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, 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 debunked.
This is straw-man stuff, possibly consciously intended to fend off and dismiss a priori 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.” Challenges to our current politics and government are here framed — 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 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 radically 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