Will This Never Cease?

It won’t cease, no matter what I say. Still:

The well-regarded historian Thomas McCraw, author of the recently published The Founders and Finance, who died untimely only a few days ago, has a characteristically well-written, and persuasively liberal posthumous op-ed in today’s Times on Alexander Hamilton’s finance policies, which makes all the usual Hamiltonian — I don’t know what to call them, because they can’t be mistakes — presumptions? misconceptions? — that my book Founding Finance is in part out to challenge? correct? demolish?

In the wake of the election, the neoliberal desire to invoke Hamilton (yet again — Paulson, Geithner, Orszag et al were self-professed Hamiltonians) as a guide to current policy certainly raises some big questions. But as a writer on the period, I’m most bewildered by the reflexive Hamiltonian tendency to misconstrue what Hamilton actually did.

In this and many other cases, the miscontrual doesn’t even serve a useful purpose: McCraw’s most persuasive point — that obsessing about “fiscal cliffs” and lowering taxes and cutting benefits, etc., is not a realistic  way to deal with national finance problems — would be at least as strong with full acknowledgment of the real Hamilton plan. Continue reading

Founding Fathers, Founding Villains: The New Liberal Originalism

(Cross-posted from “Boston Review.”)

Liberals have become originalists too. Recent books by progressive thinkers as varied as the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, journalist Roger Hodge, and political commentator Rachel Maddow decry a national failure to live up to the founders’ purposes in creating the Constitution. Maddow means by her title, Drift, an unfortunate movement away from founding-era anti-militarism into the modern military-industrial complex. In Lessig’s Republic, Lost, the loss has come about thanks to a money influence in politics that Lessig says the founders condemned as corrupt. Hodge, in The Mendacity of Hope, frames a criticism of President Obama in terms of the founding political battle over finance between Hamilton and Madison.

All of the liberal originalists’ books run into political and historical trouble over some unedifying realities of our founding period. . . .

Read more.

Historiography: Douglass Adair and the Triumph of Founding Ideas over Founding Action

I swore I’d never abuse a blog this way, but the following is straight b-roll. I’m cutting this out of a book I’m just now finishing. [UPDATE: It’s finished.] George Wolfe, playwright and sometime artistic director of New York City’s Public Theater, was reputed to respond to actors’ suggestions for things they might want to add to a scene by making a scissor-snipping hand-motion in the air and saying “Save it for your nightclub act.” This snippet is is part of a much longer critique of the influential academic history of our time . . . [UPDATE: I may not be talking, really, about intellectual history per se. More about an overreliance on intellectual history by historians who for various reasons prefer discussing ideas to discussing political and economic action.]

* * * *

So here’s the thing:

I’m not saying intellectual historians harbor some evil desire to distort. Intellectual historians just want history to be intellectual.

In my lifetime, they’ve made it so — or at least made American founding history so. For anyone wondering how we traveled, in about sixty years, from the Beardians’ dominating founding history by promoting their somewhat oddball take on class conflict to Gordon Wood’s and others’ dominating it by promoting “republican synthesis,” I believe we can thank the mighty influence of Douglass Adair. How Adair looked at the founders is how we mostly look at them now, so I think it’s worth a glimpse at how he pulled that off.

Like Robert Brown and Forrest McDonald, in the 1950’s Douglass Adair took direct aim at Beard. Yet he didn’t employ tendentious economic studies like theirs. Adair made a highly nuanced appeal to the importance of the founders’ reading and thinking, especially about the meaning of virtue.

It’s surprising, given Beard’s obscurity today, to see how powerful Beard’s influence was when Adair began work. In his Ph.D dissertation Adair could only go so far. He basically said, “Yes, of course, it was all about financial self-interest, but I’m just saying the classics might have had something to do with it too.” And he acknowledged what then was supposed to be common knowledge among historians, that the framers acted to restrain democracy because “their pockets were being picked by the backcountry debtors.” The prejudice embedded in that remark, in favor of the creditors, would offend hardly anyone today, since the subject of founding debt and credit has become opaque for many readers. That’s a reflection of Adair’s success. He shifted the larger discussion entirely away from economic matters that he’d been forced to acknowledge, at least, when he started.

