The Founding Fathers never wanted businessmen elected to public office and they certainly did not want one to become president.
Public officials, the Founding Fathers believed, should act disinterestedly — that is, with virtue, willing to sacrifice their own interests, and those of their peers, for the benefit of the country. Patricians should lead the government as only they, free from avaristic influences of occupation, could rationally and dispassionately consider policy.
Businessmen could not for their commercial interests and bias would skew public policy towards a special interest. Considerations would ignore the state as a whole and instead focus on, at best, enriching peers and patrons, and, at worst, themselves.
The Founders’ Warning
Alexander Hamilton warned that electing those representing special interests, such as businessmen (as well as men from other occupations), would take government’s focus away from the polity and shift it towards helping specific factions. Writing in Federalist No. 35, Hamilton asked “Will not the merchant understand and be disposed to cultivate, as far as may be proper, the interests of the mechanic and manufacturing arts, to which his commerce is so nearly allied?”
To free government from such influence, he advocated electing statesmen free from conflicts of interests. These statesmen would have studied government and its science and “feel a neutrality to the rivalships between the different branches of industry,” making them “likely to prove an impartial arbiter between them, ready to promote either, so far as it shall appear to him conducive to the general interests of the society[.]”
Adam Smith, father of modern economics, also voiced similar concerns. His Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations argued that “The interest of [businessmen] is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public….The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order…ought never to be adopted, till after having been long and carefully examined…with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men…who have generally an interest to deceive and even oppress the public.”
The Constitution’s framers and other influential thinkers understood that electing a businessman to public office would risk conflicts of interest that pitted the financial stakes of the individual with the concerns of the country. And, understanding the greed so natural in mankind, they knew which interest such an official would pursue.
Donald Trump and his Conflict of Interests
These warnings are particularly prescient today. Donald Trump’s sprawling business empire from which he refused to divest leaves him susceptible to innumerable conflicts of interest as well as chancing his violation of both the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses.
We’ve already seen Trump’s personal interests butt heads with the interests of the country. He spends a disproportionate amount of time at his private golf clubs, mingling with donors and lobbyists who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year be with the president at such resorts. As Puerto Ricans — American citizens — suffered a humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Trump golfed at his own club.
Trump has shown no ability to place America’s interests ahead of his business interests. That is precisely the unenlightened leadership our Founders and other enlightenment thinkers so greatly feared.
To learn more about the Founding Fathers and the birth of the new American nation, checkout Gordon Wood’s The Empire of Liberty, linked below. PoliticalEdu may receive a commission for purchases made through that link; such money helps maintain the site.