Meet ‘the colonial 1 percent’ that created America

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

A new book details the role played by America’s conservative founders, who were “every bit as important as Washington, Jefferson, and Adams,” in shaping the destiny of the country.

“Most histories of conservatism trace its origins back to 1790 when the British statesman Edmund Burke penned a famous essay attacking the French Revolution. I discovered a group of American Founders who advocated the same ideas a decade and a half earlier,” David Lefer, an industry professor at Polytechnic Institute of New York University, told The Daily Caller in an interview about his recently released book, “The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution.”

“Frankly I was also astonished to learn about the crucial role these men played in winning the War of Independence and in crafting America’s basic political structures. Collectively, the founding conservatives were every bit as important as Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. Yet, history has forgotten them.”

Lefer, whose previous book “They Made America” was made into a PBS mini-series, says these conservative founders could be considered “the colonial 1%.”

“They were members of the upper classes — the colonial 1%, if you will — who were among the most ardent defenders of American rights,” he said. “Many fought with distinction against British Redcoats. But they also wanted to preserve as much of the old order as possible. What the founding conservatives feared was that revolution would bring ‘the dissolution of every kind of authority,’ as James Wilson, a prosperous Philadelphia lawyer and staunch free-market advocate, put it. Their role, as they saw it, was to keep the revolution from spiraling out of control.”

Their influence can be seen in many areas of American society, including the U.S. Constitution, says Lefer.

“Conservatives put these principles into practice during the framing of the Constitution,” he said. “Many of them openly admired Britain’s system of government, which had stood the test of time. Yet, they also understood that the American people would never accept a return to monarchy. The key was to make America’s new government as similar to England’s as possible and to shun any political framework based solely on abstract principles. ‘Experience must be our only guide,’ John Dickinson told the Convention during a memorable debate. ‘Reason may mislead us.'”

Lefer says he is a registered Democrat, but his research has led him to a deep respect for conservative principles.

“I’m a registered Democrat, but after learning about these right-wing revolutionaries I have developed a tremendous new respect for conservatism,” he said. “The idea that we should respect social institutions that have evolved organically over hundreds of years and that we should not assume the new will automatically be better than the old makes incredible sense.”

Read below TheDC’s full interview with Lefer on his new book and more:

Why did you decide to write the book?

The former journalist in me sensed a scoop. Most histories of conservatism trace its origins back to 1790 when the British statesman Edmund Burke penned a famous essay attacking the French Revolution. I discovered a group of American Founders who advocated the same ideas a decade and a half earlier. Frankly I was also astonished to learn about the crucial role these men played in winning the War of Independence and in crafting America’s basic political structures. Collectively, the founding conservatives were every bit as important as Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. Yet, history has forgotten them.

Who are the founding conservatives you write about?

They certainly weren’t Tories. They were members of the upper classes — the colonial 1%, if you will — who were among the most ardent defenders of American rights. Many fought with distinction against British Redcoats. But they also wanted to preserve as much of the old order as possible. What the founding conservatives feared was that revolution would bring “the dissolution of every kind of authority,” as James Wilson, a prosperous Philadelphia lawyer and staunch free-market advocate, put it. Their role, as they saw it, was to keep the revolution from spiraling out of control.

How did they, as you write in your subtitle, save the American Revolution?

Had it not been for the founding conservatives, America as we know it today would not exist. There was Robert Morris, one of the richest merchants in the colonies, who single-handedly bankrolled the Continental Army and sustained the American economy when it was on the brink of collapse. There was Silas Deane, who secured America’s alliance with France and shipped back the thousands of tons of gunpowder, cannons, muskets, and supplies that saved the American army. There was Philip Schuyler, a New York aristocrat, who engineered our nation’s pivotal victory at Saratoga. There was John Rutledge, the governor of South Carolina, who became a one-man government in exile after the British captured his state and led the resistance that ultimately drove them out. And there was John Dickinson, “the penman of the Revolution,” who blocked a disastrous rush to independence, drafted the Articles of Confederation, governed both Delaware and Pennsylvania at the end of the war, and forged the key compromise that saved the Constitutional Convention.

Explain the views of these founding conservatives. What did they advocate for and how is what they advocated for seen in our constitutional structure today?

Unlike those who stayed loyal to the Crown, the founding conservatives understood both the inevitability of change and the futility of trying to turn back the clock. If the Revolution taught them anything it was that they needed to adapt or risk irrelevance. No one put it better than Robert Livingston of New York, who urged his fellow conservatives to “yield to the torrent if they hope to direct its course.”

