What would those who wrote, signed and fought for the Declaration of Independence have thought of this year’s presidential election? While one the candidates, Donald Trump, makes frequent allusions to America’s founding document, his key policy proposals run counter to the principles found in that text.
There are surprising parallels between the 1770s and today. Governments throughout the world were reacting to a debt crisis. Politicians, then as now, disagreed about how best to respond to the crisis. Some argued for shrinking government, erecting tariff barriers to protect domestic industries and radically restricting immigration. Others, as now, maintained that state stimulus, freer trade and new immigrants were the best options for paying down the debt.
Americans have always taken the Declaration to be the touchstone of their politics. In 1782, John Adams announced to the government of the Dutch Republic that “the immortal Declaration” “has been held sacred to this day by every state.” Abraham Lincoln said that he “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” This year’s Republican platform proclaims that the Declaration “sets forth the fundamental precepts of American Government.” And the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee Tim Kaine lauded the Declaration in his speech at the Democratic National Convention.
But what exactly were the principles embodied in the Declaration? Above all, the Second Continental Congress affirmed its commitment to equality. Here’s what the Founding Fathers thought about economic policy, trade policy and immigration.
In Britain, the ministers who came to power in the 1760s and 1770s overwhelmingly believed, as do many politicians today, that the only option out of debt was to pursue austerity measures. They were happy to shift the tax burden onto those who had the least political capacity to resist it, which meant taxing the underrepresented manufacturing districts of England, and above all taxing the unrepresented North Americans.
The patriots who opposed the British governments of the 1760s and 1770s on both sides of the Atlantic offered a different economic vision. They believed that the key to paying down that debt was government stimulus of the economy. British and American patriots pointed out that the colonies were the most dynamic sector of Britain’s imperial economy. The more the colonies grew in population and wealth, the more British manufactured goods their populations would consume. Because British manufacturers paid taxes on the goods they sold to the colonists, American consumer demand generated revenue for the British government.
In the past few weeks, Trump has outlined views on government spending and taxation that resemble those pursued by George III’s ministers. Instead of advocating government expenditures to support development in the civilian sector, Trump, like Lord North before him, called for increased spending on the military while simultaneously making “government leaner.” Trump’s tax plan, his economic adviser Stephen Moore suggested in August, would offer “a tax break” to “a lot of high-income people” who “are small-business owners.”
When Americans declared independence in July 1776 , they demanded a state that would promote the free movement of goods and peoples. Those who drew up the Declaration of Independence condemned Britain’s monarch, George III, for “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world.” The British government had long maintained tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade with the French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and South America. By doing so, it deprived Americans of a vital outlet for their products and access to hard currency. This was why, in 1775, Benjamin Franklin had called for Britain to “allow us a free commerce with all the rest of the world.” And why Thomas Jefferson called on the British imperial government not “to exclude us from going to other markets.” Freedom of commerce, accompanied by state support for the development of new industries, was a central tenet of America’s founding document.
The Founders’ commitment to free trade stands in stark contrast with Trump’s recent declaration of “American Economic Independence.” Trump insists that his economic program echoes the wishes of the Founding Fathers, who “understood trade.” But Trump’s economic agenda is the reverse of that advocated by the authors of the Declaration. Like the British government of the 1760s, Trump focuses narrowly on America’s role as a “dominant producer.” He is right to say that the Founders encouraged manufacturing. But they did so by simultaneously supporting government subsidies for new American manufactures and by advocating free trade agreements, like the Model Treaty adopted by Congress in 1776 that sought to establish bilateral free trade. This was a far cry from Trump’s call for new tariffs.
The authors of the Declaration also condemned George III for his misguided restrictions on immigration. Well-designed states, patriots believed, should promote immigration. They denounced George III for endeavoring to “prevent the population of these states.” The King, the American Patriots pointed out, had reversed generations of imperial policy by “refusing to pass” laws “to encourage … migrations hither.”
Patriots, by contrast, welcomed new immigrants. Immigrants brought with them new skills to enhance production, and they immediately proved to be good consumers. “New settlers to America,” Benjamin Franklin maintained, when they cleared new farms and built new villages and towns, created “a growing demand for our merchandise to the greater employment of our manufacturers.”
Nothing could be further from the principles of the Declaration of Independence than Donald Trump’s assertion that independence requires reasserting control “over our borders.” With his call to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Trump’s policies come much closer to the views of George III than to the principles of America’s Founders.
In July 1776, America’s Founders affirmed their commitment to an activist government that would restore economic equality to North America. The Founders would have agreed with Trump’s recent speech in Des Moines, Iowa, advocating for “big ideas designed to help everyday people.” But unlike Trump, the Patriots who declared independence from Britain did so to create a more active government that would shift the tax burden onto the rich, work to open markets and welcome immigrants. It was these commitments that made the Declaration “immortal.”