Tea Party Chit Chat

At “Line of Fire,” the blog for Broadside Books, the HarperCollins line of conservative titles edited by Adam Bellow, Michael Patrtick Leahy (editor of the “Voices of the Tea Party” series, co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition) and I are engaging in a civil yet incisive discussion of my contention that the Tea Party has distorted founding history to fit current political aims. Below are some samples.

Me (first posted in my “Founding Finance” series at New Deal 2.0):

The Tea Party movement, for example, has laid its claim on the founding period, and to a great extent that claim is indeed an economic and financial one. Casting the modern welfare state as a form of tyranny, in large part because of what they see as its excessive taxation, Tea Partiers invoke the famous American resistance to Parliament’s efforts to raise a revenue in the colonies without the consent traditionally given by representation. . . . The Tea Party thus edits out an alternative view of government that prevailed among the ordinary 18th-century Americans who were all-important to achieving independence. . . . The internal struggle for American equality was as important to the founding as the high-Whig resistance to England, but the Tea Party can’t deal with the populist leaders and militia rank-and-file who wrote the socially radical 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution, or the Shaysites of Massachusetts who marched on the state armory, or the so-called whiskey rebels who inspired federal occupation of western Pennsylvania.

Leahy:

Mr. Hogeland condescendingly assumes that tea party activists are unfamiliar with these three historical incidents. To the contrary, we are more familiar with their relevance to our modern circumstances than is Mr. Hogeland himself.

As an historian, Mr. Hogeland should familiarize himself with the three core values of the Tea Party movement, which we’ve loudly proclaimed in every venue possible for the past two years: (1) Constitutionally limited government (2) Free markets and (3) Fiscal Responsibility.

As he well knows, both the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution and the Shays Rebellion of Massachusetts took place before the ratification of the Constitution. As for the “Whiskey Rebels” of western Pennsylvania, their complaint against the early Federal government was that it passed a law that unfairly taxed small whiskey producers at much higher rates than large whiskey producers in urban areas. It was a violation of their individual liberties and the principles of free markets for the government to pick the “winners” (large urban manufacturers) and “losers” (small rural manufacturers).

Me:

The Tea Party’s core values, as you lay them out, are overwhelmingly familiar, not only to me but at this point probably to almost everybody else, and as they stand, they’re banal and tendentious, meant to imply that anyone opposing or opposed by the Tea Party must, by definition, favor 1) unconstitutionally unlimited government, 2) strangled markets, and 3) fiscal irresponsibility. Since nobody would openly espouse such a position, it’s useless to argue about it. Any real argument would have to be about what those deliberately unarguable phrases might mean, what they include and exclude, how they should or should not be applied, etc. . . .

Leahy:

To the contrary, our claim that the Constitution, as ratified and amended, is a secular covenant by which we are all bound is the strongest, most democratically rooted claim on history that emerges from the American founding period. . . . Mr. Hogeland appears to regard the Constitution as something other than a binding secular covenant, and in this I would submit he makes an error of historic misinterpretation. . . . Mr. Hogeland seems to be implying that the process by which the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified somehow excluded the ordinary citizens who participated in these events. To the contrary, they were heavily involved. Indeed, many of the authors of the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution participated as elected delegates to the state convention that ratified the Federal Constitution by a 2 to 1 margin in 1789. Influenced by this debate, no doubt, the state of Pennsylvania threw out the 1776 version of its constitution the very next year, so unsuccessful in actual operation had been this document upon which Mr. Hogeland relies for one-third of his argument. Similarly, the participants in Shays’ Rebellion of western Massachusetts voted for delegates to that state’s 1788 ratification convention as well as members of the Massachusetts State Legislature who later deliberated the merits of the Bill of Rights.

Me:
(Stay tuned . . . ) [UPDATE: I’ve written a (long) response, which should start getting rolled out, with Leahy’s responses, at “Line of Fire” next week.]

So we’re actually having a debate. No good can come of this!

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The Founders vs. American Democracy

Here’s another comment that helps refine the discussion I’m interested in, this time posted on New Deal 2.0 in response to my final “Founding Finance” post there:

I am curious where Jefferson (and for that matter Madison, Adams, Washington, and the other main framers) spoke hesitantly about democracy, the people, and the state legislatures. Conservatives would be surprised and it would undermine their ‘rely only on the framers’ approach.

