…I’m a boldface name!(Oh, yes — the actual essay is here.)
Washington’s Birthday and Public Debt
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
Will This Never Cease?
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
William F. Buckley and George Wallace
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
“The National Review,” Racist Writing, and the Legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr.
[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
Like “Occupy” versus “Liberals”? Thoughts on Samuel Adams and the Boston Crowd
(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.
That’s the story Occupy gets wrong here (see “From the Liberty Tree to Liberty Park”) and the Tea Party gets wrong here (just for example).
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 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
Historiography: Douglass Adair and the Triumph of Founding Ideas over Founding Action
I swore I’d never abuse a blog this way, but the following is straight b-roll. I’m cutting this out of a book I’m just now finishing. [UPDATE: It’s finished; for more on this stuff see Chapter Five of Founding Finance.] George Wolfe, playwright and sometime artistic director of New York City’s Public Theater, was reputed to respond to actors’ suggestions for things they might want to add to a scene by making a scissor-snipping hand-motion in the air and saying “Save it for your nightclub act.” The blog is my night-club act, and this snippet is part of a much longer critique of the brand of scholarly history of the American founding that’s been the most influential on a public history of the founding — on the stuff found in political speeches and history-tourism museums and magazine articles.
* * * *
So here’s the thing:
I’m not saying intellectual historians harbor some evil desire to distort. Too many historians just want history to be intellectual.
In my lifetime, they’ve made it so — or at least made American founding history so, and I mean especially those historians who have had the biggest impact on that history as experienced by the nonspecialist public. If anyone’s wondering how we traveled, in about sixty years, from the Beardians’ dominating founding history by promoting their somewhat oddball take on class conflict to Gordon Wood’s and others’ dominating it by promoting “republican synthesis,” I believe we can thank the mighty influence of Douglass Adair. How Adair looked at the founders is how we in the general public most look at them now, so I think it’s worth a glimpse at how he pulled that off.
Like Robert Brown and Forrest McDonald, in the 1950’s Douglass Adair took direct aim at Beard. Yet he didn’t employ tendentious economic studies like theirs. Adair made a highly nuanced appeal to the importance of the founders’ reading and thinking, especially about the meaning of virtue.
It’s surprising, given Beard’s obscurity today, to see how powerful Beard’s influence was when Adair began work. In his Ph.D dissertation Adair could only go so far. He basically said, “Yes, of course, we all accept it was all about financial self-interest, but I’m just saying the classics might have had something to do with it too.” That’s how strong the class-analysis approach had become in mainstream scholarly history before WWII. Adair acknowledged what then was supposed to be common knowledge among historians, that the framers acted to restrain democracy because “their pockets were being picked by the backcountry debtors.” The prejudice embedded in that remark, in favor of the creditors, would offend hardly anyone today, since the subject of founding debt and credit has become opaque for many readers.
That’s a reflection of Adair’s own success. He shifted the larger discussion entirely away from economic matters that he’d been forced to acknowledge, at least, when he started.
Adair curated the postwar development of founding history largely through his role as the editor of “The William & Mary Quarterly” in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Much of the writing he encouraged there carried forward his project: thinking ever more deeply and arguing ever more closely about liberal, republican, and classical theories of virtue in government — the appropriate way, to Adairites, to read America at its founding. Through that process, economic conflict among classes in founding America came to have relevance only in so far as it inspired Madison to write about faction, say, or John Adams to write about balance.
One of the revealing effects of Adair’s approach to the project of debunking Beard, important for the stories I tell, has to do with how we look at Alexander Hamilton. The pro-business, right-wing Beard debunker Forrest McDonald made Hamilton a hero. That was counterintuitive, given McDonald’s Goldwater connections and Hamilton’s ceaseless activism on behalf of government power (then again, the New Dealers, whom McDonald opposed, had copped Jefferson for their own founding mascot, maybe even more counterintuitively). McDonald’s admiration for Hamilton may also remind us that the right’s famous affection for liberty often has to do with ensuring that deleterious effects of private enterprise on less advantaged people might never serve as a reason to regulate private enterprise.
