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; for more on this stuff see Chapter Five of Founding Finance.] 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.” The blog is my night-club act, and this snippet is part of a much longer critique of the brand of scholarly history of the American founding that’s been the most influential on a public history of the founding — on the stuff found in political speeches and history-tourism museums and magazine articles.

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So here’s the thing:

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

In my lifetime, they’ve made it so — or at least made American founding history so, and I mean especially those historians who have had the biggest impact on that history as experienced by the nonspecialist public. If anyone’s 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 in the general public most 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, we all accept it was all about financial self-interest, but I’m just saying the classics might have had something to do with it too.” That’s how strong the class-analysis approach had become in mainstream scholarly history before WWII. Adair 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 own 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, maybe 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, the long-range effect of Adair’s moderate liberal intellectualism didn’t involve denying 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”]. Adairites just define the Hamiltonian extremity of anti-populism as off the main point of founding history (as they’ve 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. In Adair’s own early work, Hamilton is useful only as a means of looking at big cultural and intellectual issues like the relative degree of literal biblical belief among the famous founders (not much) or what song might have been popular enough for Hamilton to sing in public shortly before his death. 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, possibly foolishly, made a mountain, in the Adairites’ reading. The Adair agenda marginalizes both Hamilton and his most vociferous enemies.

A problem with the Adairite narrative — emblematic of the preference for looking at ideas, not action — is that it fails to explain not only Hamilton but also much of what actually went on in the founding. For one thing, Hamilton’s manifest economic liberalism (today, neoliberalism): 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 Adairite narrative cleanses early American tendencies toward stability and liberalism of the economic regressiveness that attended them. Great historians have thus continued to be happy to believe in Adair’s Hamilton the extremist social conservative and even upper-class hysteric, a man important to mention but intellectually not useful to the American project. Biographers and politicians and their appointees perennially insist on Hamilton’s real importance; major academic historians have mainly stuck to giving him his bare due without getting interested in him. We, in the public, are thus stuck with the biographies. And they’re bad. And stuck with the political appointees — Henry Paulson, Tim Geithner, Peter Orszag — who hope to apply Hamiltonian finance to modern problems like financial crises. They’re bad too.

It’s true that 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 an ultimate synthesis, a resolution of conflict, carried out via 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 misguided, just as their opponent Hamilton does; or, to the extent that the 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. But to Adairites, that’s all off point. In the Adair reading, Madison is the founder to watch — not Hamilton, not Washington, not really even John Adams, certainly not Samuel Adams. It’s really all Madison.

The Adairite Madison is a reaction to the Madison that Beard had pushed on us in 1913 — the Madison who wasn’t much more than a somewhat pretentious aristo looking out at all costs for his own wallet; 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 less grubbily financial 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 mode against 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, repositioning the founding of the United States for the Cold War ethos as a moderate, middle-class phenomenon in which class struggle could have had no important place.

The tone of judicious omniscience employed by Adair, Morgan, Hofstadter, Wood, et al, dims our awareness — by sheer force of the attitude more than by argument — not only of the importance of financial, economic, and class struggles in the American founding but also of the grim academic combat to which those very historians dedicated their careers and in which they made their names. We’re no longer expected to register the degree to which — in the past they claim to be exposing to us “as it was” (Wood has actually said that about his own work) — it is the historians, and not the historical figures they study, who have the most decisive interests.