Secondly, it would be interesting to see what the regulators and radical democrats philosophy on private property. If the elite were concerned about the violation of natural rights against private property when it came to paper emissions, what was the radicals’ response? Did they have a philosophy when the constitution was being debated?
Posted by Brian | May 11th, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Paraphrasing my response posted there: Heavy questions, superficially and briefly addressed here. I see Jefferson on democracy as a tricky issue. Continue reading

Hamilton vs. Madison (on the Central Bank): A Banal Dichotomy

My latest post in the New Deal 2.0 “Founding Finance” series [UPDATE: Not the latest any more — new pieces there on what really went on at the Constitutional Convention, and on John Adams’s calling Paine’s “Common Sense” “a crapulous mass” — but issues here are germane to that too] addresses, in part, the distortions that occur when well-regarded historians keep rehearsing the same old conflicts between great men, like that of Hamilton and Madison over the constitutionality (or not) of the central bank. It’s not just that the banal dichotomies are boring: they misconstrue — serve the purpose, I think, of misconstruing! — what was really going on.

Madison and Hamilton were arguing at cross purposes, speaking different languages — but that becomes clear only when the history that many historians leave out gets forced back into the picture. Hamilton’s main targets in proposing a central bank were the democratic populists I discuss in the post, the popular-finance movement that had long been obstructing elite, nationalist high finance. Madison, in fighting Hamilton on the bank, was not arguing on behalf of democratic finance or even acknowledging its existence — anything but. He had another agenda, which left even Hamilton himself more or less bewildered by Madison’s constitutional objections to forming the bank. And they really don’t make much sense.

Hamilton and Madison had ceased to understand what the other was doing, and what the real subject of their disagreement entailed, so their argument is lopsided, goofy, and weak — in a certain realpolitik sense, absurd. Yet it gets taught and is now fully constructed as the titanic, founding clash between fully articulated constitutional philosophies. Then we have to read book after furrowed-brow book carefully “explaining” it all to us, yet again, to no purpose at all.

Here’s the thing: a tendency in the country in the 1780’s toward populist democracy, dangerous to the constituencies of both Madison and Hamilton, got quelled at last by the Constitution they collaborated in pushing through. The Constitution in that sense represents a huge and probably deliberate mutual misunderstanding between opposing agendas that had shared a temporary need to stop a third agenda. Those same two constituencies have now spent the past 200+ years being shocked and horrified by the other’s position. In the meantime, the third constituency, which the unhappy Madison-Hamilton alliance had been formed to crush — working-class democracy, with its own finance theories — gets left out of the story, making us at once historically impoverished, by not knowing about financially savvy alternatives to elite finance in the founding era, and historically bewildered by how the Hamilton-Madison fight really got started in the first place.

In the absence of the real politics and economics, the fight seems purely intellectual. Yet we give it immense weight. We prefer the intellectual, even when it paralyzes us in partisan gridlock, over the founding reality, since the reality is unedifying for being so aggressively undemocratic. But maybe if we accepted the reality, we could get over it.

And just in terms of the endlessly banal binary of liberal vs. conservative philosophies, the distortion of leaving out the third politics, which Hamilton was directly attacking and Madison was busily ignoring, enables us to distort both men’s positions. Do the lefty liberals who have recently rediscovered Madison, and want to grapple him to their souls with hoops of steel, really not get that liberal interpretations of the Constitution, from which come all social-policy victories that lefty-liberals like, are based on Hamilton’s rebuttal of Madison’s conservative reading of the document during the central-bank dispute? You may not like Hamilton’s regressive economic policies — deliberately regressive, I always like to insist — but there’s no help for that in Madison. His critique of Hamilton came, in economic and social-policy terms, entirely from the right.

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Ronald Reagan, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Political Memory

Like many others, I have a distinct memory of watching the Reagan-Mondale debates in 1984 and saying something to the effect of: “Whoa. Reagan’s actually losing it.” And in his video testimony in John Poindexter’s trial regarding the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair, in 1990, it was evident that Reagan was in and out: putting on good show, not failing to remember many general facts but possibly not lying when he used what Nixon, in an earlier scandal, had advised his aides is always available to the guilty: “I don’t recall.”

To my eye today, the judge and the lawyers in the Poindexter trial were keenly aware of Reagan’s condition, especially as the witness tired late in the day. Reagan said, for example, that the first time he became aware of “a diversion” of proceeds came in that courtroom, that day, and he seems to have meant it. And when badgered by a prosecuting attorney, he had no evident grasp of either the purport or the content of testimony he’d made earlier the same day.

