…I’m a boldface name!(Oh, yes — the actual essay is here.)
Washington’s real birthday was just last Friday, and perhaps in preparation for it, on Wednesday the anti-tax, anti-government-debt activist Grover Norquist posted this: “Today, in 1792, George Washington signed the law creating the US Postal Service. Oh, well. No one is perfect.”
The purport of Norquist’s tweet — even great Washington nodded — is actually kind of funny. Yet it relies, not surprisingly, on a false presumption: that the first president’s other efforts and decisions were dedicated to bringing about the kind of American government that Norquist and fellow anti-tax, anti-debt types do want: little-to-zero debt and very low taxes, a government small enough to drown in a bathtub.
In fact the Norquist crowd would get little support from the real George Washington. The first president did not, putting it mildly, hope to diminish the size and scope of central government. He loved federal taxes. And he was a big fan of national debt. Continue reading
It won’t cease, no matter what I say. Still:
The well-regarded historian Thomas McCraw, author of the recently published The Founders and Finance, who died untimely only a few days ago, has a characteristically well-written, and persuasively liberal posthumous op-ed in today’s Times on Alexander Hamilton’s finance policies, which makes all the usual Hamiltonian — I don’t know what to call them, because they can’t be mistakes — presumptions? misconceptions? — that my book Founding Finance is in part out to challenge? correct? demolish?
In the wake of the election, the neoliberal desire to invoke Hamilton (yet again — Paulson, Geithner, Orszag et al were self-professed Hamiltonians) as a guide to current policy certainly raises some big questions. But as a writer on the period, I’m most bewildered by the reflexive Hamiltonian tendency to misconstrue what Hamilton actually did.
In this and many other cases, the miscontrual doesn’t even serve a useful purpose: McCraw’s most persuasive point — that obsessing about “fiscal cliffs” and lowering taxes and cutting benefits, etc., is not a realistic way to deal with national finance problems — would be at least as strong with full acknowledgment of the real Hamilton plan. Continue reading
What’s really impressive to me about Buckley is that he held his own, as a larger-than-life public elitist, within the right-wing insurgency that took over the Republican Party; indeed he helped lead it. That insurgency famously gained most of its ground by evincing not old-school country-estate elitism but extreme populism. The right began attacking Democratic Party inheritors of the New Deal, not wrongly, as privileged and patronizing; even more significantly, and at least as accurately, it ganged liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller in with them. Yet Buckley, a self-created cartoon of privilege and condescension, and in his early adulthood a questing romantic for elite glories, managed to help lead the new-right populist charge.
“Liberal Republicans”: Many younger people today may presume these were oddball edge cases. That misperception shows the overwhelming success of the right-wing effort that began during the period we’re talking about. Both parties then had strong liberal-establishment elements, today often called “moderate” on the Republican side, as the right wing (then led by Robert Taft) was always so immoderate that the Republican Thomas Dewey warned against letting the right take over the party: if it ever did, he predicted, Republicans would lose every future election.
Dewey was wrong, of course, and Kevin Phillips, who got it right — he was an author of the populist “new conservative” strategy of the era — scorned William F. Buckley, calling him “Squire Willie.” It makes sense. What place could a newly populist right have for a Yale man whose hot-potato accent rivaled FDR’s and Rocky’s (Buckley’s was evidently put on), who made a career reveling in Bach, using big words, writing books about private sailing trips, and suggesting that uneducated people shouldn’t vote?
One of the more interesting moments in this conflict within the insurgent right came when Buckley interviewed George Wallace on Buckley’s TV interview show “Firing Line.” Although Buckley did the questioning, the program was marketed as a debate, moderated, supposedly, by one C. Dickerman Williams. (A story for another time, and maybe the only Gore Vidalish moment I’ll ever get: I expose the UES/Litchfield County line of my heritage by noting that this C.D. Williams moved in circles in which my maternal grandparents also moved — mainly liberal-establishment Republican ones! — when I was kid. I remember him well and was amused to discover him on “Firing Line” actively not moderating the Buckley-Wallace “debate.”) Despite the presence of a fake moderator, Buckley’s interview of Wallace is really an O’Reilly-like “this is my show” attack.
Since Wallace was poster-boy for racial segregation in the South, Buckley’s attack on him provides Buckley admirers with yet another basis for claiming that Buckley repudiated racism on behalf of conservatism. But again the realpolitik of the moment suggests more interesting readings to me. Continue reading
[UPDATE: I give a better developed version of some of this stuff at a panel on racism in conservatism.]