Adair curated the postwar development of founding history largely through his role as the editor of “The William & Mary Quarterly” in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Much of the writing he encouraged there carried forward his project: thinking ever more deeply and arguing ever more closely about liberal, republican, and classical theories of virtue in government — the appropriate way, to Adairites, to read America at its founding. Through that process, economic conflict among classes in founding America came to have relevance only in so far as it inspired Madison to write about faction, say, or John Adams to write about balance.

One of the revealing effects of Adair’s approach to the project of debunking Beard, important for the stories I tell, has to do with how we look at Alexander Hamilton. The pro-business, right-wing Beard debunker Forrest McDonald made Hamilton a hero. That was counterintuitive, given McDonald’s Goldwater connections and Hamilton’s ceaseless activism on behalf of government power. Then again, the New Dealers, whom McDonald opposed, had copped Jefferson for their own founding mascot (even more counterintuitively). McDonald’s admiration for Hamilton may also remind us that the right’s famous affection for liberty often has to do with ensuring that deleterious effects of private enterprise on less advantaged people might never serve as a reason to regulate private enterprise.

In contrast to McDonald’s right-wing style of Beard debunking, Adair’s middle-of-the-road liberalism makes Hamilton a social conservative, living in hysterical fear of a class war that Adair was out to define as chimerical. Adair thus doesn’t have to deny Beard’s contention that Hamilton’s efforts in public finance involved an attack on the less advantaged; [UPDATE: On reflection — and on reading an essay by Pope McCorkle in American Journal of Legal History that I can’t link to — that’s not really a Beard position. In the end, it’s hard for me to say what Beard’s position was, on a number of things, but what I really mean here is something like “Adair thus doesn’t have to deny Beard-influenced contentions that founding finance policies associated with Hamilton and the Federalists involved an attack on the less advantaged”]; he just sees the Hamiltonian extremity of anti-populism as baseless, silly, off the point of founding history (as he’s tautologically defined it). Since balancing fights among Americans is what interests Adair and his liberal-intellectual progeny, and not the fights themselves, both Hamilton and his enemies in the eighteenth-century popular-finance movement exist by definition outside the mainstream of the American founding. The founding populist efforts I discuss, the desire to radically change American society, to make government economically egalitarian, nothing to do with the ideas of Jefferson and Madison — that’s a molehill of which Hamilton foolishly made a mountain, in Adair’s reading.

The problem with the Adair narrative — and I think this is emblematic of the preference for looking at ideas, not action — is that it fails to explain much of Hamilton, and much of what actually went on in the founding. For one thing, Hamilton’s manifest economic liberalism: that daring pursuit of financial innovation, which, combined with his hierarchical conservatism, made activist government such a powerfully stabilizing, nation-creating force in the 1790’s. In shifting history away from the class war in which both Hamilton and the popular-finance movement knew themselves to be engaged, the Adair narrative cleanses early American tendencies toward stability and liberalism of the economic regressiveness that (I believe) attended them. Great historians have thus continued to be happy to believe in Adair’s Hamilton the extremist social conservative and upper-class hysteric, important to mention but intellectually marginal to the American project, and because intellectually marginal, ultimately marginal. Biographers and politicians alike perennially insist on Hamilton’s importance. Major academic historians have mainly stuck to giving him his bare due without getting interested in him.

That’s because Hamilton was an actor, not a thinker, in that his thinking — at least as adept, in my view, as anybody else’s of his day — served action, and action occurs in conflict. None of that serves the prime Adair directive of seeing in founding America a synthesis, a resolution of conflict, carried out in the famous elites’ ideas about virtue. The populists of the day, to the extent that they were economic radicals, will always look to Adairites extremist and hysterically misguided, just as their opponent Hamilton does; or, to the extent that populists can be described as not politically radical, just eager for personal advancement, they can be seen as having been unfairly labeled radical by the reactionary Hamilton. Either way, their needs would soon be addressed — supposedly! — by the intellectually attractive Jefferson, and then met — supposedly! — in the age of Jackson, and the franchise was opened in the states throughout the nineteenth century, so why on earth discuss radical thought and action as important to the founding?

