19 Surprisingly Critical Thoughts on Money from U.S. Presidents
NEW YORK ( MainStreet) Perhaps the most famous pronouncement by a U.S. president on the topic of business was made by the relatively obscure Calvin Coolidge, who called it "the chief business of the American people" in 1925. But Silent Cal's maxim -- part of a speech that expressed his profound approval of the profit motive -- turns out to be not at all representative of presidential thoughts on business and finance throughout U.S. history. Looking back at writings and speeches from George Washington to George W. Bush, we discover a startling number of statements that wouldn't have seemed out of place on a protester's placard in Zuccotti Park. The White House, it seems, has been occupied by some surprisingly radical economic thinkers.
We expect populism from certain famous presidents -- the anti-bank Andrew Jackson, the trust-busting Theodore Roosevelt, the class traitor FDR -- but it can be jarring to read an indictment of capitalism from such a stolid symbol of American power as Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. Of course, talk is cheap, and politics expensive; most of these quotations were not given from the so-called bully pulpit of the presidency. Still, they remind us that our present discourse, in which redistribution is a dirty word, is something contingent, not essentially American.
Remember the outcry after President Barack Obama criticized "fat cat bankers on Wall Street" in 2009? As we're about to see, that comment was actually pretty tame, by historical standards. Here are 19 remarkable thoughts on money and the public good from American presidents.
George Washington on regulation
From trade our citizens will not be restrained, and therefore it behoves us to place it in the most convenient channels under proper regulations, freed as much as possible from those vices, which luxury, the consequence of wealth and power, naturally introduces.
John Adams on the fourth estate
The preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country. It is even of more consequence to the rich themselves and to their prosperity. The only question is whether it is a public emolument; and if it is, the rich ought undoubtedly to contribute in the same proportion as to all other public burdens--that is, in proportion to their wealth, which is secured by public expenses.
Thomas Jefferson on corporations
I hope we shall take warning from the example [of England] and crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
James Madison on marketmakers
The stock-jobbers will become the pretorian band of the Government, at once its tool & its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, & overawing it by clamours & combinations.