After going back and forth on Twitter a bit with Eric Levitz about his article with the headline “AOC Thinks Concentrated Wealth Is Incompatible With Democracy. So Did Our Founders,” I thought I’d clarify my point of view. Really, I thought I’d use my objections to the line of thought exemplified by Levitz’s piece as a way of developing my own thought — at some length, it turns out — on egalitarianism and the nation’s founders, especially with regard to Jeffersonianism as a supposedly progressive antidote to Hamiltonianism.
Levitz’s linkage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to founding American values rose out of the panting, 24/7 need of media platforms to gin comments made on other media platforms into further comments; and out of opinion writers’ ceaseless task of opining on whatever momentarily passes for breaking news, which often means somebody else’s ceaseless opining. Hence Levitz’s discussion of the American founding, in response to a predictably reactionary rant by Sean Hannity, calling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s policies un-American.
But clickbait headlines aren’t the responsibility of writers. Levitz’s real point is more intelligent, informed, and nuanced than the headline’s suggestion that — contra Hannity — Ocasio-Cortez’s desire to use government power to restrain wealth and promote economic equality is actually grounded in philosophies, goals, and policies that brought the nation into being. For of course it’s true that, as Levitz says, “there’s nothing foreign or communistic about the idea that concentrated wealth is incompatible with democracy.” And of course it’s true that Hamilton, for one, despised democracy and promoted concentration of wealth as a national good — so in a funny way you can say that even he would have agreed that the two aren’t compatible.
Yet Levitz uses a disproportionately involved schooling of Hannity to mount a defense of Ocasio-Cortez as an exemplar of founding American values. So I’m now using an even more disproportionately involved dissent from Levitz to present my thoughts on the futility, for any real public engagement with progressivism and democracy, of roping the founders into those values. Politicians of every persuasion will never stop invoking imaginary founding precedents for their views. But intellectuals could stop, and I think if they did, the public discourse would improve, and so would our politics. Levitz’s take is a classic of its kind, yet far better informed than most, and so just as Hannity’s knee jerks in response to AOC, and Levitz’s in response to Hannity, mine jerks like this:
Levitz begins his effort to root Ocasio-Cortez’s progressivism in founding American values by invoking Thomas Paine, not via argument, but by linking to a Bill Moyers interview with the Paine scholar Harvey Kaye. The idea is to position the author of “Common Sense” as representative of egalitarian views supposedly evinced by “many of our republic’s founders,” as Levitz puts it. Since Paine’s radically egalitarian views made him persona non grata with almost every one of our republic’s founders, the mainstream founding-history establishment doesn’t even consistently include Paine as a founder: it endorses his (possibly overrated) contribution to independence via the pamphlet; it sometimes ignores and sometimes explicitly tut-tuts the economic radicalism that made him unique among the famous founders, and which aroused the open disdain of Adams as early as 1776, and of Washington by the early 1790’s at the latest. Paine served as an inspiration for and a supporter of the popular American insurrectionary movements that Henry Knox, sounding almost exactly like Hannity, feared were out to confiscate all of the elites’ property and redistribute it equally by tyrannical fiat.
Elites called the Constitutional Convention to put a stop to that stuff, and it was not for nothing that the Washington administration left Thomas Paine to die under the guillotine in Paris, refusing even to claim him as an American citizen. Paine escaped that fate only by luck, and when he did at last die, alone, drunk, and poverty-stricken back in New York, the tiny group of funeral mourners included not one comrade from the glory days, Federalist or Republican. If Paine is a hero, he’s a tragic one, precisely for being in no way representative of “many our republic’s founders.” His ideas are representative of exactly what the other founders were out to crush when forming the nation. In the process, Paine was crushed too.
Leapfrogging from Paine, whose real story offers no help in constructing an ethos of economic equality shared by a multitude of founders, Levitz jumps along the path set out by many hopefuls before him, landing on Jefferson, long the go-to person for locating egalitarianism in founding American thought. Glaring problems now arise, and Levitz is keenly aware of them. They include Jefferson’s intellectual inconsistency regarding almost every important issue and his total dependence on the ultimate in inequality, slaveowning. Levitz’s explicit acknowledgment of those issues pulls him into the nervous “to be sure” and “my point here isn’t to suggest” back-and-fill that marks every effort to yoke modern progressivism to a founding ethos. The underlying problem is that when you claim that a lot of the founders believed in economic equality, and then cite Paine and Jefferson as representative types, you really find yourself citing unrepresentative outliers, and in Jefferson’s case a highly compromised outlier and ultimately, I think, a useless one.
