Table of Contents
Our Nation's Founders and Slavery
Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin enslaved people, a moral failing causing some to lose interest in their statements, but each described slavery as an evil institution and advocated for abolishing it. In their times, large landholders enslaved people. Although this does not justify their enslavement of people, we should take this into consideration and not dismiss their extraordinarily wise and beneficial words that can help us out of our Dark Times. John Adams and Thomas Paine did not enslave people and also wanted slavery abolished.
Extreme injustices exist in our times from which some of us benefit and most of us tolerate and so are complicit in maintaining. Some modern-day injustices may eventually be viewed as evil as slavery was in our Founders’ times; some I’ve describe on this website; below are others I did not mention elsewhere:
Over 4,100 corporations profit from mass incarceration in the United States, including those in the following categories: private prisons, companies that provide overpriced commissaries and telephone services, and private companies using low-paid prison labor in their supply chains.
Around 63,000 inmates produce goods and services for external sale, including agricultural products and manufactured goods, and call center and distribution services. States also operate work release programs, which provide inmate labor to private companies at offsite locations. Many inmates in work release programs work at poultry plants and other agricultural facilities under hazardous conditions. These prisoners, like those in prison, are typically paid far below the minimum wage, in some cases $0.25/hour.
Many well-known corporations benefit from prison labor, including Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Verizon, AT&T, Fidelity Investments, and American Airlines, so you have likely benefited from prison labor. The system incarcerates Black people at a rate five times more than White people.
The prison industrial complex is now a billion-dollar industry and is one of America’s most profitable and lucrative businesses. So, many banks and private investors, primarily Wall Street giants, invest in this business of modern slavery.
Enlightenment Philosopher Leaders of the 18th Century American Revolution Would Be 21st Century Revolutionaries
Their Words to Heed in
Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States
“Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.” (source)
Jefferson would want our extreme inequalities remedied
Jefferson wanted to “form a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy.” (source)
As one way to ensure economic justice prevails, Jefferson recommended “lessening the inequality of property” by “exempting all from taxation below a certain point, and taxing the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. (source)
In the “Age of Enlightenment,” the thirteen American colonies’ victory in war ended their domination by an abusive, self-serving aristocracy.
John Adams, Founding Father, and the second President of the United States
“The capricious will of one or a very few … the rich and the proud … will destroy all the equality and liberty.”
“Power is a Thing of infinite Danger … Aristocracy will soon commence an Oligarchy, and Democracy, will soon degenerate into an Anarchy, such an Anarchy that every Man will do what is right in his own Eyes, and no Mans life or Property or Reputation or Liberty will be secure and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral Virtues, and Intellectual Abilities, all the Powers of Wealth, Beauty, Wit, and Science, to the wanton Pleasures, the capricious Will, and the execrable Cruelty of one or a very few.” (source)
“Property monopolized or in the possession of a few is a curse to mankind: We should preserve not an absolute equality—this is unnecessary, but preserve all from extreme poverty and all others from extravagant riches.” (source)
An early battle lost against soldiers of the British aristocracy: The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775, depicted by artist John Trumbull.
James Madison, Founding Father, “Father of the Constitution,” author of the United States Bill of Rights, fourth President of the United States
“The great object [of government] should be to combat the evil: 1. By establishing a political equality among all. 2. By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort. 4. By abstaining from measures which operate differently on different interests, and particularly such as favor one interest at the expence [sic] of another.” (source)
The stock-jobbers [big investors] will become the pretorian band of the Government, at once its tool and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses and overawing it by its clamours and combinations.” (source)
Painting depicting when the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was presented to the Second Continental Congress on June 28, 1776. The document stated the principles for which the Revolutionary War was being fought. Artist, John Trumbull.
Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, author, and printer.
“All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club toward the Support of it.” (source)
General Cornwallis’s Yorktown surrender in 1781 to the combined French and American army led by George Washington. This defeat was the last major battle of the Revolutionary War. Artist, John Trumbull.
Thomas Paine, Founding Father, contributing author of the Declaration of Independence, political activist, philosopher, and political theorist, whose writings and activism helped motivate the American and French Revolution, and political reforms in Britain.
