Although as a group I think the Founding Fathers would be more conservative than the average politician today, I also think it is a myth to think of the Founding Fathers as an overall conservative group. However, there were certainly many prominent conservatives among them. Among the most notable of them were John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and arguably George Washington given that the Federalist Party formed out of the Pro-Administration faction of Congress. One of the most Federalist of Federalists was Massachusetts Congressman Fisher Ames (1758-1808), of the political Ames family.
Ames was a major figure in pushing for the adoption of the Constitution, seeing that the old government under the Articles of Confederation was too weak to function. He wanted, like Alexander Hamilton, a centralized government with enough power to tax and a national bank. In 1788, Ames was elected to the first Congress, defeating none other than Sam Adams. He agreed to the adoption of the Bill of Rights and was even a coauthor of the First Amendment, contributing the following language, “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof…” (Arkin).
Ames was a leader of the Federalists in the House and a strong supporter of George Washington, with his mastery of oratory being of great help to the party. He believed his policy of neutrality on European affairs to be fundamentally correct and was aghast at the horrors of the French Revolution, fearing that the French Revolution could spread to America. In 1796, the hot-button issue was the Jay Treaty, which contained provisions both favorable and unfavorable to a young America, but President Washington believed that its enactment would prevent the United States from going to a war with Britain they could ill-afford. Although Ames was unable to play a role in the debate on the Jay Treaty itself the previous year due to his worsening health, he was able to deliver a highly persuasive speech for Congress to fund the implementation of the treaty. That year, he chose not to run for reelection, leaving Congress due to poor health at the age of 38. Despite no longer holding public office, Ames still contributed to the political scene in opinion. He supported going to war with France as well as the Sedition Act of 1798 in the name of stopping the politics of Revolutionary France from coming to America. It was also a way for the Adams Administration to combat any lies that came from the Democratic-Republican press, which was notoriously acidic and scurrilous in its criticisms of the Adams Administration and the Federalists. This act, however, was part of the undoing of the Federalists and popular opposition to it helped propel Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1800.
In 1803, Ames opted to retire from politics for good, as he became increasingly gloomy over both his health and the increasingly popular Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party. It was increasingly clear that the days of the Federalists were slowly being numbered as they were no longer able to attract national appeal. In 1805, he was offered the presidency of Harvard University, but declined on account of his health. After over twelve years of deteriorating health, Ames succumbed to tuberculosis on July 4, 1808. It is in truth my bad that I forgot to include Ames in my July 4th posting. The funeral brought out many Federalists who wished to celebrate the memory of one of their most eloquent spokesmen. Ames was without doubt one of the staunchest conservatives among the Founding Fathers.
Why do I say Ames was a staunch conservative? His quick opposition to the French Revolution, his opposition to economic controls on the economy, his deep-seated skepticism of democracy as a vehicle for liberty, and his unqualified defense of property rights. On the latter he held that, “The essence, and almost the quintessence, of a good government is, to protect property and its rights” (Yankowitz). Ames feared Jeffersonian democracy, believing that it would eventually become a majoritarian despotism, popular rule becoming mob rule. He opposed redistribution schemes, warning against “schemes of an abolition of debts and an equal distribution of property” to be “pursued with unremitting industry” (Tippins). Ames believed that the focus on equality would serve to destroy liberty, as it had in revolutionary France. Reality fell short of his fears about the Democratic-Republicans, however, as President Jefferson’s governance was far more moderate than he thought it would be. As the conservative political philosopher Russell Kirk wrote, “Ames was wrong, so far as the immediate future was concerned; for already a counterbalance to American radicalism was making its weight felt. That saving influence was in part the product of an innate moderation in the planter society Jefferson represented” (Tippins).
Arkin, M. (1999). Regionalism and the Religion Clauses: The Contribution of Fisher Ames. Buffalo Law Review, 47.
Tippins, S.B. (2020, July 3). Died on the 4th of July: Fisher Ames, Founding Father. The Imaginative Conservative.
Wolfe, G. (1980, June 1). Fisher Ames: Forgotten Defender of Liberty. FEE.
Yankowitz, E. Fisher Ames. Mount Vernon.