Amendments, mobs, God, rights, guns, Pilgrims, Adams, etc.

Responding here to a bunch of comments posted during recent months, since I don’t like burying and scattering the discussion:

Elites versus the crowd. Working backward and starting with lacithedog’s comment on my “New Deal 2.0” post. Laciethedog is reading Declaration and comments further on the “New Deal” post here. I appreciate the interest and support. And I have a concern about the idea that the founding fathers “incited the masses” and then found “the mob” hard to control. In both Declaration and that “New Deal” post, I do discuss tensions — indeed, outright enmity, at times — between the adherents of populist democracy and the adherents of republican liberty who banded together to defeat reconciliation with England in 1776. But I think I also show that I see the alliance as a matter of mutual manipulation, with ordinary people possessing plenty of initiative, intelligence, and what the historians call “agency,” and not of a mindless mob being incited and then imperfectly controlled by elites. Not sure if laciethedog is thinking of it quite that way, but the terminology gives me pause.

War on Christmas. Laciethedog also comments on my “war on Christmas” post. Point taken. Can’t agree that anything would have made either Adams literally a Tory — but even without a time machine, John Adams’s “Good God!” on reading the radically democratic PA Constitution of 1776 (and his predicting that PA would soon want George III back), and Samuel’s calling for the death penalty for the so-called Shays rebels, made many at the time think the Adamses and others had reverted to a kind of Tory authoritarianism. Neither Samuel’s nor John’s disgust with the populism they’d collaborated with in 1776 represents a reversion, however — which is really the well-taken point of laciethedog’s comment. While they differed in influences, emphases, and personal styles, both Adamses remained pretty consistent in their elite Whig republicanism throughout the period. Whigs were not democrats.

Socialist Pilgrims. Michael Pichowsky makes a thought-provoking comment regarding my post on the “Socialist Pilgrim” flap. But even given all of Pichowsky’s nuanced understanding of the Calvinist-socialist problem, I’m still unconvinced that it’s fair to see the very specific Plymouth experience as revealing some big truth about the virtues of free markets versus a centrally planned economy. Bradford does seem to have been reading the lesson pretty much that way, though.

Inalienable rights and God. My Constitution posts are leading me toward an article that would qualify as something other than a post, more like what I call a “work” in this post — whether I end up publishing it here, on another blog, or in a magazine. Interesting comments in this regard included Martin’s, of What Would the Founders Think?. Martin raises the issue of where the in- or un-alienable rights come from and says that Glenn Beck gets it right: from God. Liberal readers may be surprised to hear me say that, in this context, I agree: if people are born equal, and governments (i.e., conditions of inequality) are instituted for the purpose of securing the unalienable rights that people so born are endowed with, then those rights must come from something preexisting human institutions and even humanity itself: the infinitely wise maker, as Locke said. Where do secularists who believe that unalienable rights exist say they come from? Nature, I think. Same diff. They must mean a nature far different from, and one might even say transcending, the nature red in tooth and claw that presents itself to the naked eye. You could call that the Creator, or God, if you wanted to.

(Imagine some theology kicking in here.)

But the inalienable rights of people born equal don’t exist just because Locke said they do. Maybe people are born unequal, maybe government preexists all human conditions other than anarchy, and maybe it has rights that preempt all others. And maybe God has nothing to do with rights. Locke may have been wrong. The point about the American founding is that, right or wrong, it rationalized its declaring independence by invoking the kinds of rights, preexisting and justifying the existence of governments, defined by Locke and many others in the British Enlightenment and liberty traditions (“The appeal,” Pitt said sympathetically of Massachussetts, “is to Heaven”). Martin sees that idea as exceptionally American. But 18th-century Americans saw it as deeply — constitutionally! — English. And to complicate things further, I think that in practice, some high federalists (Hamilton, Robert Morris, sometimes Washington) acted on a worldview far more Hobbesian than Lockeian.

Doug Indeap, commenting a bit too Internet-sardonically for my taste on the same post, says “please” to the idea that the Times error I was remarking on represents anything important about liberal thinking as a whole; I updated the phrasing in the post in hopes of clarifying my reading (something in my post also seems to have given Doug Indeap the idea that I claim infallibility). And Bill Stepp gives us the antifederalist pov on the Constitution.

