What Did the Founders Mean by “Democracy”?

In the context of rightwingers’ asserting all over the Internet that “this is a republic, not a democracy,” I’m going to quickly review here the question of what the founders meant when they used the term “democracy.” For while the right is wrong in asserting that this isn’t a democracy — it is supposed to be one, now — some assertions in response, explaining the founders’ uses of the terms “republic” and “democracy,” are wrong too, and wrong in ways that erode public understanding of how we got from an elite republic to a democratic republic.

What did the founders mean when they said “democracy”?

They meant many different and at times contradictory things.

Yet a common response intended to shut down the glib right-wing “republic not democracy” assertion makes the founders simplistically consistent in the opposite way, as summed up in the law professor and activist Lawrence Lessig’s Medium entry on the subject, posted back in 2016 and recently revived on Twitter:

Yes, it is true, the Framers meant to establish “a Republic.”

And yes, they openly and repeatedly criticized “democracy.”

But the “democracy” they were criticizing was “direct democracy,” and the “Republic” they were championing was “representative democracy.”

Lessig’s claim that when the framers criticized democracy they meant only to criticize direct democracy — holding a popular referendum on every law and issue, with no representative layer — doesn’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny. Of course the framers disliked direct participation and favored representation: they didn’t want the electorate voting to pass and repeal laws; they wanted the electorate voting to choose representatives who would vote on passing and repealing laws. Some of the founders wrote eloquently on the virtues of a representative system: Lessig cites Madison to that effect. And it’s true that Madison and others sometimes explicitly used “democracy,” to refer disparagingly to direct democracy, in contrast to a representative “republic.”

But that was all talk, in the sense that the founders had no experience of direct democracy. Continue reading

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Part Four (and Final?) in My Riffs on the Uses and Abuses of History in the Trump Crisis …

… is an actual published and edited essay in Lapham’s Quarterly. Here I’m slashing a lot of brush, in the interest of starting a new American civics, with a new approach to American history.

Now More Than Ever, We Need Less History

Many who are freaked, like me, about the current national crisis are exhibiting a tendency, like mine, to intensify what they were doing before the crisis reached this point and to argue fervently for doing more of it. Whatever we were already doing, that is, has suddenly become what restoration of the body politic seems most desperately to require.

The “now more than ever” thing is everywhere. Since election day, dancers have been saying that now more than ever we need dance, poets poetry, and so on, and the impulse must be natural. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, watching Charlie Rose’s show on TV, I heard David Gergen — then ubiquitous as a moderate-conservative political wiseman — saying something to the effect of “at least in this abruptly changed world, everything we found so revolting about the decline of American culture will no longer have any valence.” Gergen was referring to gangster rap, kneejerk sarcasm — a grab-bag of the rude negativity of the day — and I noticed with a shock that I’d been thinking just the same thing, in that I’d been thinking just the opposite:

At least in this abruptly changed world, I’d been telling myself, there won’t be any place for the likes of David Gergen running his mouth on TV.

We were way off, Gergen and I. Since the autumn of 2001, everything he and I disliked has kept chugging merrily along. We were only assuaging anxiety in a rough time, telling ourselves that the stakes had now become too high to permit one jot more of anything we objected to, reassuring ourselves that the American culture we so loved and found so perpetually wanting might be redeemed, at last, by tragedy: at least then 9/11 wouldn’t be for nothing.

David Gergen and I were sharing a strategy for self-comfort.

The phenomenon I’m talking about now is related to Gergen’s and my mood of 2001, yet inverted, flipped from negative to positive. With the election of an unhinged reality-TV huckster to the U.S. presidency, instead of the delusional Well, at least now there can’t be any more of that stuff I hate, many of us have taken up the equally delusional What I love most is the very thing that can save us.

Now more than ever.

* * * *

American historians and others involved in American history are among those saying “now more than ever,” and not surprisingly what historians think we need, now more than ever, is history. Analyzing my own delusion doesn’t save me from participating in it, as I think this post will make overwhelmingly clear. Still, I feel I have a sliver of space in which to question what many people I respect have been doing, lately, regarding American history, and to question my own responses to those efforts. Continue reading

More Bogus Comparisons: Hamilton vs. Jackson 2

If you’re getting sick of this subject, imagine how I feel. I’m only one man, with many other pressing matters to attend to. However, a while back three profo explainers at the Huffington Post came up with a series of wrongheaded remarks on the excellence of Hamilton when compared with Jackson, and it’s been galling me, so here I go again, as the great communicator used to say.

N.B. I don’t like Jackson. Hell, I don’t like any of these people, and they sure as hell wouldn’t like me. They wouldn’t like you either. This isn’t a fansite — though that’s what I’m beginning to fear a lot of history really is.