Here’s why I do: Hamilton and the radical populists saw one another clearly, and what they saw represents the great political struggle of the period, the struggle that made us, I think, and the struggle we’re still in. To Adairites, that’s all off point. In the Adair reading, Madison is the founder to watch — not Hamilton, not Washington, not really John Adams, certainly not Samuel Adams. Adair’s Madison reacts to the Madison that Beard had pushed on us in 1913 — a Madison not much more than a somewhat pretentious aristo looking out at all costs for his own wallet, his republican theory, supposedly by his own admission, just a tactic for pushing back against the masses. Adair’s 1950’s Madison, by contrast, stays bent over his books. A reader and writer more than anything else, Madison rarely even looks out the library window, so immersed is he in the world of ideas. Madison has thus become the ultimately appealing founder for many readers of founding history. How could he not be? Anyone who loves reading for the sake of knowledge, nuance, exploration — any reader of serious history — will naturally prefer to hang out with the bookish Adair philosopher Madison rather than the hypocritical Beard plutocrat Madison. The Virginian sought to defeat the most pernicious effects of faction, ingeniously, by permitting faction to thrive in a balanced system. Who among us wouldn’t want to sit in a hushed and cozy library with Madison, Adair, and the classical authors? It beats considering grubby matters like paper versus metal, economic interest, and class war. And how especially satisfying is it that those great classical thinkers’ thinking was made law, for the first time, thanks to Madison himself, in the founding of our own government? Madison looks like somebody we’d be pleased to exchange a few ideas with. He looks like a smarter version of somebody, we dare to believe, like us.

The flattering, sentimental attraction of that version of Madison is so great that we no longer remember the Madison who was a politician operating within alliances and under pressures, not always to perfectly consistent ends, and with highly ambiguous effects on our founding history. The Madison we like remains so pure of heart and thought that to conservatives he’s the first conservative, to liberals the first liberal. We don’t really need to care what he meant when he mentioned the disaster of paper money and devaluing of debt in “Federalist Ten,” an essay we cite approvingly on other matters more edifying and therefore nearer to our hearts. We forget that regardless of the degree to which Madison was interested in the subject of his own interest, he had a point of view on society that he may have mistaken, as the rest of us do, for the objective one, in which his conclusions were shaped to fit his social and economic position.

And we forget that Adair came up with all that stuff about Madison in full-on attack on what was then the dominant position in American founding history. Adair was attacking Beard. McDonald, openly scabrous in his disdain, admitted by his tone that the war he was fighting was a political one, but Adair took a cannier tack, and so utter has been his victory over Beard that we no longer know that Adair was engaged in warfare at all, or that the war had political and not only intellectual dimensions. The self-regarding attitude of judicious omniscience employed by Adair, Morgan, Hofstadter, Wood, et al, dims our awareness — by sheer force of the attitude more than by anything else — not only of the importance of financial and economic struggles in the American founding but also of the academic combat in which those historians made their careers. We’re no longer expected to register the degree to which, in the past they’re supposedly merely exposing to us “as it was” (as Wood has actually said about his own work), it is the historians, and not the historical figures they study, who have the most decisive interests.

Militarized Police, circa 1794: an AlterNet Post

Here’s an AlterNet piece exploring some of the historical ramifications of the militaristic stance of some police departments during the “Occupy” crackdowns:

Police, not military. The distinction may seem academic, even absurd, when police are bringing rifles, helmets, armor, and helicopters to evict unarmed protesters. But it’s an old and critical distinction in American law and ideology and in republican thought as a whole. The 17th-century English liberty writers, on whose ideas much of America’s founding ethos was based, believed that turning the armed might of the state, (necessary in waging war against foreign enemies), to domestic policing of local communities tends to concentrate power in top-down executive action and vitiate treasured things like judiciary process, individual liberty, representative government, and free speech. . . .

Read more.

Comments have been dispiriting (unlike comments on my previous AlterNet post, where a real dialogue took form). This batch involves a lot of  “Yeah, duh. This is a fascist state. Off the pig!” Nobody much seems interested in the Edmund Randolph-Alexander Hamilton debate during the Whiskey Rebellion, the fact that these struggles have been going on from day one, and we’ve never come down on one side or the other. Ah, well.