In contrast to McDonald’s right-wing style of Beard debunking, the long-range effect of Adair’s moderate liberal intellectualism didn’t involve denying Beard’s contention that Hamilton’s efforts in public finance involved an attack on the less advantaged. [UPDATE: On reflection — and on reading an essay by Pope McCorkle in American Journal of Legal History that I can’t link to — that’s not really a Beard position. In the end, it’s hard for me to say what Beard’s position was, on a number of things, but what I really mean here is something like “Adair thus doesn’t have to deny Beard-influenced contentions that founding finance policies associated with Hamilton and the Federalists involved an attack on the less advantaged”]. Adairites just define the Hamiltonian extremity of anti-populism as off the main point of founding history (as they’ve tautologically defined it). Since balancing fights among Americans is what interests Adair and his liberal-intellectual progeny — and not the fights themselves — both Hamilton and his enemies in the eighteenth-century popular-finance movement exist by definition outside the mainstream. In Adair’s own early work, Hamilton is useful only as a means of looking at big cultural and intellectual issues like the relative degree of literal biblical belief among the famous founders (not much) or what song might have been popular enough for Hamilton to sing in public shortly before his death. The founding populist efforts I discuss, the desire to radically change American society, to make government economically egalitarian, nothing to do with the ideas of Jefferson and Madison — that’s a molehill of which Hamilton, possibly foolishly, made a mountain, in the Adairites’ reading. The Adair agenda marginalizes both Hamilton and his most vociferous enemies.
A problem with the Adairite narrative — emblematic of the preference for looking at ideas, not action — is that it fails to explain not only Hamilton but also much of what actually went on in the founding. For one thing, Hamilton’s manifest economic liberalism (today, neoliberalism): that daring pursuit of financial innovation, which, combined with his hierarchical conservatism, made activist government such a powerfully stabilizing, nation-creating force in the 1790’s. In shifting history away from the class war in which both Hamilton and the popular-finance movement knew themselves to be engaged, the Adairite narrative cleanses early American tendencies toward stability and liberalism of the economic regressiveness that attended them. Great historians have thus continued to be happy to believe in Adair’s Hamilton the extremist social conservative and even upper-class hysteric, a man important to mention but intellectually not useful to the American project. Biographers and politicians and their appointees perennially insist on Hamilton’s real importance; major academic historians have mainly stuck to giving him his bare due without getting interested in him. We, in the public, are thus stuck with the biographies. And they’re bad. And stuck with the political appointees — Henry Paulson, Tim Geithner, Peter Orszag — who hope to apply Hamiltonian finance to modern problems like financial crises. They’re bad too.
It’s true that Hamilton was an actor, not a thinker, in that his thinking — at least as adept, in my view, as anybody else’s of his day — served action, and action occurs in conflict. None of that serves the prime Adair directive of seeing in founding America an ultimate synthesis, a resolution of conflict, carried out via the famous elites’ ideas about virtue. The populists of the day, to the extent that they were economic radicals, will always look to Adairites extremist and misguided, just as their opponent Hamilton does; or, to the extent that the populists can be described as not politically radical, just eager for personal advancement, they can be seen as having been unfairly labeled radical by the reactionary Hamilton. Either way, their needs would soon be addressed — supposedly! — by the intellectually attractive Jefferson, and then met — supposedly! — in the age of Jackson. And the franchise was opened in the states throughout the nineteenth century, so why on earth discuss radical thought and action as important to the founding?
Here’s why I do: Hamilton and the radical populists saw one another clearly, and what they saw represents the great political struggle of the period, the struggle that made us, I think, and the struggle we’re still in. But to Adairites, that’s all off point. In the Adair reading, Madison is the founder to watch — not Hamilton, not Washington, not really even John Adams, certainly not Samuel Adams. It’s really all Madison.
The Adairite Madison is a reaction to the Madison that Beard had pushed on us in 1913 — the Madison who wasn’t much more than a somewhat pretentious aristo looking out at all costs for his own wallet; republican theory, supposedly by his own admission, just a tactic for pushing back against the masses. Adair’s 1950’s Madison, by contrast, stays bent over his books. A reader and writer more than anything else, Madison rarely even looks out the library window, so immersed is he in the world of ideas. Madison has thus become the ultimately appealing founder for many readers of founding history. How could he not be? Anyone who loves reading for the sake of knowledge, nuance, exploration — any reader of serious history — will naturally prefer to hang out with the bookish Adair philosopher Madison rather than the hypocritical Beard plutocrat Madison. The Virginian sought to defeat the most pernicious effects of faction, ingeniously, by permitting faction to thrive in a balanced system. Who among us wouldn’t want to sit in a hushed and cozy library with Madison, Adair, and the classical authors? It beats considering grubby matters like paper versus metal, economic interest, and class war. And how especially satisfying is it that those great classical thinkers’ thinking was made law, for the first time, thanks to Madison himself, in the founding of our own government? Madison looks like somebody we’d be pleased to exchange a few ideas with. He looks like a smarter version of somebody, we dare to believe, like us.
