How Libertarian Were Our Founders?

By Andrew Lepore | USA


Were the founding fathers of the United States Libertarians? We who prescribe to the ideology often find ourselves placing heavy emphasis on historical examples from the early republic, and quoting names like George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Paine. But how libertarian really were those figures, and do policies of the time truly reflect the libertarian bastion which many proclaim the early Republic to be?

Firstly for convenience sake, we will simply define “libertarian” as minarchist with the only real role of government being to protect life liberty and property, with virtually no interference by the state in markets or the economy. As well as a non-interventionist foreign policy. We will be using this as the ideal definition of libertarian, comparing this ideal to how well the founders (and the founding) matchup in philosophy and policy. Both advocates and critics of libertarianism have taken to the internet with claims such as “The founding fathers were libertarians” from the Ron Paul Institute, and “No, the founders were not libertarians” from The Federalist. Both of these titles are misleading and point to a simple black and white conclusion. Are those at the Ron Paul Institute saying all of the founders’ policies lined up with “Libertarianism”? And are those at The federalist saying the founders were in no way libertarian as if they were describing Mao Zedong? The question both of these publications should be asking is how libertarian were the founders? Even that question, which is the question of the day here, can be misleading. People may define libertarianism differently. Also as there were many founders with a variety of beliefs,: and how often they acted on those beliefs when it came to policy is another question. Of course, any analysis of this type requires some degree of simplification and subjectivity, it’s important to keep these variables in mind.

The truth of our founding is that it cannot be perfectly classified or lineated into one single ideology. Although that does not mean that the founders were not libertarian, or that libertarianism and the founding aren’t rooted in similar viewpoints. Truthfully, we haven’t seen a more libertarian government in the history of man, but the founding was far from perfectly libertarian as one would suspect. The strongest correlation between the two is the ideological foundation of both, which is strict adherence to the natural law of man, or Lockean philosophy. The natural law of man states that there are certain inalienable rights which are inherent in human nature, endowed by our creator. This language can be found most notably in the declaration of independence where Thomas Jefferson quotes

“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation

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.”

To me and other libertarians, there isn’t a word in this statement we don’t agree with. If anything it could be the introduction to the libertarian party platform. Us libertarians agree fully with these natural rights and believe protecting them is government’s sole purpose. But although the founders believed in a strictly limited government they did not make it abundantly clear that this was the only role of government. The tariff act of 1789, the Alien and Sedition acts of 1798, the adherence of slavery, and the ability of states to violate the natural rights of its citizens, among other things, are contradictory and show that the state could get away with doing much more than just protecting life liberty and property. This is where the founders delineate themselves from pure libertarianism, and also I believe to be the reason for the growth of the small government which our founders created, into the oppressive corporate monolith we live under today.

In conclusion, the framework with which our country was founded on is the same framework of libertarian Ideology. The adherence to the natural law of man. Though the two have much in common, the two are not mutually exclusive. Although the founders were not by any means pure blood libertarians, they were quite libertarian indeed.

1 thought on “How Libertarian Were Our Founders?”

  1. Actually . . . no, they were not “quite libertarian.”

    The founding fathers were remarkable and revolutionary thinkers, but their chief contribution to political thought was to demolish the “divine right of Kings” – the idea that God designated royalty to rule the common man. It’s an idea as old as society; the rationale being that if God had not anointed the King to rule, God would remove and replace the King. This thinking permeated all of government until the enlightenment.

    Against all that history, the founding fathers wrote this: “That to secure these rights [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The idea that government derived its “just powers” from consent of the governed, rather than by God’s selection of a King, was, well, something that flew in the face of all recorded history.

    However, the founding fathers never challenged the state’s “just powers,” and never challenged the concept of “taxation,” just “taxation without representation.” That is, they did not question government’s fundamental right to run other people’s lives, but instead were simply demanding a seat at the table of power. Their beef lay with King George – not with the core concept of government power.

    The core principle of the founders’ “minarchism” lay in what might be called “local control” rather than in any sense of real limits on the power of the state to assure that people don’t get “out of line.”

    You will not find a “libertarian” style government anywhere in the past. It is a philosophy for the future, and an idea far more radical and novel than anything the founders ever envisioned.

Comments are closed.