How the Founding Fathers Protected Their Own Wealth and Power

Extremely wealthy landowners, merchants, and slave-owners held political power both long before and long after independence from Britain.[1] As we have already seen, many of the founding fathers battled to keep religious power out of government,[2] but they saw not the need for separation of State and business interests. Most of these wealthy men opposed democracy, and designed the Constitution to ensure the aristocracy would continue to rule society.

Historian Howard Zinn wrote, “The Continental Congress, which governed the colonies throughout the war, was dominated by rich men, linked together in faction and compacts by business and family connections”[3] and that the Constitution

illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law—all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity…

When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.[4]

The aristocrats made their desire for political power quite clear, in their pre- and post-Revolution repression of poor people’s revolts (Bacon’s Rebellion, Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion) and democratic movements aimed at redistributing property or abolishing debts. (Shay’s Rebellion, an uprising against debts and taxes, took place at the time the new Constitution was being written, in 1787, and certainly influenced its formation; see Zinn, Truth Has a Power of Its Own.) Nathaniel Bacon said, “The poverty of the country is such that all the power and sway is got into the hands of the rich, who by extortious advantages, having the common people in their debt, have always curbed and oppressed them in all manner of ways.”[5] The rich also structured their new government in a very specific way. Most of them believed the wealthy, the “well-born,” deserved decision-making power, not the common man. Alexander Hamilton revealed the common sentiment of class hostility and prejudice against the poor when he wrote:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people… The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government… Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in the mass of the people be supposed steadily to pursue the common good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy…[6]

So only rich representatives could determine what was best for the common American people, not the common American people themselves. As Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote, a “representative system, far from being a guarantee for the people, on the contrary, creates and safeguards the continued existence of a governmental aristocracy against the people.”[7] Many other founders echoed Hamilton, as is to be expected from those in the same socioeconomic stratum. John Jay, who helped write the Constitution and later served as the first Chief Justice of the United States, often said, “The people who own the country ought to govern it.”[8] James Madison argued senators should “come from, and represent, the wealth of the Nation.” He wrote the “turbulence and contention” of pure democracy (the people voting on public policy) threatened “the rights of property,” and sneered at politicians who supported giving all men “perfect equality in their political rights.”[9] He worried a growing population of laborers would “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of [life’s] blessings.”[10] “The danger to the holders of property can not be disguised, if they be undefended against a majority without property,” dangers including “agrarian laws” and “leveling schemes” and “the cancelling or evading of debts.” It was important to “secure the rights of property agst. the danger from an equality & universality of suffrage, vesting compleat power over property in hands without a share in it.”[11]

He warned that in a democracy,

When the number of landowners shall be comparatively small…will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.[12]

In other words, if you give democratic decision-making power to the landless, to the poor, to the majority, they might come for the wealth of the opulent (“agrarian law” is explained further below). John Adams believed, writes David McCullough, that

inequalities of wealth, education, family position, and such differences were true of all people in all times. There was inevitably a “natural aristocracy among mankind,” those people of virtue and ability who were “the brightest ornaments and the glory” of a nation, “and may always be made the greatest blessings of society, if it be judiciously managed in the constitution.” These were the people who had the capacity to acquire great wealth and make use of political power…[13]

To his credit (not really), Adams believed these men should serve in the Senate but the executive branch should be protected against their interests.

These men wrote of the need to protect the minority against the tyranny of the majority, but saw no threat in a minority of wealthy men withholding political and economic power from the majority. No great surprise, as they themselves were the rich, enlightened few. Though the Constitution and Bill of Rights granted unprecedented individual rights, the common citizen had little political power. Popular vote had almost no place in the government they designed. The popular vote did not appoint judges (it still does not), nor the president (it still does not, as the Electoral College has yet to be dismantled), nor Senators (until 1913; Madison himself said that “the Senate, therefore, ought to be this body” that protects “the minority of the opulent against the majority”[14]). The people only directly elected members of the House, yet only property owners were allowed to vote, further disenfranchising the poor and keeping power in the hands of the better off. Only in 1856 did the last state, North Carolina, do away with property requirements to vote. And of course, most aristocrats had few qualms about failing to protect the groups they were personally subjugating, such as black slaves, free colonists of color, and women. In fact, with Britain beginning to dismantle slavery, its preservation was a motivating factor for independence among the colonial elite — another instance protecting their wealth.

Granting decision-making power to the masses was out of the question. The founding fathers had interests to protect, their own minority interests. Thomas Jefferson noted that

Where not suppressed by the rod of despotism, men, according to their constitutions, and the circumstances in which they are placed, differ honestly in opinion. Some are whigs, liberals, democrats, call them what you please. Others are tories, serviles, aristocrats etc. The latter fear the people, and wish to transfer all power to the higher classes of society; the former consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them therefore, & wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competents. This is the division of sentiment now existing in the US.[15]

Jefferson, perhaps the most democratic of the founders, also denounced “the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country”; the aristocrats wanted to create for themselves a “government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations.”

As James Madison wrote, “Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”[16] He wanted “representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice” to check the “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project” the rabble might think up.[17] For Madison and others, it was vital for presidents, congressmen, and justices to come from the upper class, which was and is overwhelmingly the case.[18] The most dangerous ideas circulating in the poor majority were those of redistributing property and wealth, forgiving debts, and so on, to end poverty and suffering—the “agrarian law” Madison feared. Thomas Paine supported such redistribution—he wrote in 1795 in Agrarian Justice:

To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe. Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures…

Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state…. The first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period…

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal…. Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.

In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for…. Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds…[19]

Paine then suggested the creation of a national fund that would grant each person, man or woman, 15 pounds sterling at the age of 21, to compensate for his or her loss of a share in the common property of the earth. He also called for social security, suggesting 10 pounds be granted to each individual per year after the age of 50. Paine envisioned a one-time guaranteed income payment, social security, taxes on the rich, free public schooling, child welfare programs, public housing, and public works programs. His thoughts later inspired many socialists, like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen.[20]

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[1] See Zinn, The Politics of History, p. 57-71, for a discussion on the rule of the rich in pre-Revolution America

[2] See Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution

[3] Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 81

[4] Zinn, People’s, 99, 97

[5] Zinn, Politics of History, 61

[6] Zinn, People’s, 96

[7] Geurin, Anarchism, 17

[8] Frank Monaghan, John Jay, chapter 15, p. 323 (1935)

[9] James Madison, Federalist No. 10, “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued),”  Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787

[10] Chomsky, Common Good, 7


[12] Yates, Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787

[13] McCullough, John Adams

[14] Yates, Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787


[16] Federalist 10

[17] Federalist 10

[18] See Zinn, People’s, 260-261 for information on how class interests affected Supreme Court decisions

[19] Paine, Agrarian Justice

[20] Nichols, The “S” Word, 33, 46, 53;