"Leave Us Alone" as a Political Philosophy
The Anti-Regime Regime
I ended my last long-form essay “Regime Change, American Style” by asking this question: How would America’s new post-founding, meritocratic society be organized politically? In other words, how would its political structure and organization promote a society that liberated and recognized natural talent and chosen virtue? In what follows, I attempt to explain how early nineteenth-century Americans conceptualized the idea of government in a free society.
A new nation made up of equally free and rights-bearing citizens necessarily required a new understanding of state power and the relationship between government and the individual.
In the 15 years between the publication of the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Bill of Rights, American revolutionaries began the process of dismantling the remnants of the Puritan-monarchical State. The Revolution ended the older notion of society as an organic whole, and it dissolved the social ligaments of the old political system that were formed by usage and prescription, paternal or maternal imagery, ties of blood and tribe, ranks and orders, prerogatives and patronage, and a ruler-ruled relationships.
In this new world, citizens replaced subjects, representatives replaced rulers, and democratically elected governors replaced hereditary kings.
The birth of this new social-political order changed forever the relationship between the individual and the government. The 11 state constitutions that were drafted between 1776 and 1780 and the federal Constitution ratified in 1788 (with its subsequent Bill of Rights) provided a political framework for a new kind of society—a free society. A free society is one that recognizes and protects large spheres of freedom for all individuals to think, act, and associate without interference from either fellow citizens or the government.
The sole purpose of the founding-era constitutions and the governments they created was to protect the equal rights of individuals, which is to say, to broaden the spheres of freedom in which they might live and act. This was the living credo of virtually all post-founding Americans.
The laissez-faire constitution constructed by the founding fathers in 1787 and ratified by the people a year later established a federal government with remarkably limited powers. Government in post-founding America was lilliputian in size and scope, and government power was weak and dispersed, which meant the American people were set free from government interference in their lives and given a wide berth of freedom to think, act, produce, move, and pursue their individual interests.
The Constitution of 1787 did not give the federal government the power to shape the souls of men or to forge a national ethos or way of life. There was no Department of Education or Ministry of Virtue when George Washington launched the first government under the Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson summed up the founders’ view of government and its relationship to the individual in his First Inaugural Address:
[A] wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another; shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement; and shall not take from the mouth of labour the bread it has earned.
Aristotle no doubt would not have considered the U.S. Constitution and the government it created to be a “regime” in the classical sense. “Happily” though for the American people, according to Stephen Simpson in 1831, “Aristotle knew little of the true principles of political economy.” (By the way, Hegel did not consider the government of early nineteenth-century America to be a proper “State” in the full Hegelian or Prussian sense of the term.)
A generation after the founding, Americans of the Jacksonian persuasion took seriously if not literally the third self-evident truth of the Declaration of Independence, which states that the purpose of government is “to secure these Rights (i.e., the rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness).
That’s it! Beyond that, government shall not go.
The Declaration does not say that the purpose of government is to make men good, equal, or happy. To do so would, of course, violate the rights of individuals (and there is no right to violate rights), which would then trigger the Declaration’s fourth self-evident truth, which says: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
In 1837, a newspaper editorial appeared in the influential Evening Post (New York City) that summed up quite nicely how virtually all Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century viewed the purpose of government, at least in theory:
We hold that all men have equal political rights. That the sole object of government is the protection of those rights; and that whatever impairs or infringes them, whatever gives privileges to the few, which are withheld from the man, or superior immunities, in any respect, to any particular rank or class of men, is an abuse of power, contrary to the great ends of political organization.
The Evening Post was certain that government is “founded on the rights of the people, and instituted for the express object of guarding them against the encroachments and usurpations of power.” More to the point, government is “instituted for the protection of person and property” and all the other functions that are sometimes attributed to government the people “can do for themselves.” Antebellum Americans did not need, nor did they want, according to the Evening Post, “government to regulate their private concerns; to prescribe the course and mete out the profits of their industry.” Nor did they need or want “fireside legislators,” or “executive interference in their workshops and fields.” Instead, the only thing the people needed or wanted from their government was “a general system of law, which, while it equally restrains them from violating the persons and property of others, leaves their own unimpaired.”
Three years later, the paper announced in an editorial on “Theory and Practice” that its policy was to recognize “that men have equal rights; that government, which is the guardian of their equal rights, should confine itself within the narrowest circle of necessary duties, the mere protection of that equality, by preventing the encroachment of one man upon the rights of another; and that all beyond this should be left to the influence of publick opinion, and those natural principles of commercial intercourse which are called the laws of trade.”
Half a century after the ratification of the Constitution, Gilbert Vale, a newspaper editor and essayist, announced in the pages of The Diamond, a New York City newspaper, that the only proper function of government was to protect the “natural rights of a man, as far as those rights do not interfere with the natural rights of other men,” which meant in practice that the “legitimate object of legislators and governors is to protect the natural rights of man, and not to take the control of the property of society.”
Likewise, the great nineteenth-century American poet, Walt Whitman, wrote in 1847, “The true office of government is simply to preserve the rights of each citizen from spoilation; when it attempts to go beyond this, it is intrusive and does more harm than good.” This, he continued, “is pretty much the sum and substance of the prerogatives of government.”
As President Martin Van Buren put it in 1843, “It is a maxim of every government constituted on free principles to withhold all power from rulers which is not indispensable to the preservation and defense of the rights of person and property.” In support of Van Buren’s view of government, Walt Whitman noted “There is not a greater fallacy on earth than the doctrine of force as applied in government.”