In Paine’s widely read booklet, Common Sense, his description of England’s government convinced most reluctant colonist to join the revolution against British rule. In the following excerpt, if modern America’s corresponding words in brackets are substituted, the description remains true:
“It is somewhat difficult to find a proper name for the government of England [United States]. Sir William Meredith [A member of Congress (as Meredith was a member of the House of Commons)] calls it a republic, but in its present state it is unworthy of the name, because the corrupt influence of the crown [America’s aristocracy] … hath so effectually swallowed up the power and eaten out the virtue of the House of Commons (the republican part in the constitution)” [The US Congress]
“Is there any inhabitant of America so ignorant as not to know that according to what is called the present constitution, this continent can make no laws but what the king [America’s aristocracy] gives leave to [permits]; and … (considering what has happened) he will suffer [permit] no law to be made here but such as suits his [our American aristocracy’s] purpose…”
John Adams declared, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
Constitutional Convention signing the U.S. Constitution at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. Artist, Howard Chandler Christy.
Our Constitution was a great advance for its time, but as the Paine and Jefferson quotes indicate, they would believe we are long past due for a major revision.
“Let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods…Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself.” (source)
“Happy for us, that when we find our constitutions defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers, and set it to rights.” Thomas Jefferson (source)
Below is a side-by-side comparison of several conditions in our times with those described in the Declaration of Independence to justify and motivate the Revolutionary War.
Conditions that Motivated the Revolutionary War Described in
The Declaration of Independence
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of [this] end, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”
Their government did not derive its “powers from the consent of the governed.” So they chose revolution to abolish it, and to institute new government.
Conditions in Our Times
Policymakers Ignore the Majority of Americans
Based on an analysis of 2000 public policies over three decades, Princeton University researchers found: “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy…Policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans.” So, our government does not derive its “powers from the consent of the governed.”
Conditions that Motivated the Revolutionary War Described in
The Declaration of Independence
“Imposing Taxes on us without our Consent”
Conditions in Our Times
Our Government Has Been
“Imposing Taxes On Us Without Our Consent.”
The theory of trickle-down economics is tax cuts on the rich create jobs and higher wages for the middle and lower classes. The rich are dedicated to expressing this theory through mass media and educational institutions. Despite decades-long propaganda with the theory, polls over decades have found between 62% and 77% of Americans wanting high-income people to pay more in taxes. If Americans were well informed, these large majorities would be even larger.
Instead of doing what most of us want, as the richs’ income and wealth soared to historic highs, the government lowered their taxes, most extremely at the very high-income end. The top 400 have seen their total effective tax rate on their income reduced from 70.2% to 23% between 1950 and 2018, an over 60% decrease.
Meanwhile, the 20th percentile in income had a 37% increase (from 18% to 24.6%) in their total income tax rate, many of whom often don’t have enough money for food, are housing insecure, and some are homeless. From 1950 to 2018, the 50th income percentile had a 27% increase (from 19.4% to 24.6%) in their total income tax rate.
Experience has proven trickle-down economics theory false, and its opposite is true. If tax cuts targeted to the rich are instead given to the middle class and poor, it would most effectively stimulate the economy, create jobs, and increase wages from the resulting increased spending of most people.
Instead of tax cuts to the wealthy being socially beneficial, they just made the rich richer. It also required the rest of us to pay higher taxes to make up some of the difference, reduced support for public services and infrastructure, and exploded federal deficits and debt.
The Wealthy's Untaxed Income is Massive
A more extreme injustice than the wealthy’s income tax rate reduction results from how our lawmakers have defined income. A gain in wealth is income, but if it comes from asset appreciation the law categorizes it as “unrealized” and untaxable income. As a result, the very wealthy’s taxable income is a tiny fraction of their total income.
People who increase their wealth by saving their income on labor do so after it is taxed, but the rich gain wealth primarily from the untaxed appreciation of their assets. If they sell an asset, they must pay a tax on their gains, but it is at a rate about half what they pay on their income from labor.
In 2007, Jeff Bezos, then a multi-billionaire and in 2020 the richest person in the world with about $200 billion in wealth, did not pay a penny in federal income taxes. Again in 2011, he paid nothing, and to add insult to injury, he claimed and received a $4,000 tax credit for his children. Tesla founder Elon Musk, the second-richest person in 2020, and billionaires Michael Bloomberg, Carl Icahn, George Soros also paid no federal income taxes in more than one year.
