Founding Fathers, Founding Villains: The New Liberal Originalism

(Cross-posted from “Boston Review.”)

Liberals have become originalists too. Recent books by progressive thinkers as varied as the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, journalist Roger Hodge, and political commentator Rachel Maddow decry a national failure to live up to the founders’ purposes in creating the Constitution. Maddow means by her title, Drift, an unfortunate movement away from founding-era anti-militarism into the modern military-industrial complex. In Lessig’s Republic, Lost, the loss has come about thanks to a money influence in politics that Lessig says the founders condemned as corrupt. Hodge, in The Mendacity of Hope, frames a criticism of President Obama in terms of the founding political battle over finance between Hamilton and Madison.

All of the liberal originalists’ books run into political and historical trouble over some unedifying realities of our founding period. . . .

Read more.


Final Post on Akhil Reed Amar’s “Jacksonian Constitution”

So to finish off this multi-post critique of Akhil Amar’s riff on democracy and the Constitution, I hit here on a few specific moments in Amar’s talk. For context, see my earlier remarks on the talk, and on the point of view of the founding and the Constitution it so ably presents (so precisely the reverse of my own): here and here. Time stamps below refer to markers in the CSPAN player for Amar’s talk.

5:37. “I’ll tell you … three ways to remember that it’s all about Jackson.” All about Jackson — that’s the top-lined conclusion, perfectly stated here, of Gordon Wood’s and others’ ideas about what the American Revolution accomplished: a kind of settlement, as old-school Whig historians might have called it, in which democracy in the form of small-capital, common-man upward mobility, presaged in the Constitution by the framers, needed the accession of Jackson to fully emerge. In this reading, the democratic Jackson approach is fraught with unfortunate ironies, mainly, as Amar says, its pro-slavery position and its “isolationism.” That we haven’t “been taught” this, at the very least tacitly, everywhere we’ve looked in public history, as well as blatantly in history departments and academic publications and big history books, over the past fifty-some years, seems literally nonsensical to me. (I fantasize that Wood himself finds Amar’s version annoying, since it seems to sum up too easily — and clearly! — what it’s taken Wood a career of thorny nuance to explore.)

6:04. “The standard story that many of us were taught … associated with Charles Beard.” There’s just no way to call Beard’s interpretation a standard story — not since the 1950’s. It’s true (a commenter on one of my earlier posts brings this to mind) that recently some economists and historians have made yeoman efforts to revive and correct Beard, but Wood, Morgan, and Amar, among others, will never openly respond to those efforts; they continue to marginalize both Beard and his more recent proponents by pretending the Beard version is still a standard one, a myth foisted on a credible public, that must be perpetually debunked.

This is straw-man stuff, possibly consciously intended to fend off and dismiss a priori any recent efforts at a Beard resurgence (by McGuire and by Holton, e.g.), without even mentioning them. In any event, the resurgence they’re out to eradicate by ignoring is not really of Beard but of the general idea that class conflict played a powerful, central role in forming the nation (a subject of my forthcoming book).

8:40. “Our republic could fail still.” Here we get a warning. Amar frames challenges to our current politics and government — not as exactly resembling the founders’ “slaveocracy” and isolationism, as Amar knows the next emergence of a problem won’t resemble the last one — but in terms solely of how we might, as he says the founders did, be drawn to ruin an essential, structurally inherent regard for democracy by failing to face realistically the practical drawbacks of things we’re culturally addicted to or fearful of. For a liberal like Amar, that might mean failure to, for example, cope with climate change. It might also mean a failure to make health insurance affordable for all. Clearly he’s also concerned about Jacksonian-constitutional isolationism. While those great environmental, welfare, and foreign policy issues do of course involve major economic matters, Amar does not equate our current potential for failure with any economic impulse on the part of the founders to push back against the egalitarian economics of the 18th-century populists who wanted access to the franchise in order to restrain the power of wealth. He leaves those populists, and all of the founders’ efforts to quell them, out of the founding story: that’s all “Beard” to him.

But from the point of view of an economic and finance critique like mine, “might still fail” begs the question (assuming as proved what is to be proved). Amar induces us to accept a priori that a) the republic hasn’t already failed, and b) that the ways in which one might be tempted to think it had, seen perhaps most dramatically in the corrupting influence of high finance on our government, can’t have anything to do with what the founders were up to when they wrote the Constitution. On that latter point, while far from agreeing with Beard, as my new book will explain, I think radically otherwise. Continue reading

What’s the Matter with Akhil Amar: Update

I’ve just copied this update from the previous post:

UPDATE: A better theory about why Amar would even want to make his monolithically successful, even hegemonic theory about democracy in the Constitution seem an insurgent, embattled one:

As Amar goes about defending the health insurance law, including the individual mandate, as utterly constitutional — anything, that is, but a violation, actually an expression of the democracy and equality he sees as hardwired from day one into the Constitution (sometimes despite the framers themselves!) — he must reject, explicitly, the claim of rightists that the law is socialism and ergo to them un-American. To make liberal policy not merely not un- but actually hyper-American — which is what liberal historians are always trying to do — requires staying militant, on behalf of liberal founding history, not so much against the right but against leftist critiques of founding history once associated so influentially with Beard, back in the dim, forgotten past. Amar knows full well that the liberal, consensus theory of history (with its intriguing period connections to Forrest McDonald and cold-warrior Goldwater rightism) triumphed before he was ten, and that few even remember Beard today, thanks in part to, yes, Gordon Wood (though Morgan was really the leader in that effort, I think).

But loudly re-fighting the ancient Beard fight gives Amar and all liberals seeking hyperconstitutional support for the health insurance law a way to violently reject socialism. It’s an exercise that in its microcosmic way repeats, for today’s politics, the broad sweep of what liberal, consensus history has been trying to do for more than a half century.

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