Were the founding fathers libertarian?


Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
From the official US Postal Service history:
"Postmaster General Ebenezer Hazard, serving from 1782 to 1789, created new east-west post routes as the population expanded westward, including a route to serve the frontier town of Pittsburgh. Although he devoted most of his energies to developing inland service, Hazard also reestablished monthly mail service to Europe, which the war had disrupted.
Authorized by Congress in 1785 to contract with stagecoach companies to carry mail on heavily traveled routes, Hazard established a regular mail route via stagecoach between Boston and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. President George Washington criticized Hazard when he substituted riders on horseback on some routes to improve service and reduce costs. Washington supported the use of postal allocations for subsidiary purposes and looked at coaches as giving “a facility to the means of traveling for strangers … a circumstance highly beneficial to any country.”5
During Hazard's tenure the entire postal headquarters staff consisted of himself, a secretary/comptroller, an inspector of dead letters, three surveyors, and 26 post riders."
Early Postal Legislation

In other words, George Washington saw the Post Office as a way to subsidize private industry for the benefit of the country. So applying the logic of the modern conservative movement - George Washington was a socialist.

Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constition:
"Congress shall have the power.... To establish Post Offices and post roads."

I'm pretty sure the founders did not intend that only the Post Office could use post roads.

The debate over whether the federal government should facilitate economic growth is not unique to the last forty years:

From the 1852 Democratic Party Platform:
"Resolved... That the constitution does not confer upon the general government the power to commence and carry on a general system of internal improvements."
1852 Democratic Party Platform | The American Presidency Project

From the 1852 Whig Party Platform:
"The Constitution vests in Congress the power to open and repair harbors, and remove obstructions from navigable rivers, whenever such improvements are necessary for the common defence, and for the protection and facility of commerce with foreign nations, or among the States, said improvements being, in every instance, national and general in their character."
Whig Party Platform of 1852 | The American Presidency Project

From the 1852 Free Soil Party Platform:
"That river and harbor improvements, necessary to the safety and convenience of commerce with foreign nations or among the several states, are objects of national concern, and it is the duty of Congress, in the exercise of its constitutional powers, to provide for the same."
1852 Free Soil Party Platform

From the 1856 Republican Party Platform:
"Resolved, That appropriations by Congress for the improvement of rivers and harbors, of a national character, required for the accommodation and security of our existing commerce, are authorized by the Constitution, and justified by the obligation of the Government to protect the lives and property of its citizens."
Republican Party Platform of 1856 | The American Presidency Project

Other than a reversal of party positions, the Democrats and Republicans (and the Republican antecedent parties) have been arguing over the role of government in the economy since at least the 1850s. You can also google Henry Clay's American System. Government was smaller in the 18th century but doesn't mean it was libertarian in nature. It just means the founders hadn't thought of other things the government could do.
Likes: Niobe


Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
Obviously, even the Founding Fathers realized there were some responsibilities that fell to the federal government and they are enumerated in the preamble of the Constitution:
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
I think one could make the argument that the Founding Fathers were libertarian in many of their beliefs. The idea of a social services network was foreign to their way of thinking. The concept of the 'pursuit of happiness" implies opportunity, but not a guarantee of success. For me, these concepts parallel Adam Smith's "invisible hand" concept. The federal government was to have a light touch in the personal affairs of its citizens.
Likes: Niobe
Feb 2019
Turtle Island
No. Individuals like Thomas Paine and maybe Aaron Burr would certainly be left-libertarian by today's standards, but they would not approve of laissez-faire capitalism at all. As for the rest, most were pretty staunchly authoritarian.


Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
No. Individuals like Thomas Paine and maybe Aaron Burr would certainly be left-libertarian by today's standards, but they would not approve of laissez-faire capitalism at all. As for the rest, most were pretty staunchly authoritarian.
"Staunchly authoritarian?" How so?
Feb 2019
Pennsylvania, US
The Enlightenment movement that served as the baseline for many of the concepts used to create early American government and documents like the Constitution, was highly focused on the concept of Liberty being a *right*. The Libertarian party has a collection of political ideologies that revolve around upholding Liberty of the individual as a *right*, regardless of color, creed, orientation, etc. I guess I see the common denominator is the central idea of Liberty / autonomy / freedom / choice... however you view it... the Constitution being the creation of men seeking a model government for the Enlightenment era, and the Libertarians fashioning a party after the ideals upheld in the Constitution. Chicken... Egg, I think. Yeah?
Jan 2010
Atlanta, Georgia USA
I would say they were classical liberals, not libertarian. They believed in the rule of law, free enterprise and freedom of religion, and a nation.

BTW—as to internal improvements, that was a huge issue to Presidents Madison and Monroe, both of whom had been at the Constitutional Convention, and both of whom believed fervently that the federal government had no power to make internal improvements.

I believe all of the Founding Fathers—even Hamilton—would be appalled at the scope and power of the central government today. They may well have become libertarian.

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