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:
Continue reading

Liberal Hamiltonians (One Sect of) in “Vanity Fair” Get Whiskey Rebellion, Tea Party, Hamilton Himself Way Wrong

Or: How Liberalist Consensus Fails Both History and Politics

This is just classic:

With their steadfast resistance to taxes, their hostility toward central government, and their willingness to risk a national default, today’s Republican candidates tap into a different American tradition–one that begins not with tea but with whiskey: the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

To understand that rebellion and why President George Washington was willing to send troops to put it down, go back to the early days of the Revolution and look at what really motivated the founders.

So runs the apparent thesis statement — the straw man, really, since “that rebellion,” supposedly so important to understand, almost never comes up again in the piece — of an essay by Simon Johnson and James Kwak, intended to criticize Tea Party history and economics, in the current issue of Vanity Fair. In the top-five “most popular” online VF pieces, the essay is a perfect example of its (to me) dispiriting type: seemingly learned, reasonable-sounding, liberal; presented for a general readership by noted thinkers; glib, complacent, superficial, and therefore fatally flawed to the point of being just flat-out wrong in its effort to examine both the American populism of the 18th century and today’s populism, as represented by the Tea Party and other current right-wing sensibilities. (Or, for that matter, left-wing sensibilities.)

As such, the piece distills (ha! ha!) all the many ways in which highly informed, well-regarded, no-doubt well-meaning authors can so easily, almost reflexively, abuse history, especially when it comes to finance and economics.

Especially distressing about the piece is how many details the authors can get right, obvious and unexciting details to any student of the period, while somehow managing to ignore the all-important historical context that would give the piece any useful meaning for general readers. So they get all the big stuff, and indeed a certain number of critical facts, wrong, and wrong in a damaging way. Even as they tell their story, purportedly imparting historical wisdom to help us understand current debates, Johnson and Kwak prevent us from engaging with the realities of that history, or with today’s political conflicts over public debt and taxes, their ostensible subjects.

The main idea of the piece, right enough as far as it goes and as far as I’m concerned (and hardly meant to provoke Vanity Fair‘s readership to any new thought): the Tea Party is wrong about the founding-era history on which its claims are based. The Tea Party and the “constitutional conservatives” think the founding was about disempowering government, keeping taxes miniscule, and having no national debt. It wasn’t.

Because yes, yes, it’s true, as the authors say: Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, believed that a nation could thrive as such only if it enjoyed access to credit supported by reliable taxation. And yes: the Constitution enabled the Congress to tax, and the first Congress, advised by Hamilton, assumed all the state war debts in the federal one, levying taxes proposed by Hamilton to pay for the program. So yes: when Tea Party people say “the founders” excoriated debt and hated taxes, they’re not talking about Hamilton, or the Washington administration, or the first Congress, or even the Constitution as drafted, amended, and ratified.

Those observations are banal, but the piece is far worse than banal. The truisms lose all meaning when the authors try to develop their ideas both in terms of the founding period and in terms of today’s politics. Continue reading

“Occupy Wall Street” and the History of Democratic Finance Protest

This is a rallying cry?

Given some of my key subjects, I can’t help but be interested in the “occupy” movement that, at the moment, has a few hundred protesters [UPDATE: Now a lot more; I was there on Tuesday] more or less living in Zuccotti Park near the New York Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan, and is apparently starting to engage in similar protests in other cities. You can’t find out much about this action via “mainstream media,” and even much of the left media, such as it is, has been critical in some cases, and outright dismissive in others, regarding the movement’s evident formlessness and absence of specific goals.

That absence is pretty much undeniable. Still, in Salon, Glenn Greenwald has shrewdly criticized liberal-Democrat scorn for Occupy Wall Street. On the other hand, Mother Jones criticizes the movement on bases other than those that Greenwald attacks. . . .

But I write about the deep, founding roots of rowdy, American populist protest and insurrection, often visionary and even utopian, yet informed and practical too, specifically over money, credit, and the purpose and nature of public and private finance. And despite my pop-narrative books on the subject, and despite my articles here, and in such place as (articles picked up by AlterNet, Huffington, Salon, Naked Capitalism, and others), key indicators of my relative impact (like royalty statements!) give me a sneaking suspicion that most people still don’t connect the American founding period with a rugged drive on the part of ordinary people for equal access to the tools of economic development and against the hegemony of the high-finance, inside-government elites who signed the Declaration and framed the Constitution and made us a nation.