Liberal Hamiltonians (One Sect of) in “Vanity Fair” Get Whiskey Rebellion, Tea Party, Hamilton Himself Way Wrong

Or: How Liberalist Consensus Fails Both History and Politics

This is just classic:

With their steadfast resistance to taxes, their hostility toward central government, and their willingness to risk a national default, today’s Republican candidates tap into a different American tradition–one that begins not with tea but with whiskey: the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

To understand that rebellion and why President George Washington was willing to send troops to put it down, go back to the early days of the Revolution and look at what really motivated the founders.

So runs the apparent thesis statement — the straw man, really, since “that rebellion,” supposedly so important to understand, almost never comes up again in the piece — of an essay by Simon Johnson and James Kwak, intended to criticize Tea Party history and economics, in the current issue of Vanity Fair. In the top-five “most popular” online VF pieces, the essay is a perfect example of its (to me) dispiriting type: seemingly learned, reasonable-sounding, liberal; presented for a general readership by noted thinkers; glib, complacent, superficial, and therefore fatally flawed to the point of being just flat-out wrong in its effort to examine both the American populism of the 18th century and today’s populism, as represented by the Tea Party and other current right-wing sensibilities. (Or, for that matter, left-wing sensibilities.)

As such, the piece distills (ha! ha!) all the many ways in which highly informed, well-regarded, no-doubt well-meaning authors can so easily, almost reflexively, abuse history, especially when it comes to finance and economics.

Especially distressing about the piece is how many details the authors can get right, obvious and unexciting details to any student of the period, while somehow managing to ignore the all-important historical context that would give the piece any useful meaning for general readers. So they get all the big stuff, and indeed a certain number of critical facts, wrong, and wrong in a damaging way. Even as they tell their story, purportedly imparting historical wisdom to help us understand current debates, Johnson and Kwak prevent us from engaging with the realities of that history, or with today’s political conflicts over public debt and taxes, their ostensible subjects.

The main idea of the piece, right enough as far as it goes and as far as I’m concerned (and hardly meant to provoke Vanity Fair‘s readership to any new thought): the Tea Party is wrong about the founding-era history on which its claims are based. The Tea Party and the “constitutional conservatives” think the founding was about disempowering government, keeping taxes miniscule, and having no national debt. It wasn’t.

Because yes, yes, it’s true, as the authors say: Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, believed that a nation could thrive as such only if it enjoyed access to credit supported by reliable taxation. And yes: the Constitution enabled the Congress to tax, and the first Congress, advised by Hamilton, assumed all the state war debts in the federal one, levying taxes proposed by Hamilton to pay for the program. So yes: when Tea Party people say “the founders” excoriated debt and hated taxes, they’re not talking about Hamilton, or the Washington administration, or the first Congress, or even the Constitution as drafted, amended, and ratified.

Those observations are banal, but the piece is far worse than banal. The truisms lose all meaning when the authors try to develop their ideas both in terms of the founding period and in terms of today’s politics. Continue reading

“Occupy Wall Street” and the History of Democratic Finance Protest

This is a rallying cry?

Given some of my key subjects, I can’t help but be interested in the “occupy” movement that, at the moment, has a few hundred protesters [UPDATE: Now a lot more; I was there on Tuesday] more or less living in Zuccotti Park near the New York Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan, and is apparently starting to engage in similar protests in other cities. You can’t find out much about this action via “mainstream media,” and even much of the left media, such as it is, has been critical in some cases, and outright dismissive in others, regarding the movement’s evident formlessness and absence of specific goals.

That absence is pretty much undeniable. Still, in Salon, Glenn Greenwald has shrewdly criticized liberal-Democrat scorn for Occupy Wall Street. On the other hand, Mother Jones criticizes the movement on bases other than those that Greenwald attacks. . . .