From 2014 to 2018, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, and Elon Musk gained a total of $160 billion and paid under 1.1% of these gains in tax. Over this same period, the 25 richest Americans saw their worth rise a collective $401 billion. They paid a total of $13.6 billion in federal income taxes in those five years for a tax rate on their gains of only 3.4%.
From 2014 to 2018, median income wage earners in their early 40s grew their net worth an average of $65,000 after taxes, mostly due to the rise in their home’s value. But because almost all of their earnings were salaries, their tax bills were almost as much, nearly $62,000, over that five-year period.
Other Routes to Taxing the Majority Beyond its Consent
To further maximize the wealth increases of the rich and disadvantage the rest of us, America’s aristocracy had the government cut the IRS’s budget, hobbling its ability to enforce tax law, particularly for them. People in poor regions are now more likely to be audited than those in affluent areas. So there are illegal tax evaders among the rich, but they can and routinely do avoid their taxes legally. One method is take little or no salary and live on dividends and stock sales, which our elite-dominated government taxes at a much lower “capital gains” than labor income rate.
But many members of our aristocracy better satisfy their insatiable greed and avoid their social responsibilities by taking little or no labor or capital gains income. Instead, they borrow most of the money they need. Banks are happy to give the super-wealthy low-interest collateralized loans. So they pay interest in the low single-digits instead of paying the 37% income tax rate on high incomes or 20% capital gains tax rate. Then they take deductions for the interest on these loans on any income they claim. For example, in 2016 and 2017, multi-billionaire Carl Icahn paid no federal income taxes despite reporting a total of $544 million in adjusted gross income. He accomplished this feat by taking hundreds of millions in deductions for the interest on his loans and reporting tax losses for both years. So the people who cleaned his homes paid more income taxes than he did in those years.
America's Multigenerational Aristocracy
Our government ensures our American aristocracy is multigenerational with an estate tax having an $11.4 million exclusion and a rate decline from 70% or more between 1935 to 1981 to 37% now. The tax is also designed for the wealthy to avoid entirely. As Trump’s White House economic czar Gary Cohn said, “only morons pay the estate tax.”
During a person’s life, taxable capital-gain income is the selling price minus the price paid for the asset. But after death, when heirs sell the asset, they pay a capital gains tax using its value when they received it as if it were the purchase price. This “step-up in basis” can greatly reduce capital-gains tax when the beneficiary sells the inherited asset. Also, tax law allows our aristocracy to use a range of opaque and complicated trusts to give large sums to their heirs without paying estate taxes. As a result, of the 25 richest people in America today, about a quarter are heirs.
There were only 11,917 estate tax returns in 2015, down more than 75% from 2006, shifting tax burdens to the rest of us from America’s aristocracy. Estate and gift tax revenues in 2020 totaled $17.6 billion, which was 0.5% of all federal revenues. This tiny percentage is highly inappropriate because gifts to heirs are essentially entirely unearned income. So they should be taxed, above a reasonable exclusion, at a high rate allowing the reduction or elimination of taxes on the earned income of much of the middle class and poor and funding other socially valuable endeavors.
Instead of giving winners of the “womb lottery” massive wealth, most of it should be available to serve our society. It isn’t, though, because the wealthy have captured our government to serve their interests at the expense of everyone else. (See my policy proposals for a more progressive tax system including the one entitled “Replace Estate Tax with a Progressive Inheritance Tax,” on the “A More Progressive Tax System” page. My tax proposals would significantly advance our society if instituted. The proposals are excerpted from The New Enlightenment and Amazon as Metaphor.)
Current Tax Law Enables the Growth of Grotesque Inequalities
The pandemic, a period of great tragedy and loss, was a boon for billionaires. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died from COVID-19, while millions lost their employment income. Billionaires added $1.2 trillion to their fortunes over the pandemic months of January 2020 through the end of April 2021.
If our government acted based on the consent of the governed, the wealthy would be paying much higher taxes enabling substantial tax reductions on the middle class and poor and improved public services (including those needed during an emergency like a pandemic) and infrastructure. Instead, it serves an American aristocracy, which dominates it.
As I detail in The New Enlightenment and Amazon as Metaphor, if we had a government capable of serving the majority, we could eliminate income taxes on the poor and most of the middle class with reasonable taxes on high incomes and wealth. If we instituted just Amazon as Metaphor’s proposed progressive land tax, we could eliminate income taxes on the bottom 80% of income earners.