Sometimes people even ascribe democratic ideas to the famous upscale American Revolutionaries, who to a man actually hated democracy and popular finance. Paine, the exception, was ultimately rebuked and scorned by all of the others. [UPDATE: Anyway, Paine wasn’t one of them; I threw him in defensively because consensus-history types like to “include him in” on the basis of “Common Sense,” while including his social/economic radicalism out.]

The difficulty in dealing with our founding battle for democratic economics arises in part because the movement was not against England but against the very American banking and trading elites who dominated the resistance to England. That complicates our founding myth, possibly unpleasantly. Also, it was a generally losing battle. With ratification of the Constitution, Hamiltonian finance triumphed, and people looking to Jefferson and Madison for finance and economic alternatives to Hamilton are barking up the wrong tree, since what those men knew, or even really cared, about finance could be written on a dime. (Anyway, in pushing for creating a  nation, Madison supported Hamiltonian finance down the line. Their differences came later.) When Occupy Wall Street protesters say “It’s We the People!”  they’re actually referring to a preamble, intending no hint of economic democracy, to a document that was framed specifically to push down democratic finance and concentrate American wealth for national purposes. Not very edifying, but there it is.

The Tea Party, meanwhile, has taken up founding economic issues from a right-wing point of view, associating itself with the upper-middle-class Boston patriots (often mistaken for populist democrats) who led a movement against overrreaching British trade acts in the 1760’s and were important to the impulse toward American independence. I’ve written fairly extensively about where and how I think the Tea Party goes wrong on the history of the founding period. But at least they’re framing their objections to current policy, and framing the historical roots of their ideas, not mainly in cultural but in economic terms.

Like it or not, though, it is Occupy Wall Street that has the most in common, ideologically, not with those Boston merchants and their supporters but with the less well-known, less comfortably acknowledged people who, throughout the founding period, cogently proposed and vigorously agitated for an entirely different approach to finance and monetary policy than that carried forward by the famous founders. Continue reading

Tea Party Chit Chat

At “Line of Fire,” the blog for Broadside Books, the HarperCollins line of conservative titles edited by Adam Bellow, Michael Patrtick Leahy (editor of the “Voices of the Tea Party” series, co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition) and I are engaging in a civil yet incisive discussion of my contention that the Tea Party has distorted founding history to fit current political aims. Below are some samples.

Me (first posted in my “Founding Finance” series at New Deal 2.0):

The Tea Party movement, for example, has laid its claim on the founding period, and to a great extent that claim is indeed an economic and financial one. Casting the modern welfare state as a form of tyranny, in large part because of what they see as its excessive taxation, Tea Partiers invoke the famous American resistance to Parliament’s efforts to raise a revenue in the colonies without the consent traditionally given by representation. . . . The Tea Party thus edits out an alternative view of government that prevailed among the ordinary 18th-century Americans who were all-important to achieving independence. . . . The internal struggle for American equality was as important to the founding as the high-Whig resistance to England, but the Tea Party can’t deal with the populist leaders and militia rank-and-file who wrote the socially radical 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution, or the Shaysites of Massachusetts who marched on the state armory, or the so-called whiskey rebels who inspired federal occupation of western Pennsylvania.


Mr. Hogeland condescendingly assumes that tea party activists are unfamiliar with these three historical incidents. To the contrary, we are more familiar with their relevance to our modern circumstances than is Mr. Hogeland himself.

As an historian, Mr. Hogeland should familiarize himself with the three core values of the Tea Party movement, which we’ve loudly proclaimed in every venue possible for the past two years: (1) Constitutionally limited government (2) Free markets and (3) Fiscal Responsibility.

As he well knows, both the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution and the Shays Rebellion of Massachusetts took place before the ratification of the Constitution. As for the “Whiskey Rebels” of western Pennsylvania, their complaint against the early Federal government was that it passed a law that unfairly taxed small whiskey producers at much higher rates than large whiskey producers in urban areas. It was a violation of their individual liberties and the principles of free markets for the government to pick the “winners” (large urban manufacturers) and “losers” (small rural manufacturers).


