What the Founders Thought of Protest

What the founders thought of protest: Today’s activism would surprise many of the nation’s first leaders. (original here)

Protests may be as American as apple pie, but the founding fathers had little appetite for them.

Though they themselves were activists during the Revolution, many of the nation’s first leaders believed that people should limit their activism to the ballot box.

Yet they played no small role in setting the stage for modern-day activism.

They protected free speech and people’s right to assemble in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson went a step further, saying that people have the obligation to oppose a government that strays from its true purpose.

“We have a republic that was established on a foundation that is activist,” historian Joseph J. Ellis said.

The author of many books on the era, including “Founding Brothers,” gives us a glimpse of what the first Americans thought of grassroots action.

What would the founders think of today’s activism?

We have had an activist insurgent tradition since the American Revolution. The tradition was led by Sam Adams, who founded Sons of Liberty and who regarded British law and British taxation as something illegal that we had an obligation to oppose.

He would organize mobs that would appear at your door if you were a stamp collector and destroy your property. That’s as American as apple pie.

Did they feel the same way once they became the rulers?

Once the Revolution was over, they were of two minds. The founders began to believe that the activism that was justified in the Revolutionary era was no longer appropriate and that the proper way to express political convictions is by voting.

There was, however, another way of seeing it. In 1786, Daniel Shays led a protest in Western Massachusetts saying that the government in Boston was not representing their interests. There was also a Whiskey rebellion a few years later in Pennsylvania over what people believed were unfair taxes.

You’ve got this dual mentality. On the one hand, activists are hallowed heroes of the Revolution. But once the nation is established, there was a question of to what extent protest should be allowed.

Did the founders discuss that polarity?

People like Thomas Jefferson regarded Shays’ Rebellion as perfectly okay. Jefferson believed that a little rebellion now and then was good for the tree of liberty.

Then there were people like George Washington and John Adams, the first presidents, who wanted to try to stop this kind of activism. They called attention to the fact that such actions were no longer justified when you could vote for your leaders.

For them, mob action was something that had served a purpose but could now be channeled into organized political activity. They didn’t object to dissent in an organized fashion.

Did they want people to organize into parties?

Today’s partisan principles and lobbyists would surprise them. They believed the concept of the republic was different from the will of the people. The republic represented the long term interest of people, and they saw the politicians’ role as attempting to divine what the larger public interest was.

The founders thought groups like political parties or lobby groups were dangerous violators of the principle of public service, that they were narrow and sectarian in their goals. They thought there was no real place for parties in the republic.

Jefferson even said that if he could not go to heaven but with a party, he would not go there at all. That kind of virtuous republic didn’t last very long in fact.

What did early protests look like?

In 1796, the Jay Treaty with the British prompted mass protests up and down the Atlantic Coast. It was one of the most unpopular pieces of legislation, even though it turned out to be one of the wisest.

Secretary John Jay, who negotiated the deal, even said, “I could walk the length of the United States at night merely by the light of all my burning effigies.”

Mob actions were very organized in those days. The leading citizens of the community would be pulling the strings and the goal was to make a political statement.

It was usually designed not to endanger life but property. To the extent that you stood in the way, they might tear your house down or even tar and feather you.

The mobs in early American history are orchestrated. In some ways, the founders believed there were good mobs and bad mobs. The good mobs are like the one that threw tea into the Boston Harbor and the bad ones are like the ones that destroyed the French nation. They believed America has good mobs.

Did they anticipate the role special interest and corporations would come to play? Did they think powerful voices needed to be controlled?

The Jeffersonian party was opposed to the federal program to create a national bank. They believed the idea created by Alexander Hamilton was the creation of a moneyed aristocracy that was dangerous and at odds with the interest of the agrarian nation of the United States.

There is this fear, not so much of corporations, as of the banking industry. I imagine they would hate the major investment banks of today, especially the financial capitalists that don’t make any product and whose income comes from moving money around.

You can see that incipient hostility among Jeffersonians to any kind of financial elite whose own wealth depends upon taking it away from other people. But Jefferson never understood economics. He died bankrupt as did a lot of Virginia planters.

Hamiltonians would say that the kind of banking system we’ve created has given the nation economic and fiscal responsibility. It ensured that the new United States of America would not be as a banana republic.

Still, popular opinion was on Jefferson’s side, and it was the beginning of an anti-Goldman Sachs opinion in this country.

Which of the founders would be most likely to protest today?

Someone like Sam Adams, who was a kind of Lenin of the American Revolution, would be involved in mobilizing popular opinion against the Goldman Sachs of the world. Most of the founders aren’t comfortable in leading a mob in the way Sam Adams was.

The American commitment abroad would have a lot of critics since we now look like the British Empire. We are the hegemonic power of the day and, theoretically, a republic can’t be an empire. That would give virtually all of founders except Hamilton a great deal of trouble.

The person who would be able to understand us best is Benjamin Franklin. He was the most agile and would have found a way to ingratiate himself with people opposing the banking industry or even American foreign policy. He’s the one who translates into the present with greatest ease.

2 Responses to “What the Founders Thought of Protest”

  1. 1 Alan Scott
    29 July 2010 at 19:19


    ” The person who would be able to understand us best is Benjamin Franklin. He was the most agile and would have found a way to ingratiate himself with people opposing the banking industry or even American foreign policy. He’s the one who translates into the present with greatest ease. ”

    I am not sure I agree with you . I read his Auto Biography which only covers his life before the Revolution. I also have seen documentaries on his actions leading up to and during the Revolution. I have forgotten much of what I read years ago, so I am open to your explanation of what you mean . Intellectually he may have been the greatest of the Founding Fathers, though during the Revolution he was quite past his prime.

  2. 30 July 2010 at 00:25

    @Alan Scott: You don’t agree or disagree with me. I am not the author of the above piece.

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