In the middle of the 20th-century, policymakers created tax systems more in accordance with the preferences of the majority. Also, in the early years of personal income tax, only the richest paid it. In 1918, for example, only 15% of American families owed any tax. The top 1% paid 80% of the revenue raised.
Supreme Court decisions over the last few decades have empowered the super-wealthy and corporations to capture our political system, so as their wealth boomed, so did their power to ensure the government serves their interests at the expense of everyone else. Their interests include “imposing taxes on us without our consent” so their taxes can be minimized.
Conditions that Motivated the Revolutionary War Described in
The Declaration of Independence
“Depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury”
Conditions in Our Times
Our Government Has Been “Depriving us in many cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury.”
Over the last fifty years, trial by jury has declined at an increasing rate to the point that it now occurs in less than 3% of state and federal criminal cases. The reason is the “trial penalty,” or the much longer sentence a defendant would receive if found guilty in a trial versus the sentence offered prior to trial to motivate a guilty plea. This penalty is now so severe and pervasive that it has virtually eliminated the right to a trial. To avoid the penalty and knowing prosecutors and their law enforcement allies can and sometimes do act unethically to succeed in their prosecution, many innocent accused persons plead guilty. For example, it is difficult for a defendant to refuse a deal for a few months or a year in prison rather than risk a ten or more year sentence if a trial results in conviction.
Defense lawyers spend most of their time negotiating guilty plea deals rather than ensuring that police and the government respect the law and the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard. Defendants who speak to a public defender often get nothing more than a few minutes of time and a hurried guilty plea recommendation because of overwhelming caseloads. Knowing they will not be properly defended and suspecting that a jury will believe the police officer’s word over theirs, innocent people plead guilty. And judges spend their time administering guilty pleas rather than evaluating the legal aspects of the government’s case and police conduct. Many defense lawyers and prosecutors have not tried a case in years, and many federal judges have not presided over a trial in years.The public rarely exercises the oversight function envisioned by the Framers inherent in a jury trial.
No Trials, No Justice
Mass incarceration we normally associate with brutal tyrannies and widespread oppression. Although mass incarceration exists in the US, describing the U.S. as a brutal tyranny with widespread oppression is not accurate. But we are at an inflection point. In response to extreme and growing inequality and related unnecessary and widespread hardships, we can descend to what, for most people, is now an unimaginable depth of depravity, not unlike what occurred in Germany in the early 20th century. A charismatic authoritarian leader can take control and misdirect anger over injustices as Hitler did.
In the 1920s, Germany was at the peak of western civilization in the arts, the sciences, and mathematics. Then, after an economic crisis, Germany’s infamous authoritarian lead the country into the depths of human savagery. Whether we rise or sink in response to extreme injustices and unnecessary hardships is our choice, but we must make it soon. Wait too long, and an undesirable transformation can rapidly occur.
A place where the majority of the population has no influence on public policies and where the law is a brutal tool of control rather than a foundation for the majority’s prosperity is a place not unlike what existed under the British before the American Revolution. Our Founders and their contemporaries were willing to die to end such a social order.
“Depriving us in many cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury.”
Conditions that Motivated the Revolutionary War Described in
The Declaration of Independence
“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations…To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.” [The King has been:]
“[Q]uartering large bodies of armed troops among us.”
[P]rotecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.“
Conditions in Our Times
Our Government Has Been:
Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.
Protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States
Since Federal 1033 program’s inception in 1990, the Pentagon released more than $6 billion in surplus military equipment, including tanks, MRAPS (“mine-resistant ambush-protected” vehicles), assault rifles and bayonets, and night-vision goggles to local, state, and federal law enforcement for policing purposes. From 2009 to 2014, other federal programs provided $18 billion to purchase equipment by local law enforcement. Some military equipment was purchased with this money, but we do not know how much because federal oversight has been poor.
Over 7,000 state and local agencies now have military equipment, transforming them from policing organizations into geographically dispersed military units, each with its own agenda and rules of engagement, typically without community input.
Local police have taken on the appearance, armament, and behavior of soldiers at war. And those who encounter militarized police, in their daily lives or at a demonstration, are far more likely to end up dead or injured as a consequence of an officer’s militarized mindset. Police have killed over 1,000 Americans in each of the last seven years. Nearly 24% of the victims last year were Black, even though Black Americans make up just 13% of the population.
