On Mayday: Activism vs. History

On Occupy Wall Street’s “general strike” Mayday, a thought on activism and history. I think I just heard David Graeber, author of Debt, a book I admire very much, say on Brian Lehrer’s show that the term “general strike” is now being redefined in context of the inescapable fact that American organized labor has not come out on strike today. Graeber explained that dissonance by noting that laws have made sympathy strikes illegal, anomalously in Graeber’s view when compared to standards of labor activism that he says prevailed in the 19th century.

Lots of stuff to unpack there historically. But politically, my immediate reaction: I can’t imagine that even if any and all “general strike” legislation were instantly repealed, much of American organized labor as we know it would be out on strike today. More to my point, I can’t imagine Graeber thinks so either.

So what’s up? Something to do with wishful uses of history, writing, and criticism in the service of activism. What Occupy intellectuals seem to want to do, both with the past and with current realpolitik, is to construct current and historical conditions as favoring immense growth and success for Occupy — i.e., rally to the cause. Graeber’s soundbite may well distill a nuanced historical view in which, had things gone differently in American labor history, American labor would be radically different from what it is today. If such a view enables his implying that absent a legal crackdown on the big unions, they’d be on strike today, the nuance is perverse.

As always, I think these constructions are not only misleading, possibly deliberately so, thus politically and existentially inauthentic, but also counterproductive to developing any realistic critique, an actively usable one, of American finance, economics, and government. A critique I remain unsure the Occupy movement even wants to develop. But I do.

Like “Occupy” versus “Liberals”? Thoughts on Samuel Adams and the Boston Crowd

(More b-roll, cut from my forthcoming book Founding Finance. Might have some resonance for those in protest today against government money corruption and high finance.)

We often see 1760’s and ’70’s patriot Boston as especially well-unified, across social and economic classes, against British oppression, and it’s true that, certainly with the occupation, much unity did prevail there. But dramatic examples of conflict in the relationship between Adams and the Loyal Nine and Sons of Liberty, on the one hand, and Boston’s workers and poor on the other, occurred even during one of the most famous Boston riots, the Stamp Act protest of August 1765. In the same traditional styles of protest we’ve seen [or will have seen, in the forthcoming book] in the Regulator riot in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the Boston protest involved attacks on not only on hated stamp-administration offices but also on officials’ homes. A large crowd — which today might have appeal for both the Tea Party and Occupy for being of mixed classes — hanged in effigy Andrew Oliver, the stamp tax official.

But then, at night, Boston’s two most famous street gangs, previously at war with one another, the South End Gang and the North End Gang, burned a property Oliver owned in Boston. Even later that night a smaller crew and entered his house in Cambridge and ransacked it. The attack on Oliver’s home went beyond protest against England. Breaking elegant things seemed to many an assault on extravagance and luxury itself. In that effort, the North End and South End gangs ceased making war on one another.

Some see the gangs’ new unity as responding to a common enemy in British corruption; others see their unity as the formation of a class consciousness that distinguished the workers and poor of Boston not only from British-connected Bostonians like Oliver but also from anti-British upscale Bostonians like Adams, Hancock, and Sons of Liberty. What’s most illuminating to me is that upscale Whig resisters, including Sons of Liberty, tried to distinguish themselves from the gangs even as they hoped the gangs’ violence would pressure and harass British officials. The Boston town meeting didn’t censure the attack on Oliver’s house — but two weeks later, the gangs tore down Governor Hutchinson’s house, and the town meeting, while anything but friendly to Hutchinson, did condemn that action.

Upscale people, however anti-British, now began turning out to protect property. They created their own militias in distinction to the laboring gangs. In revolutionary Boston, rich people on both sides of the taxation question feared the working-class crowd. And the working class knew it.

General Gage of the British Army had an interesting point of view on the situation. Occupying Boston with troops, he lived with the Cassandra curse: always right, always ignored. Gage understood Boston far better than his British masters; ultimately he was recalled to England for offending them by having been so right.

And Gage’s take on the elite-vs.-crowd issue was that Whig gentlemen had begun by arousing crowds, assuming ordinary people had none of what historians call “agency” of their own and would defer to establishment leaders. Then those leaders found, to their dismay, that crowds would rise unbidden. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, far from endorsing the crowd’s desire for equality, nevertheless needed the crowds to pressure the British establishment and lend credence to the seriousness of the resistance. So even in Boston, seemingly so unified against England, revolution in America was full of social, economic, and political tension on the part of the revolutionaries.

That’s the story Occupy gets wrong here (see “From the Liberty Tree to Liberty Park”) and the Tea Party gets wrong here (just for example).

“Founding Finance” Already on Amazon

My forthcoming book — forthcoming six months from now, for the election — is already on Amazon: Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation. The book is from University of Texas Press, part of Mark Crispin Miller’s series “Discovering America.”

And to me it’s a big one: a different mode from my two narrative histories, in this case mixing historical narrative with the kinds of connections between founding history and current politics and economics — and with criticism, in that context, of the historians who precede me, especially Wood, Morgan, Hofstadter — that I’ve explored in this blog (especially regarding the Occupy movement).

For example: Should you want a view of the founding period absolutely the reverse of those presented by Akhil Reed Amar or Grover Norquist, this is the book. I hope it undermines all Tea Party/Norquist claims on the founding period while also questioning — OK, more than questioning — the impact of the academic liberal consensus on public conceptions of founding history over the past fifty years. Even as, I hope, it also tells some lively and startling stories about Paine, Herman Husband, Robert Morris, Thomas Young, Hamilton, et al. Oh, and raises questions about the debate over debt, finance, and protest in the 2012 election. And the real roots of Occupy’s economic protest. That’s it!

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. Continue reading

Speaking Engagement in Boston on Tuesday, March 6

nice, huh?

A Boston-area speaking engagement — just learned this is open to the public. I’ll speak at Boston College High School on Tuesday 3/6, at 3:30 PM, part of the Corcoran Living Library Lecture Series (which has hosted some pretty cool people).

The talk will be in the Bulger Performing Arts Center, 150 William T Morrissey Blvd., Boston, MA (that’s it, to the left) . Along with playing a little banjo music, I’ll be talking about — and encouraging discussion of — Tea Party and Occupy appeals to founding economic history; failings in liberal/conservative consensus histories of the founding; what we should and should not mean by accuracy in historical research and narrative; why “constitutional conservatives” aren’t. Should be lively. If you’re in the area, come on in — it’s free.

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.