But I can’t let the following nonsensical remarks, made with blithe confidence by Ryan Grim, Laura Barron-Lopez, and Zach Carter, in the piece linked above, go uncorrected:

  • “Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, was a strong opponent of slavery, and was an early member of the New York Manumission Society, an abolitionist group. . . “  Too far a stretch, confusing manumission  with abolition. You’d almost think Grim, Barron-Lopez, and Carter weren’t aware of my earlier blog posts on this matter, here and here. Keep up, people.
  • “Andrew Jackson, meanwhile, a War of 1812 hero, was a slave owner.” I think by “meanwhile,” the authors mean something other than “occurring at the same time as something already mentioned”; they must mean “for his part” or “by contrast,” and the intent, if not the mot, is clear: disparage Jackson by contrast to Hamilton over slaveowning. They never say Hamilton wasn’t a slaveowner, but they imply it, and the record doesn’t support the implication. Which, again, I thought I’d already clarified (see links above): it really is tedious to have to keep repeating these things. Anyway, “slaveowner” applies to all kinds of people (including many members of the Manumission Society) whom the authors refrain from attacking, so what’s their point? Oh. Wait. Here it comes . . .
  • “Even more perniciously, Jackson carried out an ‘Indian removal’ policy as president.” Indian removal, the authors assert here, is more pernicious than slaveholding. (That’s why we have explainers; otherwise we might not know which is worse.) Really, I doubt they meant to make that assertion, because how on earth would they know which is worse, but this writing thing is hard. Such a flailing-in-the-dark opening phrase must reflect the authors’ dimly gathering sense — you can feel it start to nag at them as they write, just not hard enough, unfortunately, to get them to stop writing — that if “slaveowner” were to disqualify a founder from appearing on currency, there wouldn’t be many founders there. So they come up with what they inform us is the distinguishingly awful characteristic of Jackson: Indian removal. And now things get really silly.
  • “. . . decades of policy in the United States and the preceding British colonies had sought  coexistence and reconciliation with various native peoples. Jackson’s policies reversed these efforts. . .”  This is straight-up nonsense. (Well, one thing here is true: the colonies came before the United States. Hence, I guess, “the preceding”?) Many colonial lieutenant governors’ and colonial legislatures’ policies, and those of (“the following”?) United States, from its inception, were dedicated to seizing Indian land and pushing Indians out. In the later colonial period, the royal government at Whitehall did try to prevent white expansion westward and to reserve land for Indians: after Jeffrey Amherst was recalled and Thomas Gage took over, Ministry policy became more beneficial to indigenous people than anything the Americans (and some of their royal governors) were cooking up, and a lot of indigenous nations knew it; that’s why they allied with England in what, for Indians, was only the latest and worst episode in a forty-year war to defend their homes from American incursion for the purpose of real-estate speculation. Ministry efforts to make what is now the Midwest a permanent Indian country served as a cause of war for American independence; American desire to conquer that region was a cause of forming our nation; in 1794 the first war the nation ever fought brought about the conquest. The U.S. did tell the Indians that all of this was in service of coexistence, but that doesn’t mean HuffPo writers in 2016 should believe it; most of the Indians involved sure didn’t. The authors might not think pushing Indians into smaller and less familiar places qualifies as “removal.” It does, but anyway, the idea of someday moving all Indians west of the Mississippi originated with and played into the American Revolution and into the very basis of nationhood. Hamilton, vaguely connected by the authors to this fanciful “coexistence and reconciliation” policy, was really at one with Washington, Jefferson, and all the others in pursuing various forms of military incursion on Indian land, with various schemes, including removal, for coping with continued Indian presence. “There is an American West is a Western  Country. It will be settled,” said Hamilton (emphasis his), and nobody fought harder than he to originate the army that accomplished that goal: the United States Army, that is, which came into existence precisely for the purpose of carrying out the conquest. Jackson didn’t “reverse” anything, and what followed involved the likes of Lincoln and Grant, but again the authors seem to be getting nervous about where their assertions might end up leading them, so . . .
  • “Jefferson was a slave-trading landed elite whose esteem for farmers is often confused under contemporary politics with a ‘small is beautiful’ rural utopianism.” It is? Well, maybe “under contemporary politics,” whatever that means, but smacking Jefferson around like this is only what Hamiltionians have been doing for years; Jeffersonians do the same to Hamilton; it’s all crap, and I really thought I’d made that clear, here, for example, and here. Oh well.

Continue reading

Historian, Heal Thyself

I haven’t had enough time to post here in a long while, and I still don’t, but the pushback that the musical “Hamilton” is getting — finally! — from some historians and critics inspires thoughts that won’t fit into 140 characters. I’ve been obsessively tracking and tweeting dissent from aspects of the show, beginning with Ishmael Reed’s compelling article from August, and more recently a illuminating piece by Lyra D. Monteiro, a history professor at Rutgers, advanced further in her interview; as well as in a Slate piece covering the matter.

Last week, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf weighed in. And I was happy today to see the whole thing covered, on the front page no less, in the New York Times.

