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Posts Tagged ‘Gordon Wood’

I’ve just copied this update from the previous post:

[UPDATE: A better theory [about why Amar would even want to make his monolithically successful, even hegemonic theory about democracy in the Constitution seem an insurgent, embattled one]. As Amar goes about defending the health insurance law, including the individual mandate, as utterly constitutional — anything, that is, but a violation, actually an expression of the democracy and equality he sees as hardwired into the Constitution (sometimes despite the framers themselves!) from day one — he must reject, explicitly, the claim of rightists that the law is socialism and ergo to them un-American.

To make liberal policy not merely not un- but actually hyper-American — which is what liberal historians are always trying to do (and how’s that workin’ out for ya?) — requires staying vigilantly on the record, on behalf of liberal founding history, not against the right but against socialism, and especially against leftist critiques of founding history once associated so influentially with Beard, back in the dim, forgotten past. So Amar knows full well that the liberal, consensus theory of history (with its intriguing period connections to Forrest McDonald and cold-warrior Goldwater rightism) triumphed before he was ten, that nobody even remembers Beard today, thanks in part to, yes, Gordon Wood (though Morgan was really the leader in that effort, I think).

But loudly re-fighting the ancient Beard fight gives Amar and all liberals seeking hyperconstitutional support for the health insurance law a way to violently reject socialism. It’s an exercise that in its microcosmic way repeats, for today’s politics, the broad sweep of what liberal, consensus history has been trying to do for more than a half century. To no positive effect, either intellectually or politically, that I can see.]

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[UPDATE: Two more posts developing these ideas are here and here.]

You won’t find a better-expressed, more compelling encapsulation of the precise reverse of how I see the founders and the U.S. Constitution than in this talk by the constitutional scholar and well-regarded author Akhil Amar, “Andrew Jackson and the Constitution.”

Is this yet another Tea Party rant against abuse of the “necessary and proper” clause and the hegemony of the welfare stare? No, no, no. For those who don’t know Amar and his benchmark work The Constitution: a Biography, this is liberal history in a nutshell, ideally expressed by one of our brightest academics, a consultant to “The West Wing” no less, mentioned by some as a future Supreme Court nominee. He’s doing yeoman work making the rounds in constitutional defense of the Health Care Act. And as a speaker he’s got his own kind of charisma. To me the talk is a fun crash course in exactly the wrong way to look at the founding, a quick summary of the story I’ll never be able to undermine the way I’d like to. Check it out!

In his talk, Amar runs deftly and powerfully through what I can’t see as anything but our dominant narrative about the Constitution: that the document was structurally, “in its DNA,” as Amar says, and possibly against the founders’ conscious intentions (an idea Amar types always toss off without exploring), the most democratic thing ever created to that point, with almost all of its later expansions into further democracy almost magically hardwired from day one, and thus a mighty pivot in world history, with only one horrible thing wrong with it: the adoption of African slavery via the infamous three-fifths clause. The Constitution was thus elementally Jacksonian, in two key respects: admirably democratic (since Amar, with so many others, takes it as given that the rise of the white working class and the development of small-scale capitalism associated with Jackson is fundamentally democratic, making the Jackson administration in a special sense the “real” founding); and horribly “slaveocratic” (as Jackson, unlike slaveowning founders like Jefferson, was unapologetically pro-slavery).

In this reading — say it with me — the founders’ Constitution “failed” (tragically, as it was so earthshakingly democratic), as did the systems of Jacksonian America, precisely because of the slaveocratic element, leading to a civil war that, had the founders only faced up to the slavery nightmare, pragmatically revising the three-fifths clause over time, we could have avoided. It was left at last to Lincoln to hit reset and begin to get the American balance right: democracy without slavery. Then the Civil Rights movement and the liberal triumphs of the twentieth century and there you have it. Thank you and good night!

Being mind-numbingly familiar isn’t what makes that narrative wrong. (more…)

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I swore I’d never abuse a blog this way, but the following is straight b-roll. I’m cutting this out of a book I’m just now finishing. [UPDATE: It's finished.] George Wolfe, playwright and sometime artistic director of New York City’s Public Theater, was reputed to respond to actors’ suggestions for things they might want to add to a scene by making a scissor-snipping hand-motion in the air and saying “Save it for your nightclub act.” This snippet is is part of a much longer critique of the influential academic history of our time . . . [UPDATE: I may not be talking, really, about intellectual history per se. More about an overreliance on intellectual history by historians who for various reasons prefer discussing ideas to discussing political and economic action.]

* * * *

So here’s the thing:

I’m not saying intellectual historians harbor some evil desire to distort. Intellectual historians just want history to be intellectual.

