“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

History as Contest: American Ignorance

An interesting blogger named Sam Ryan responds to my post on the futility of teaching civics by saying:

In other words, history isn’t interesting until it’s contested. Hogeland’s example is the argument that the Articles of Confederation were only really bad for the “founding fathers” and other members of the upper class, and that most of the country didn’t need a new Constitution. Which is an interesting and clever thing to consider, even if it’s wrong.

Nicely put. Although I’m not saying the country didn’t need a constitution. I feel no need to have an opinion about that. The comforting idea that big things happen because a country, for example, “needs” something, in the best judgment of the supposedly most judicious people around, and of those who follow them in the ensuing centuries, just seems to fly in the face of all experience. And the dull, rote foregone conclusion that the country did “need” a constitution, and that that’s why we have one, reveals, under examination, interests that are … interesting.

But I think Ryan gets that’s what I meant.

He did inspire me to fine-tune. What I’m really saying isn’t just that history isn’t interesting until contested. It’s that history doesn’t exist independently of contest.

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The Constitution: Historically Complicated, Politically Ambiguous

In my discussion of U.S. founding history with Tea Party leader Michael P. Leahy, at the Broadside Books blog “Line of Fire,” we’re homing in on two opposed ways of looking at the U.S. Constitution. Leahy sees the document as what he calls a secular covenant; he says the Tea Party (at least his branch of that movement) wants to get back to the plain meaning of the Constitution, as ratified and amended, and he sees Alexander Hamilton — rightly, as far as I’m concerned — as one of the chief early originators of liberal and expansive readings of the document. In his latest post, Leahy presents Hamilton’s opponents Madison and Jefferson as the Constitution’s defenders, Hamilton as its usurper, and ends by posing me the two highly germane questions in italics below, which I begin by answering in my response, set out here in full:

Michael,

Great questions. Short answers first.

1. Do you agree with my broad view of Madison and Jefferson as the defenders of the Constitution and Hamilton as the usurper? No.

2. Do you agree with Jefferson’s statement that Hamilton’s financial system was “a machine for the corruption of the legislature?” In certain ways, yes, of course it was — but I think it’s important to a) interrogate TJ ‘s description in its political context , and b) assess the politics of your second question in terms of the first.

Here’s why: Continue reading

Chit Chat #2: What *Is* the Dang Constitution, Anyway?

Another round at “Line of Fire,” the blog for Broadside Books, where Tea Party leader Michael Patrtick Leahy 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.

Circling now around the Constitution.  In the earlier round, Leahy called it a secular covenant; he also called its adoption and ratification “authentically democratic.” So I say:

I suspect there’s something about your use of “covenant” that needs to be unpacked. Is “covenant” a reference to the incontrovertible fact that the document was written via delegation and ratified via representation?

Nobody can disagree that the Constitution was “formed in an intense, elaborate national discussion that took place over four long years from 1787 to 1791.” But I do infer that we have a clear and stark disagreement over the role of democracy in both the convention and ratification, and in this regard I have a disagreement with many liberal historians too. I think the convention’s purpose, as Randolph announced in calling the meeting to order, was to redress what he called “insufficient checks” against what he was not alone in calling “the democracy.”. . .

Leahy:

I use the term “secular covenant” to describe  the binding nature of the Constitution. It represents an agreement between the citizens, the state governments, and the federal government as to how we consent to be governed.  The terms of this secular covenant are contained in the words of the Constitution and its subsequent amendments, and their meaning is the plain meaning of those words. The method of changing the terms of the secular covenant is found in the amendment process of the document itself. No other means of changing the terms–either expansive judicial interpretrations or executive usurpations–are authentic. . . .

Me:

(Stay tuned again . . . )

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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

Is Social Democracy French?

not a whiskey rebel

Wow. In the comment thread on Naked Capitalism, regarding my final New Deal 2.0 “Founding Finance” post, the commenter Peripheral Visionary offers the best-informed, most gracefully and concisely written summary I’ve ever seen of the classic interpretation of the American founding from which my work is precisely intended to dissent. This is so commonly believed, so perfectly put, and so utterly the reverse of what I’ve come to think that I quote it at length:

An interesting assessment, and I generally agree that the Founders’ views were quite complex and varied, and not easily summarized.

It needs to be pointed out, however, that social democracy ultimately had its roots, not in the American revolutionary state, but in the French revolutionary state. That explains its particular emphasis on class, and its focus on the division between capital and labor; both were key features of Western Europe, but not as prevalent features of the American state, which was dominated by independent farmers and craftsmen (hence, with capital in many if not most instances being owned by labor, and therefore with only vaguely-defined class distinctions, the South being the major exception).

In the founding American state, the route to relief of poverty was not through the state (and it is difficult to believe such a thing would even have been considered), but rather through the frontier. The frontier served as an enabler of the otherwise disempowered, who by way of the homestead acts could secure property, independence, and the means of supporting themselves (all at the expense of Native Americans, of course–but then, redistribution programs are zero-sum and therefore always come at a cost to someone else). That “outlet” consistently relieved pressure on the impoverished areas of the East and the South, which would go a long way toward explaining why socialism gained little traction in the 19th Century. Only in the 20th Century, with the last of the frontier exhausted, could socialist tendencies, in the form of social progressivism, gain traction. When Steinbeck’s Joad family goes west in the California of the 1930′s, they find an oppressive class state; had they gone west just fifty years earlier, they would have found open land and opportunity.

