Founding Fathers Would Not Approve of Occupy Wall Street

Those who wrote "We the People" disdained populist movements.

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Louis René Beres is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law and is a professor at Purdue University.

A core assumption of Occupy Wall Street is that expanding corporate corruption has undermined an obviously long-standing American democracy. We the People, assert the Occupy-ers, are historically accustomed to even a codified, Constitution-based, level of caring and regard. But today, goes the complaint, in especially hard times, we are forced to suffer the disproportionately corrosive consequences of capitalistic greed. These behaviors, the movement further alleges, have now transformed a once-respected American populism, into vile and entrenched plutocracies.

There is at least one thing troubling about this foundational assumption; it is plainly incorrect. From the start, from the very beginnings of our once-promising American commonwealth, the rights and privileges of We the People have been starkly limited. Such limitations, in fact, have been both statutory and customary. In part, this has been a reflection of deeply anti-popular sentiments spawned by the founding fathers. Indeed, in sharp contrast to the prevailing Edenic myth of American "equality," the early history of the United States conspicuously reveals undisguised leadership contempt for general publics and popular rule.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Occupy Wall Street]

The men who drew up the Constitution in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 did create a document that was stirringly republican. Just as surely, however, they did not believe in democracy. Rather, imbued with the philosophy of Hobbes, and the religion of Calvin, they expressed substantially anti-democratic sentiments at every turn.

For Edmund Randolph, the evils from which the new country was suffering had originated in the "turbulence and follies of democracy." Elbridge Gerry spoke unhesitatingly of democracy as "the worst of all political evils," and Roger Sherman frankly hoped that "the people...have as little to do as may be about the government."

Alexander Hamilton charged that the "turbulent and changing" masses "seldom judge or determine right," and even recommended a permanently constituted public authority to "check the imprudence of democracy." George Washington, the presiding officer, cherry tree and all, sternly urged the delegates not to produce a document "to please the people."

Understandably, Occupy Wall Street tries to overlook that the founding fathers had displayed a deep distrust of ordinary folk (the so-called "99 percent"), and a corollary fear of democratic governance. With no more than a half-dozen exceptions, the men of the Philadelphia Convention were scions of wealth and privilege, utterly disdaining We the People as a loathsome and contemptible "mob." Contrary to currently convenient revisions of our authentic history, any serious thought by the general population was then something that had to be vigorously discouraged. Said the young Governeur Morris: "The mob begin to think and reason, Poor reptiles . . . They bask in the sun, and ere noon they will bite, depend on it."

[See photos of the "Occupy" protests.]

"The mob." These patrician and implicitly plutocratic metaphors were originally open and unvarnished. Even Benjamin Franklin, whose comfortingly acclaimed faith in We the People was discernibly stronger than that of his colleagues, remarked that any general public capacity for useful citizenship must always remain doubtful.

In a similar vein, President George Washington, in his first annual message to the Congress, revealed very distinct apprehensions about public participation in government. The American people, he warned, "…must learn to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority . . .to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness."

None of this is to suggest that Occupy Wall Street is necessarily wrongheaded or misconceived. On the contrary, the movement's basic premise about the growing inequalities of an increasingly evident plutocracy is largely unassailable. What is worth noting is that this perilous development is not a true deviation from our core history and culture, but merely the latest continuance of a persistently oscillating polarity between We the People, and those who govern, manage, and control.