Final Post on Akhil Reed Amar’s “Jacksonian Constitution”

So to finish off this multi-post critique of Akhil Amar’s riff on democracy and the Constitution, I hit here on a few specific moments in Amar’s talk. For context, see my earlier remarks on the talk, and on the point of view of the founding and the Constitution it so ably presents (so precisely the reverse of my own): here and here. Time stamps below refer to markers in the CSPAN player for Amar’s talk.

5:37. “I’ll tell you … three ways to remember that it’s all about Jackson.” All about Jackson — that’s the top-lined conclusion, perfectly stated here, of Gordon Wood’s and others’ ideas about what the American Revolution accomplished: a kind of settlement, as old-school Whig historians might have called it, in which democracy in the form of small-capital, common-man upward mobility, presaged in the Constitution by the framers, needed the accession of Jackson to fully emerge.

In this reading, the democratic Jackson approach is fraught with unfortunate ironies, mainly, as Amar says, its pro-slavery position and its “isolationism.” That we haven’t “been taught” this, at the very least tacitly, everywhere we’ve looked in public history, as well as blatantly in history departments and academic publications and big history books, over the past fifty-some years, seems literally nonsensical to me. (I fantasize that Wood himself finds Amar’s version annoying, since it seems to sum up too easily — and clearly! — what it’s taken Wood a career of thorny nuance to explore.)

6:04. “The standard story that many of us were taught … associated with Charles Beard.” There’s just no way to call Beard’s interpretation a standard story — not since the 1950’s. It’s true (a commenter on one of my earlier posts brings this to mind) that recently some economists and historians have made yeoman efforts to revive and correct Beard, but Wood, Morgan, and Amar, among others, never openly respond to those efforts; they continue to marginalize both Beard and his more recent proponents by pretending the Beard version is still a standard one, a myth foisted on a credible public that must be debunked.

This is straw-man stuff, possibly consciously intended to fend off and dismiss a priori recent efforts at a Beard resurgence (by McGuire and by Holton, e.g.), without even mentioning them. In any event, the resurgence they’re out to eradicate by ignoring is not really of Beard but of the general idea that class conflict played a powerful, central role in forming the nation (a subject of my forthcoming book).

8:40. “Our republic could fail still.” Challenges to our current politics and government are here framed — not as exactly resembling the founders’ “slaveocracy” and isolationism, as Amar knows the next emergence of a problem won’t resemble the last one — but in terms solely of how we might, as he says the founders did, be drawn to ruin an essential, structurally inherent regard for democracy by failing to face realistically the practical drawbacks of things we’re culturally addicted to or fearful of. For a liberal like Amar, that might mean failure to, for example, cope with climate change. It might also mean a failure to make health insurance affordable for all. Clearly he’s concerned about Jacksonian-constitutional isolationism. While those great environmental, welfare, and foreign policy issues do of course involve major economic matters, Amar does not equate our current potential for failure with any economic impulse on the part of the founders to push back against the radically egalitarian economics of the 18th-century populists who wanted access to the franchise in order to restrain the power of wealth. He leaves those populists, and all of the founders’ efforts to quell them, out of the founding story: that’s all “Beard” to him.

But from the point of view of an economic and finance critique like mine, “might still fail” begs the question (assuming as proved what is to be proved). Amar induces us to accept a priori that a) the republic hasn’t already failed, and b) that the ways in which one might be tempted to think it had, seen perhaps most dramatically in the corrupting influence of high finance on our government, can’t have anything to do with what the founders were up to when they wrote the Constitution. On that latter point, while far from agreeing with Beard, as my new book will explain, I think radically otherwise.

9:18. “Mr Lincoln fixed the second thing, the pro-slavery element.” This would need unpacking, to say the least. Regarding the historiography Amar relies on and carries forth, one of the important things Lincoln “fixed” was our sense of the Constitution’s purpose, reinventing the Constitution as giving life to values supposedly inherent in the Declaration regarding equality: Lincoln re-made the nation as one that had been dedicated to a proposition. That extraordinary, culture-defining moment, involving what I think of as a noble fiction, provided an early platform for Amar’s seeing the Constitution as inherently, structurally concerned with egalitarianism. Breezing past all that, as Amar does here, speaks volumes to me, not least about the nature of “the pro-slavery element.” On a gut level, I find Amar’s deliberately technocratic way of looking at founding slavery — a faulty element in a system that failed, so needed rebuilding — strangely creepy. My fantasy is that as a pragmatic liberal he doesn’t want to sound like a handwringing softie decrying the enormity of it all. Later, too, he treats slavery mainly as a technically unworkable error in the republic’s design. The persistent orientation is toward the foregone conclusion of national greatness.

9:58. Look at how Amar starts reducing Beard here, parodying rather than explaining Beard’s position, and mainly by using facial expressions! [UPDATE: I’ve done something like this too, videos of my talks will sometimes show.] As soon as these guys start to confront the opposing point of view, they leave argument behind. Like Hofstadter, Amar turns certain unarguable and far from uninteresting assertions — that the convention was presided over by a military figure, met in secret conclave, and went beyond its express instructions — into elements of a paranoid conspiracy theory: only kooks could find those facts in any way compelling, say his face and body language. Rejecting an opposing position via expressions of sheer distaste, defining the opposing view as preposterous from the get-go: these are tricks Wood uses too. Hey, man. Doesn’t scare me.

