07/4/15

The Vision of the Founding Fathers

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What kind of nation did the Founders aim to create?
By Myron Magnet — July 3, 2015

Men, not vast, impersonal forces — economic, technological, class struggle, what have you — make history, and they make it out of the ideals that they cherish in their hearts and the ideas they have in their minds. So what were the ideas and ideals that drove the Founding Fathers to take up arms and fashion a new kind of government, one formed by reflection and choice, as Alexander Hamilton said, rather than by accident and force?

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull

Signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull

The worldview out of which America was born centered on three revolutionary ideas, of which the most powerful was a thirst for liberty. For the Founders, liberty was not some vague abstraction. They understood it concretely, as people do who have a keen knowledge of its opposite. They understood it in the same way as Eastern Europeans who have lived under Communist tyranny, for instance, or Jews who escaped the Holocaust. Continue reading

06/22/14

Liberty or Equality?

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Myron Magnet
Liberty or Equality?
The Founding Fathers knew that you can’t have both.
Spring 2014
With the fulminating on the left about inequality—“Fighting inequality is the mission of our times,” as New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, summed up the theme of his postelection powwow with President Barack Obama—it’s worth pausing to admire anew the very different, and very realistic, modesty underlying Thomas Jefferson’s deathless declaration that all men are created equal. We are equal, he went on to explain, in having the same God-given rights that no one can legitimately take away from us. But Jefferson well knew that one of those rights—to pursue our own happiness in our own way—would yield wildly different outcomes for individuals. Even this most radical of the Founding Fathers knew that the equality of rights on which American independence rests would necessarily lead to inequality of condition. Indeed, he believed that something like an aristocracy would arise—springing from talent and virtue, he ardently hoped, not from inherited wealth or status.

In the greatest of the Federalist Papers, Number 10, James Madison explicitly pointed out the connection between liberty and inequality, and he explained why you can’t have the first without the second. Men formed governments, Madison believed (as did all the Founding Fathers), to safeguard rights that come from nature, not from government—rights to life, to liberty, and to the acquisition and ownership of property. Before we joined forces in society and chose an official cloaked with the authority to wield our collective power to restrain or punish violators of our natural rights, those rights were at constant risk of being trampled by someone stronger than we. Over time, though, those officials’ successors grew autocratic, and their governments overturned the very rights they were supposed to protect, creating a world as arbitrary as the inequality of the state of nature, in which the strongest took whatever he wanted, until someone still stronger came along.

In response, Americans—understanding that “kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people,” as Jefferson snarled—fired their king and created a democratic republic. Under its safeguard of our equal right to liberty, each of us, Madison saw, will employ his different talents, drive, and energy, to follow his own individual dream of happiness, with a wide variety of successes and failures. Most notably, Federalist 10 pointed out, “From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.” That inequality would be a sign of the new nation’s success, not failure. It would mean that people were really free. Continue reading

11/24/13

What would shock our Founding Fathers most about America in 2013

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By Myron Magnet
Published November 18, 2013
FoxNews.com
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Though the Founding Fathers made a revolution because they hated the idea of taxation without representation, soon after independence they recognized that taxation with representation could be tyranny too. That’s the whole point of James Madison’s famous warning about the tyranny of the majority in Federalist 10.

Yes, a democratic republic is the best form of government, he knew; but there’s always the danger that a democratic majority will illegitimately invade the natural and inalienable rights that government exists to protect — the right to life, liberty, and property.

The most likely form such an invasion of natural rights would take, Madison predicted, is the robbery of the propertied few by the unpropertied many, whether by unjust taxation, by debasement of the currency — which silently transfers wealth from creditors to debtors — or by a government-enforced abolition of debts or equal division of property, as the leaders of Shays’s Rebellion demanded in 1786 when they couldn’t pay their mortgages. The Continental Congress sent troops to put the rebels down by force.

That’s why, as the chief architect of the Constitution hammered out in Philadelphia the following year, Madison designed his mechanism of checks and balances. His main concern was to prevent the emergence of what Continental Congressman Richard Henry Lee had once called an “elective despotism.” (One sure sign you were living in one, Madison wrote, is if legislators ever dared pass laws from which they exempted themselves.)

In a genuinely free society, Madison observed in the Federalist, you will always have inequality. People have different talents, different ambitions, different levels of energy and willpower, different ideas of the happiness they are free to pursue. With liberty to exercise what skill and drive you have, some will grow richer than others. And liberty was all the American Revolution set out to achieve. It was the unsuccessful French and Russian Revolutions that promised equality and fraternity.

When the new government under the Constitution got under way, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton immediately designed a financial system to make the most of that liberty. Given that people have different talents and ambitions, he aimed to create a highly diversified economy that would allow people to develop those talents to the fullest extent possible. Everyone would have a chance to find his own niche and make the most of whatever vision and special potentialities lay within him.

Such a free economy would create a wealthy society, to be sure. But it was also an instrument of soulcraft, allowing individuals to become everything that they had it within themselves to become — something you can’t do if being a farmer or a shop clerk or a cog in the state machine are the only choices open to you.

So what would the Founders say if they saw trillions of dollars being taxed away from society’s productive members to provide means-tested benefits to around a third of the population?

What would they say if a family of four — grandma, mom, and two kids, say — lived without working in subsidized housing on welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and other benefits that cost taxpayers over $40,000 a year — more than a minimum-wage job pays?

And what would they say about a society that supported generation after generation of such families on income taxes that 10 percent of the population pays 70 percent of, and that nearly half the population doesn’t pay at all?

They would be horrified by the injustice of such tyranny of the majority, of course. But they would be no less horrified by the waste of lives that never even try to reach their full potential. This is what millions have done with the liberty that the Founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to win?

Myron Magnet is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal. He is editor-at-large for City Journal. His new book, The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735-1817 , is just out from W. W. Norton.

08/12/13

Hamilton Grange

The Harlem Heights home of the creator of America’s financial system

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08/10/13

Moving Hamilton Grange

We sometimes forget that New York’s history didn’t start with nineteenth century immigrants sailing under the Statue of Liberty’s outstretched arm and building the bustling commercial metropolis that exists today. In fact, the city was the first capital of the United States government established under the Constitution, the place where President George Washington took his first oath of office and set the constitutional machinery in motion. Continue reading

09/15/11
Wall Street Journal

Hamilton’s Shining House on a Hill

IT WAS BREATHTAKING to watch a team of practiced craftsmen coolly jack up Alexander Hamilton’s yellow villa in Harlem in June 2008, lift it over the neighboring church, and wheel it around the corner to a new site commanding an oak-clad hillside in St. Nicholas Park on West 141st Street, still on Hamilton’s original 35 acres. It was more breathtaking still to preview last week the National Park Service’s impeccable restoration, which opens to the public Saturday. Continue reading