The flattering, sentimental attraction of that version of Madison is so great that we no longer remember the Madison who was a politician operating within alliances and under pressures, not always to perfectly consistent ends, and with highly ambiguous effects on our founding history. The Madison we like remains so pure of heart and thought that to conservatives he’s the first conservative, to liberals the first liberal. We don’t really need to care what he meant when he mentioned the disaster of paper money and devaluing of debt in “Federalist Ten,” an essay we cite approvingly on other matters less grubbily financial and therefore nearer to our hearts. We forget that regardless of the degree to which Madison was interested in the subject of his own interest, he had a point of view on society that he may have mistaken, as the rest of us do, for the objective one, in which his conclusions were shaped to fit his social and economic position.
And we forget that Adair came up with all that stuff about Madison in full-on attack mode against what was then the dominant position in American founding history. Adair was attacking Beard. McDonald, openly scabrous in his disdain, admitted by his tone that the war he was fighting was a political one, but Adair took a cannier tack, and so utter has been his victory over Beard that we no longer know that Adair was engaged in warfare at all, or that the war had political and not only intellectual dimensions, repositioning the founding of the United States for the Cold War ethos as a moderate, middle-class phenomenon in which class struggle could have had no important place.
The tone of judicious omniscience employed by Adair, Morgan, Hofstadter, Wood, et al, dims our awareness — by sheer force of the attitude more than by argument — not only of the importance of financial, economic, and class struggles in the American founding but also of the grim academic combat to which those very historians dedicated their careers and in which they made their names. We’re no longer expected to register the degree to which — in the past they claim to be exposing to us “as it was” (Wood has actually said that about his own work) — it is the historians, and not the historical figures they study, who have the most decisive interests.
Indefinite Detentions in the NDAA Don’t Exactly Betray George Washington’s Values
I haven’t been blogging, because I’m buried in finishing a book on founding-era taxes, public debt, tea parties, occupations, and other economic and financial struggles of that period, but an article entitled Betrayal of the Founders (sent to me this morning by Jerry Fresia because, I suspect, he knows what I’m going to say about it!) is so germane to the problems in founding history I’m exploring that I want to make hasty comment. The piece is on the “Counterpunch” site, the free online component to the dissenting political newsletter of the same name edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, and it’s by Ray McGovern, formerly a U.S. Army officer and CIA analyst, now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.
McGovern criticizes President Obama’s signing the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which he describes, I think rightly, as
affirming that the president has the authority to use to detain any person “who was part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” Under the law, the president also may lock up anyone who commits a “belligerent act” against the U.S. or its coalition allies “without trial, until the end of the hostilities.” The law embraces the notion that the U.S. military can be used even domestically to arrest an American citizen or anyone else who falls under such suspicion — and it is “suspicion” because a trial can be avoided indefinitely.
McGovern also trenchantly criticizes Obama’s reassuring us that we can take the act as more or less okay because Obama is committed to never using it to do anything wrong. The absurdity of that claim is so manifest, at least to me, and I think so damaging to the whole idea of the rule of law, that with McGovern, I wonder why there hasn’t been more coverage criticizing it. The Constitution isn’t clear on everything (originalists to the contrary), but it’s clear as a bell on habeas corpus. Liberals who excoriated Bush’s use of torture, detentions, signing statements, etc., have been strangely silent on Obama’s behavior here.
But McGovern fatally contradicts his own realism about Obama’s policies in this area with a completely unrealistic paean to none other than George Washington, presented by McGovern in typically glowing terms as our great and nearly godlike fighter for the individual liberties set out in the Bill of Rights.
I bring this up because this is what we always do: reach for “the founders” to support an objection to current policies. And because in the case of Washington, that reach is a grope, at best, in the dark, and because McGovern uses his invocation of Washington as a call to what sounds like revolutionary action against Obama, I think it’s worth remembering Washington’s impatience with dissent and scorn for the civil rights of citizens he branded, without due process, enemies.
If we’re going to have a revolution on these issues — and I’m pretty sure we’re not — we won’t find any real inspiration for it in our founding president. He would have cracked our heads. And if we’re not going to have a revolution, but hope instead to take effective action against executive overreaching, we’d do better to stop living in fuzzy dream about the past.
Here’s some of McGovern on Washington: