An elderly man behind me in the checkout line at the grocery store asked me what I do. When I told him I’m a PhD candidate in history, he commented that understanding history better would really help this country to get “back on track.” I braced myself for a speech about the greatness of the Founding Fathers and their conservative libertarian ethos, and an attack on Bernie Sanders and his socialist agenda. I just knew it was coming, especially when he started with, “This country was built on….” But I could not have been more wrong. He finished that sentence by explaining how this country was built on the blood, sweat and tears of black slaves, Chinese laborers, and impoverished indentured servants and that now, the U.S. was paying for having taken advantage of them. I pretended like I had known that’s where he was going all along saying, “Absolutely.” But on the inside I was wondering why I had cringed before I heard what he had to say.
The answer is this: Recently I’ve been steeped in social-media memes and rants that use the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers to support the conservative cause and to malign Sanders and his supporters. Exhibit A: “Give me liberty or give me death” VS “Give me free stuff or I’ll protest and cry!” This meme is meant to glorify the supposedly pure and honorable principles of American patriots to the supposedly childish, selfish, and entitled principles of young protesters feelin’ the Bern.
It hurts to see the history I dedicate my career to being abused and misused to serve a modern political agenda, especially one I don’t agree with, well, at least not anymore. I once identified as libertarian. I, too, went on diatribes about the decay caused by the welfare state, and the dangers of the government getting too involved in people’s lives, threatening personal liberties. At first, my scholarship reinforced these values. I read secondary literature about state intervention in people’s everyday lives. Historical figures suffered pain, unfairness, and injustices at the hands of an intrusive state: policing of sexual behavior, punishment for concealing unplanned pregnancies, exile or execution for practicing one’s chosen religion. My support for laissez-faire capitalism naturally followed. But then I spent years reading documents written for and by 18th-century people who lived in Philadelphia during the American Revolution. To my surprise, an improved understanding of the past pitted my libertarian stance against my conscience.
The Founding Fathers and other American patriots naturally take center stage in our imaginings about the revolutionary period. We do indeed owe them and our libertarian past a debt of gratitude. But judging a society based solely on its elites does not give us an accurate picture of what life was truly like. (Thankfully! Because Trump! And the Kardashians!) It leaves out dissenters, competitors, and most importantly, the people whose daily lives were consumed with just getting by. To more accurately understand the past, it’s important to go beyond the patriotic rhetoric and the fanciful flourishes to the lived experience of normal Americans in the early Republic. Memoirs and poor relief records give us a glimpse of what life was like for non-elites.
As is often the case, it was war that occasioned poverty and suffering in 18th-century Philadelphia. The Seven Years War (1756-1763) and then the Revolution (1765-1783) produced waves of impoverished, disabled, and orphaned Philadelphians who sought poor relief. Taxpayers, embodying the libertarian ethos of American elites, resisted tax hikes and demanded that paupers be required to labor for their poor relief. Taxpayers financed the building of a combined almshouse/workhouse. But according to libertarian philosophy, it was managed and maintained by a private corporation. The success of this institution was mixed.
When the poor were few, the almshouse was able to admit most who applied, putting the able-bodied to work spinning, sewing, shoe-making, and picking oakum. The products were then sold for a profit that financed the disabled and the ill who were unable to work for themselves. Even though this design was feasible, the poor suffered scrutiny of their bodies and working habits, not to mention the constant indignity of their worth being judged by their productivity. One example of this is how almshouse staff evaluated people based on their usefulness to the house:
“Elizabeth McClinch: … She is a very worthless and idle body.”1
“Ann Long & Child: She spins tolerably industrious, is quiet & orderly.”2
“Elizabeth Burton & Child: she laid in here, is a non-resident & does nothing.”3
When the poor were many (especially during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, or following the worst devastations of war), the almshouse was forced to restrict admissions to keep costs down. They admitted selectively based on who were the most needy. But the most needy, usually the dangerously ill and severely disabled, were also unable to work for their keep. This decline in profit forced the almshouse managers to cut back and admit even fewer people. The cycle continued this way until the house made no profit and was forced to get creative. They stopped accepting sick paupers and combed their residents for sick people to discharge under the justification that they could go to the hospital instead. But admission into the hospital required an order signed by the mayor, which was nearly impossible to obtain in times of crisis. During the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, Elizabeth Drinker recorded a story about a woman who nursed the sick on Water Street, where the epidemic began:
The Pennsylvania Hospital, opened in 1756, was a private hospital and had the right to refuse entry if a patient could not pay, or for any other reason. Even today, private hospitals can refuse admittance much the same way. Only in 1986, with the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act, did it become compulsory for a private hospital to treat patients in an emergency irrespective of their ability to pay.
