Even in an age of declining civic education, a basic understanding of the founding generation thankfully remains part of America’s secular catechism. Over the past decade, the Founding Fathers have even enjoyed a renaissance. Creative storytellers like David McCullough and Lin-Manuel Miranda breathed life into stories we thought we knew. The Obama years birthed a tea party movement that had at its center a restoration of constitutional principles. And now, in the age of Trump, progressives have discovered a strange new respect for the importance of the Constitution’s checks and balances and restraints against majoritarian impulses.
But even with their newfound fashionability, the founders remain widely misunderstood. Names like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton still carry weight, but the ideas they espoused get discarded. Other key figures—individuals whose words and ideas contributed much to the founding—are either relegated to the footnotes or missing altogether from our nation’s popular history.
The familiar narrative many of us were taught as children about our founding—that great men came together to forge a Constitution that set America on its present course—isn’t exactly true. Much of it has been deliberately crafted as a means of justifying our modern political whims. History is, by its nature, about the battle of ideas. The problem comes when we look to history not to understand it or draw inspiration, but to seek out confirmation for our pre-existing beliefs.
Take Alexander Hamilton, a brilliant man who spoke up during the debates over the Constitution as one of the most fervent advocates of a robust national government. Today, he’s embraced by many advocates of Big Government as a kindred spirit—doubtless thanks in large part to Miranda’s smash hit Broadway show, “Hamilton,” which recontextualizes the founder as a hardscrabble immigrant who arrived in New York and, with cunning ambition, worked his way to the top of American society.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign adopted Hamilton as something of a mascot—quoting from Miranda’s lyrics in speeches and renting out the entirety of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre for a special performance of the musical as a fundraiser. Clinton is by no means the first liberal to claim Hamilton as one of her own. A century earlier, Herbert Croly, one of the most influential progressive intellectuals of the period and co-founder of The New Republic, praised Hamilton for advocating a policy of “active interference with the natural course of American economic and political business and its regulation and guidance in the national direction.”
It’s understandable why progressives would imagine Hamilton as their partisan, Big Government comrade. But this understanding of Hamilton is based on a deeply distorted image of him.
Call it the “Hamilton Effect”: Twisting history to suit one’s ends, willfully ignoring and ultimately erasing it when it stands in your way.
If we knew our history—the true and complete stories of how our nation came to be—we’d know how to fight back against the progressive agenda. And we’d be a lot less likely to accept its overreach.
Our Constitution was the result of a brilliant compromise between the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists—between those who championed a divided and limited but strong central government, and those who feared that almost any central government would expand its authority at the expense of individual liberty and state autonomy. During the debates surrounding the Constitution’s drafting and ratification, the doubts, skepticism, and outright fear of what it would bring ultimately made the document stronger and more just.
We are the beneficiaries of the Great Compromise between those two factions, but too many of us don’t fully understand or appreciate that fact. And that is because history, over time, tends to remember only one side of the argument, crowding out dissenting voices and obscuring the full story of the American experiment.
Most of us, for example, are never presented with the arguments raised by the Anti-Federalists, who opposed the Constitution’s ratification based on concerns that it would vest too much power in the federal government and thereby imperil liberty. And just as disturbing, many of the Federalists have been mischaracterized as early advocates of big government. Some have tried to portray the founders as proto-progressives, even though the founders lived a full century before there was anything even resembling a “progressive.”
Those perpetuating this mischaracterization have done so by erasing the essential truth that underlies a full understanding of the Constitution: the fact that nearly every founder shared a healthy skepticism of a large federal bureaucracy—which they feared might grow to include some of the worst features of the very government they had just fought a revolution to escape.
Over the past century in particular, historians and politicians who consider themselves more enlightened than the founders have done special damage to the legacy of the founding generation, a legacy that warned against the dangers of a distant, centralized government.
All but forgotten are the Anti-Federalists, whose names lack the familiar ring of Hamilton or Madison. Some were framers, like Luther Martin, a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the Constitution based on what he perceived as its failure to protect individual rights; or Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts delegate who argued strongly for what would become the Bill of Rights; or George Mason, the Virginia statesman who fought and warned against government intrusion into commerce between individuals and states. Mercy Otis Warren, one of America’s first female writers and a John Adams protégée-turned-Anti-Federalist activist, was not at the Constitutional Convention, but during the ratification fight, used her acid pen to rail against the encroachment of federal power.
The founders had sincere disagreements over the size and scope of the government and where its powers should be vested. And in studying their disputes, we can begin to see just how far afield we’ve strayed from our founding ideals.