Right to bear arms. The post on the second amendment got some comments, too. Martin sees the founders as paranoid about standing armies. Interesting, as that’s the high-federalist (libertarians would say statist) position: Washington and Hamilton thought the anti-army crowd was nuts, and they had to tread carefully in creating one. And Robey was disappointed to be agreeing with me (thanks to Lawrence Tribe!).

But regarding the second amendment, I should emphasize that what I’m really saying is that I don’t know what the second amendment says, I don’t believe anybody else does either, and I believe that’s by design. Anyway, I hope everybody who is interested in this kind of thing saw Pauline Maier’s op-ed on related matters in the Times. She reads the opening “absolute” phrase/clause as a classic preamble; I think there are some problems with that, as I’ve said (if it used a “whereas,” OK) — and I was happy to see that she brought up the anti-standing-army thing too.

Tone, people, tone. On my first Constitution post, on the first amendment, Doug Indeap posted a comment that I mention only because I almost didn’t approve it; the tone is so personally hostile. Not sure what motivated that. Nothing in my post has anything to do with the fact that the phrase “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution. That’s what O’Donnell later said she’d been talking about, but it has nothing to do with what I was talking about. The idea that I “don’t like” the constitutional separation of church and state is pretty bizarre. Not sure what’s going on here, really.

Anyway: mobs, God, rights, guns … ! Good stuff.

2 thoughts on “Amendments, mobs, God, rights, guns, Pilgrims, Adams, etc.

  1. I have to agree with your clarification. I should not have said “the founding fathers”, but rather “many of the founding fathers” were concerned about standing armies.

    I just read the Pauline Maier piece that you referred to, and I think she may be partially right, but misses the bigger picture. Madison fulfilled his promise to push for a Bill of Rights, which he did through the amendment process. This promise was made to forestall a second convention.

    However, in my reading to date, it seems that the biggest arguments against the Bill of Rights during the convention was that they weren’t needed because, of course, the Constitution didn’t grant powers over such obvious things, and therefore they’d be redundant or cause people to think that the Constitution implied government power over everything not specified in the Bill of Rights.

    There were no major philosophical problems with the specifics (at least to my admittedly limited knowledge).

    So, regardless of what is stated in the Bill of Rights, I doubt the Founders would ever have conceived of a disarmed citizenry. The Constitution is a document of negative liberties – designed to restrict government to a proscribed sphere – not to limit the rights of people.

    Government providing people the right to protect themselves would no more have been thought as necessary than need for government to provide a right for people to breathe. It was taken as a given. The farsighted proponents of a Bill of Rights didn’t think that they could rely on the de facto interpretation and wanted at least some things specified.

  2. I just saw this.

    Incitement–e.g., the Boston Massacre and Tea Party incidents, where things got out of hand. Additionally, the subsequent acts of rebellion and continued harking back to that “tradition” by modern day “patriots” is why I mention it was out of control. That ties in with the comments in the Christmas post about the Adamses. Jeremy Bentham gets it right when he says:

    “The revolution which threw the government into the hands of the penners and adopters of this declaration, having been the effect of insurrection, the grand object evidently is to justify the cause. But by justifying it, they invite it: in justifying past insurrections they plant and cultivate a propensity to perpetual insurrection in time future; they sow the seeds of anarchy broadcast: in justifying the demolition of existing authorities, they undermine all future ones, their own consequently in the number.”

    My “alternative history” musings have me wondering what John Adams (and a few other of the founders) would have done if they had seen how making a violent break would effect future generations as opposed to a gradual one.

    I do not see the War as inevitable, but I do see independence as being inevitable. The question would be what sort of North America would have come from a peaceful transition.

    As for the Second Amendment, I think Martin has it correct, there is enough primary source material out there that points the issue was standing armies and civilian control over the military. It is a historic trend in Anglo-American history. The problem is that is has been taken out of context both historically and politically which is causing the confusion.

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