Another money-saving policy was instituted in February 1776. The almshouse managers agreed to take in homeless women who were about to give birth to illegitimate children, but only under the condition that after the birth, almshouse staff could take the baby away, send it off to a nurse somewhere, and bind the mother out as an indentured servant, her wages payable to them.5 Just to be clear, this policy required new mothers to be separated indefinitely from their newborns so that they could work to pay the almshouse back for the expenses of sheltering her during her birth and recovery. This makes modern American maternity leave policies look good, and that’s hard to do. These money-saving policies increased poor people’s suffering immeasurably. More importantly, they signaled that private poor relief was insufficient on its own.
In the ensuing decades, charitable institutions, funded by churches, occupational guilds, and private citizens cropped up to help the poor. A vibrant network of beneficence societies, church groups, and philanthropic organizations developed in the wake of the Revolution. These organizations helped to improve the plight of Philadelphia’s poor, yet people still fell through the cracks. Drinker’s diary provides another example:
This was all happening at the same time that founders like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were traveling around Europe, enjoying fine wine and tobacco, pontificating about the dangers of big government, and chatting animatedly about the wisdom of laissez-faire capitalism. Stories such as Clarey’s are not rare. Indeed they crop up everywhere in court and poor relief records, letters, memoirs, and diaries. That libertarian ethos that worked so well for elites was busy not working for many others.
Of course, context is everything. The failure of private poor relief to get the job done in early America does not prove that private poor relief is failing now, or that it will always fail. Nor does it prove that publicly funded programs are the most effective way of combating poverty and ensuring that Americans have basic necessities in their “pursuit of happiness.” What it does tell us, though, is that things change. Some “acceptable” policies in 1776 — be they slavery or separating a mother from her children — are not acceptable today.
It should follow that the libertarian ethos of the nation’s founders is not necessarily appropriate to apply to today’s political landscape. And admitting this is not un-American. Fiscal conservatives do not have some special claim to American-ness that liberals do not also have. The liberal suspicion of laissez-faire capitalism does not constitute a rejection of American values.
Perhaps even more importantly, this brief journey into 18th-century poor relief makes it clear that social policy cannot be shaped solely by the ideas and experiences of political elites.
This is why the fetishizing of the Founding Fathers by fiscal conservatives misses the point entirely. Libertarian memes provoke hostility toward welfare policy and accuse welfare recipients of not being American enough to live up to the legendary founders of the Republic. There is evidence that income inequality is more dramatic now than it was in revolutionary America. If this is true, understanding the lived experience of the poor is more vital than ever to the shaping of national economic policy. It’s all too easy to look at treatises or charts, and to dictate policy from the State House or Capitol Hill. It’s entirely a different thing to personally experience the pain and indignity of poverty. This is no less true now than it was in 1776.
- Daily Occurrence Docket, March 27, 1788, Guardians of the Poor, Philadelphia City Archives. Return to text.
- Daily Occurrence Docket, November 1, 1787, Guardians of the Poor, Philadelphia City Archives. Return to text.
- Daily Occurrence Docket, November 1, 1787, Guardians of the Poor, Philadelphia City Archives. Return to text.
- Elaine Forman Crane, ed., The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 114. Return to text.
- Almshouse Managers’ Minutes, February 20, 1776, Managers of the Philadelphia Almshouse, Philadelphia City Archives. Return to text.
- Crane, p. 113. Return to text.
Of course, the rewriting of the American Revolutionary period started soon after the war was over. I have been spending some time reading Fourth of July orations from 1800-1804. The version of the colonial history and the American Revolution are as bad as what I hear from students, my dentist (who I have almost bitten on occasion because of it), politicians and pundits. Americans wrote the myth of their own past as soon as they had a nation and that myth has remained remarkably unchanged over the centuries. It doesn’t make it any easier to bear, but I think it explains something.
Thank you for your comment! I think you’re right. Of course national mythology is in some ways necessary for a state to function well. But as long as either side of the political divide uses slap-dash history to support its politics (which will be always), historians like me will be cringing.
I couldn’t disagree with you more, though you present well and write well. As a Canadian we suffer through state interference in our lives constantly, many of us look to the south in hopes of one day freeing ourselves of “thought police” and infringement on our civil liberties because of a government that we gave too much power to. You were wonderfully educated and your writing demonstrates this, but you got a warped message about the state providing for the poor. When you accept state assistance, you lose a bit of your freedom. Take it from a kind neighbour to the north, socialism is NOT the answer.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m particularly thrilled that you took the time to read and comment on an article about your brethren to the south. It makes me ashamed at how little I know about Canadian politics.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with me but I think you misunderstood my point. I don’t pretend to know a solution. I’m a historian, not an economist or political theorist. And I don’t advocate socialism- nor do most liberals in the U.S.
My point in writing this article was to shine the light on the people that popular history has forgotten. And to show that by doing this, one may come to a completely different conclusion about what has and has not worked historically.
This is particularly true when it comes to the fetishization of the founding fathers by contemporary libertarians. A libertarian ethos had its shortcoming then, but even if it hadn’t, it is not necessarily appropriate now. And it doesn’t seem right for card-carrying libertarians to accuse liberals of being un-American because they differ politically from the founding fathers. Values should and do change.