If you are to believe that our country is, and always has been, a capitalist nation, it is logically necessary to conclude that our Founding Fathers — those wise, benevolent drafters of our future course (when not busy having sex with slaves and ripping off Indians) — must have been devoted capitalists. How else could they have put us on the path of free-market fealty? If they were the priests of the sacred American faiths of democracy and private property, it is they who must be responsible for our economic ideology as well, you would think. The problem with that conclusion is that it isn’t so much, well, true.
Capitalism is a collection of economic ideas cobbled together into a general theory. Its origins developed over time and grew out of the contributions of several thinkers. However, its first real formulation came in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, written to critique the monopolistic and inefficient economic practices of his day. Smith’s work debuted in 1776.
That year, our founders were well occupied with certain domestic affairs. Even if copies of Smith’s work were immediately available to them — in a day before Fed-Ex shipping and paperback editions — it is unlikely that our fighting patriots had much down-time for reading in economic theory. I think it was probably not the case that Washington — or more properly, his slave — thought to grab the twelve hundred page tome for ballast for the crossing of the Delaware, although it may have provided kindling for five minutes at Valley Forge. When Thomas Paine was drafting Common Sense, I don’t believe he included a shout-out to A-Smith and the free-trade boys. And, what with all the bombs bursting in air and musket-drilling going on, I doubt that many of the revolutionaries had much time for thoughtful scholarly perusals. C’est la guerre.
After the war, it took a few years to get any kind of national economic theory working — in part because the founders were largely opposed to any kind of national anything. The Articles of Confederation were hardly a blueprint for free-market capitalism. It took us a number of years to even embrace federalism — that is the notion that a nation exists, and then, the “nation” didn’t warrant an anthem, much less a cohesive fiscal approach. For the first years of the republic, our leaders couldn’t agree on having a national bank, let alone a shared devotion to an economic cause. Moreover, whereas Smith was opposed to the protective tariff (because it discouraged specialization and free-trade), A-hole Hamilton — probably our foremost financial planner of the early years — thought it a good thing. TJ (0f Monticello) thought individual agricultural self-sufficiency was the key to true democracy and equality. He had no interest in Smith’s industries. And, of course, Smith objected to slavery — which was the foundation of the southern agricultural system, and he had no boosters on that point among the many southerners who served as our initial leadership and dominated the Oval Office early on.
Capitalism did not develop in the United States, then, because it was promoted by our devoted founders. In actuality, the overthrow of the monarchy left a bit of a vacuum that was filled by incremental, organic growth. Since there was no longer a crown to grant the East India Tea Company a monopoly over the tea trade in the colonies, it was kind of up for grabs to all of the mom-and-pops that sprouted up. Essentially, in the early years, everything was a start-up (or start over). While our leadership didn’t necessarily get in the way of the development of capitalism in our country, they were hardly ardent supporters of free-market theory. It is, then, possible to conceive of an America — and American patriots — where capitalism was not joined to the political ideal, and any suggestions to the contrary are rot and propaganda.