Many of the victims were unarmed, some were experiencing a mental health crisis, and some were children. America’s rate of police violence is far higher than any other western democracy. This is not likely to change without fundamental social reforms. The courts have effectively greenlit officers to “shoot first and think later” by granting them far-reaching immunity from legal accountability, even after gross misconduct and abuse.
The Occupying Force Sees Hostile Enemy Territory
The military equipment contributed to a mindset where many police officers see themselves as part of an occupying force in hostile enemy territory. That mindset killed George Floyd, the Black man who, despite being unarmed and handcuffed, a Minneapolis police officer murdered, sparking protest demonstrations worldwide. In another well-publicized case, police with the occupying force mindset killed Breonna Taylor, a Black woman in Louisville, Kentucky, during the execution of a “no-knock” search warrant. Without announcing who they were, they used a battering ram to enter Taylor’s residence and shot her eight times. The officers went to the wrong home; the warrant was not for Taylor. Most of the victims of militarized police will never be publicly known.
Many police departments use military tactics and equipment in their everyday police work. SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams—possessing military dress and armaments such as launchable ballistics, sniper rifles, and armed rescue vehicles—were designed to be used in extraordinary emergency situations, such as hostage situations. But, it is rare that police departments deploy SWAT to handle such situations. Instead, they often use SWAT teams to execute low-risk search warrants, which has led to the death of Breonna Taylor and other innocent people, including children and infants. The number of police agencies with SWAT teams, increased by 1,500% from 1980 to 2000.
Trump’s top civilian Pentagon official, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, described public spaces where Americans marched against police violence as a “battlespace” that state governors must “dominate.” Most of us have seen many videos and pictures of militarized police, often with their faces obscured, beating protestors, pointing weapons at demonstrators’ faces, shooting them with rubber bullets, dousing crowds with pepper spray or tear gas, and otherwise using excessive force, all while clad in military garb.
More Insights and Guidance from the Founders of Our Nation to Help Us Out of Our Dark Times
“We have no paupers …. The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich … such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families …. The wealthy, on the other hand … have only somewhat more of the comforts & decencies of life than those who furnish them. Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”
[And in the same letter, Jefferson acknowledged the injustice of slavery but compared the “condition & degree of suffering” of America’s enslaved people favorably to the “condition & degree of suffering” of people at the bottom of the capitalist hierarchy in England.]
“[People] whose color has condemned them, in certain parts of our Union, to a subjection to the will of others, even these are better fed in these states, warmer clothed, & labor less than the journeymen or day laborers of England… but do not mistake me … I am not justifying the wrongs we have committed on a foreign people, by the example of another nation committing equal wrongs on their own subjects. On the contrary, there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity [slavery]. But I am at present comparing the condition & degree of suffering.”
“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human…Let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods [A suggestion not taken]…Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself.”
“I hope we shall … crush in it’s birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and to bid defiance to the laws of their country.
“Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gain.”
“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 … Whenever there is 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.”
* “Uncultivated lands” we can translate to our underutilized industrial capacity and needed work outside of manufacturing not done because resources are concentrated in modern-day American aristocracy. We have about 24.1% unutilized manufacturing plant capacity.
Financial speculation “withdraw[s] our citizens from the pursuits of commerce, manufactures, buildings, and other branches of useful industry to occupy themselves and their capitals in a species of gambling, destructive of morality, and which had introduced it’s poison into the government itself.”
“It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the … the general prey of the rich on the poor.”
Letter, John Adams to the Comte de Sarsfield, 3 February 1786
“Let us try the experiment, and preserve our equality as long as we can. A better system of education for the common people might preserve them long from such artificial inequalities as are prejudicial to society, by confounding the natural distinctions of right and wrong, virtue and vice.”
Letter, John Adams to James Sullivan, 26 May 1776
“…. power always follows property.” [If] “the Multitude will have the Ballance of Power, … the Multitude will take Care of the Liberty, Virtue, and Interest of the Multitude in all Acts of Government.”
