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On Thursday, July 3, I’ll be discussing the weird political turmoil behind the decision to declare American independence in July of 1776 — and I’ll be signing books.

The event will be held at the beautiful St. Paul’s Church, a National Historic Site, in Mount Vernon, New York, at 7:00 PM. Admission is free.

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In a piece for Boston Review, I say something like this:

The modern Constitution, the one we think of as democratic, did not flower naturally and gloriously from a founding seedling. Its emergence instead looks spasmodic, prejudiced, opportunistic, unpredictable, at times violent, always strange. But because Justice Roberts assesses the Constitution not narratively and historically but structurally and taxonomically, the opinion in McCutcheon is bulletproof. Thanks to the underlying equal right of participation, the Roberts Constitution—neither strictly “originalist” nor liberally “living”—resolves and pacifies all the wild action around voting and equality that has marked the document’s veering career. The Roberts Constitution may serenely apply itself, without tension, to all relevant issues.

And this:

What money corrupts is the whole activity of governing. The legislative docket is the game board. The electorate and the elected alike are the pieces. Most of us don’t have the money to play in that game, and because we don’t have the money—and because we do, thanks to our constitutional history, have the vote—we are the pawns. [. . .] None of that matters to the McCutcheon opinion. There, a large talent for exegesis is expended in proving there is nothing Congress can do to ameliorate its own incapacity as a broadly representative body.

Read the whole essay.

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While we may think we already know how bad things were, we actually don’t — and a piece like this forces us to remember. The author, Clarissa Atkinson, is a historian with a string of books and articles to her credit (she’s also my aunt); this first-person approach is a new direction for her, and it really pays off here:

No matter how frustrated they might be [Stevenson told the 1955 Smith graduating class] by a “sense of contraction, of closing horizons and lost opportunities . . . women ‘never had it so good’ as you . . . This assignment for you, as wives and mothers, you can do in the living room with a baby in your lap or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hand . . . there is much you can do . . . in the humble role of housewife. I could wish you no better vocation.”

It gets worse.

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In contrast to the last time he mentioned the Whiskey Rebellion on his show, last night Jon Stewart got relationships among the Shays Rebellion, the creation of the Constitution, and the Whiskey Rebellion exactly right. His purpose, brilliantly achieved, was to demolish Sean Hannity’s fake patriotism, which as Stewart said, is really a form of rear-guard antifederalism, in keeping with that of the entire Fox News right. The Constitution they profess to love was formed, precisely and specifically, to create a power to do what they hate: collect taxes, in service of a big national debt, by force if necessary.

And Stewart is quite right to note that all of that came about in direct response to the Shaysite resistance in western Massachusetts. Then, in 1794, the first president exercised those new powers with a vengeance in western Pennsylvania. Just as he would do today, at the Bundy Ranch.

Stewart’s point was to expose the vile hypocrisy of Hannity and the new antifederalists. He could not have made that point more effectively.

The problem with that realpolitik founding history for liberals, though, is that the neither the Shaysites nor the Whiskey Rebels were in fact anti-tax activists, like those the Hannitys of the world endorse. The original rebels were working-class labor activists resisting not taxation itself but deeply regressive taxes, earmarked for payoffs and bailouts to the richest few. Progressives today would agree, that is, with the critique made by the Shaysites and the Whiskey Rebels, if not with their tactics.

And in suppressing those founding rebels, both the framers, constructing the Constitution precisely to enforce regressive taxation and protect bonanzas for the rich, and the first president, ignoring all civil rights during the 1794 crackdown of western Pennsylvania, made themselves anything but heroes of modern liberalism. History: Whaddaya gonna do.

Anyway, nice to see founding realpolitik on “The Daily Show,” and to see today’s populist-right history nonsense exposed for what it is.

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“Founding Finance” is now out in paper from the original publisher, University of Texas Press.

Splendid … full of smart, unsettling observations that will enlighten — and discomfort — liberals and conservatives alike.” — Stephen Mihm, University of Georgia

“Hogeland’s position deserves to be seen as a politics of anti-founding.” — Tom Cutterham, “Jacobin”

“Hogeland doesn’t just set out to show how the conventional [founding] story has things shaded a little wrong or omits a telling incident. He wants to persuade us that it’s a cover-up. . . . It’s a rip-roaring story whose most remarkable rips come in an unusual chapter…in the exact middle of the book. ‘I’m untrained,’ Hogeland begins. He isn’t confessing so much as throwing down the gauntlet against the élites in the history business.” — David Skeel, “Books and Culture”

“Provocative.” — Library Journal

“Thought-provoking.” — Booklist

One of the best books about the revolutionary period ever written.”
— a guy on Amazon.

