The United States was founded on protest and activism. What the founders thought of protest is an interview with historian Joseph J. Ellis about how our founding fathers might look upon today’s activism.
Many of the founding fathers felt that the activism that brought about the American Revolution was justified but they tended to tone it down afterward, believing that it should be channeled through the ballot box. Some of them, such as Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin would probably understand and appreciate much of today’s protests and activism. Adams might be leading a Tea Party. Jefferson would probably have problems with today’s lobbyists and special interest groups. I think Franklin would probably understand it best and be able to be a voice of reason.
Here are a few points from the interview:
- Jefferson believed that a little rebellion now and then was good for the tree of liberty.
- For them [George Washington and John Adams], mob action was something that had served a purpose but could now be channeled into organized political activity. They didn’t object to dissent in an organized fashion.
- The founders thought groups like political parties or lobby groups were dangerous violators of the principle of public service, that they were narrow and sectarian in their goals. They thought there was no real place for parties in the republic.
- Mob actions were very organized in those days. The leading citizens of the community would be pulling the strings and the goal was to make a political statement.
- The American commitment abroad would have a lot of critics since we now look like the British Empire. We are the hegemonic power of the day and, theoretically, a republic can’t be an empire. That would give virtually all of founders except Hamilton a great deal of trouble.
- The person who would be able to understand us best is Benjamin Franklin. He was the most agile and would have found a way to ingratiate himself with people opposing the banking industry or even American foreign policy. He’s the one who translates into the present with greatest ease.
I tend to be a bit Jeffersonian in my views but I can certainly appreciate the views of the other founding fathers. I agree with Jefferson in his idea that people have the obligation to oppose a government that strays from its true purpose and I honestly believe that the government has strayed and we have the government they warned us against. It’s broken and it needs to be fixed in a methodical, rational way that restores us, as much as possible, to the vision they had for this nation.
However, I’m generally not in favor of public demonstrations and picketing as forms of protest. When I see demonstrations and protests, I usually suspect the credibility of those who organize them and they negate my belief in and my empathy for the cause. Raising awareness and educating people about an issue are worthy and noble pursuits but there has to be a more effective way to go about it. Perhaps a more subtle approach is needed, making people think without them realizing they’re thinking and reaching them without hitting them over the head. [Edit – I’ve since realized that most Americans don’t respond to subtlety. Nor do they get concepts like sarcasm and parody (except as vehicles for entertainment).]
How do you do this? I have no idea. I’m probably living in some Jeffersonian utopia where the government that governs least governs best and individual liberty is prized. But it seems like it would be a good place to live.