Letter, John Adams to Boston Patriot, 8 November 1810
“The people find themselves burdened now by the rich, and by the power of the crown now commonly wielded by the rich. And as knowledge and education … have been increasing among the common people, they feel their burdens more sensibly, grow impatient under them, and more desirous of throwing them off. The immense revenues of the … the crowns, and all the great proprietors of land, the armies and navies must all be paid by the people, who groan and stagger under the weight. The few who think and see the progress and tendency of things, have long foreseen that resistance in some shape or other must be resorted to, some time or other. They have not been able to see any resource but in the common people; indeed, in … democracy; because the whole power of the aristocracy, as of the monarchies … must be wielded against them.”
[In a striking parallel to today, Adams mentions “armies and navies must all be paid by the people, who groan and stagger under the weight.” Total U.S. military spending for FY 2021 was about $989 billion, including all the agencies that support the Department of Defense. This $989 billion is about half of the wealth of the least wealthy 50% of Americans.]
Letter, John Adams to Boston Patriot, 8 November 1810
“The End of all Government is the happiness of the People: and in this other, that the greatest happiness of the greatest Number is the point to be obtained.”
Letter, John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, 13 February 1818
“The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people…This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution. The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse [direct communication] had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise. The complete accomplishment of it in so short a time and by such simple means was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together — a perfection of mechanism which no artist had ever before effected.”
Now, political divisions between the states are as extreme as between the 18th-century colonies. Wide divisions also exist within states. But like in the 18th century, we must unite to advance to a society founded on basic principles held in common.
Most people want to live in a representative democracy that protects human rights and where everyone has an equal voice in determining who represents them. And it is a commonly held view that direct democracy should determine some public policies. Most of us would also agree that liberty in the real sense, not as desired by modern-day “libertarians,” should be maximized. Maximizing liberty means maximizing freedom of choice for everyone, not just an elite empowered to extract value from the work of others to use some to corrupt our political system to further enable their increase in wealth and power at the expense of everyone else.
The liberty of tens of millions of Americans food and housing insecure or unable to get treatment for an illness is extremely limited due to systems allowing an elite to have unprecedented freedom to satisfy every whim. And elites’ abuse of dysfunctional systems is destroying our nation’s middle class.
Like in the 18th century, it will be “a very difficult enterprise” to have most people overlook their differences to unite to take control of our destiny from a self-serving elite and establish a society based on commonly held ideals of maximizing liberty and justice for all. But we must succeed in our 21st-century American revolution because, as the most powerful nation on earth, the future of humanity likely depends on it.
Thoughts on Government, April 1776
“Laws for the liberal education … are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.” “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.”
Letter, John Adams to Thomas Jefferson
“Power always thinks it has … vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws.”
Letter, John Adams to Boston Patriot, 4 August 1809
“There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil.
Detatched Memoranda, ca. 31 January 1820
“Besides the danger of a direct mixture of Religion & civil Gover[n]ment, there is an evil which ought to be guarded agst. in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by ecclesiastical Corporations. The power of all corporations, ought to be limited in this respect. The growing wealth acquired by them never fails to be a source of abuses.”
For the National Gazette, [ca. 19 December] 1791
“Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, as good roads, … a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people … is favorable to liberty.”
Letter, James Madison to William T. Barry, 4 August 1822
“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives”
Political Observations, 20 April 1795
“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals, engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
The Federalist Number 10, [22 November] 1787
Madison warned against “an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power …[who] have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”
“The Truth is, that tho’ there are in that Country [America] few People so miserable as the Poor of Europe, there are also very few that in Europe would be called rich: it is rather a general happy Mediocrity that prevails [extreme income or wealth is rare]. There are few great Proprietors of the Soil, and few Tenants; most People cultivate their own Lands, or follow some Handicraft or Merchandise; very few rich enough to live idly upon their Rents or Incomes.”
Excerpts from Paine’s Common Sense
“As [a society] increases [in population], the public concerns will increase likewise, and the distance at which the members may be separated will render it too inconvenient for all of them to meet on every occasion as at first, when their number was small, their habitations near, and the public concerns few and trifling. This will point out the convenience of their consenting to leave the legislative part to be managed by a select number chosen from the whole body, who are supposed to have the same concerns at stake which those have who appointed them, and who will act in the same manner as the whole body would act were they present.” (underline mine)
Paine would advocate for a revolt against our aristocracy
The median net worth of members of Congress in 2019 was over $1 million. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Speaker of the House, the body designed by the Framers to be most representative and responsive to the concerns of most Americans, had $115 million, a 180% increase from her 2004 wealth of $41 million. From 2004 to 2019, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saw his net worth increase from $3 million to over $34 million. Meanwhile, over 40% of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 for an emergency without selling something or borrowing money. Besides the personal wealth difference, an even more important factor separates our “representatives” from most of us. To win election requires massive amounts of money, which mostly comes from corporations and wealthy individuals. As a result, if you are among the 90% lowest-income Americans, you have the same effect on US public policy as if you lived in another country—your preferences are ignored.