Inconsistency can be a hallmark of powerful creativity. Jefferson did think about the problem of economic inequality. Levitz quotes his mulling the awfulness of poverty and underemployment in the French countryside shortly before the French Revolution. Jefferson imagines solutions like using inheritance laws to break up concentrations of the great landed families’ vast holdings, thus creating smaller and smaller holdings and more and more holders; and taxing progressively. Because to him everybody needs at least some land in order to be a citizen, he notes wistfully that “It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it.”
But that’s where Jefferson’s wishes always run: somebody’s forever moving to uncultivated land and exercising a sovereign right to cultivate it. Call it the Happiness of Pursuit. It’s a happiness that adds yet another problem to Jeffersonian egalitarianism: in North America, that land had other, indigenous sovereigns. In Jefferson’s American Dream, they just get assimilated or moved out. Or killed.
But those are the obvious caveats, often acknowledged in the “yes, but still” mode. Trying to ground 21st-century egalitarianism in Jefferson’s dreams crashes on something deeper: those dreams’ deeply conservative view of rights’ basis in property — in Jeffersonian thinking, land — and its use. That’s in keeping with the 17th-century writing of liberty authors like James Harrington, whom Levitz rightly sees in the background of upscale founding Americans’ imaginations. And it’s true that in the 1650’s Harrington proposed, among other things, placing a legal limit on how much land any one person could own. There’s a perennial tendency to romanticize the impact of these authors; many of the founders were especially taken with the old liberty writers’ intellectual descendants in the British “Country Party” of the early 18th century. Country types weren’t talking about anything like political equality. Levitz is careful to acknowledge that they weren’t, but he chooses to ignore his own acknowledgment, so I’ll just go ahead and say that the views espoused by these supposed sources of deep inspiration for the policies of an Ocasio-Cortez were precisely conservative.
Country thinkers objected to what they saw as a demonic innovation: turning property from land, long farmed by hard labor under ancient and rigidly hierarchical conditions, into money and fungible investment. Democracy — what the 19th century would begin to call “manhood suffrage,” access to the franchise regardless of property ownership — had nothing to do with them. When they talked about the societal benefits of a pretty equal property distribution, they meant a distribution among those who had property at all, indeed had land, to them the only legitimate basis for participation in the representative part of government. The last thing they wanted was some novel expansion of property to their own vast numbers of tenant farmers and laborers, whose interests they felt historically and ethically called upon to look out for, and to forever define and adjudicate. They weren’t egalitarians.
And yet it was in romantic American developments of such moods that Jefferson conjured his yeomen living down the hill at Monticello, rising through generations to become junior versions of Jefferson himself, reasonably well-educated minor squires and planters and so, presumably, with tenants of their own and probably, if nothing could be done about the institution, slaves. Jefferson feared and loathed the industrial laborers of the cities. His solution was not to have cities. That whole agrarian fantasia — versions of it have been romanticized by the left in the form of ruralism — has been thoroughly anti-progressive. Even at his most truly advanced, and for all of his impatience with traditional restrictions and the dictates of the dead, Jefferson looked to a future that was thrilling because it might reinstate an imagined Saxon past — if an especially free, especially changing version, in that in America you could supposedly always keep moving, always keep cultivating new land. Jefferson’s brand of egalitarianism — even such as it was — remains forever fantastical, progressive only in contemplating freedom of movement out and away from home, and in inventing efficiencies and conveniences for improving an agrarian life. The entire vision is really a grand nostalgia, generations removed from its sources, adapted to a weird, ever-fascinating dream about some newfangled American future. There’s no hope in it for real equality.
There is one issue where Levitz might have scored — sort of — in linking Jefferson to Ocasio-Cortez: Jefferson loathed monopoly. Ocasio-Cortez’s thoughts on breaking up tech giants and others might be connected with that position. But only up to a point. Jefferson’s experience and understanding of monopoly were limited. He saw a legal ban on monopoly as a good thing because by “monopoly” he meant a government grant, like the British grant to the Dutch East India Company: an investment of government might in a favored citizen or company, corruptly privileged at the expense of other citizens, and of freedom as a whole. In that sense, Jefferson wanted equality of freedom.