I should say that having spent nearly fifteen years trying, like a flea hurling itself repeatedly against a battleship, to dent the grand progress of the Hamilton industry, I’ve found the show’s reception literally impossible to respond to. I know I wasn’t getting anywhere anyway, but come on: this?! Mostly I’ve just been shaking my head in rueful wonderment.

And I’ve mulled over the soundtrack album. Unlike many founding-era history people who have responded to the show’s music, mood, and popularity with a degree of joy I can only call giddy, I just felt tired on hearing that first reference to throwing away the shot, knowing where it would have to lead. That’s just me, I know: my exhaustion has more to do with my long relationship to Hamilton, and to those who would promote his legacy by misconstruing everything he did, than with the show itself. I do get why the music is exciting — well, the hiphop is, with seriously clever rhyming and at times hilarious attitude; not so much for me the more conventional musical-theater songs — and why the whole thing is theatrically fresh, energetic, unexpected.

In the end, though, I can only view the show and its wildly positive reception as springboarding us from founder chic, which made it hard enough to confront our origins, to founder twee. I’ve been living too long in a founding world fraught with radically other impulses than those presented with such imaginative boldness by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” For all of the racial reversals (Monteiro is especially good on that), and in fact largely because of them, the show is breathing thrilling new life into falsehoods long embraced by our financial and political establishments regarding our national origins. It’s no shock to me that those establishments have taken up the show with such boundless enthusiasm.

More fascinating — disconcerting, really — is how hard some academic historians have fallen. These are the people who really know and teach the period, and they’ve surprised me by their unabashed love of the show. (A smart discussion, mainly but not entirely among historians who like the show, appeared back in August at the estimable Junto blog — happy to see those guys getting their due in today’s Times.)  For one thing, yes, these historians must know that Hamilton wasn’t really an abolitionist, but also the entire Hamilton-vs-Jefferson binary is not only so banal and unnuanced but also in many ways just so wrongheaded that while it’s fine (with me) for a theatrical event seeking broad popularity to lean on that oversimplification, it’s annoying (to me) to see professional historians so happy to have it dramatized.

Now, per today’s Times piece, come the critical historians. Hallelujah. And yet I’m finding some of their commentary unsettling too.  Continue reading

Ted Cruz and Patrick Henry

The usual rightist history mess has just come from Ted Cruz, invoking the antifederalist Patrick Henry in making a claim on the U.S. Constitution. [If you’ve seen my Twitter rant on this, you’ve basically seen this.] I prefer to believe Cruz is more disingenuous than ignorant: as I suspect of Grover Norquist too, Cruz may know full well that he’s fighting a rear-guard battle on behalf not of the Constitution but of antifederalism.

Patrick Henry is one of Cruz’s avatars of liberty, no doubt because of the “or death” speech. And yet Patrick Henry fought tooth and nail to demolish the Constitution that Cruz says we need to “reclaim.” Henry was open about his disdain for the Constitution. He refused to show up at the Constitutional convention and tried his best to prevent ratification.

That’s because Henry understood how the Constitution works. Provisions like the “necessary and proper” and “interstate commerce” clauses, he complained, give the federal government virtually unlimited power over the states.

Where “constitutional conservatives” like Cruz claim that those clauses have been unconstitutionally stretched, Henry knew better. Overwhelming federal power is constitutional, Henry said. That’s what the Constitution does. That’s why he hated it. And the amendment process, which some today like to think got rid of federal overreaching and re-empowered the states, while some today think of the amendment process as getting rid of federal overreaching and re-empowering the states, Henry thought that process was a joke.

So imagine Henry’s fury when Madison and Jefferson, having tried in the late 1780’s to soothe all fears of excessive federal dominance, decided they didn’t like what Washington, Hamilton, Adams, et al, had been doing, and started claiming in the 1790’s that the states could constitutionally nullify federal law. No, Henry reminded them: states can’t do that. That’s the whole problem, fools. That’s why I told you not to promote and ratify this thing. You can’t get out of it now. Suck it up.

With more or less his dying breath, the old antifederalist Patrick Henry (at Washington’s behest) rose from his bed to condemn Madison’s novel states-rights theory. His final speech is far better documented than the “or death” speech of the 1770’s. You blew it, Henry told Madison and others. Now that the Constitution he’d warned them against was ratified, it was law.

Or: Unlike “constitutional conservatives” today, Henry a) knew what the Constitution said, b) hated it openly, c) supported it as law. Henry is one of my favorite founders, not because I agree with him about the lost sanctity of Virginia sovereignty, etc. — he was another slave-driving, high-Whig squire, with no use for democracy — but because as such, he was almost alone among the famous founders in being intellectually honest. He stood on his principle even to the point of honoring a Constitution he hated. With the exception of John Dickinson — also on “the wrong side of history” — Henry is literally, I think, the only founder who shows that kind of consistency.

I don’t think that’s what Cruz is saying about him, though.