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Occupy Wall Street: an American tradition since 1776

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.

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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.

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