Hamilton and the Tenner

It does seem to me historically tone deaf for the Treasury Dept. to consider taking Alexander Hamilton, of all people, off U.S. currency, of all things, or even reducing his presence there. I can’t say I care who is on the money — easier to have nothing there but graphic design, I think — but if any face should be engraved on money, it’s Hamilton’s. Money is what he was all about.

That obvious fact has recently inspired a burst of Hamilton adulation, summed up in Steven Rattner’s New York Times Op Ed today. Rattner takes the controversy as an occasion for making a boatload of wrongheaded comparisons among the U.S. founders, arriving at the foregone conclusion that Hamilton was morally and politically superior to others. That requires glib assertions that misrepresent Hamilton and end up making no historical sense at all. 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.

If Only: the Founders and Income Inequality

Bill Chapman called my attention to an interesting Newsweek piece by David Cay Johnston entitled Why Thomas Jefferson Favored Profit Sharing, reporting on new research by Joseph R. Blasi and Douglas L. Kruse of Rutgers and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard, as well as on Johnston’s own research, to describe

… the future envisioned by the framers more than two centuries ago – an America in which every worker is a capitalist.

Possibly unsurprisingly, I question that conclusion about the framers’ vision. Some back-and-forth on Twitter leads me to clarify here my dissent from Johnston’s article.

This is the situation — classic, at this point, for me — in which I might agree with an author about the kinds of things we ought to be doing now do encourage far greater economic equality but disagree that there’s any realistic hope of finding support for those things in the thinking of our founders. That’s in part because I recoil, and possibly too hard by now, from what has come to seem to me a compulsive troping by some progressives toward the kinds of American-essentialist, founder-invoking gestures that the right wing routinely uses, possibly to the greater good of their propaganda, and always to the detriment of realism about our history as a people.

The same damage is done by liberals, and in the liberal case I think it’s worse. For while it might be nice to believe, I guess, that if we could only get back to the vision bequeathed us by our founders, progressive values would prevail and the greater good be achieved, that’s way too simple, and too simple in a way that I think undermines both our understanding of where we come from and any hope we may have for where we might be able to go. As usual, the only hope I see lies in complication.

The Johnston piece opens by quoting Washington, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton on such things as the importance of “equal distribution of property” (Washington); fear of “the rich and the proud” destroying “all the equality and liberty” (Adams); a hope that government would defeat “an immoderate, and especially unmerited, accumulation of riches” (Madison); and expectations of abuse “whenever a discretionary power is lodged in any set of men over the property of their neighbors” (Hamilton). These are familiar remarks. In the quote battles waged so hard online, they can always be countered with opposing thoughts from the same men, which can in turn always be countered by quotes more like these, and so on.

Johnston, however, uses this collection of quotations to assert that the equality thing is the one thing the warring founders agreed on. Context is everything, and I’d suggest that these quotations instead indicate that the founders all participated in what was then a familiar, even reflexive Whiggish rhetoric, appealing to an ideal of rough equality of wealth as a key to stability. Such ideas are loose enough in any event, and in the case of some of the founders’ visions for America, fantastical enough, to have permitted these men lifestyles of supreme fabulousness while inspiring them to oppose at every turn the efforts of organized labor (yes, it existed then) to gain access to political power and use it to equalize wealth via representative government. Continue reading

The First Amendment and Liberal Prejudice against Religion

[UPDATE: This turned out to be the first in a trio of posts about misapprehensions and misappropriations of the Constitution, across the political spectrum. The second one, on the Second Amendment, is here. ]

Say “first amendment” to most people, and they’ll say “freedom of speech.” They’re right, of course, as far as it goes. But.

The failed Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell drew some laughs a while back when she asked, she hoped rhetorically, where in the U.S. Constitution church and state are separated. Her opponent knew the answer and paraphrased the relevant part of the First Amendment aloud. Her laughing audience were law school students and faculty, so they knew the answer too.

But many otherwise well-informed people, who are sure that there is a constitutional separation of church and state, don’t know where in the Constitution to find it; or know that the First Amendment opens by disestablishing religion, and only then goes on to protect speech; or that the amendment is based on what was known during the founding period as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (Jefferson, its author, listed it among his proudest accomplishments).

That ignorance raises some weird questions. One has to do with the inveterate scorn of educated liberals for the likes of O’Donnell. It’s far from clear that many who deem themselves intellectually superior to her could have responded to her challenge (it’s good that her opponent could). The challenge might seem a dopey one, but it would have left plenty of liberals sputtering. And since she is not well-educated, and those liberals generally are (in ways other than law and history), that’s bizarre and disturbing.

“These Tea Party people don’t know any history,” fume some I know, and while in some cases (like O’Donnell’s) that’s true, in others it’s not. A lot of them know American history because they just happen to like it. You could argue with their interpretations — but only if you knew something about it yourself!

I find that it’s liberals, and I mean the kind of liberals who can read Chaucer in Middle English, who really don’t know any American history. Continue reading

What Would the Founders Think? (And Would It Really Matter?)

Advice about invading Iraq?

Another blog I’ve been engaging with is What Would the Founders Think?, which focuses on connecting current debate about the proper role of government in America to the political philosophy of the founders. One of its bloggers, Martin, and I have had some polite yet feisty exchanges on this blog: here and here. I find our differences revealing (and the politeness encouraging), since what I’ve been hoping to do is foster debate, across political lines, about these very issues. 

So instead of more back-and-forth with Martin, buried in the comments, I thought I’d express a few reflections on WWTFT — and about the whole idea of what the founders thought, as it also relates to thinking about the founders’ religion, in the blog American Creation (I discuss that here and elsewhere). 

Putting it bluntly, WWTFT is coming from the current political right — but taking seriously the Tea Party’s appeal to the founding period. Continue reading