Given the ’84 debates — the last time most of us had seen Reagan speak off the cuff in any significant way — the decline of ’90 wasn’t surprising. Indeed it vindicated the creepy, unprovable, and strong impression from six years earlier, when Reagan was about to sail triumphantly into his second term as president.

What I have not been able to recall is anything specific about what I might have been responding to, in Reagan’s comments and manner during the ’84 debates, that gave me such a distinct impression that something was wrong. I only remember thinking and saying that he seemed out of it; the debates themselves are a blur. Which, when it comes to memory, I find interesting in itself.

In the past few days, therefore, with the centenary, and a book addressing Reagan’s Alzheimer’s by one of his sons, I’ve been time-traveling backward, trying to arrive at the age of 28, half the age I am now, when I was watching those debates on TV. One thing I find, which will make no sense to 28-year-olds (until they get to be 56): as I look at the videos, the Reagan presidency doesn’t seem long ago at all. Reagan had a huge impact on our lives in the ’80’s, and I watched him very closely at the time. It’s not that it all comes flooding back, it seems part and parcel of today. For me, his inflections and mannerisms remain deeply familiar and present-tense.

Familiar, not beloved. I voted against him — against the Republican platform, that is, which in 1980 had finally been seized definitively by the party’s right wing, had finally triumphed in casting taxation and social welfare as unqualified evils, and began its project to make the American rich richer, at the expense of everyone else, on the pretext that a rising tide lifts all boats. Till Reagan, the jury was out on how the country was going to go on those issues. Then the jury wasn’t out any more. I argued about it fairly bitterly with “Reagan Democrat” friends at the time.

And I’ve been amazed over the years how fully Reagan has been grudgingly reconstructed by liberals as one of our great presidents, in the sense that he was “transformative.” Why we’d want our chief executive to become a transformative historical and cultural force has always eluded me (and I think would have eluded the framers). Washington had to be, and so did both Lincoln and FDR: under pressure of awful necessity, they transformed both the country and, possibly just as significantly, the office. [UPDATE: And as Garry Wills has helped show us, at Gettysburg Lincoln transformed the realationship of the Declaration and the Constitution and reconstructed the founders of 1776 as dedicating a “nation” to a proposition that all men are created equal.]

But FDR also transformed expectations. Thanks to him, “performs transformations” counts as one of the skills supposedly critical to certain kinds of presidential candidate’s resumes (JFK played a role in creating that expectation too, mainly by being a certain kind of gorgeous and getting killed). The president was originally just supposed to execute the laws. Real transformations very rarely occur — rarely should occur — via a presidency.

Yet I observed Reagan at all times with a genuine, half-amused admiration, even awe. “I like Ronnie,” I would say, just to bug lefty friends. His second convention acceptance speech was Americana par excellence, a thing of beauty. Beauty is not truth, nor truth beauty, except in transcendent moments like the one conjured by Keats. But there were times when Reagan had the beauty thing nailed, and on that score, we did not see his like again until Obama, who clearly admires what Reagan could do with a public appearance (and who ran on the transformation magic trick). Cornball, mock-epic national poetry is not a requirement of the job either, as many presidents have made clear. But some happen to have the knack.

In other ways, of course, looking back at the 1984 debates makes 1984 seem very long ago indeed. Barbara Walters’s hair! Fred Barnes — so young! Blah! Blah! … Reagan, though, is timeless. He’d always been Ronald Reagan and always would be. I don’t like charisma, but there it is.

Anyway, it turns out that Reagan’s big moment of cognitive teetering in 1984 is widely considered to have occurred in his summation to the second debate. Continue reading

George Washington, Secular Saint?

I’m exploring American Creation, the interesting group blog I mentioned in a recent post on the evangelicalism of the 18th C. socially radical working-class, who play dramatic roles in Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion.

These American Creation (AC) bloggers have unusual backgrounds (like me) and write skeptically and knowledgeably about prickly matters that bear on today’s conflicts between secularist liberals and the religious right. I’d call the group high conservative, in a kind of refreshingly old-fashioned sense. They bring thinking from the University of Chicago to their posts, making reference to Leo Strauss, Alan Bloom (oh, man!), Aristotle, Sidney; they’re deeply interested in “natural law,” the origin of rights, reason versus revelation, and the proper relationships of religion and government. And they think these are key American topics.

