The Constitution: Historically Complicated, Politically Ambiguous

In my discussion of U.S. founding history with Tea Party leader Michael P. Leahy, at the Broadside Books blog “Line of Fire,” we’re homing in on two opposed ways of looking at the U.S. Constitution. Leahy sees the document as what he calls a secular covenant; he says the Tea Party (at least his branch of that movement) wants to get back to the plain meaning of the Constitution, as ratified and amended, and he sees Alexander Hamilton — rightly, as far as I’m concerned — as one of the chief early originators of liberal and expansive readings of the document. In his latest post, Leahy presents Hamilton’s opponents Madison and Jefferson as the Constitution’s defenders, Hamilton as its usurper, and ends by posing me the two highly germane questions in italics below, which I begin by answering in my response, set out here in full:


Great questions. Short answers first.

1. Do you agree with my broad view of Madison and Jefferson as the defenders of the Constitution and Hamilton as the usurper? No.

2. Do you agree with Jefferson’s statement that Hamilton’s financial system was “a machine for the corruption of the legislature?” In certain ways, yes, of course it was — but I think it’s important to a) interrogate TJ ‘s description in its political context , and b) assess the politics of your second question in terms of the first.

Here’s why:

I’ve been interested, not exactly surprised, at your locating the Tea Party’s origins in Madison’s and Jefferson’s opposition to policies carried out by the Washington administration, because I think many in your rank-and-file associate “getting back to the Constitution” with a return to the first days of the republic, and I’ve heard people who call themselves Tea Party invoke the legacy of our first president, who for many obvious reasons is widely admired across the political spectrum. (That they might also admire the whiskey rebels, Washington’s populist enemies, seems like a contradiction worth examining.) Both you and I are more willing to look critically at the Washington administration than many, across the political spectrum, who romanticize the founding years. And I do see the Tea Party as among the chief romanticizers.

But leaving aside what might or might not be the true Tea Party principles, which I can’t be sure of, you and I do agree that origins of liberal interpretations of the Constitution may be found in part in Hamilton’s famous reading of the necessary-and-proper clause (for the kind of liberals who don’t like Hamilton, that poses a problem). And to add credence to your “usurper” accusation, in The Whiskey Rebellion I’ve detailed Hamilton’s and Washington’s gross breaches of constitutional law during the military suppression of western Pennsylvania. I see that suppression as directly related to purposes of the finance plan. The so-called whiskey rebels were critics and resisters of the plan, and also in a way Madison and Jefferson didn’t understand, its main targets. What I’ve called Hamilton’s tendency toward militarism is interknit, for me, with his national financial vision.

So why is my answer to question #1 “No”?

I think to cast Hamilton as the usurper of the Constitution, and to concur in Jefferson’s and Madison’s casting themselves as its defenders, rests on a sentimental sense of early Constitutional history, originated by Jefferson and his followers and shared by many across today’s political spectrum, a view of the Constitution as essentially and fundamentally intended to do one thing — a Jeffersonian/Madisonian thing, associated with land, liberty, and decentralized authority — and to prevent another — a Hamiltonian thing, associated with money, authority, and centralized power.

I see the Constitution as filled with internal conflict over just those issues, conflicts born of the compromises and deliberate mutual misunderstandings inherent in the politics of the document’s composition.

An example lies in the intellectual dysfunction, one might even say the intellectual dishonesty, of the Madison-Hamilton collaboration for ratification, revealed in their breakup as soon as they achieved their shared goal. You see Hamilton as pulling a fast one there — and I agree that a lot of what he says in The Federalist is just high-Whig blather, intended to soothe — but Hamilton had just as good reason to be shocked and dismayed at Madison’s suddenly opposing everything he did. Each had somehow managed to believe they were fundamentally aligned, or each had been stringing the other along, or both.

They shared a desire to restrict the burgeoning American democracy and form an elite national republic. Their warring ideas over what kind of elite national republic to form put them at dire odds.

For me, the realpolitik of the framing — along with Article I, Section 10 — makes it clear that one key part of the Constitution’s dedicated purpose was to eradicate popular schemes of public finance and empower the funding, assumption, taxation, and central-banking plan that Hamilton, Robert Morris, and the rest of the high-finance nationalists had been unabashedly working for since at least the early 1780′s. In overlooked phrases of Federalist 10 (penultimate graf), Madison concurs almost reflexively in the financiers’ position, writing about popular finance with a disgust equal to Morris’s.

That is: the Constitution came into existence, in large part, precisely to empower the Hamilton finance plan. You may not agree with Hamilton’s citing “necessary and proper,” but I’m sure he thought the clause got in there for just the reason he gave. And had a Supreme Court including the likes of John Jay and James Wilson reviewed the plan, I think it would have quickly agreed.

That Jefferson and Madison did not understand (or chose not to understand?) the Constitution’s baked-in Hamiltonian elements reflects their preferences, but to me can’t be read as a sacred constitutional principle. Just as we do today, people then constructed their own ideas of right government as hyper-constitutional and their enemies’ ideas as unconstitutional. I think history always challenges absolute readings of the kind you say the Tea Party espouses.

I’ll close with an example from the ellipses in the long Jefferson quote you’ve cited. There he’s slamming the whole finance plan, not just the central bank; “corrupt the legislature” refers specifically to funding the domestic debt, not to establishing the bank. To Jefferson, the entire thing was fundamentally corrupt, but I don’t know that the Tea Party sees funding and assumption as usurping the Constitution. Some may, some may not — and so even in the Jefferson quote, “defending the Constitution” is a complicated and ambiguous idea.

Because so is the Constitution.

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One thought on “The Constitution: Historically Complicated, Politically Ambiguous

  1. No one seems to comment on the fact that the Constitution, signed September 17, 1787, turned the Declaration of Independence on its ear. We date the beginning of our country from July 4, 1776, when the Declaration was signed. The Constitution, signed 11 years later (when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were out of the country), merely switched taxing authority from the king of England and parliament to the sterile “father of our country,” Congress, and the Supreme Court.

    The Constitution itself is an economic document that commits all taxpayers to perpetual economic slavery. It controls all so-called “economic narrows,” including giving the federal government a monopoly on the currency. Only six people signed both documents. Benjamin Franklin is the one most people know, and Ben was much prouder of his reputation as a scientist than as a statesman.

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