Congress. But, it was not until the Western Pennsylvanian rebellion that his goal would become completely true. He led troops personally against the rebels in the fall of 1794, while calling out the militia to suppress the rebellion.

While the Western Pennsylvanian rebellion is perceived as an anti-tax struggle, it was more than that. It was sparked by the first federal tax, a whiskey tax, but it was also centered around demands for progressive taxation, to make the rich pay more, taxes “in proportion to property,” “equal taxation,” and much more. In essence, it was the culmination of a “movement for radical egalitarianism” in the Western US at the time. At the same time, there was “terrorism against law-abiding citizens, armed attacks of federal officials” and organized succession of the region. Not surprisingly, there was a strong government response, with the actions taken by Washington even cited by the torture memo creator and war criminal John Yoo to justify George W. Bush’s actions. With federal officers killed, Washington “deployed the first federal force of any significant size” as a test of the viability of the new nation, and to establish law and order. The rebellion had become the scene of a struggle pitting George Washington and other contemporary founders against those Western laborers who were aggressively pushing for a “radical vision of the American future.” Hamilton served as his right hand man, coming up with a proclamation justifying the President’s military action. Washington even saw ‘Democratic Societies,’ groups set up as part of the excitement of the French Revolution as gatherings of politicians trying to convince ordinary people to engage in mob violence and sedition. Even though Pennsylvania’s governor opposed the deploying of troops to Western Pennsylvania and wanted the state legislature to approve it, since he favored ‘state’s rights,’ Washington went around him by issuing another proclamation. He declared in 1794 that he would refrain from authorizing new prosecutions against treason or crimes against the US for one year, and if “laws were obeyed, he would give a blanket pardon” for all those who committed such crimes in the past year.

The use of military force in Western Pennsylvania had another purpose. On one hand, the use of force was about having better public relations with Washington taking notes on the “minutiae of development” while there was some secrecy around him being in the region. On the other hand, he wanted law and order. He threatened the moderate rebels, telling them to be “cautious about inflaming others with antigovernment talk.” The methods to enforce order, in a region where tax collectors had been attacked since 1791, were not constitutional at all. At one point, it was declared that since the rebellious region was in a “state of war,” constitutional rights didn’t apply: loyalty oaths were forced on citizens, people were arrested and detained, warrantless searches and indefinite detention without charge were authorized, and protest meetings were discouraged.4  One might see how John Yoo, who perceived a similar situation in the world, could use this example and argue that constitutional rights didn’t apply to “terrorists,” just like Washington denying the rights to “rebels.” With the defeat of the rebellion, it would suggest that Washington would have rounded up Tea Partiers today, while none of those in the Founding era would support such a “movement,” if it can even be considered that.

With the rebels defeated, Washington believed it had resulted in support for federal law and the federal government by the American people, while allowing his land in the west to increase in price. The increase in prices was because land speculators, like Washington, didn’t want to open the Mississippi River until there was “some kind of national cohesiveness,” which was brought on by the suppression of the rebellion. The Western “land bubble” did not burst since there was a perceived “effective control” of Western lands, resulting in likely profits for Washington. Internationally, the French government falsely perceived the rebellion as a creation of federalists like Washington and Hamilton “in order to exercise absolute power over the American people and punish enemies in government.” The punishing of “political enemies in government” did occur with the Alien and Sedition Acts passed under the subsequent administration of John Adams. There was something more: people would be inclined to engage in “peaceable assembly” enshrined in the First Amendment, rather than violent action mirroring those in the Western Pennsylvanian rebellion.

Conclusion

This article has examined eight traditional founders in an effort to paint a different picture of these revered figures and to challenge underlying beliefs about them. Not every aspect of the lives of these founders is examined in this article, but new ideas are brought to the table. Six of these traditional founders were chosen as those who deeply shaped America’s destiny by establishment historian Richard B. Morris (he also chose John Jay). There is no need to use the term “founding fathers,” which was coined by business conservative President Warren G. Harding. Rather it is better to call such people, most of whom signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, traditional founders. This article does not cover all of the traditional founders, but it provides an opening for, as Horne puts it, a “more balanced presentation” of America’s founding. With ideologies, books, articles, and arguments relying on this founding history, it is more important than ever to get it right.