11:03. Amar does here give credit to Bailyn, Adair, and Morgan, not just Wood.

11:33. Amar says Wood’s Radicalism calls the Constitution radically democratic. Not sure that’s the real burden of that book. I think Wood’s thought is more complicated than Amar’s here.

11:50. “They put the thing to a vote.” This is the big moment, really the climax of the speech. And from here I’ll stop giving time markers, because the thing I’d like to say responds mainly to the narrative that starts here. He’s saying (triumphantly, as if delivering the coup de grace): The ratification process was democratic, so the Constitution it ratified was structurally and intentionally democratic in the way he’s been saying it was. Ta da!

Even pretending for a (surreal) moment that the ratification process really was as democratic as “putting it to a vote up and down the continent” deliberately and falsely implies, logic dissolves here. Since when is it impossible to get an “up” vote for a program that’s totally undemocratic? Has Amar’s definition of “democratic government” all of a sudden become “something you can get a majority of voters ‘up and down a continent’ to sign on to at any given time”? This is exactly the kind of hand-waving, fist-pumping, obfuscatory rhetoric that makes it hard for us to think realistically about our founding. Amar must know that even if the Constitution had been adopted by 100% of a popular referendum including literally everybody, it does not in any way follow that egalitarian purposes were built into the document itself. “And they keep voting for the people who gave them the Constitution.” Yes, and as he says later, for those who had opposed it. So what? How can this make a point about the founders’ supposedly building Jacksonian democracy into the structure of the document itself?

And he says “we didn’t have time” to put the Declaration, by contrast, to a vote: war made opposition to independence impossible; opposing independence just got you tarred and feathered; nobody who opposed independence came to a position of authority in founding America.

Huh? John Dickinson? More important: Robert Morris? What on earth is he talking about here? We did have time for a vote on independence, and we had it: in the closest thing to a referendum on declaring independence, the fateful PA election of May 1, 1776 (which I discuss in Declaration), we went against it. There was no consensus: that election was overturned by force; that’s how we got the Declaration done. Yet later, Amar speaks disapprovingly of such antics when it comes to nullifying the Constitution. Realpolitik takes a long hike here. Founding reality disappears.

Anyway, as Amar also knows, levels of democratic participation in the ratification process make for a very complicated story. The thing was delegated by states to conventions, in various ways, not “put to a vote.” He mentions those conventions in which property qualifications were eased, and makes much of the few in which they were eradicated, because that makes the process seem radically open, and he leaves out anything that would suggest it was closed. Many at the time made cogent objections to the “up or down” provision, with no input allowed; also to the remarkable strongarm provision that only nine states would have to adopt in order for the document to govern all. To Amar, the amendments further represent the voice of the people. [UPDATE: Yet he knows the amendment process followed ratification, and he leaves out Madison’s deft efforts to use that process to shore up against the states the document as framed. I can see how Madison’s top-down use of the amendment process does give power to individuals, and in that sense to “the people,” but from Amar’s rendering you’d think there had been a process of incorporating input from supposedly populist state ratifying conventions into the document; that’s just what Madison and others made sure didn’t happen.] Leaving key stuff out, amping and distorting other stuff: Why? Does the supposedly democratic nature of the document’s essence start to look less real if you describe the ratification process realistically? And all of this is supposed to once again debunk Beard? Yikes.

And he celebrates easing property qualifications for the ratification as radically “new.” Only the barring of women was “old,” therefore negligible — and note his patronizing “and, yes” when deigning tiredly to acknowledge a point made earlier in the day by the one woman involved in this boys-club event at University of Oklahoma, making it a point owned by and relevant only to her.

So because of the “newness” quotient, ratification becomes the hinge of modern world history, radically egalitarian, exceptionally American. But here, specifically on the property thing, the irony becomes violent. All of the historians Amar celebrates as sane voices in opposition to Beard (Wood, Morgan, etc.) have rested their main claim — that the American Revolution ultimately represented a consensus among economic classes resulting in radical cultural liberalization — on studies purporting to show that property qualifications in colonial and founding American don’t matter historically, that middle-class democracy broadly prevailed anyway, that a class war would therefore have been marginal at best. If that were true (it’s not, I think), what would be the big whoop, historical hinge-y, about easing qualifications for ratification? They never mattered anyway, according to Hofstadter, Morgan, Wood, Brown, etc.

Amar and all these guys always want to have it both ways: Economic oppression based on class was never a significant issue in American government — the very idea! preposterous! — yet when Americans formed a nation, they changed the world for all time by demolishing economic barriers to government. We rock.

3 thoughts on “Final Post on Akhil Reed Amar’s “Jacksonian Constitution”

  1. These series of posts on Akhil have been great. Could you provide some primary sources on the radical egalitarians dissenting to the constitution? I would love to read these guys in the original.

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

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