In 1776 Philadelphia, a working-class movement seeking economic equality became key to declaring American independence. Ignored by many liberal and conservative historians alike, and therefore largely forgotten (the only big name involved is Thomas Paine), those populists allied themselves with decidedly un-populist founders like John Adams and Samuel Adams, who favored American independence. Encouraged by the Adamses, a local militia of populist radicals overthrew the anti-independence government of Pennsylvania. That uprising enabled the decisive vote for American independence in Congress on July 2.
Then, with independence, the Pennsylvania populists smashed the ancient Whig connection between property and representation — the very principle the war with England was being fought to uphold. The Adamses and the populists had been using each other for separate ends. Suddenly, free white men with no property could not only vote in Pennsylvania, but also (and this really nauseated John Adams) hold elected office. New assemblymen included a weaver and a small farmer. They worked, with some success, to pass anti-monopoly laws, take bank charters back from financiers, issue paper money for foreclosure relief, and tax progressively.
Because they were intent on economic equality, we may want to claim those forgotten 18th-century American populists as liberals. But that’s reading backward. Adams was the period liberal. The populists were, precisely, illiberal. Their politics were inspired by an absolute claim on moral virtue. Many were evangelical Christians and millenialists and they instituted a religious test for holding office. Rejecting free debate and discussion, they shouted down and physically intimidated minority opposition. They exhorted their followers to avoid electing not only the rich but also the educated. This didn’t get into their constitution, but it came up for discussion: limiting by law the amount of property any one person could own.
18th-century American populists’ attitude toward the elite was an inveterate “lock and load” (and they meant it literally). John Adams, for his part, treated them with all the disdain and dismissal that liberals today hand Palin and the rest of the populist right. It’s distressing but true: America became independent in 1776 through a queasy, mutually mistrustful alliance of political convenience between populists and liberals. With some notable exceptions, populists and liberals have been trying to kill each other ever since. Now what?