Created Equal? Founding Era Tensions on Economic Fairness

From New Deal 2.0:

William Hogeland
Monday, 04/11/2011

In 1776, rowdy Democrats fought for equality. But their notions didn’t suit early elites.

“All men are created equal,” the Continental Congress famously announced in the document that came to be known as the Declaration of Independence. These are powerful words — and reflecting on America’s founding struggles over money and finance can give the familiar phrase new resonance. For even as Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration in a small, hot room in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, the democratic popular finance movement was blooming in America. Throughout the country, ordinary people placed all hopes on America declaring independence from England. Equality was indeed their goal. And by this, they meant economic fairness: A newly level playing field where they could compete for prosperity.

Near the room where Jefferson wrote, the most successful of those democratic movements was coming to fruition in Philadelphia’s Carpenter’s Hall. To the artisans, laborers, mechanics, and militia privates gathered there, declaring independence from England offered an amazing chance for creating a new kind of government, fostering fairness for the less propertied, even the unpropertied; obstructing traditional high-finance privilege; and giving the ordinary people access to representation and economic opportunity. Right down the street from the Pennsylvania State House where the Congress met, supporters of this democratic movement were seizing the moment of crisis with England to bring about an economic revolution in America. And their 1776 Pennsylvania constitution made economic equality into law for the first meaningful time anywhere.

The Constitutional Convention: A Counterrevolution?

By the late 1780s, the economic advances of ordinary Americans were starting to look very successful. So successful, in fact, that in 1787, gentlemen from around the country gathered again in the Pennsylvania State House at what became the U.S. constitutional convention. Their primary goal? To push those advances back. Edmund Randolph of Virginia, who would soon serve as U.S. Attorney General and then as Secretary of State, kicked off the 1787 proceedings in the same room at the State House where the Congress had declared independence. He charged the convention with repairing America’s “insufficient checks against the democracy.”

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