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Founding Fathers: Right or Left?

There is a tendency (especially in today’s political climate) to frame the Founding Fathers in terms of “right” or “left.”  However, colonial Americans did not see themselves or the framing of the Republic through the 21st century “right vs. left” prism.  How could they?  After all, these terms were not generally used in America until 1900.1  The origin of the modern right/left ideology evolved from how members of the European French National Assembly were seated in the chamber in 1789 — quite literally where members sat in relation to the French King while performing their legislative duties.1   As political parties evolved in Europe, the French tradition of left/right seating continued with the communists/socialists sitting on the left side of the chamber and fascists sitting on the right side.2   Over time, the custom spread throughout Europe.  Today, Americans have conceptualized these political groups through a similar linear approach and have falsely assigned communists and fascists to opposite ends of the political spectrum when they are, in truth, NOT polar opposites.   If one looks critically at defining measures of freedom, communist and fascist models of government both represent controlling, intrusive ideologies.  In the years leading to WW II, the National Socialist party (fascists) in Italy and Germany sought to socialize many aspects of their economy on a national basis.  Likewise, communists wanted to create a similar system of governance, only they sought to implement it on a grander, international basis. Both groups cared little for individual liberty and pursued what they believed was in the state’s collective interest.  Although communism and fascism mildly differ in a few areas, overall, “…Communism and Fascism [turn] out to be different names for approximately the same thing – the police state.”2    Sadly, the same deceiving horizontal right/left scale has been used in America to “measure” Republicans and Democrats; that is, of course, assuming these groups also represent very different/opposite systems, when in many cases, they do not.  

Founders like Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence) George Mason (Father of the Bill of Rights)  Patrick Henry, and James Madison (Father of the Constitution) looked at government structures and purpose very differently.  They conceptualized government models in “up” and “down” terms, rather than “right” and “left.”  The Founders’ vertically positioned measuring stick gauged political power, not parties.  Dictatorships of all kinds were found on the upward spectrum of the scale, while the other extreme, anarchy, or the absence of government, was found on the downward spectrum. Constitutional historian, Cleon Skousen, asserted that: “the American Founders measured political systems in terms of the amount of coercive power or systematic control which a particular system of government exercises over its people.  In other words, the yardstick is not political parties, but political power.”2 

The Founders were naturally very deliberate about establishing a system of government that would maximize the freedom of its citizens. The precursor to the American Constitution was the Articles of Confederation.  Although drafted in 1777, they were not ratified by the 13 states till 17813 and only provided a loose confederation or “friendship” between the fledgling states.  Under the Articles, the federal government was too weak (many felt) to work long term and created almost as many problems as it attempted to solve.  In 1786, George Washington lamented on the fragile condition between the states when he said:  “Without an alteration in our political creed, the superstructure we have been seven years in raising, at the expense of so much treasure and blood, must fall.  We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion.”4    However, despite its inherent flaws, the Articles served as a necessary stepping stone toward the eventual implementation of the Constitution on June 21, 1788.5  Suffice it to say, the Constitution would not have even been considered by the states had the states not first seen and endured the failure of the Articles to govern.  The new national Constitution moved the federal powers “up” the scale just enough to solve most of the problems that existed under the Articles.  Justifiably, many Founders had serious concerns with the Constitution as it was initially proposed, excluding a bill of rights; they felt it pushed the scale too far upward and weakened the states’ autonomy.  Many worried that America was about to establish a new government that could too easily become a replica of the one from which they had fought to free themselves.  Founders like Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Thomas Paine were fearful that the federal government was amassing too much power and actively fought against the Constitution’s ratification.  The Bill of Rights was offered as a solution to ensure the individual state’s rights and the individual’s rights would not be trampled by the new federal Constitution.  With the Bill of Rights, the Constitution was ratified and accepted, and a new government was born.  Yet, in 1787, New York Supreme Court judge Robert Yates, anticipated the possibility that: “‘In so extensive a republic’ as the United States…‘the great officers of government would soon become above the control of the people and abuse their power for the purpose of aggrandizing themselves.’”6

By reading the founding documents and the words of the Framers, Americans can help restore the liberty vs. tyranny perspective that our forbearers held.  Using the up/down political scale, Americans can more clearly identify abuses made on liberty, rather than being distracted by the noise of political parties. Americans would realize that the Founders’ struggle for independence mirrors our modern challenge to preserve it, and that although kings and subjects have different names in 21st century America, the fight to retain individual God-given liberties is comparable.  Luckily, patriots of our generation have a clear advantage in confronting tyranny (regardless of its source or name); these advantages are found in the nonviolent tools that the Framers built into the republic, namely the Constitution, with its brilliant system of checks and balances. “We the People” still have a representative government.  We have the right to protest.  We have the right to vote with our feet.  We also have a rich history in the examples set by our Founders, in the self-evident truths found in natural law, and in common sense.  And most importantly, like our ancestors, we can rely on the Hand of Providence, seek His will, and engage ourselves in the fundamental restoration of America.

  1. Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Apr 2012. <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=political left right&searchmode=none>
  2. Skousen, W. Cleon. The 5000 Year Leap: A Miracle That Changed the World. 2006. 9-10. Print.
  3.  “Web Guides.” The Library of Congress. N.p., 30 July 2010. Web. 5 Apr 2012. <http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/articles.html>
  4. Parry, Jay A.,  Andrew M. Allison, and  W. Cleon Skousen. The Real George Washington. 2009. 650. Print.
  5. “Dates to Remember.” Constitution Facts.com. Oak Hill Publishing company, n.d. Web. 5 Apr 2012. <http://www.constitutionfacts.com/?section=constitution&page=datesToRemember.cfm>
  6. Pinheiro, John C. “Assessing the Anti-Federalists.” Religion & Liberty. 20.2 n. page. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. <http://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-20-number-2/assessing-anti-federalists>

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