That’s the reading that I think a realistic look at finance in the founding period turns upside down.

For example: No, social democracy does not have ultimate roots in the French revolutionary state. For better and for worse, the French revolutionary state had roots in the Pennsylvania revolutionary state. 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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Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann Would Call 18th-Century Philadelphia Freedom Fighters ‘Un-American’

This is a cross-post from NewDeal 2.0 — the first entry in a new series I’m doing for that very interesting group blog. The series is a timely one: finance in the founding era, and the founding war between elite high-finance policy and popular-finance ideas of the period — little known today — about economic fairness and radical democracy. This was a war not between Americans and the British government but between Americans and other Americans. A close look at it contradicts Tea Party ideas of founding American history, as well as questioning some liberal preconceptions. And the economic crises of the 18th century will sound surprisingly familiar.

Here’s some of today’s introductory post:

… 18th-century populists came to articulate a radical new idea about the relationship of liberty and equality, anathema to the Tea Party politics of today. Securing true liberty, working Americans of the founding period insisted, requires government to regulate business and finance in the interest of economic fairness. They demanded such things as debt relief, an end to the regressive gold standard, the severing of rights from property, and legal curtailment of mercantile interests. Some wanted progressive taxation; some envisioned a social security program. Their real political ethos directly contradicts current right-wing efforts to cast passive government, unfettered markets, and wholesale tax resistance as the founding values of ordinary America.

Here’s some more:

Historical marginalizing of our founding challenges to economic elites damages current political thinking. Modern progressives seeking precedents in history tend to travel backward through the New Deal, come to a screeching halt at the Populist and Progressive movements, squint approvingly back at Jackson, and fail to focus on the horizon where an economically egalitarian American spirit, more truly radical than Jackson’s, seethes, neglected. Reclaiming that spirit — at the very least exploring it — would have the virtue of denying the Tea Party a monopoly on anything supposedly fundamental about the American founding and American values.

Reclaiming our founding tradition would also give a rest to the endless ideological tug of war over the famous founders. …

I’m expecting to make this series a weekly thing — and I hope people will want to read the whole thing and comment over at New Deal 2.0.

Thomas Paine and the Democratic Revolutionaries: Egypt 2011, America 1776

To the young democratic resisters in Egypt, some of whom I’ve heard saying in street interviews that they admire the American Revolution, I want to say something complicating. (No, I don’t literally think they’re taking time out of changing their country and the world to follow my blog — but hey, you never know!) This: It’s a somewhat bleak fact that the only successful American founding-era revolution for democracy occurred in Pennsylvania in 1776 — and that wasn’t the Continental Congress’s declaring independence from England.

This may be annoying. There may be times for believing in the big, uncomplicated American narratives, and this may be one of them. But Egyptians want democracy, and our famous Declaration was not a declaration for democracy, and since that’s what my books are about, I’m seeing events in Egypt a certain way.

(For what it’s worth, that is. Back when I was shouting and waving my fist in the steet, I didn’t live in a military dictatorship. And I sure didn’t go back the next day to sweep up. Respect.)

Anyway, the real 1776 democratic revolution I’m talking about is at once an inspiring and a cautionary one for worldwide democratic revolutions today.

I should note that everything I know about politics in Egypt I’ve learned from the papers and the radio in the past month. Like so many others, I’ve followed the uprising there with bated breath because of its nonviolence and the strange — possibly unique? — relationship of the military to both the protestors and the regime. With everyone else, I await next steps. Will a government that has been a military one for generations actually enable real elections and subordinate the military to representative civilian authority? Maybe. But if so, the ironies will be many. BBC and others have reported that it is the younger officer corps (not young, younger) that groks the civilian-control thing — and that’s because unlike their Soviet-tutored elders, they’ve grown up under the influence of the U.S. alliance and studied in our war colleges. That would mean our long alliance with a military dictatorship may have had a liberalizing influence on its military. Hm.

There are of course a host of parallels and precedents in U.S. revolutionary history that might provide both inspiration and warning for modern democratic movements. George Washington, a general, did famously hand over the reins of power after his presidency. Of course, he’d been elected in the first place (though not with any real competition). And the army he’d once led had been disbanded some years earlier. Which didn’t stop his administration from flirting, putting it politely, with militarism. And nobody has ever been more sick of being president than George Washington. . . Still, when it comes to subordinating the military to the civilian authority, we may hope that Egyptian generals would consider emulating both the myth and the reality of our American Cincinnattus’s republican integrity.

That was a republican integrity, though, not a democratic one. Washington was no believer in democracy. Nor were any of the other famous founders. And Egyptians want democracy. So while the generals should follow Washington’s example, young people seeking inspiration for democracy in the American revolutionary period need to look to figures who do not show up in certified histories of the American Revolution.

Well, one of them does, so let’s start with him: Paine. Continue reading