The 'Occupy Wall Street' protesters aren't extremists on the fringe. They reflect the frustrations of large swaths of American society. By taking aim at corporate greed and corruption, they embody a venerable tradition of American populism with roots back to Jefferson.
Most of the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters in New York and their imitators around the country seem decidedly scruffy - which is just how you would look if you slept in a city park for several days. Some of them have even dressed up as "corporate zombies" in white face paint, chanting "I smell money!" So it may be tempting to think of them off-kilter extremists at the edge of society.
Think again. Taking aim at corporate greed and corruption, the demonstrators embody a venerable tradition of American populism. From the dawn of the republic until the recent past, Americans celebrated hard-working folk and denounced financial titans who preyed upon them. However intemperate or excessive, their protest language fueled some of our most important social reforms - including the regulation and control of the financial sector itself.
Start with the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who feared that a "moneyed aristocracy" would bind the young nation into a new set of chains. "And I sincerely believe...that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies," Jefferson warned. He reserved special disdain for financial speculation, which he labeled "a species of gambling destructive of morality."
Several decades later, Andrew Jackson denounced the Second Bank of the United States as essentially a scam to enrich the wealthy at the workingman's expense. He also helped sweep away property requirements for voting and office holding, rendering every white male the political equal of the "stock-jobbers, brokers, and gamblers" he despised.
By the late 1800s, as massive financial corporations clustered in lower Manhattan, the populist animus found a new target: Wall Street. "A name more thoroughly detested is not to be found in the vocabulary of American politics," thundered Georgia's Tom Watson, vice-presidential nominee for the upstart "People's Party" in 1896. "Here is Wall Street: we see the actual rulers of the Republic.... The Government itself lies prone in the dust with the iron heel of Wall Street upon its neck."
Five years later, when Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House, populism entered mainstream American politics as well. From the Republican side of the aisle, Roosevelt blasted "malefactors of great wealth" - especially financiers on Wall Street - for corrupting American politics. So did Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic standard-bearer, who worried that "all of our activities are in the hands of a few men."
But the angriest attacks came from Roosevelt's distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office amid the worst financial crisis in American history. And FDR had no doubt about who was responsible for it: the financiers themselves.
"The fundamental trouble with this whole Stock Exchange Crowd is.... their inability to understand the country or the public or their obligations to their fellow men," Roosevelt told an aide. In his first "fireside chat" on national radio, President Roosevelt flatly declared that "fewer than three dozen private banking houses" controlled "the flow of American capital."
In its darker corners, to be sure, populism could slide easily into paranoia and hatred - especially toward Jews. The "Jewish banker" became a stock figure for anti-Semites such as Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin (the "radio priest"), and Henry Adams, the eminent novelist and historian. …