The Forgotten Warning of the Founding Fathers

December 13, 2018 Updated: December 15, 2018

The Founding Fathers of the United States were incredibly wise men, even with their flaws. And in their wisdom, they provided many prescient warnings that we, their posterity, ought to remember.

I have often called them the “Founding Prophets” for this reason. Few sensations can approximate that of reading words written hundreds of years ago that nonetheless seem as relevant—oftentimes more so—than the latest commentary of today.

But their seemingly prophetic powers were not divine or supernatural—they were the natural result of a thorough knowledge of human nature and history. 

Among those warnings was one many modern people forget, and upon hearing, wish to forget again: the warning against what the Founders called luxury—the immoderate lust for wealth, riches, and the luxuries of life, as opposed to keeping one’s appetites more restrained and humbler. 

Be not deceived: regular people are just as prone to the dangers of luxury as the wealthy, sometimes even more so, as they attempt to vainly imitate their elites. The average American experiences a degree of material comfort unknown to the richest kings just a century ago. The warnings against luxury are as relevant today as they have ever been.

For the Founders, the issue of luxury was intimately connected with liberty. They firmly believed that liberty was man’s birthright, but they also knew that opposed to his birthright was his predilection for preferring the proverbial bowl of stew (see the story of Esau selling his birthright for such a bowl of stew in Genesis 25)—our desire for creaturely comforts tend to overwhelm our adherence to principles and ideals, causing us to lose our taste for liberty. As a Puritan preacher warned a young Benjamin Franklin, “Religion begat prosperity, and the daughter devoured the mother.” Moral living requires a sacrifice of the present for the long-term; but becoming obsessed with material gain does the opposite.

John Adams aptly summarized the lessons of history on this point: “The numbers of men in all ages have preferred ease, slumber, and good cheer to liberty, when they have been in competition.”

Adams frequently employed a line in his letters on the topic of luxury: “Human nature, in no form of it, could bear prosperity.” As he wrote to his son, then Secretary of State and future President John Quincy Adams:

“I believe you have often heard me Say, that human Nature cannot bear Prosperity. It invariably intoxicates Individuals and Nations. Adversity is the great Reformer. Affliction is the purifying Furnace. Prosperity has thrown our dear America into an easy trance…The dear delights of Riches and Luxury have drowned all her intellectual and physical Energies.”

Indeed, as the abolitionists of the 19th century made quite clear, the desire for wealth majorly fortified slavery in the United States—the god of Mammon had clouded the country’s moral vision. Material benefits overrode clear thinking and virtuous living.

The Founders knew that material comfort tends to undermine the very virtues which produced it. There’s the rub. Writing to Thomas Jefferson, Adams pointedly put forward this question:

“Will you tell me how to prevent riches from becoming the effects of temperance and industry? Will you tell me how to prevent riches from producing luxury? Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, Vice, and folly? When you will answer me these questions, I hope I may venture to answer yours.”

Benjamin Franklin, who rose from nothing, a runaway from Boston to Philadelphia with a few coins in his pockets who became one of America’s richest men, wrote in his “Autobiography” on developing the virtue of temperance, and frequently encouraged young men seeking riches to focus, rather, on serving their fellow man, as riches were fleeting, and not good in and of themselves. “Prosperity discovers Vice, Adversity Virtue,” he wrote in his “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”

But the Founders were not alone in offering this warning to their posterity. The warning against luxury runs through the great sages of every place and age. The Greek historian of Rome, Polybius, warned that luxury results in “arrogance and presumption.” Sallust, the great Roman senator, offered the following warning in “The Conspiracy of Catiline” (chapter 52):

“But it was other things than these that made them [our ancestors] great, and we have none of them: industry at home, just government without, a mind free in deliberation, addicted neither to crime nor to lust. Instead of these, we have luxury and avarice, poverty in the state, opulence among citizens; we laud riches, we follow laziness; there is no difference made between the good and the bad; all the rewards of virtue are got possession of by intrigue. And no wonder, when every individual consults only for his own good, when ye are the slaves of pleasure at home, and, in public affairs, of money and favor, no wonder that an onslaught is made upon the unprotected republic.”

As his contemporary, Cicero, likewise warned in his denouncement of Catiline, “The enemy is within the gates; it is with our own luxury, our own folly, our own criminality that we have to contend.”

Confucius warned of the same problem in his “Analects” (Book 14, section 10): “It is more difficult not to complain of injustice when poor than not to behave with arrogance when rich.”

Likewise, the Muslim historian Ibn Khaldûn, writing in his 1377 historical masterpiece “The Muqaddimah,” warned that “luxurious living” was the beginning of the downfall of empires.

Additionally, 18th-century French political philosopher, Montesquieu, in his 1748 classic “Spirit of the Laws” (which was widely read by the Founders) warned that throughout history, sexual immorality had always been “joined to luxury. It is always followed by luxury, and always follows luxury. If you leave the impulses of the heart at liberty, how can you hamper the weaknesses of the spirit?”

Writing in his classic “Democracy in America,” the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, contemplating 1830s America, warned of the effects of luxury:

“But while man takes delight in this worthy and legitimate search for prosperity, the fear is that he will finally lose the use of his most sublime faculties, and that, in his desire to improve his environment, he may debase himself. Therein lies the real danger, not elsewhere.”

American philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, both of whom grew up in poverty, both bemoaned not the poor man, but the rich man, for they knew the warning of Jesus in this regard to be true: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” [Matt. 19:24] 

Likewise, the wisdom sayings of the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament”) contain the request of a wise man to God that acknowledges the danger of luxury: “Give me neither poverty nor riches … lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.” [Prov. 30:8, 9] 

And lest it be forgotten: the average American, today, lives like the kings of not too long ago. We live in an age of wonders and material comforts that would absolutely befuddle our ancestors. By historical standards, we are all “a rich person.” We are incredibly blessed, and because of this, in the “danger zone.” 

For this, we ought to be grateful, both to Providence and our forebears—and the best way to do so would be to heed their warnings.

Joshua Charles is a bestselling author, historian, researcher, and international speaker. He is a passionate defender of America’s founding principles, Judeo-Christian civilization, and the Catholic faith, to which he converted in 2018. He loves telling, and helping others tell, great stories that communicate great truths.  Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaTCharles or see JoshuaTCharles.com

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