“Should an independence be brought about …we have every opportunity and every encouragement before us to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Common Sense
We Must Revive the Revolutionary Spirit in America
Our Constitution did not meet Paine’s ideal, but it was a great advance for its time. It is serving our nation increasingly poorly, though, and if Paine were in modern America, his “sense” would motivate him to advocate for a major revision.
25% of the colonists purchased a copy of Paine’s, Common Sense, a philosophical and revolutionary booklet. If the same percentage of Americans today purchased a philosophical and revolutionary booklet as in Paine’s time, 66 million would own it. Assuming the books were all in households and one book per household, 69% of households would have the booklet.
We are far from the civic awareness existing in our nation’s early years, but if we are to solve our social problems and create the advancements we need, we must rise closer to it.
Rights of Man
Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) was the most widely read booklet in the movement for reform in Britain in the 1790s and the opening decades of the nineteenth century. In it he advocates for “abolish[ing] the poor-rates [taxes on the poor] entirely, and in lieu thereof, to make a remission of taxes[tax credits] to the poor of double the amount of the present poor-rates ” He also justifies and details an additional child tax credit upon birth and a smaller one each year for children under fourteen and for “enjoining the parents of such children [to use the credits] to send them to school, to learn reading, writing, and common arithmetic.” [in Paine’s time, young people needed far less education than in the modern world].
His radical progressive program also detailed a retirement pension and government employment for the unemployed poor. He proposed funding his public policy proposals by reducing military spending and progressive taxes. Included among the progressive taxes is an estate tax of which Paine states, “The object is not so much the produce of the tax as the justice of the measure. The aristocracy has screened [protected] itself too much, and this serves to restore a part of the lost equilibrium. [It will] “extirpate the [aristocracy] overgrown influence …and… one of the principal sources of corruption at elections.”
Paine’s Agrarian Justice is an extension of Rights of Man. In it Paine describes a philosophical justification for the progressive taxation and redistributive policies in Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice.
“It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal…”
“Civilization therefore, or that which is so called, has operated two ways to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state…”
“Cultivation … has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty … that did not exist before.”
“TO preserve the benefits of what is called civilized life, and to remedy at the same time the evil which it has produced ought to be considered as one of the first objects of reformed legislation…”
“In advocating the case of the persons thus dispossessed, it is a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for. But it is that kind of right which, being neglected at first, could not be brought forward afterwards till heaven had opened the way by a revolution in the system of government…”
“Having thus in a few words, opened the merits of the case, I shall now proceed to the plan I have to propose, which is,…
Some of Paine's Remedies for The Evils of Civilized Life
“To create a National Fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty one years, [an amount sufficient to buy] “a cow, and implements to cultivate a few acres of land” [farming was the primary means of earning a living in Paine’s time] … as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.”
“And also, [a retirement pension], … to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age…
A plan upon this principle would benefit the revolution by the energy that springs from the consciousness of justice. It would multiply also the national resources; for property like vegetation, increases by offsets. When a young couple begin the world, the difference is exceedingly great whether they begin with nothing or with [the resources to establish a farm]...”
“A system of civilization, growing out of [a representive] system of government shall be so organized that not a man or woman born in the Republic but shall inherit some means of beginning the world, and see before them the certainty of escaping the miseries that under other governments accompany old age…”
Paine's Source of Funds for His Remedies
“Various methods may be proposed for this purpose, but that which appears to be the best (not only because it will operate without deranging any present possessors, …, but because it will be the least troublesome and the most effectual, and also because the subtraction will be made at a time that best admits it) is at the moment that property is passing by the death of one person to the possession of another. In this case, the bequeather gives nothing: the receiver pays nothing. The only matter to him is that the monopoly of natural inheritance, to which there never was a right, begins to cease in his person. A generous man would not wish it to continue, and a just man will rejoice to see it abolished…”
The Social Resource Source of Wealth Justify High Taxes on the Wealthy
“Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally. Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came. This is putting the matter on a general principle, and perhaps it is best to do so; for if we examine the case minutely it will be found that the accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labour that produced it; the consequence of which is, that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.”
