It’s common enough in this age of divisive politics for writers or speakers who are decrying the authority of government to invoke the Founding Fathers to justify their positions, especially when condemning mask or vaccine mandates. The founders, some have said, would be appalled by the mandates being debated or imposed.
As an American cultural historian whose major doctoral field was colonial and early national American history, I suggest such appeals are very wide of the mark. While the founders opposed the imposition of British authority in the American colonies, they were not anarchists, and virtually all of them were quick to condemn anti-government protests, in the name of public interest, as well as societal and political stability. It’s complicated. What the founders most objected to in British colonial rule was the lack of input from those being ruled. The founders didn’t object to government mandates; they objected to not being consulted: no taxation without representation.
It’s tricky. Any declaration of independence, a secession, runs the risk of legitimizing still further secessions, as new dissidents become dissatisfied with the authority of the seceders, leading eventually to fragmentation, and anarchy. That’s why Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration that “prudence dictates that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
So, the state governments established during the Revolution, and ultimately the new federal government under the Articles of Confederation, all had central authority, and militias, to enforce public safety, and order. The Articles government was paralyzed, not completely unlike our own government today, by needing a unanimous vote for anything serious, such as taxation or defense. Not so the several state governments.
In 1775, Boston was hit with a virulent smallpox epidemic. Though the cause of the disease was poorly understood, there were two treatments that worked: quarantine, and inoculation, which had been developed in Asia and came to the colonies in the early 18th century. As the scourge spread, authorities imposed a mandatory quarantine. Moreover, visitors were prohibited from entering the city, a mandate enforced by troops stationed at the town’s entrances. Then, George Washington ordered that all troops in the Continental Army be inoculated, without exception. When the epidemic spread south, Philadelphia, then Virginia, imposed similar measures.
The disease struck again in 1793, first in Philadelphia, and then beyond. Again, the city government imposed stringent measures. To enforce quarantine, soldiery and police patrolled the streets, there were roadblocks, and houses and businesses were inspected. Among others, Benjamin Franklin endorsed the city’s plan.
There were other circumstances in which the founders voiced their support of government directives. When 4,000 farmers in western Massachusetts protesting taxes marched on a state armory in 1786, numerous of the founders condemned the action in harsh terms. John Adams, long a defender of strong government, thought everyone should be arrested and tried. His wife Abigail wrote to Thomas Jefferson in Paris that perhaps an execution or two were in order. Washington wrote that only a strong government could secure people’s lives, liberty and property. Henry Knox, the first U.S. Secretary of War, wrote that the incident persuaded many who had not thought so that only strong government could protect people and insure public stability. But perhaps most interesting was the reaction of Samuel Adams, whose leadership in the Revolution was as significant as anyone’s. After Shays’ Rebellion, he wrote that while in monarchies the crime of treason or rebellion might be pardoned or lightly punished, “the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.” Virtually all the founders loudly condemned the treason represented by Shays’, and more broadly all violent challenges to vested authority, with the exception of Jefferson in Paris, who Abigail Adams thought misunderstood the severity of the insurgency.
Based on these general thoughts of the founders, it’s likely they all would have condemned the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. It is also likely that they would condemn the repeated attacks on the Anchorage Assembly, and also on health professionals working to protect the public.
Right or wrong, the founders would argue, it is the law the provides safety and stability. The way to effect a successful grievance is to change the law, and those who make it. If you can’t do it that way, they would say, you’re illegitimate, politically and morally.
Steve Haycox is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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