We’ve arrived once again at that time of year — Independence Day — when the op-ed pages of America’s newspapers fill up with celebrations of democracy and the American Revolution’s enormous contribution to it.
But this year’s hearty salutes to the Spirit of ’76 come against an unsettling backdrop. We don’t just have a sitting president elected with a distinct minority of the vote. We have as president a man of enormous wealth, who suggests that individuals of enormous wealth should run our government.
“I just don’t want a poor person” in the cabinet, President Trump recently told a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The President wants rich people in the cabinet — and he has them. Mega-millionaires and a few billionaires make up most of his key top appointments. And that rates as a good thing, the President assures us.
“Somebody said, ‘Why’d you appoint rich person to be in charge of the economy,’” he explained in Iowa. “I said, ‘Because that’s the kind of thinking we want.’”
Back before the American Revolution, the rich and powerful in America’s original 13 colonies thought along the same lines. Men of means, they felt, deserved to run the colonial show. Property qualifications for voting and office-holding, historian Clement Fatovic points out, kept colonials of modest means sitting on the political sidelines.
These rigged rules “concentrated political power in the hands of the wealthy,” Fatovic notes in his 2015 book, America’s Founding and the Struggle Over Economic Inequality. But the outbreak of the American Revolution shook up this “politics of deference.” Average colonials, Fatovic shows, “became more outspoken in questioning hierarchical attitudes and practices.” Patriots made one of their early targets “the notion that the rich have a right to govern.”
Even many of the rich themselves began to question that right. On one level, they had no choice. The need to “mobilize people for the struggle for independence,” Fatovic observes, “compelled elites to rethink the role of the marginalized and subordinated.”
“Equality,” adds historian Gordon Wood, would end up becoming “the most radical and most powerful ideological force let loose in the Revolution.”
Nothing would do more to ensure the success of the new American republic, Noah Webster would proclaim during the debate over the Constitution, than achieving “a general and tolerably equal distribution of landed property.” Nothing would destroy that republic quicker, he told his peers, than tolerating a “vast inequality of fortunes.”
In the years right after the American Revolution, illustrious leaders like Thomas Jefferson would join the likes of Noah Webster and, as Fatovic details in his revealing history, unleash “a steady volley of criticisms against the ills of economic inequality.”
Severe inequality, Jefferson charged, locks in “patterns of domination and dependence.” Vast divides between the rich and everyone else, other critics of inequality added, erode trust and corrode social solidarity.
The leaders of America’s founding generation, Fatovic acknowledges, had “complicated and sometimes inconsistent views.” Some like Jefferson could declare a commitment to greater equality and still hold slaves. Others like Benjamin Rush, a doctor in Philadelphia who signed the Declaration of Independence, called for an end to slavery. Emancipation would “diminish opulence in a few,” Rush explained, “and promote that equal distribution of property, which appears best calculated to promote the welfare of Society.”
But all these early leaders of the American nation shared a commitment, as Connecticut Congregational minister Benjamin Trumbull put it, “not to suffer a few persons to amass all the riches and wealth” of their young nation.
We would do wise to pay heed to their counsel. After all, as Clement Fatovic reminds us, these early Americans were undertaking what amounted to “an experiment in self-government.”
“The recognition that this experiment could fail,” Fatovic notes, “made them highly sensitive to the conditions necessary for its success.”
Much of the generation of 1776 saw economic inequality as the prime threat to that success. We should, too.