Perhaps wrongly, though, he wouldn’t have viewed as legitimate the use of government power to restrict growth and conglomeration in [
what he would have viewed as private companies. UPDATES BELOW: WRONG TERM, AS “PRIVATE” IS JUST WHAT 18C PEOPLE CALLED THE GOVERNMENT-CHARTERED MONOPOLY THAT TJ DID OBJECT TO. NOTE THAT WHEN THEY SAID “CORPORATIONS,” TOO, THEY MEANT COMPANIES FORMED BY, AND PRIVILEGED BY, SPECIFIC ACTS OF LEGISLATION, IN THAT SENSE MONOPOLY-LIKE EXERCISES OF GOVERNMENT POWER, AND NOT WHAT WE MEAN, COMPANIES FORMED UNDER GENERAL-INCORPORATION LAWS, A PRACTICE TJ DIDN’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT AND MIGHT, I GUESS. HAVE MORE OR LESS APPROVED OF. ANYWAY, BECAUSE EVERYTHING TJ EVER SAID ABOUT RESTRICTING MONOPOLIES AND CORPORATIONS REFERS ONLY TO ENTITIES FORMED AND GRANTED PRIVILEGES BY SPECIAL LEGISLATION, THE PROPER WAY TO PUT WHAT I MEAN HERE IS “BUSINESS ENTERPRISES NOT FORMED BY SPECIFIC ACTS OF LEGISLATION.”] He would have rejected the idea that because even such companies [FORMED INDEPENDENTLY OF SPECIAL LEGISLATION, AS MODERN CORPORATIONS ARE,] operate in a public context, the state has a legitimate interest in forbidding, by law, private THEIR monopoly-seeking SEEKING TO GAIN MONOPOLIES IN BUSINESS, as the Sherman Antitrust Law does. Even regarding the government monopoly he knew, Jefferson’s views were subject to change throughout his career; still, he saw banning government monopoly as legit, and usually highly advisable, because that ban restrains a government power to foster somebody’s privilege at the expense of others’ economic freedom. That doesn’t mean he would have endorsed — [UPDATE: and possibly could only have imagined with bewilderment and recoil — ] banning by law private monopoly ENTERPRISES, CREATED INDEPENDENTLY OF GOVERNMENT ACTION, THAT SEEK TO MONOPOLIZE BUSINESS ANYWAY], because such a ban could have looked to him only like an exercise of government power in restricting economic freedom.
In any event, the use of federal government power to restrict the power of wealth and promote economic equality would have shocked him. In the practical context that matters to us now, how to use federal legislative power—the basis of all real progress for equality in the 20th century — Jefferson would have opposed policies that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is promoting for the 21st. Despite his own over-the-top use of presidential power to expand the nation, Jefferson’s antidote to what he viewed as the monarchical, money-oriented, war-mongering Court-Party tyranny that he associated with Hamilton was all old-school Country-Party: a lean, austerely funded federal government, with no public debt, no central banking, near-zero taxes, and power and sovereignty focused on the state legislatures. In 1800, the year he first took the office, he advanced this idea: “The true theory of our Constitution is that the states are independent as to everything within themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign nations.” In other moods, he must have known that was a bizarre reading of the Constitution even in his own day. Today, thanks to progress in democracy brought about by radical, anti-Jeffersonian changes to the Constitution made after the Civil War, it’s gibberish.
Jefferson’s conservative views of the federal government made it hard for him to do anything with presidential power — or at least to do anything without feeling really bad about it. So he never got the country where he said he wanted to get it. He could buy the Louisiana territory only via a big, new public debt he loathed. He talked about building a national infrastructure, but he couldn’t bring it about, because such infrastructure crosses state lines, and he recoiled from dictating to state governments. The Congresses during his and Madison’s administrations rejected the pleas of the ardent Jeffersonian treasury secretary Albert Gallatin, who did incredible work in whittling down federal spending. Gallatin wanted to keep the central bank going, impose reasonable taxation, and build a contingency fund in case of war, but no, that sounded Hamiltonian and monarchical, so when war with England came — Jefferson had now caught war fever — the country fell into economic crisis. After sixteen years of the Jefferson and Madison presidencies, taxation came back in full, desperate swing, the supposedly unconstitutional bank was reopened, and despite all of Gallatin’s work the public debt swelled to proportions far greater than when Jefferson first took over. The issue of economic equality was dissolved in national chaos, caused by ideology in conflict with the realities of governing.
In that context, Jefferson’s sometime musings about bettering the poverty of French peasants can be hard to take seriously. I think spending 200 years looking to Jefferson for alternatives to Hamiltonianism is what’s really messed up our civics.
But Levitz knows, he says, that Ocasio-Cortez isn’t “channeling the sacred wisdom of our republic’s founding racists.” Levitz is really only talking about “one deeply rooted strain of American thought on economic morality” that he admits — despite having claimed that Paine’s views were representative of those of many founders — may have been only “marginal among the leaders of the American Revolution.”
