The United States was always this way

“The real difficulty is with the vast wealth and power in the hands of the few and the unscrupulous who represent or control capital. Hundreds of laws of Congress and the state legislatures are in the interest of these men and against the interests of workingmen. These need to be exposed and repealed. All laws on corporations, on taxation, on trusts, wills, descent, and the like, need examination and extensive change. This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.”

―Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes: Nineteenth President of the United States, (from REAL Democracy History Calendar: October 1 – 7)

11 thoughts on “The United States was always this way

    • You find similar quotes from the early 19th century as well. As far as that goes, this sentiment is essentially the complaint the Anti-Federalists (Real Federalists) lodged against the Federalists (Pseudo-Federalists) going back to the American Revolution when Thomas Paine and others fought not only the British Empire but also the corporatist war profiteers on their own side. The Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation were the voice of anti-corporatocracy. But we know how long that lasted before the plutocrats took control.

      • There’s a quote from Jefferson – I can’t remember where I read it – in which he essentially discusses the power of the wealthy to control events and profit from them. The class warfare aspect of the revolution is of course airbrushed out of the narrative as it would sound far too on point for contemporary issues.

        • Take your pick of Jefferson quotes on plutocracy and class war, and he was as opposed to concentrated power as he was concentrated wealth:

          “Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor.”

          “I believe the banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered.”

          “I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in it’s birth 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.”

          “There is…an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents…. The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provisions should be made to prevent its ascendancy.”

          “…vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of ’76 now look to a single and splendid government of an Aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and monied in corporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.”

          And here is Jefferson on inequality:

          “I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable, but the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree, is a politic measure and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions or property in geometrical progression as they rise.

          “Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment, but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.”

    • Two things the founding generation fought for and achieved.

      The first was ending primogeniture. As Jefferson and Paine understood the dangers of land accumulated into the hands of a few, many like them understood how inherited wealth leads to concentrated wealth and then how concentrated wealth leads to consolidated power as plutocracy and corporatism.

      That relates to the second concern. From personal experience, they knew the dangers of corporations. After all, they had just made immense sacrifices in a revolutionary war that was a struggle to largely overthrow corporate rule.

      The early lawmakers were careful to constrain corporations to charters in what they were allowed to do and for how long: couldn’t last longer than a single generation (20 yrs), couldn’t operate outside of narrowly defined purpose, couldn’t act in any interest other than the public good, and couldn’t be involved in politics.

      It wasn’t only the most radical of Anti-Federalists who thought this way. Even some of the more moderate and principled Federalists (Dickinson, Madison, etc) worried about the dangers of (Pseudo-)Federalism.

      • It should, of course, come as no surprise, that the same old toxic corruptions we have now, originated in what in any other Historical narrative, would be describe das a counter revolution. Here however, it’s as if “The Founding Fathers” in full patriarchal neo-biblical majesty just happened, the revolution just happened, and so on. Of course the truth, as always, is far more complicated. Were Paine and Jefferson alive to have witnessed “Citizens United” I have no doubt they would have reached for their muskets or at least inspired others to do it.

          • Well it’s an intriguing idea. Do revolutions ever end? They have peaks and valleys but one can with some effort connect, say, 1968, to 1776 or for that matter to 1789.

          • I’ve ever more come to that view. Revolutions don’t end. That is because history is continuous. What gets called a ‘revolution’ in history books is merely a passing conflict, an eruption within the flow of time. Revolution, etymologically speaking, is about some larger shift and cycle that is never limited to a singular historical moment.

  1. As an interesting side note, Herbert Hoover’s childhood home is a few minutes from where I live. Hoover was raised Quaker and it still is a small Quaker town. His parents died when he was young and he stayed with various family members in that town until he was 10 years old. But for a half year or so he lived on an Indian Reservation because his uncle had been made commissioner or something like that. And the person who appointed his uncle was President Rutherford B. Hayes.

    I visited his presidential library the other day. It was the first time I’d been there in a long while, maybe since the early Bush administration. It was educational and, now that I’m older, I had much more historical context for understanding what kind of person Hoover was. I came away feeling a bit impressed by him. He seemed like a genuinely good person. After leaving West Branch, he held onto some of his Quaker upbringing. He had a quiet way about him and a strong sense of social responsibility. His major failing was that he didn’t have a personality either for media or for politics. But he tried to warn about the Wall Street crash long before it happened. But all the most wealthy and powerful ignored him. Then once the crash happened, he got blamed for it.

    He was a Republican. Still, that was at the time when the GOP was still of the mindset of Theodore Roosevelt. That earlier political party had a strong element of economic populism. And of course it was the party of the North, of immigrants, and of minorities. As president, his wife was the first to invite a black person to the White House. Hoover was an old school progressive. As with many other first wave progressives, similar to early civil rights activists, Hoover wasn’t for big government solving problems and preferred to find local solutions that were communally enacted. On the other hand, he mistrusted big biz as well. He found himself opposing both left-wing corporatism and right-wing corporatism, leaving him few friends and allies in DC and on Wall Street.

    Sadly, he didn’t have the charisma and force of will to accomplish much as president, even though he had done a lot of humanitarian good in the private sector. It wasn’t because he hated government. But he saw it as an immense responsibility to be used wisely and cautiously. When necessary, he would wield the power of the government such as creating a tariff. Still, he preferred persuasion when possible — for example, he would seek compromise and cooperation between business management and union leadership. He wasn’t someone who enjoyed competition and conflict. Few other wealthy and powerful white men shared his moral vision of noblesse oblige, that is other than the Roosevelts.

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