That ain’t me. Another way to put it: they actually care about the religious thinking of the famous founders, and they’re eager to parse it to death. I’m not sure there’s really all that much there (I suspect AC thinks about the issue more than the founders themselves did). When it comes to American 18th C. religion, I’m excited by the millennialism and evangelicalism and in some cases mysticism of the less rich and prominent, with roots in Quaker, Digger, Leveller, Muggletonian and other dissenting English enthusiasms, which I think had a more profound, if sometimes subterranean, effect on the action, though perhaps not so much on the published thought, of the era. The AC focus is relentlessly on the nuances of elite intellectual history. Me, I like the distressing realpolitik of elite action — and the intellectual and spiritual history (and the distressing realpolitik) of the non-elites.

AC gets into how Enlightenment rationalism combined with Christianity in 18th C. Whig America to liberalize both religion and government. In that sense, and in part because they’re conservative, they’re liberal. And I think they’re right to associate the liberalizing of religion with the development of haute-Whig republicanism, which defined the class of American founders who, as one of the AC writers wittily defines them, made it onto our currency (and, I note, tried to hold back democracy and radical social change). Illiberal American religion, the kind I’m interested in, led to other ideas about government, socially radical and at times utopian ones, which the upper class, across the rationalist-Christian-Deist spectrum, found revolting, silly, and infuriating, and yet at times, for political reasons, depended on, without acknowledgment.

One key AC idea is that today’s American liberal democracy may differ fundamentally from the European version, just as the American revolution differed from the French in not being populist and, in a certain sense, not millennial, not an effort to start human society over, to redeem it. The realpolitik I’m interested in, and the action adventures in my books, complicate, shall we say, that idea.

Anyway, in the process of considering these differences, I’ve come to appreciate AC’s liberal/conservative ways of defending the separation of church and state and the first amendment as a whole, and their debunking of a lot of poorly considered ideas coming from today’s religious right.

Hamilton and Washington

As Commander of the Army, General Washington was key. The finance guys wanted him leading the coup [UPDATE: for accuracy:] threat of coup. He declined, of course, and ended up elegantly dispersing the officer rebellion at the army cantonment in Newburgh, N.Y., more or less as described in the AC post.

But then he wrote to Congress, telling them to do everything the officers wanted, which Congress hurriedly did, making the entire officer class one with the financier class, creditors of the United States. (Hence the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary officer-class watchdog group, one of whose agendas was to insure that the potential investment bonanza was federally supported.) That set the table for everything the Morrises and Hamilton wanted for America. Later, in the early 1790’s, Hamilton began putting it all into effect as Washington’s treasury secretary.

Washington admonished Hamilton, in their odd and compelling post-Newburgh-crisis correspondence, that while the General firmly supported the nationalists’ aims, trying to manipulate the army to achieve them had been a dangerously bonehead move. In a letter nobody quotes, although it is very easy to find, he even followed up with Hamilton, just in case he might be misinterpreted, to say that the only problem with using the army that way is that, in such cases, things might just as well go the other way, backfire, and the anti-nationalists might have won. Without sullying himself with the sedition in which the nationalists had indulged, Washington made sure that the nationalists got all the things they wanted. And without allowing a coup to occur, he used the coup to get what he wanted. It was a very, very impressive set of moves, with a major impact on the American future. There’s a way in which the Newburgh conspiracy, despite unintended consequences, should be rated a success, in part because of Washington.

And Washington’s strange relationship with Hamilton, which came to fruition in the 1790’s, with the executive-branch suppression of western Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion — as hymned by John Yoo — had now been established.

AC just doesn’t look into any of this. One of the comments on the Newburgh post mentions the scholar Richard Kohn to the effect that there wasn’t much of a conspiracy at all. That is not what Kohn’s work says — quite the reverse! Somehow the cult of the Republican Saint Washington, indispensible man, is good enough for these normally skeptical thinkers. (He was the indispensible man. The realities of that indispensability are rather fraught.) How can these guys, who so fluently consider the likes of Sidney and Aristotle in other posts, resort to the History Channel and Google when kvelling about Washington? The effect on reason of the modern secular religion of founder-worship is an intriguing one to consider in the context of AC’s examination of religion at the founding.

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