But I write about the deep, founding roots of rowdy, American populist protest and insurrection, often visionary and even utopian, yet informed and practical too, specifically over money, credit, and the purpose and nature of public and private finance. And despite my pop-narrative books on the subject, and despite my articles here, and in such place as Newdeal20.org (articles picked up by AlterNet, Huffington, Salon, Naked Capitalism, and others), key indicators of my relative impact (like royalty statements!) give me a sneaking suspicion that most people still don’t connect the American founding period with a rugged drive on the part of ordinary people for equal access to the tools of economic development and against the hegemony of the high-finance, inside-government elites who signed the Declaration and framed the Constitution and made us a nation.

Sometimes people even ascribe democratic ideas to the famous upscale American Revolutionaries, who to a man actually hated democracy and popular finance. Paine, the exception, was ultimately rebuked and scorned by all of the others. [UPDATE: Anyway, Paine wasn’t one of them; I threw him in defensively because consensus-history types like to “include him in” on the basis of “Common Sense,” while including his social/economic radicalism out.]

The difficulty in dealing with our founding battle for democratic economics arises in part because the movement was not against England but against the very American banking and trading elites who dominated the resistance to England. That complicates our founding myth, possibly unpleasantly. Also, it was a generally losing battle. With ratification of the Constitution, Hamiltonian finance triumphed, and people looking to Jefferson and Madison for finance and economic alternatives to Hamilton are barking up the wrong tree, since what those men knew, or even really cared, about finance could be written on a dime. (Anyway, in pushing for creating a  nation, Madison supported Hamiltonian finance down the line. Their differences came later.) When Occupy Wall Street protesters say “It’s We the People!”  they’re actually referring to a preamble, intending no hint of economic democracy, to a document that was framed specifically to push down democratic finance and concentrate American wealth for national purposes. Not very edifying, but there it is.

The Tea Party, meanwhile, has taken up founding economic issues from a right-wing point of view, associating itself with the upper-middle-class Boston patriots (often mistaken for populist democrats) who led a movement against overrreaching British trade acts in the 1760’s and were important to the impulse toward American independence. I’ve written fairly extensively about where and how I think the Tea Party goes wrong on the history of the founding period. But at least they’re framing their objections to current policy, and framing the historical roots of their ideas, not mainly in cultural but in economic terms.

Like it or not, though, it is Occupy Wall Street that has the most in common, ideologically, not with those Boston merchants and their supporters but with the less well-known, less comfortably acknowledged people who, throughout the founding period, cogently proposed and vigorously agitated for an entirely different approach to finance and monetary policy than that carried forward by the famous founders. Continue reading

“Constitutional” Conservatives v. “Constitutional” Liberals

Charles Rappleye, in an op-ed published by the L.A. Times on August 12 (I just caught up with it via the Bangor Daily News), might seem at first glance to be saying pretty much what I’d been saying in my New Deal 2.0 post of August 1 (also on AlterNet and Salon) regarding the framers of the Constitiution and the issue of public debt — a subject especially relevant to specious Bachmann/Norquist/Tea Party efforts to construct balanced budgets and zero debt as constitutionally essential.

Liberals will tend to like Rappleye’s piece for suggesting that enlightenment minds of the kind liberals admire had a logical, well-informed rationale for founding the nation on a public debt supported by taxes. The piece thus flies in the face of certain right-wing preconceptions, and it may be taken as giving modern liberalism at least as strong a claim as the Tea Party’s on the founding generation’s values regarding financial issues so hotly debated today.

But beyond noting that contrary to the populist right’s view, the Constitution was in fact created largely in order to fund a national debt via federal taxation (an assertion outrageous enough for Constitution-romanticizers both left and right), Rappleye and I take directly opposing views of the significance of that founding debt, and especially of the domestic goals of the confederation Congress’s financier, Robert Morris, a mentor of Alexander Hamilton, in yoking a large public debt to national aims, indeed to the aim of having a nation at all.

Employing a tone of knowledgable, disinterested, slightly amused, “above the fray” superiority, which I find all too typical of commentary that we might  borrow a term from Leslie Fieldler and call “liberaloid,” Rappleye must lionize Robert Morris (Rappeleye is the author of a Morris biography that does so on a larger scale), playing up certain features of Morris’s goals and ideas, downplaying others, and declining to give the economic context that, from a modern liberal point of view anyway, would substantially darken the Morris-Hamilton founding-finance story. Continue reading