In my lifetime, they’ve made it so — or at least made American founding history so. For anyone wondering how we traveled, in about sixty years, from the Beardians’ dominating founding history by promoting their somewhat oddball take on class conflict to Gordon Wood’s and others’ dominating it by promoting “republican synthesis,” I believe we can thank the mighty influence of Douglass Adair. How Adair looked at the founders is how we mostly look at them now, so I think it’s worth a glimpse at how he pulled that off.

Like Robert Brown and Forrest McDonald, in the 1950′s Douglass Adair took direct aim at Beard. Yet he didn’t employ tendentious economic studies like theirs. Adair made a highly nuanced appeal to the importance of the founders’ reading and thinking, especially about the meaning of virtue.

It’s surprising, given Beard’s obscurity today, to see how powerful Beard’s influence was when Adair began work. In his Ph.D dissertation Adair could only go so far. He basically said, “Yes, of course, it was all about financial self-interest, but I’m just saying the classics might have had something to do with it too.” And he acknowledged what then was supposed to be common knowledge among historians, that the framers acted to restrain democracy because “their pockets were being picked by the backcountry debtors.” The prejudice embedded in that remark, in favor of the creditors, would offend hardly anyone today, since the subject of founding debt and credit has become opaque for many readers. That’s a reflection of Adair’s success. He shifted the larger discussion entirely away from economic matters that he’d been forced to acknowledge, at least, when he started.

Adair curated the postwar development of founding history largely through his role as the editor of “The William & Mary Quarterly” in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Much of the writing he encouraged there carried forward his project: thinking ever more deeply and arguing ever more closely about liberal, republican, and classical theories of virtue in government — the appropriate way, to Adairites, to read America at its founding. Through that process, economic conflict among classes in founding America came to have relevance only in so far as it inspired Madison to write about faction, say, or John Adams to write about balance.

One of the revealing effects of Adair’s approach to the project of debunking Beard, important for the stories I tell, has to do with how we look at Alexander Hamilton. The pro-business, right-wing Beard debunker Forrest McDonald made Hamilton a hero. That was counterintuitive, given McDonald’s Goldwater connections and Hamilton’s ceaseless activism on behalf of government power. Then again, the New Dealers, whom McDonald opposed, had copped Jefferson for their own founding mascot (even more counterintuitively). McDonald’s admiration for Hamilton may also remind us that the right’s famous affection for liberty often has to do with ensuring that deleterious effects of private enterprise on less advantaged people might never serve as a reason to regulate private enterprise.

In contrast to McDonald’s right-wing style of Beard debunking, Adair’s middle-of-the-road liberalism makes Hamilton a social conservative, living in hysterical fear of a class war that Adair was out to define as chimerical. Adair thus doesn’t have to deny Beard’s contention that Hamilton’s efforts in public finance involved an attack on the less advantaged; [UPDATE: On reflection -- and on reading an essay by Pope McCorkle in American Journal of Legal History that I can't link to -- that's not really a Beard position. In the end, it's hard for me to say what Beard's position was, on a number of things, but what I really mean here is something like "Adair thus doesn't have to deny Beard-influenced contentions that founding finance policies associated with Hamilton and the Federalists involved an attack on the less advantaged"]; he just sees the Hamiltonian extremity of anti-populism as baseless, silly, off the point of founding history (as he’s tautologically defined it). Since balancing fights among Americans is what interests Adair and his liberal-intellectual progeny, and not the fights themselves, both Hamilton and his enemies in the eighteenth-century popular-finance movement exist by definition outside the mainstream of the American founding. The founding populist efforts I discuss, the desire to radically change American society, to make government economically egalitarian, nothing to do with the ideas of Jefferson and Madison — that’s a molehill of which Hamilton foolishly made a mountain, in Adair’s reading.

The problem with the Adair narrative — and I think this is emblematic of the preference for looking at ideas, not action — is that it fails to explain much of Hamilton, and much of what actually went on in the founding. For one thing, Hamilton’s manifest economic liberalism: that daring pursuit of financial innovation, which, combined with his hierarchical conservatism, made activist government such a powerfully stabilizing, nation-creating force in the 1790′s. In shifting history away from the class war in which both Hamilton and the popular-finance movement knew themselves to be engaged, the Adair narrative cleanses early American tendencies toward stability and liberalism of the economic regressiveness that (I believe) attended them. Great historians have thus continued to be happy to believe in Adair’s Hamilton the extremist social conservative and upper-class hysteric, important to mention but intellectually marginal to the American project, and because intellectually marginal, ultimately marginal. Biographers and politicians alike perennially insist on Hamilton’s importance. Major academic historians have mainly stuck to giving him his bare due without getting interested in him.