No one living in America in the late 18th century—certainly none of the brilliant minds who forged our founding documents, be they Federalists or Anti-Federalists—could have contemplated just how strong, or how large, the federal government would become. Nor could they have imagined how much control the city named for George Washington would come to have over ordinary citizens.
This is true even of the most vocal advocates for a strong central state, like Hamilton. It is true that he fought vigorously for ratification of the Constitution. It is true that he believed that a federal government should have the power to accomplish a number of things that it could not do under the Articles of Confederation. But what Hamilton’s fans on the left neglect to mention, or in some cases don’t even realize, is that he never envisioned—and certainly never favored—the sort of massive, intrusive, unaccountable federal government that today thrives in Washington, D.C. Once the Constitution was in place, Hamilton scoffed at and ridiculed the idea that the federal government could be anything other than the modest, divided, and tightly constrained government outlined in that document.
In The Federalist Papers, a series of essays published throughout the colonies in support of the new Constitution, Hamilton and his co-authors, James Madison and John Jay, responded to one of the most pressing concerns articulated by other founders: that the Constitution could become a Trojan horse for oppressive government. Hamilton thought such a notion ludicrous, even paranoid. “Allowing the utmost latitude to the love of power which any reasonable man can require,” Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 17, “I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation the persons intrusted with the administration of the general government could ever feel to divest the States of the authorities of that description.” The “government of the Union,” he insisted, could never become “too powerful … to enable it to absorb those residuary authorities, which it might be judged proper to leave with the States for local purposes.”
Supposing that such a perversion of the Constitution was attempted, Hamilton wrote, the states and localities would rightfully be more powerful than a central government. “It will always be far more easy for the State governments to encroach upon the national authorities than for the national government to encroach upon the State authorities,” he predicted—which may come as a surprise to those who would claim his support to do just the opposite today. In Federalist No. 32, Hamilton explained to wary observers that “state governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had” prior to the Constitution’s ratification, as long as those powers had not been “exclusively delegated” to the federal government—making the Constitution’s real goal, in Hamilton’s view, “only … a partial union or consolidation.”
This was a view shared by his colleague, Madison, who wrote in Federalist No. 45 that “the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
In short, their view of what the federal government—first in Philadelphia and then in Washington, D.C.—was meant to be, and what the Constitution clearly intended, is not at all what that government has become over the past 80 years. The founders did not envision a Congress that would take more and more power from states and localities, regulating nearly every aspect of human existence—education, agriculture, health care, commerce, transportation, among others. They did not envision a Supreme Court that would find thin justifications in the Constitution to support such a massive federal expansion. They did not envision a Congress so weak and willing to delegate its lawmaking power to unaccountable bureaucrats in the executive branch and judges in the judicial branch.
None of this, by the way, is the fault of the Constitution, which was and remains the greatest governing document ever devised by human beings. This happened because we’ve lost any sense of what federal power the founders intended the Constitution to allow, and what it intended to limit.
Some of the most prescient warnings offered by our founders have been lost to history—especially those most fiercely resistant to the Constitution and skeptical of Big Government—because we’ve never been allowed to hear them in the first place.
An understanding of the Constitution and the debates that forged it is not transmitted from one generation to another through the bloodstream. It must be taught, learned and followed with each successive generation. Whenever that fails to happen, the Constitution—and with it, the liberty and prosperity of the American people—is left unprotected.
But even if we don’t automatically inherit an understanding of the Constitution, we do inherit a right to the kind of government it promises. Too many Americans today have settled for less than the constitutional, liberty-minded republic they deserve. They have done so not because they dislike the Constitution or need the blessings provided by a government that honors it, but rather because they—like many they have elected to represent them in Washington—have been misinformed (or perhaps, underinformed) about the kind of government they are entitled to as U.S. citizens.
The good news is that the knowledge that is so crucial to protecting our Constitution has not been entirely lost, and can still be recovered with relative ease. Over the course of my nearly lifelong study of the Constitution and the era of our nation’s founding, I have discovered many stories that challenge what we take to be conventional wisdom about America’s birth—the “origin story” of our country. These are the stories of Americans you may never have heard of, and who may not receive much coverage in history books: the story of a slave who fought and won her freedom by arguing for her natural rights in court; the story of a vice president who stopped his own president from using executive power to “purge” the federal judiciary; the story of an Iroquois leader who inspired a founder with early principles of federalism.
All of them, in their own way, helped to explore, test and refine the concepts of freedom and liberty as they were applied to form what would become the world’s greatest republic. Taken together, their threads combine to add richness and depth to the great tapestry of American history.
Only when we fully understand that history can we avoid petty politicization of the founders’ legacy. Only then can we counter the Hamilton Effect.