What’s the Matter with Akhil Reed Amar?: Liberal History, Democracy, and the Constitution

[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. But can there be any doubt about its familiarity? It’s the story Obama told in his famous speech “A More Perfect Union,” the story taught and repeated every day in history classes relying on the work of historians like Gordon Wood and Edmund Morgan, who began their careers in the middle of the last century. Most importantly, those historians have had an overwhelming, even monolithic influence on the popular and public history of our time: the National Constitution Center, for example, the History Channel (when it did history), the founding-father biographies, and especially significantly, events like the very discussion that follows Amar’s talk, in which the University of Oklahoma convened a blue-ribbon panel, covered by CSPAN and moderated by Diane Rehm, a panel in which all but Amar were white, all but one was male, almost all were white-to-gray-haired, and most revealing to me, all were pretty damned Whig. The monolithicity was stunning, as was the sheer dullness.

The panel’s purpose was to discuss how to get young people better involved in constitutional history. Not like that, would be my unsolicited advice.

But who else, really, are they going to want to get but David McCullough, Wood, David Hackett Fischer, and Amar? In public history, that’s blue ribbon and blue blood. These are the guys who have defined the public history of the American founding for at least a generation.

And amazingly enough, you’d think from Amar’s talk that they’re a bunch of young-turk insurgents, overturning what we’ve all “been taught,” Amar says, as if a CSPAN history viewer couldn’t at this point recite the basic narrative of Amar’s talk from memory. What Amar thinks we’ve been taught, so thoroughly that we now supposedly need Amar to help us out of the trap, is to reduce the Constitution to the 1913 Charles Beard critique, making the founding a shoring up of founders’ money against democracy, while simultaneously whitewashing and ignoring the Constitution’s involvement in slavery.

Well, there may be somebody left alive who has been taught those things. But since the very historians Amar cites and then serves on a televised panel with demolished Beard’s public reputation at least forty years ago, to the point where few visitors to the Constitution Center, say, or watchers of CSPAN today, will have any idea who Beard even was, Amar looks nothing but silly trying to position his quite lively re-telling of what has long since become the stereotypical narrative as a fresh wind, a clean sweep, a blowing away of cobwebs somebody named Beard has supposedly filled our heads with for too long.

And the Constitution’s slavery orientation? The “stain,” “the original sin”? That’s so well-known that Obama took it as given in “A More Perfect Union.”

Why would Amar want to frame his overwhelmingly successful narrative as an embattled, insurgent one? Can it be that the academic world is so insular that these ancients are still flailing loonily away, trying to kill enemies they actually defeated, for all time, even before Amar and I were born in the late 1950’s? Yes. That’s entirely possible. While Amar goes to some lengths to flatter his fellow panelists, saying that Beard’s bleak view of an undemocratic Constitution ruled until Wood came along to write his big books, everyone up there knows that Douglass Hofstadter, Douglass Adair, Forrest McDonald, and Robert Brown were already on the case, as they came out of the World War II and into the Cold War, promoting an idea-oriented American social and economic consensus, demolishing the idea of a founding class war. So beating Beard’s dead horse has been going on for some time. (Here are some dissenting thoughts on Beard, one from me and one from Woody Holton. And I have a book coming out, I hope this fall, in which I dissent further from the modern consensus thinking Amar so perfectly embodies. [UPDATE: It’s out.)

It’s also true, of course, that in the academic world, American historians the general public has barely heard of, thanks to the cultural dominance of the Wood-Amar type, have delved into matters other than how providentially brilliant yet tragically flawed the framers were. These other historians talk about gender, and class, race, and other things irritating to people who fear, with McCullough, our forgetting for even a minute the enormous debt we supposedly owe the greatest generation, the founding one. (Even race is discussed by the consensus mainly by framing slavery as blot on the otherwise pristine republic — the story is always about the moral agon of our beloved government, not the human nightmare of race in America.) Some less famous historians who do talk about the Constitution, like Holton, are skeptical of the framing as a democratic act (me too). They’re influenced, naturally, by Beard, but hardly, Amar to the contrary, regurgitate Beard’s errors. It’s thus possible that Amar and his consensus pals may not get the credit within the academy they think they deserve; they may not take their utter, generation-long dominance of the public discussion of the founding as adequate compensation for slings and arrows they sometimes suffer in their own professionalized world. Who the hell knows.

But the important thing is that Amar’s talk, and the view it so deftly captures, is replete with unexamined assumptions — unexamined in the talk itself — that lead to the tiresome foregone conclusion that the Constitution and the republic it created represented a secular sanctification of democracy marred only by that one stain. Since the realities, as I see them, are more interesting, and since I’m running out of time now, I’ll pick on a few of those unexamined assumptions and foregone conclusions in a later post.

3 thoughts on “What’s the Matter with Akhil Reed Amar?: Liberal History, Democracy, and the Constitution

  1. Dear mister Hogeland (do you have Dutch roots, by the way),

    Thank you for an interesting post. I could not help wondering, reading your re-visitation of Beard, whether there is not some truth in Amar’s assertion that his view is perhaps not new, but definitely embattled? Don’t get me wrong, I am very interested to read dissenting thought on Beard and myself have always found his views, if not convincing, very sobering among all the clamor about the greatness of the founding generation. Any chance we could get a sneak preview in a future post (or perhaps I have missed a past post on this).

  2. Pingback: Commentaries on William Hogeland and Akhil Reed Amar | The Committee of Observation and Inspection

  3. When I hear Akhil Amar say, “The Civil War proved we could make democracy work,” I not only must question his rationality, but his sanity.

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