  1. This article focuses on eight traditional founders: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. []
  2. Instead of citing every time I use quotes in this article, which would be probably every other sentence, the books and specific pages of those books I used are noted below, with much of the article relying on books by Howard Zinn, Ray Raphael, Charles Beard, and William Hogeland:

    — Alfred N. Young, Ray Raphael, and Gary Nash. Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the making of the Nation. New York 2011, pp. 4.
    — Ann G. Serow, and Everett C. Ladd. The Lanahan Readings in the American Polity (Fourth Edition). Baltimore 2007, pp. 44-5). Used an excerpt from Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition reprinted in the book.
    — Charles Beard. Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (Second Edition). New York 1941, pp. 100-2, 111, 113-4, 124-5, 135, 144-5, 150-1, 194, 199, and 215.
    — Clinton Rossiter. 1787: The Grand Convention. USA 1966, pp. 184–85.
    — Cornel West. Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. New York 2005, pp. 43-4.
    — David Waldstreicher. Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. New York 2004, pp. xii-xiii.
    — Gore Vidal. Dreaming war: blood for oil and the Cheney-Bush junta. New York 2002, pp. 183.
    — Howard Zinn. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (Fifth Edition). New York 2003,  pp. 77-8, 89, 91-2, 95-7, 101, and 126.
    — John K. Alexander. Samuel Adams: America’s Revolutionary Politician. Lanham, MD 2004, pp. 29.
    — Library of America. Debate on the Constitution Part Two. New York 1993, pp. 975-6, 984, 997-8, and 1019.
    — Linda R. Monk. The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide (Third Edition). USA 2000, pp. 30, 33-4, and 37.
    — Michael Parenti. Democracy For the Few (Fourth Edition). New York 1983, pp. 68, 72.
    — Naomi Wolf. Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries. New York 2008, pp. 10.
    — Pauline Meier. The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams. New York 1980, pp. 26-28.
    — Ray Raphael. Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past. New York 2004, pp. 44-5, 55-8, 120-1, 123-4, 139, 147, 150, and 152-6.
    — Ray Raphael. A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence. New York 2002, pp. 151 and 153-5.
    — Rod Gragg. Declaration of Independence: The story behind the men who created it. Nashville, TN 2005, pp. 29-30, 32, 37, 41, and 45-46. Also used the pull-out about signers of the Declaration of Independence in the book.
    — Ronald M. Peters. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: A Social Compact (pp. 13). USA 1974, pp. 13.
    — Thaddeus Russell. A Renegade History of the United States (First Edition). New York 2010, pp. 21.
    — William Hogeland. Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776. New York 2010, pp. 11-2, 45, 60, 62-3, 65-6, 77-8, 124-5, and 180-1.
    — William Hogeland. Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation. Austin, TX 2012, pp. 28, 48-51, 54-5, 61-4, 66, 68, 81-4, 86-94, 99, 102, 110, 113, 115, 125, 133, 139-40, 146, 148, 150-1, 154-7, 160-5, 169-172, 175-6, 179, 181-3, 186-7, 204-6, 209, 220, 233, 237.
    — William Hogeland. Inventing American History. Cambridge, MA 2009, pp. 3-4, 11, 14, 20, 35, 38-41, and 43.
    — William Hogeland. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty. New York 2010, pp. 7-9, 28-9, 30-33, 37, 45, 49, 51, 56, 63, 107, 137, 142, 182, 186-7, 189-190, 196, 198-9, 203, 209, 212-4, 218, 220-1, 224, and 240-2. []

  3. This essay will call the “Whiskey Rebellion” the Western Pennsylvanian rebellion instead, since the former term was created by Alexander Hamilton and distorts the meaning of the rebellion. []
  4. During the American revolution, Washington ordered the execution of a random British captain in response to killing a “patriotic prisoner,” which are tactics similar in nature to the suppression of the Western Pennsylvanian rebellion. []
Burkely Hermann is an activist who wants to change the world for the better by imagining alternatives to the status quo of neoliberal global capitalism. In order to illuminate these alternatives and outline the status quo, he runs numerous online blogs, writes numerous articles, and uses his tech savvy skills to fight for social justice. Read other articles by Burkely.