Restoring the values of the Founding Fathers is supposedly one of the articles of faith of the Tea Party and its Republican entourage. But the ultra-right should be careful what they are wishing since the Founding Fathers were not only revolutionaries in deed, but many held far-reaching democratic ideas that the tea-baggers would denounce as “socialist.”
This came to light recently concerning a bill introduced by Ohio State Representative Jay Hottinger, a staunch member of the “caveman caucus,” now in control of the legislature, to abolish the estate tax as one of the first orders of business. To support this measure to end taxes on estates valued at $338,333 or more, Hottinger invoked the famous statement of Benjamin Franklin that nothing is certain in life except death and taxes and then expressed his view that even Franklin “didn’t envision that the tax man would visit on the day of your death.”
Tom Feran, a writer for the Plain Dealer, decided to check out the tax views of Franklin, “arguably the greatest mind of the founding generation,” and reported in a column Jan. 21 that not only did Franklin support inheritance taxes but believed that all property except that needed by individuals for survival “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.”
The quote is from a letter written in 1783 by Franklin to Robert Morris, the Superintendent of Finance (Treasury Secretary) under Pres. George Washington. The letter calls resistance to taxes “highly blameable” and urges passage of laws to compel payment. Franklin goes on to state, “All Property except … (that) absolutely necessary for Subsistence, seems to me to be the Creature of public Convention. Hence the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents (inheritance) and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity and Uses of it.”
Washington did not enact an estate tax, but his successor, John Adams, did in 1797, the same year, Feran notes, that Tom Paine, Franklin’s friend and another giant among the Founding Fathers, published “Agrarian Justice,” an essay calling for creating a national social security fund to be financed by a 10 percent tax on inherited property.
Unlike Hottinger, the Founding Fathers, including Franklin, Paine, Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were outraged at great disparities of wealth, which they had seen in Europe and stemmed from the type of hereditary political and economic power they overthrew in the American Revolution.
Hottinger has dismissed the revenue problems cities in Ohio will face if the estate tax is repealed saying that municipalities have taxing authority. In other words, it’s ok to tax paychecks of ordinary citizens but heaven forbid taxing the hereditary wealth of the rich.
It may seem astonishing that Franklin and other Founding Fathers had such negative views about property rights, but they had obviously given a great deal of thought to the matter. Both Franklin and Paine were strong advocates of the abolition of slavery although it took a terrible civil war to confiscate that form of private property. It is also interesting that Franklin saw property to be the result of laws and “public convention,” not some inherent right.
As a young 23-year-old printer, Franklin published in 1729 a pamphlet entitled “A Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency,” in which he argued that the source and measure of all value was labor. Although there had been some earlier European expressions of this view, this was the first clear statement in America by one of the greatest of our Founding Fathers of the labor theory of value, the foundation of the revolutionary science of Marxism.
Photo: Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, ca. 1770, by Edward Fisher (engraver), after a painting by Mason Chamberlin. (Library of Congress / AP)