The Spirit of 76 vs. The Arc of History

Joseph Ellis has a thought-provoking op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times on the the founding fathers, the big vs. small government debate, and the arc of American history.

He shows that today’s small government, tea-party, libertarian types have Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence on their side, but those who defend active or “expansive” government can claim the framers of the Constitution, Lincoln and the Civil War unionists, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Ellis writes:

This brief tour of American history, which could be extended to include Lyndon B. Johnson‘s Great Society, reveals that modern-day conservatives have “the spirit of ’76” on their side, as well as the power of Jefferson’s original formulation of the American creed. Liberals, on the other hand, have the arc of American history on their side, which until the presidency of Ronald Reagan seemed to have the final word in the debate. After all, who could imagine a successful political movement requiring the revocation of two centuries of American history? Barry Goldwater, who campaigned for president in 1968 on just such a radical agenda, received only 38% of the vote.

While realistically this is still so — unless American voters are prepared to dispense with Medicare, Social Security, the Federal Reserve Board and even our existence as a sovereign nation-state — at least rhetorically conservatives have a narrative advantage. That is, their story of individual freedom and tyrannical government enjoys a privileged place in the lexicon because of its association with our political origins.

As a historian of those origins, I can tell you that there were dissenting voices back in the summer of 1776, most notably George Washington and John Adams, who regarded Jefferson’s dream of pure self-government as a preposterous illusion. Washington even thought that we almost lost the war for independence because of the refusal of the states to provide sufficient support for the Continental Army.

But the dream has proved remarkably resilient because it depicts any conspicuous expression of government power as an alien force and sanctifies the sovereign individual, standing tall against oppression. Even though that story line has been anachronistic for more than a century, it has levitated out of space and time to become a fixture in American mythology, never to be underestimated as a political weapon, especially when wielded by the party out of power….

If Ellis is correct (and I think he is), then libertarians should stop claiming the Constitutional framers, Washington, Adams, and Lincoln as their own.  Instead they should be claiming the libertarian vision of Thomas Jefferson.

Actually, if Jefferson did not have a God problem (he did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the inspiration of the Bible, the Trinity, etc…) he would be the perfect founding father for libertarian conservatives.

BUT WAIT!…it now appears that Jefferson actually did NOT have a God problem after all.  He has been officially baptized by David Barton!  As a result, the small-government conservative movement now has a patron founding saint–someone who was libertarian in politics and a supporter of government’s role in promoting religion.

BUT WAIT AGAIN!  How could Jefferson, a libertarian who wanted government to stay out of our business, have supported government’s active role in promoting religion in the public square?  Isn’t the promotion of religion an example of active government–a violation of the libertarian creed?

How do Christian libertarians balance their commitment to limited government with their desire for government to legislate morality and religion?

One thought on “The Spirit of 76 vs. The Arc of History

  1. In response to your last question, John, I don't. That's why I'm a libertarian. The proper function of government is the protection of individual liberties, not the promotion of Biblical morality.

    The Tea Party may use various libertarian catchphrases, but underneath it's basically the New Right with perhaps a rearrangement of priorities towards fiscal concerns. It's not really libertarian.

    For example, the principal libertarian candidate in the Republican primaries, Ron Paul, consistently underperformed among self-proclaimed Tea Partiers while Rick Santorum–a resolute defender of state paternalism–often carried their vote (with Mitt Romney somewhere in between). To paraphrase Jon Stewart, the Tea Party is just “the Moral Majority in a three cornered hat.”

    Ellis is right. Modern-day libertarians really should be all that enamored with the federalists and the Constitution. It's Jefferson and the anti-federalists who we ought to celebrate. (I particularly loathe Alexander Hamilton and John Adams thanks to Gordon Wood's “Empire of Liberty.”)


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