That’s because Hamilton was an actor, not a thinker, in that his thinking — at least as adept, in my view, as anybody else’s of his day — served action, and action occurs in conflict. None of that serves the prime Adair directive of seeing in founding America a synthesis, a resolution of conflict, carried out in the famous elites’ ideas about virtue. The populists of the day, to the extent that they were economic radicals, will always look to Adairites extremist and hysterically misguided, just as their opponent Hamilton does; or, to the extent that populists can be described as not politically radical, just eager for personal advancement, they can be seen as having been unfairly labeled radical by the reactionary Hamilton. Either way, their needs would soon be addressed — supposedly! — by the intellectually attractive Jefferson, and then met — supposedly! — in the age of Jackson, and the franchise was opened in the states throughout the nineteenth century, so why on earth discuss radical thought and action as important to the founding?

Here’s why I do: Hamilton and the radical populists saw one another clearly, and what they saw represents the great political struggle of the period, the struggle that made us, I think, and the struggle we’re still in. To Adairites, that’s all off point. In the Adair reading, Madison is the founder to watch — not Hamilton, not Washington, not really John Adams, certainly not Samuel Adams. Adair’s Madison reacts to the Madison that Beard had pushed on us in 1913 — a Madison not much more than a somewhat pretentious aristo looking out at all costs for his own wallet, his republican theory, supposedly by his own admission, just a tactic for pushing back against the masses. Adair’s 1950′s Madison, by contrast, stays bent over his books. A reader and writer more than anything else, Madison rarely even looks out the library window, so immersed is he in the world of ideas. Madison has thus become the ultimately appealing founder for many readers of founding history. How could he not be? Anyone who loves reading for the sake of knowledge, nuance, exploration — any reader of serious history — will naturally prefer to hang out with the bookish Adair philosopher Madison rather than the hypocritical Beard plutocrat Madison. The Virginian sought to defeat the most pernicious effects of faction, ingeniously, by permitting faction to thrive in a balanced system. Who among us wouldn’t want to sit in a hushed and cozy library with Madison, Adair, and the classical authors? It beats considering grubby matters like paper versus metal, economic interest, and class war. And how especially satisfying is it that those great classical thinkers’ thinking was made law, for the first time, thanks to Madison himself, in the founding of our own government? Madison looks like somebody we’d be pleased to exchange a few ideas with. He looks like a smarter version of somebody, we dare to believe, like us.

The flattering, sentimental attraction of that version of Madison is so great that we no longer remember the Madison who was a politician operating within alliances and under pressures, not always to perfectly consistent ends, and with highly ambiguous effects on our founding history. The Madison we like remains so pure of heart and thought that to conservatives he’s the first conservative, to liberals the first liberal. We don’t really need to care what he meant when he mentioned the disaster of paper money and devaluing of debt in “Federalist Ten,” an essay we cite approvingly on other matters more edifying and therefore nearer to our hearts. We forget that regardless of the degree to which Madison was interested in the subject of his own interest, he had a point of view on society that he may have mistaken, as the rest of us do, for the objective one, in which his conclusions were shaped to fit his social and economic position.

And we forget that Adair came up with all that stuff about Madison in full-on attack on what was then the dominant position in American founding history. Adair was attacking Beard. McDonald, openly scabrous in his disdain, admitted by his tone that the war he was fighting was a political one, but Adair took a cannier tack, and so utter has been his victory over Beard that we no longer know that Adair was engaged in warfare at all, or that the war had political and not only intellectual dimensions. The self-regarding attitude of judicious omniscience employed by Adair, Morgan, Hofstadter, Wood, et al, dims our awareness — by sheer force of the attitude more than by anything else — not only of the importance of financial and economic struggles in the American founding but also of the academic combat in which those historians made their careers. We’re no longer expected to register the degree to which, in the past they’re supposedly merely exposing to us “as it was” (as Wood has actually said about his own work), it is the historians, and not the historical figures they study, who have the most decisive interests.

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For some reason I’m having huge trouble responding, with Blogger, to comments on this issue at John Fea’s excellent blog, where much discussion is ongoing. A virtue of the FB board would be to address the problem of diffusion I complain about below — but only John Bell and I are posting there, so no help! This comment will make sense only if you also check out both of John Fea’s posts on the topic, and the comments, here and here:

OK, now I’ve mucked up this thread with removals to correct inadvertent repetitions, then failed to post something I thought I posted. Semi-conscious resistance? It dismays me when comments full of interesting ideas, challenges to previous comment, etc., proliferate in scrolldown threads, fragmented across multiple posts on multiple blogs, even as new topics pull our attention up to the home pages. Diffusion may be part of what’s good about blogging, but sometimes the byplay just defeats me.

