Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why Did The U.S. End Up With A Strong Federal Government? Partly Because The Founding Fathers Were Dads

Families tend to have a large influence on a person’s politics. The same held true during the Constitutional Convention.
Howard Chandler Christy
Wikimedia Commons
Families tend to have a large influence on a person’s politics. The same held true during the Constitutional Convention.

America’s founding fathers had a lot to consider when drafting the United States’ Constitution. A new study out of Brigham Young University shows when it came to how strong they felt the federal government should be, the gender of their children played a large role.

KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with political scientist and co-author of the study Jeremy Pope.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Your research found when it comes to America’s founding fathers, those who had sons favored a strong national government and those who had daughters favored strong state government. Why did they tend to fall along those lines?

Jeremy Pope: You have to go back in time and think about what gender meant in the 1700s. Let's say you have lots of sons. You have to find places for these guys. Only one of them is likely to inherit the family estate. Some of them need to go off and become merchants [or] military officers. They could go into government, but only if a large government with lots of offices exists. So the notion of creating a national judiciary, the need for a diplomatic corps, all the kinds of offices that are associated with a strong national government, that could be a subtle influence on your thinking.

CB: Why would the founding fathers with daughters prefer strong state governments on the other side of that coin?

JP: I don't know that I think it really offered a lot of advantages for women. It was just the status quo. So if you're the father of a daughter, you might have a subtle prejudice against changing things, because everything was going reasonably well. You are happy with the state government that's near you, where you're likely to have influence and to the degree your daughter has influence in your community.

Because women did have influence in the 1700s, but not the same kind of influence that men did. They had it within family networks and local institutions. There's no Hillary Clinton in the 1700s. That's just not a thing. I think probably the stronger subconscious motivation may have been among fathers of sons. But it is true in the data that having daughters does seem to have a subtle pull towards the status quo.

CB: For those of us who maybe haven't been in an American history class for a while, the status quo was these stronger local or state governments running things. The federal government being strong would have been a change for people.

JP: Yeah, very much so. This is a misconception I find a lot of people have that somehow the [1787] Constitutional Convention was about limiting government. That's true in a certain sense.

But a better way of thinking about it is we're going to create this massive new, incredibly large expansion of government. We're going to create two whole new branches of government. There was no president. There were no courts at the national level. If we are going to create these, we want to make sure they're carefully balanced and we don't want them to get out of control. But the Constitutional Convention is, in my view, the largest government expansion moment in American history.

CB: In your research, looking at family dynamics, did you find any evidence that daughters or wives were actively talking to these founding fathers about politics, trying to convince them one way or another of how to adopt a new government for a new country?

JP: The short answer is yes. There's some and I suspect there would be more evidence if we had a complete record. Certainly the famous example is Abigail Adams, who it's pretty clear from her letters was at least as, perhaps more, talented than her husband John Adams was. Now, he wasn't at the Constitutional Convention, but it's very clear that they had this kind of partnership where she felt obligated to express views that he would sometimes accept and sometimes reject.

I often use this quotation in class about how during the time of the Declaration of Independence, she wrote to him about how ladies should be given the right to vote. And John Adams writes back and says, “Look, we can't do that.” John Adams is gently fighting with his wife. I think there were moments where women extended their social influence and power in ways that affected men around them. But the problem is it's a little bit lost to history. It doesn't lend itself to the kind of statistical analysis that I can do about the Constitutional Convention.

CB: Has doing this research and putting this paper out changed at all how you view the Constitutional Convention and what they were doing there?

JP: It confirms something I've long thought, which is that the Constitutional Convention is in one sense a kind of miraculous event, that they were able to come together and come up with this new big agreement. But I think people underestimate just how hard the task was. It was so difficult to come up with a set of solutions.

And what my coauthor Soren Schmidt and I have done here is really just throw one more motivation that probably influenced them, perhaps subconsciously, into that mixture of things that they had to think about. In some sense, the miracle is not the actual document, it's the fact that they came up with anything at all. There are lots of things about the Constitution I don't like, but it does sort of confirm some respect that I have for people who took on such an enormous political problem and made their world better through instituting that.

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.