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Bill Chapman called my attention to an interesting Newsweek piece by David Cay Johnston entitled Why Thomas Jefferson Favored Profit Sharing, reporting on new research by Joseph R. Blasi and Douglas L. Kruse of Rutgers and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard, as well as on Johnston’s own research, to describe

… the future envisioned by the framers more than two centuries ago – an America in which every worker is a capitalist.

Possibly unsurprisingly, I question that conclusion about the framers’ vision. Some back-and-forth on Twitter leads me to clarify here my dissent from Johnston’s article.

This is the situation — classic, at this point, for me — in which I might agree with an author about the kinds of things we ought to be doing now do encourage far greater economic equality but disagree that there’s any realistic hope of finding support for those things in the thinking of our founders. That’s in part because I recoil, and possibly too hard by now, from what has come to seem to me a compulsive troping by some progressives toward the kinds of American-essentialist, founder-invoking gestures that the right wing routinely uses, possibly to the greater good of their propaganda, and always to the detriment of realism about our history as a people.

The same damage is done by liberals, and in the liberal case I think it’s worse. For while it might be nice to believe, I guess, that if we could only get back to the vision bequeathed us by our founders, progressive values would prevail and the greater good be achieved, that’s way too simple, and too simple in a way that I think undermines both our understanding of where we come from and any hope we may have for where we might be able to go. As usual, the only hope I see lies in complication.

The Johnston piece opens by quoting Washington, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton on such things as the importance of “equal distribution of property” (Washington); fear of “the rich and the proud” destroying “all the equality and liberty” (Adams); a hope that government would defeat “an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches” (Madison); and expectations of abuse “whenever a discretionary power is lodged in any set of men over the property of their neighbors” (Hamilton). These are familiar remarks. In the quote battles waged so hard online, they can always be countered with opposing thoughts from the same men, which can in turn always be countered by quotes more like these, and so on.

Johnston, however, uses this collection of quotations to assert that the equality thing is the one thing the warring founders agreed on. Context is everything, and I’d suggest that these quotations instead indicate that the founders all participated in what was then a familiar, even reflexive Whiggish rhetoric, appealing to an ideal of rough equality of wealth as a key to stability. Such ideas are loose enough in any event, and in the case of some of the founders’ visions for America, fantastical enough, to have permitted these men lifestyles of supreme fabulousness while inspiring them to oppose at every turn the efforts of organized labor (yes, it existed then) to gain access to political power and use it to equalize wealth via representative government. (more…)

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The Economist has an interesting but, I think, historically misguided piece paralleling the current shale energy boom, especially in the West, with the Gold Rush of the 1840’s. And the similarities are indeed obvious: feverish greed, quick mineral wealth, smelly camps full of rowdy and frustrated men, American “westernness.” That’s all summed up in the old expression “black gold.”

But even as it strains comparisons past the breaking point, the piece itself reminds us, explicitly, that the thing about the Gold Rush was that any shmoe with nothing but a pick and a sieve could start looking for gold and might indeed find it: many did; others failed to. The Economist piece therefore sees the Gold Rush as something new in the world, something rowdily democratic and quintessentially American.

Whether or not that’s true, in the fracking boom, by contrast, the guys in the camps are not self-employed treasure-seekers competing with one another in a quest to wrest from the earth enough personal wealth to live a life of riotous idleness. The Economist piece itself notes that they’re workers employed by the big companies that can afford the awesome, actually terrifying technology on which this boom relies.

Nobody doing the actual labor, that is, will reap the boom’s immense profits. For the ordinary person, this is a boom in employment — of working, that is, on behalf of somebody else’s profit. To the ordinary person, the fracking boom holds out no hope, misguided or otherwise, as the Gold Rush once did, of never having to work again. That opportunity remains with the elites and their progeny.

It’s axiomatic, for the Economist, to view the Gold Rush as democratic, and therefore quintessentially American. So the piece must make the Gold Rush the first American fever for quick untold wealth, thus the template for all later booms. The piece therefore gets confused about meanings, for American ideas about wealth and democracy, of both the Gold Rush and the shale-energy boom.

* * * *

The Gold Rush wasn’t the first such event in America. The land-speculation bubble of the 18th C. was the first great American speculation rush — closely intertwined, during the Revolution, with speculation in flurries of state and federal war bonds.

And while it’s less romantic, to us, than the Gold Rush, the 18th C. land-speculation bubble has two features that make it more grimly salient, I think, than the Gold Rush, both to our current boom and to the history of American wealth, booms, and democracy. (more…)

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