Yet I appreciate the space dedicated to this issue here (even amid some very interesting reporting from AHA!). Commenting below on this post and its comments and the other post and its comments on the same topic:

John Fea, I’ll send you a copy of Inventing American History, the MIT Press book from which my reflections on Wood are drawn (and I’m looking forward to reading your book). The continuum you shrewdly identify between Holton and Wood is what concerns me in both authors’ work: both think there was a 1780′s backlash, associated with Federalism, against emergent democracy; I don’t think it was a backlash — to me, elite fear and loathing of populist democracy had never truly wavered (that’s despite Holton’s citations) — and I don’t think anti-democratic efforts were by any means Federalist alone. But that’s what my (other) books are about (and I’m trying to avoid writing a book on your blog!). [UPDATE, here on my blog only: I should add that I think Holton's Unruly Americans is indispensable reading for everyone interested in these matters.]

Wood’s work is so nuanced and complex, and so well written, that it would take a career to really dissent from it, but my endnotes to those same books probably make clear that I read Wood — plenty audaciously, I know, given my outsider’s status — as ultimately (deep breath) overdetermined, tendentious, and strangely motivated historiographically. (more…)

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Those interested in ideas about critical history and popular memory, raised by Gordon Wood’s New York Review of Books piece on Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes, can comment on a Facebook discussion board dedicated to the topic, established by John Bell of Boston 1775. It would be good to see other interested parties weighing in there! The Wood review itself is here.

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First impression [UPDATE: I meant of Wood's whole piece, not just the part in front of the firewall [[UPDATE: OK, that's not what a firewall is (IT figuratively); I was just copping imprecise language from hnn.us]]; I read the Wood piece in something called print (HNN complains about NYRB “firewall” here, Wed. 1/5/10)].

Anyway, as I was saying, first impression:

Gordon Wood’s review, in the latest New York Review of Books, of Jill Lepore’s book on the Tea Party, The Whites of Their Eyes, looks to me almost fantastically, even goofily, unfair.

Haven’t seen any comment anywhere else yet [UPDATE: Well, now I have, especially here and here (for the latter, scroll down to "Wed., 1/6")], but this is a moment, as far as I’m concerned: two ultra-credentialed, famous, Ivy-league historians of early America (for those who don’t know, Lepore is at Harvard, author of New York Burning, among other things, and a founder of Common Place; Wood, at Brown, is Wood), at least a generation apart, both committed to bringing real history to general readers, are commenting on the populist right’s claim on founding period, and taking — so Wood says — dramatically different attitudes toward that claim, with what Wood sees as important ramifications for history and memory.

This may sound funny coming from me, since I roped in Lepore, in her role as a New Yorker staff writer, to my Boston Review criticism of liberal responses to the Tea Party. But that was in her role as as a New Yorker staff writer: my point was that nobody in that world, even including Lepore (whom I contrast with other liberal commentators like Frank Rich and Chip Berlet), and certainly including me in Boston Review, is capable of capturing Tea Party ethos for readers of that sort of publication, thanks to modes of discourse we must necessarily rely on in trying to do so (better to send the Hunter Thompson who was dying to hang out with the Hells Angels, the Elizabeth Hardwick who excoriated George Wallace as declasse, anybody but us…).

Wood accuses Lepore of making active fun, and fun only, of Tea Party views of history — a startling mis-reading, I think — and then gets into some very tricky and potentially revealing stuff about popular memory. That stuff needs unpacking, but for now: In his essay, and between the lines, Wood is reminding me strangely of Edmund Morgan, in a very early (1950′s?) essay, in which Morgan essentially called for an updated, qualified revival of Bancroft romanticism in American history. [UPDATE: Yes: William & Mary Quarterly, Ser. 3, No. 14, 1957.] Hence the ensuing work of Edmund Morgan. Reminding me strangely, I said. More on this to come … [UPDATE: Starting with here: John Bell's Facebook board on the topic.]

But for one thing: Can we possibly at long last rule out the tendentious use of the word “concedes” when referring to something an opponent actually asserts? (Wood makes use of this tortured ploy more than once in his review.) I will if you will.

[UPDATE: If I'd known this post would get so many views, I might have unpacked Wood's reflections more thoroughly here. By the time I work it all out, the moment will have passed ... But I do think there's fertile ground for a review, somewhere, of differences between Wood and Lepore as a way of looking more generally at how certain kinds of American history have developed over the past generation or two. In that context, people might want to check out Lepore's review of Wood's book Empire of Liberty. There's an interesting long-term argument going on between these two (who may be fast friends in real life for all I know...).]

[UPDATE: More on all this, right here on this blog, here and here.]

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