Applying Paine's Vision in Our Times
In our Dark Times, rather than acting on Paine’s vision of everyone starting adulthood with wealth sufficient to begin a productive life, we force millions of people to start their adult life under mountains of student loan debt.
In Paine’s time, acquiring what was necessary to farm was the primary way to earn a living. Today knowledge acquisition is most important, so society should offer free access to post-secondary education and more federal support for an improved and more equitable K-12 system. In our New Enlightenment, we will also provide funds for business (not necessarily farm) acquisition in the form of worker-owned and self-direct enterprises. Read more.
In The New Enlightenment, I detail an inheritance tax and other progressive taxes, and in Amazon as Metaphor, a highly progressive wealth and land tax that generate sufficient public resources for the program to widely establish worker-owned and self-directed businesses and other fundamental social advancements. More information.
More Warnings on Concentrated Economic Power by Our Nation’s Founders and Other Most Influential Presidents,
with Some Remedies
Jefferson warned of a tendency toward “a government of an aristocracy founded on banking institutions and moneyed incorporations and if this tendency continues it will be the end of freedom and democracy, the few will be ruling”
Jefferson wanted to “form a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy.” He recommended “lessening the inequality of property” by “exempting all from taxation below a certain point, and taxing the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.” And wanted “laws of entail (inheritance, that) would prevent the accumulation and perpetuation of wealth in select families.”
“Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.” “The happiness & prosperity of our citizens is the only legitimate object of government”
Thomas Jefferson, (1743 – 1826) Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third President of the United States
Adams made a similar warning as Jefferson: “Power always follows property… and… is a Thing of infinite Danger” “The capricious will of one or a very few … the rich and the proud … will destroy all the equality and liberty.”
“We should preserve not an absolute equality- this is unnecessary, but preserve all from extreme poverty and all others from extravagant riches.” “….power always follows property.” “If the Multitude will have the Ballance of Power, … the Multitude will take Care of the Liberty, Virtue, and Interest of the Multitude in all Acts of Government”
John Adams, (1735 – 1826) Founding Father, and the second President of the United States
Madison wrote that government should prevent “an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches.” He favored the “operation of laws which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth toward a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigents toward a state of comfort.”
Madison warned of the “daring depravity of… the stock-jobbers [big investors who] will become the pretorian band of the Government, at once its tool and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses and overawing it by its clamours and combinations.”
“The great object (of government) should be to combat evil by establishing a political equality among all.”
James Madison, (1751-1836) Founding Father, “Father of the Constitution” and the author of the United States Bill of Rights, fourth President of the United States
Lincoln foresaw in the nation’s “future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
Abraham Lincoln, (1809 – 1865) 16th President of the United States, led the nation through the Civil War, its greatest moral, constitutional and political crisis.
Theodore Roosevelt also pointed out the dangers of allowing an economic elite to amass great wealth: “There is not in the world a more ignoble character than the mere money-getting American, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune, and putting his fortune only to the basest uses —whether these uses be to speculate in stocks or … allow his son to lead a life of foolish and expensive idleness and gross debauchery, or to purchase some scoundrel of high social position… Such a man is only the more dangerous if he occasionally does some deed like founding a college or endowing a church, which makes those good people who are also foolish forget his real iniquity. These men are equally careless of the working men, whom they oppress, and of the State, whose existence they imperil…. a very great number of men who approach more or less closely to the type, and, just in so far as they do so approach, they are curses to the country.”
Theodore Roosevelt, (1858 – 1919) 26th President of the United States, “Trust-Buster”, Progressive era reformer and conservationist.
“The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism—ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, (1882 – 1945) 32nd President of the United States and only President to served four terms, led the nation during the worldwide economic Depression and the Second World War
We are not heeding their warnings as historic levels of economic inequality grow, inevitably creating correspondingly extreme political system dysfunction. The trends are ominous. Now to save our nation, as Jefferson wrote, “our institutions must advance” to “keep pace with the times.”