The idea of laissez-faire was more of a political doctrine than it was an economic teaching.
The Laissez-Faire Constitution and Self-Government
During the 60 years after the founding, the American people began to work out the full logic of their experiment in laissez-faire constitutionalism and what it would mean in practice for their government, laws, politics, economy, culture, and their individual moral lives. Beginning in the mid 1820s, a new generation of post-founding Americans began to think hard about the kind of government and society they had inherited and what they intended to do with it.
The founders’ progenitors were acutely aware of the fact they were engaged in an unprecedented but unfinished experiment to determine whether a free society was possible in practice. They also realized they bore a heavy responsibility to complete the experiment and to live up to the standard set by their forefathers.
In 1825, Charles Stewart Daveis, a lawyer and politician from Maine who was born the year the Constitution was ratified, told his countrymen that they had “entered upon a sober experiment” to determine “how far the simple moral principles of society are competent for their own political preservation.”
Six years later, Stephen Simpson, a veteran of the War of 1812 and newspaper editor who was born the year George Washington became president of the United States, declared that it had been left to the American people “to present to the world for the first time a self-formed government, whose basis was established in the equal rights of man.” For Simpson and his generation, the moral touchstone of their politics and view of government was the Declaration of Independence, which was “the first formal annunciation to the world that all men were born equally free, with equal claims to the pursuit of happiness, and with unalienable rights to self-government.”
The moral-political philosophy of post-founding America can be summed up in the idea of self-government. According to Daveis, “the office of self-government goes to the root of our system.” Walt Whitman announced in an essay titled “The Old World and the New” that “[h]ere,” in America, “we have planted the standard of freedom, and here we will test the capacities of men for self-government.” It is for the American people to determine, he continued, “whether the law of happiness and preservation upon each individual, acting directly upon himself, be not a safer dependence than musty charters and time-worn prerogatives of tyrants.”
But what exactly does the right to self-government mean in practice? What kind of government is compatible with freedom and individual self-government?
The idea of self-government is both a moral and a political concept.
Morally, self-government means both the right and ability of men to govern themselves literally without government controlling or interfering in their lives. One of the clearest expressions of the meaning of self-government was to be found in the writings of William Leggett, who was the editor of the Jacksonian-era newspaper, the Evening Post and the intellectual leader of the so-called Loco-Focos, a rump faction of the Democratic Party that promoted a free society. “As a general rule, wrote Leggett, “the prosperity of rational men depends on themselves.” They should be left alone so their “talents and their virtues” can “shape their fortunes.” It turns out that men are the “best judges of their own affairs and should be permitted to seek their own happiness in their own way,” untrammeled by power-seeking politicians and bureaucrats.
And what does self-government mean politically?
In 1834, New York City’s widely read Evening Post declared its hope that the United States was “destined to prove to mankind the truth of the saying, that the world is governed too much, and to prove it by her own successful experiment in throwing off the clogs and fetters with which craft and cunning have ever contrived to bind the mass of men.”
Three years later, another prominent publication, the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, announced to America what became the motto of the age:
“The best government is that which governs least.”
Others of the time summed up the political philosophy antebellum America with similarly pithy maxims, such as “Do not govern too much,” “Mind your own business,” “Leave us alone,” or “Pas trop gouverner [not to govern too much].”
The Age of Jackson was deeply skeptical of government and unjust and illegitimate political power. Charles Stewart Daveis noted in 1825 that society hitherto had “suffered from too much regulation,” and Stephen Simpson complained six years later about “all-grasping government.”
Then, in an 1837 editorial entitled “Strong Government a Danger to Liberty,” the editors of the Democratic Review announced in dramatic fashion their negative view of government, or at least the history of all governments hitherto:
[T]he whole history of human society and government may be safely appealed to, in evidence that the abuse of such power a thousandfold more than overbalances its beneficial use. Legislation has been the fruitful parent of nine-tenths of all the evil, moral and physical, by which mankind has been afflicted since the creation of the world, and by which human nature has been self-degraded, fettered, and oppressed.
On the positive side, the founders’ progenitors did see a minimal role for government in a free society:
Government should have as little as possible to do with the general business and interests of the people. If it once undertake these functions as its right province of action, it is impossible to say to it, “Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther.” . . . Its domestic action should be confined to the administration of justice, for the protection of the natural equal rights of the citizen and the preservation of social order.
Other than protecting the equal rights of all men, post-founding Americans rejected all forms of government regulation and wealth redistribution, and they accepted only minimal forms of indirect taxation.
In 1841, newspaper editor Gilbert Vale noted that all forms of wealth redistribution would be “giving to the state, to governors or to legislators, what never ought to belong to them.” The founders and their progeny viewed wealth redistribution as a form of legalized theft and therefore immoral because it “would require violence according to law to put it into order.” The wealth of individuals and of society is best left to individuals, who produce, trade, and sell more “when left alone.” The poor are much better off, Vale argued, when “obstructions of every kind” are removed and their freedom to produce increased.
Despite its obvious imperfections (e.g., chattel slavery and various economic regulations), antebellum America came closer than any society in history to the ideal of a free and moral society.
America’s founders proved Plato and Aristotle wrong by demonstrating that it was possible to have both a free and a virtuous society, that freedom is its own schoolmaster.
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