A Missouri based researcher thinks the country’s founding fathers are often misunderstood.

Peter Kastor - Washington University Professor of History and American Culture Studies - Photo courtesy of Washington University

Peter Kastor – Washington University Professor of History and American Culture Studies – Photo courtesy of Washington University

With the presidential election approaching, political rhetoric is picking up over the actions of the federal government.  Elected office holders are being examined on how they’re executing the vision of the founding fathers.

Peter Kastor of Washington University in St. Louis heads a project called “Creating a Federal Government”, which looks at the early federal workforce.

He says the founding fathers lived in a time when resources were far more limited than today.  “People often ask ‘Would the founding fathers agree or disagree with what the government does now.’  Before they could even reach that conclusion, they would need to wrap their heads around just how profoundly different the world we live in now is from the world in which they lived – a world that is both infinitely more complex, but also a world that has infinitely more knowledge about how to respond to that complexity.”

Kastor contends the federal government was more active and robust under the founding fathers than current day conservatives will acknowledge, but less so than what liberals would wish.  He says federal leaders in that era were far more complex and flexible than many people today will admit.

He thinks they were much more nuanced than many people now would think.  “Most of them are people who, in some cases, see it as necessary to expand what the federal government did, and to find a way to pay for it, and a way to prevent it from becoming dangerous.  At other times, they see the federal government engaging in activities they consider excessive, that they need to reign in.”

Kastor notes when the federal government, at its outset, faced enormous debt, the early leaders developed an indirect tax, knowing that imposing a direct tax on citizens would face fierce opposition.  When foreign goods came into the country, a levy was placed on them.  Most Americans had no idea the levies existed because they were figured into the cost of the goods when merchants brought them into the country.

Kastor thinks the Federalist Society, an organization composed of conservatives and libertarians who have an “originalist” interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, is narrowly focused on one aspect of the founding fathers’ concerns – the fear of a large federal government.

But he points to Thomas Jefferson, who is often described as a strict constitutionalist, as a founding father who expanded the government’s reach as president.  Kastor notes that when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory (including Missouri), Jefferson expanded the federal budget to manage and govern the territory.

Kastor contends the founding fathers, along with American citizens at the time, were somewhat scattered in their thinking about the scope of government.  “They (founding fathers) were worried about the dangers of government, but they also wanted a government that was effective” said Kastor.  “And we actually know that the American public actually felt similarly.  Lots of Americans had deep seeded concerns about government, but also lots of Americans had big expectations for the federal government.”

Kastor thinks American citizens today largely have the same expectations from the federal government as those who lived during the time of the founding fathers.  His project, which focuses on the 18th century federal workforce, should be complete in a year.  It’ll be released as a digital archive.