He therefore invokes the populist Revolutionary foot soldiers: another batch of founding exemplars of egalitarian democracy. Here’s where his piece, and the brand of thinking it epitomizes, among progressive intellectuals looking to founding U.S. history for progressive models, becomes especially frustrating to me. It’s partly a personal thing. I must reveal here that Levitz mounts no argument about those laboring populists, who struggled to make a Revolution a democratic one — well, more democratic; their vision rarely included political participation by women or black men — but again provides only a link, in this case to a revie by Tom Cutterham of my book Founding Finance, which explores the founding-era struggle between democratic, egalitarian approaches to finance, put forth by the laboring class and its leaders, and the oligarchical, elite approaches that in the end actually prevailed.
Yes: that egalitarian strain was there. Of course it was. It can be seen, of course, in Paine, to his great detriment. And it wasn’t merely there: agitation for economic equality so defined the period that shutting agitation down caused the founders to meet for a Constitutional Convention. That’s what my book is about: the national founding as the shutting down of emergent egalitarian systems. I think it’s been the cardinal error, in successive progressive readings of founding U.S. history, to ignore all proponents of that founding egalitarianism other than Paine, and to jump instead into the anti-progressive arms of the Jeffersonians. That’s what Levitz does. It’s what splainers of these matters may always do. It’s an error that fatally undermines public realism about the nation’s founding and the history of progressivism.
But I think I get it. How would it aid the cause of an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to discuss founding leaders like Thomas Young, James Cannon, Christopher Marshall, Robert Whitehill, Herman Husband, Daniel Shays, and, even less helpful than those obscure names, the many thousands whose names may appear nowhere but in family Bibles and on militia rolls? On behalf of ordinary people, they really did mount an informed critique of, and took powerful actions against, the founding oligarchy. Yet mentioning their names and non-names, and getting into the realities and complexities of their genuinely radical thought and action, would only cause intellectual conflict, raising more questions than it can answer.
Not a super-tactical approach to pushing a political figure. Better, I guess, to pretend that Paine — people have at least heard of him —represents a lot of other founders, and to imagine the Jeffersonian fantasia as progressive, even with all caveats duly noted. A real understanding of the American egalitarian economic progressives who struggled for democracy in the founding period, and really who are Ocasio-Cortez’s founding political ancestors, would complicate all of Levitz’s premises. Not only because the nation was formed explicitly to shut the progressives down. It’s a possibly distressing fact that some of those founding progressives did harbor the ideas that so terrified Henry Knox, and that Hannity pretends to be terrified by now: some did take a more communistic approach — not foreign but homegrown, despite elites’ presumptions about “foreign influence” — than Levitz would want to associate with Ocasio-Cortez’s programs. As a correlative to the 17th-century Harrington influence, there was the influence of Harrington’s lower-class contemporaries the Diggers and others. They called not for limiting or roughly equally distributing property but for abolishing it. Some of the social radicals of the American founding era — not the Jeffersonians — wanted to cap property ownership. Some wanted to hand out property to everybody at birth, including baby girls. Some wanted to disconnect rights, and especially voting rights, from the traditional linkage to property. Some just wanted fairer access to credit and other tools of economic development.
They varied. The situation was complicated. It’s these forgotten populist movements of the founding generation, and not Jeffersonianism — despite sometime Jeffersonian patronizing of them — who offer real American founding precedents for the kind of thinking that went into the New Deal, and that Ocasio-Cortez is thinking about now.
So I mean it when I say that if the purpose is merely to score on a Hannity, for the pleasure of the lefty-liberal choir, it’s better not to get into the real history. In that context, you can only misrepresent it. The critically important fact about democracy in America is that it came, in the compromised form it did, in opposition to and reversal of principles enshrined in the national founding. Some liberal scholars of history don’t want to get into that either.
Because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s views and proposals do have a history, stretching back into the founding period, and because that history is fraught and painful and ironic, it’s intriguing to me to see the history linked to her current public role. And it’s deeply disappointing to me to see that history bungled, elided, glossed over, and misunderstood, yet again, in all the usual ways. If politicians want to connect themselves to founding figures, who can blame them (actually, I don’t think I’ve seen much of that from Ocasio-Cortez)? But when influential public intellectuals seek to connect the American founding to modern political debates, I wish they’d start to distinguish more clearly between hasty, headline-friendly, rah-rah and meaningful public discussion of our national past. As romantic as any of Jefferson’s, that’s my American dream.