The Tea Party’s core values, as you lay them out, are overwhelmingly familiar, not only to me but at this point probably to almost everybody else, and as they stand, they’re banal and tendentious, meant to imply that anyone opposing or opposed by the Tea Party must, by definition, favor 1) unconstitutionally unlimited government, 2) strangled markets, and 3) fiscal irresponsibility. Since nobody would openly espouse such a position, it’s useless to argue about it. Any real argument would have to be about what those deliberately unarguable phrases might mean, what they include and exclude, how they should or should not be applied, etc. . . .


To the contrary, our claim that the Constitution, as ratified and amended, is a secular covenant by which we are all bound is the strongest, most democratically rooted claim on history that emerges from the American founding period. . . . Mr. Hogeland appears to regard the Constitution as something other than a binding secular covenant, and in this I would submit he makes an error of historic misinterpretation. . . . Mr. Hogeland seems to be implying that the process by which the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified somehow excluded the ordinary citizens who participated in these events. To the contrary, they were heavily involved. Indeed, many of the authors of the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution participated as elected delegates to the state convention that ratified the Federal Constitution by a 2 to 1 margin in 1789. Influenced by this debate, no doubt, the state of Pennsylvania threw out the 1776 version of its constitution the very next year, so unsuccessful in actual operation had been this document upon which Mr. Hogeland relies for one-third of his argument. Similarly, the participants in Shays’ Rebellion of western Massachusetts voted for delegates to that state’s 1788 ratification convention as well as members of the Massachusetts State Legislature who later deliberated the merits of the Bill of Rights.

(Stay tuned . . . ) [UPDATE: I’ve written a (long) response, which should start getting rolled out, with Leahy’s responses, at “Line of Fire” next week.]

So we’re actually having a debate. No good can come of this!

Add to: Facebook | Digg | | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine

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

George Washington, Secular Saint?

I’m exploring American Creation, the interesting group blog I mentioned in a recent post on the evangelicalism of the 18th C. socially radical working-class, who play dramatic roles in Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion.

These American Creation (AC) bloggers have unusual backgrounds (like me) and write skeptically and knowledgeably about prickly matters that bear on today’s conflicts between secularist liberals and the religious right. I’d call the group high conservative, in a kind of refreshingly old-fashioned sense. They bring thinking from the University of Chicago to their posts, making reference to Leo Strauss, Alan Bloom (oh, man!), Aristotle, Sidney; they’re deeply interested in “natural law,” the origin of rights, reason versus revelation, and the proper relationships of religion and government. And they think these are key American topics.

That ain’t me. Another way to put it: they actually care about the religious thinking of the famous founders, and they’re eager to parse it to death. I’m not sure there’s really all that much there (I suspect AC thinks about the issue more than the founders themselves did). When it comes to American 18th C. religion, I’m excited by the millennialism and evangelicalism and in some cases mysticism of the less rich and prominent, with roots in Quaker, Digger, Leveller, Muggletonian and other dissenting English enthusiasms, which I think had a more profound, if sometimes subterranean, effect on the action, though perhaps not so much on the published thought, of the era. The AC focus is relentlessly on the nuances of elite intellectual history. Me, I like the distressing realpolitik of elite action — and the intellectual and spiritual history (and the distressing realpolitik) of the non-elites.

AC gets into how Enlightenment rationalism combined with Christianity in 18th C. Whig America to liberalize both religion and government. In that sense, and in part because they’re conservative, they’re liberal. And I think they’re right to associate the liberalizing of religion with the development of haute-Whig republicanism, which defined the class of American founders who, as one of the AC writers wittily defines them, made it onto our currency (and, I note, tried to hold back democracy and radical social change). Illiberal American religion, the kind I’m interested in, led to other ideas about government, socially radical and at times utopian ones, which the upper class, across the rationalist-Christian-Deist spectrum, found revolting, silly, and infuriating, and yet at times, for political reasons, depended on, without acknowledgment.