Conservatives put these principles into practice during the framing of the Constitution. Many of them openly admired Britain’s system of government, which had stood the test of time. Yet, they also understood that the American people would never accept a return to monarchy. The key was to make America’s new government as similar to England’s as possible and to shun any political framework based solely on abstract principles. “Experience must be our only guide,” John Dickinson told the Convention during a memorable debate. “Reason may mislead us.”

Who were the radicals they were fighting against and what was radical about what they advocated for?

Two types of radicals emerged in the American Revolution. The first were those champing at the bit to declare independence. The second were those who sought greater equality in a traditionally hierarchical society. Conservatives opposed both, but their battles with the latter type of radical were by far the more violent. Throughout the Revolution lower-class radicals fought fiercely for greater political and economic power. After seizing control of Pennsylvania in 1776 they quickly imposed price controls and tried to limit the amount of money anyone could earn. Armed mobs beat merchants who charged more than what was deemed a “just price” and pillaged their shops. To them the free-market economics advocated by conservatives represented both a sign of corruption and a lack of patriotism. “In the midst of money we are in poverty and exposed to want in a land of plenty,” one Philadelphia radical declared in an attack on the rich. “You that have money…down with your prices or down with yourselves.”

What was the most interesting fact or anecdote you discovered researching the book?

I was stunned to discover just how ferocious the clashes between conservatives and radicals were during the Revolution. On October 4, 1779, for example, angry Philadelphia militiamen seized four rich merchants. With fixed bayonets and a lone drummer beating “The Rogue’s March,” the mob paraded its captives through the streets and toward the house of James Wilson, whose well-known opposition to price controls enraged radicals. Informed that an attack was imminent, America’s conservative leadership rushed to defend his home, which they soon dubbed “Fort Wilson.” The mob, they knew, was not coming in peace. To the growing din of shouts and drum taps, the conservatives barricaded the house and readied their powder. No one knows who fired the first shot, but within ten minutes the mob had rolled a cannon into firing position and was smashing through Wilson’s doors with hammers and iron bars. Blood crimsoned the cobblestones and by the time mob retreated five men lay dead and fourteen wounded. As the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison observes, “Had James Wilson and his friends not defended themselves, this brawl …would have been to the American Revolution what the capture of the Bastille …was to the French Revolution.” Even the British capture of Philadelphia two years before had been less bloody.

What does your book teach us about today’s political battles?

For one thing, they’re nothing new. Americans have been fighting over the question of economic inequality since the birth of the nation. For modern conservatives, the book also offers invaluable insights into how their forebears survived one of the greatest periods of upheaval in American history.

At a time when many on the right are searching for a winning electoral strategy, there’s no better place to look than at the principle of the founding conservatives. At the start of the Revolution, they had to learn to be flexible in order to maintain their influence. After the war they had to transform themselves yet again. Just like conservatives today, the founding conservatives faced a rapidly changing electorate. In order to appeal to new voters from the lower and middle classes they had to craft a message that even non-elites could support — they pledged to create a strong America and a rising standard of living. Although conservatives would never outnumber their political opponents, promising prosperity through free-market capitalism brought victory at the polls.

How does a professor of innovation and technology end up writing a book about American history?

I’ve always been fascinated by American revolutions. “They Made America,” the book I collaborated on with Sir Harold Evans and Gail Buckland, was a best-selling history of American innovation and subsequently made into a four-part PBS series. It told the story of the nation’s greatest technological and business revolutionaries. It also led me to move from journalism into academia. My new book is also obviously about a revolution. What’s less obvious is that I deliberately end “The Founding Conservatives” so that it segues into the beginning of They Made America, with Robert Livingston and the invention of the steamship. Had conservatives not insisted the Constitution include intellectual property protections and other pro-business clauses, America might never have become the wealthy nation it is today.

What three books most shaped your world view?

If I may be so bold as to name a book I also wrote, I’d have to say “The Founding Conservatives” is one. I’m a registered Democrat, but after learning about these right-wing revolutionaries I have developed a tremendous new respect for conservatism. The idea that we should respect social institutions that have evolved organically over hundreds of years and that we should not assume the new will automatically be better than the old makes incredible sense. Another book I need to mention is George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” which taught me to appreciate the exquisiteness of the ordinary. The novel had a powerful impact on me when I read it as a newspaper reporter and shaped both my writing and the sorts of stories I consider important. There are so many others that it seems stingy to name just one more, but I’ll finish by mentioning Plato’s “Republic,” which I read in high school. The work taught me to search for the essence of things and that at its highest level, political philosophy is poetry.

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