In a Boston Review essay, I had occasion to explore the early writings of William F. Buckley, Jr., on racial segregation. I argued then that Buckley’s famous 2004 apology for having once held racially regressive positions — an apology cited by his fans both conservative and liberal, part and parcel of a contention that, despite a perhaps unfortunate history together, racism and American conservatism aren’t ineluctably connected — was no apology at all. The aged Buckley was renouncing a position entirely different from the one he’d actually advanced in the 1950’s.
Writing in 1957, Buckley insisted that whites in the South were “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, where they do not prevail numerically,” because the white race was “for the time being, the advanced race.”
In 2004, asked whether he’d ever taken a position he now regretted, he said “Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.”
Neatly done. Where in ’57 he’d asserted a right even of a minority of whites to impose racial segregation by literally any means necessary, including breaking federal law, in ’04 Buckley expressed regret for having supposedly believed only that segregation would wither away without federal intervention. Stupid the man was not. He gets credited today both with honesty about his past and with having, in his own way, “evolved up.” Modern conservatives, more importantly, get to ignore the realities of their movement’s origins.
The persistence of the most virulent kind of racism and white supremacism in some National Review writers, leading to their recent firing, doesn’t mean to me that all of American conservatism is racist. But I think the firings, and ensuing discussion of them by, for two, Joan Walsh and Alex Pareene at Salon, support a suggestion I made in that essay regarding the nature of Buckley’s evolution away from his 1957 position. Buckley did evolve — but not in the way his fans like to imagine: Continue reading
(More b-roll, cut from my forthcoming book Founding Finance. Might have some resonance for those in protest today against government money corruption and high finance.)
We often see 1760’s and ’70’s patriot Boston as especially well-unified, across social and economic classes, against British oppression, and it’s true that, certainly with the occupation, much unity did prevail there. But dramatic examples of conflict in the relationship between Adams and the Loyal Nine and Sons of Liberty, on the one hand, and Boston’s workers and poor on the other, occurred even during one of the most famous Boston riots, the Stamp Act protest of August 1765. In the same traditional styles of protest we’ve seen [or will have seen, in the forthcoming book] in the Regulator riot in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the Boston protest involved attacks on not only on hated stamp-administration offices but also on officials’ homes. A large crowd — which today might have appeal for both the Tea Party and Occupy for being of mixed classes — hanged in effigy Andrew Oliver, the stamp tax official.
But then, at night, Boston’s two most famous street gangs, previously at war with one another, the South End Gang and the North End Gang, burned a property Oliver owned in Boston. Even later that night a smaller crew and entered his house in Cambridge and ransacked it. The attack on Oliver’s home went beyond protest against England. Breaking elegant things seemed to many an assault on extravagance and luxury itself. In that effort, the North End and South End gangs ceased making war on one another.
Some see the gangs’ new unity as responding to a common enemy in British corruption; others see their unity as the formation of a class consciousness that distinguished the workers and poor of Boston not only from British-connected Bostonians like Oliver but also from anti-British upscale Bostonians like Adams, Hancock, and Sons of Liberty. What’s most illuminating to me is that upscale Whig resisters, including Sons of Liberty, tried to distinguish themselves from the gangs even as they hoped the gangs’ violence would pressure and harass British officials. The Boston town meeting didn’t censure the attack on Oliver’s house — but two weeks later, the gangs tore down Governor Hutchinson’s house, and the town meeting, while anything but friendly to Hutchinson, did condemn that action.
Upscale people, however anti-British, now began turning out to protect property. They created their own militias in distinction to the laboring gangs. In revolutionary Boston, rich people on both sides of the taxation question feared the working-class crowd. And the working class knew it.
General Gage of the British Army had an interesting point of view on the situation. Occupying Boston with troops, he lived with the Cassandra curse: always right, always ignored. Gage understood Boston far better than his British masters; ultimately he was recalled to England for offending them by having been so right.
And Gage’s take on the elite-vs.-crowd issue was that Whig gentlemen had begun by arousing crowds, assuming ordinary people had none of what historians call “agency” of their own and would defer to establishment leaders. Then those leaders found, to their dismay, that crowds would rise unbidden. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, far from endorsing the crowd’s desire for equality, nevertheless needed the crowds to pressure the British establishment and lend credence to the seriousness of the resistance. So even in Boston, seemingly so unified against England, revolution in America was full of social, economic, and political tension on the part of the revolutionaries.
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