One key AC idea is that today’s American liberal democracy may differ fundamentally from the European version, just as the American revolution differed from the French in not being populist and, in a certain sense, not millennial, not an effort to start human society over, to redeem it. The realpolitik I’m interested in, and the action adventures in my books, complicate, shall we say, that idea.

Anyway, in the process of considering these differences, I’ve come to appreciate AC’s liberal/conservative ways of defending the separation of church and state and the first amendment as a whole, and their debunking of a lot of poorly considered ideas coming from today’s religious right.

Hamilton and Washington

As Commander of the Army, General Washington was key. The finance guys wanted him leading the coup [UPDATE: for accuracy:] threat of coup. He declined, of course, and ended up elegantly dispersing the officer rebellion at the army cantonment in Newburgh, N.Y., more or less as described in the AC post.

But then he wrote to Congress, telling them to do everything the officers wanted, which Congress hurriedly did, making the entire officer class one with the financier class, creditors of the United States. (Hence the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary officer-class watchdog group, one of whose agendas was to insure that the potential investment bonanza was federally supported.) That set the table for everything the Morrises and Hamilton wanted for America. Later, in the early 1790’s, Hamilton began putting it all into effect as Washington’s treasury secretary.

Washington admonished Hamilton, in their odd and compelling post-Newburgh-crisis correspondence, that while the General firmly supported the nationalists’ aims, trying to manipulate the army to achieve them had been a dangerously bonehead move. In a letter nobody quotes, although it is very easy to find, he even followed up with Hamilton, just in case he might be misinterpreted, to say that the only problem with using the army that way is that, in such cases, things might just as well go the other way, backfire, and the anti-nationalists might have won. Without sullying himself with the sedition in which the nationalists had indulged, Washington made sure that the nationalists got all the things they wanted. And without allowing a coup to occur, he used the coup to get what he wanted. It was a very, very impressive set of moves, with a major impact on the American future. There’s a way in which the Newburgh conspiracy, despite unintended consequences, should be rated a success, in part because of Washington.

And Washington’s strange relationship with Hamilton, which came to fruition in the 1790’s, with the executive-branch suppression of western Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion — as hymned by John Yoo — had now been established.

AC just doesn’t look into any of this. One of the comments on the Newburgh post mentions the scholar Richard Kohn to the effect that there wasn’t much of a conspiracy at all. That is not what Kohn’s work says — quite the reverse! Somehow the cult of the Republican Saint Washington, indispensible man, is good enough for these normally skeptical thinkers. (He was the indispensible man. The realities of that indispensability are rather fraught.) How can these guys, who so fluently consider the likes of Sidney and Aristotle in other posts, resort to the History Channel and Google when kvelling about Washington? The effect on reason of the modern secular religion of founder-worship is an intriguing one to consider in the context of AC’s examination of religion at the founding.

Add to: Facebook | Digg | | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine

Is Hogeland a Marxist? (and other burning questions of the day)

I heard the other day that someone I don’t know, who has either read or heard about my books and articles, informed someone I know that I’m a Marxist. What pleased me, of course, is that someone I don’t know has actually been induced to form an impression of my thought. What worried me is that I’m eager to talk about my books to big audiences, and to talk to those audiences, in part, about the complicated presence of socialism at the founding, so I wouldn’t want any word to get around that might turn off those audiences from the get-go. When I, for example, believe that somebody is an -ist before he or she starts talking, I do assume that much of what’s to be said is overdetermined and therefore, even if true, boring. That by no means always turns out to be the case, but it’s a natural prejudice.

I tell stories. Stories that lead to weird destinations, I hope, but nevertheless stories. Some academic historians can find that cheap, for good reason, but I don’t, not the kind of stories I like to tell, for reasons I think this post will begin to get at.  Continue reading

John Yoo and the Whiskey Rebellion

I was interested to see John Yoo citing my book The Whiskey Rebellion in his recent Crisis and CommandAuthor of the notorious Bush-administration “torture memo,” and now a law professor at Berkeley, Yoo is using his book to defend Bush’s ruthless efforts to expand executive-branch power. Seeking precedent in earlier expansions, under conditions of national threat that Yoo takes to be similar to those posed by Islamic terrorism, he looks specifically to Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and, of course, Washington.

Which brings him to The Whiskey Rebellion. Continue reading