Friday, March 20, 2009

Getting Unruly (Again?)

Woody Holton's latest book is a timely reminder that a restless populace is not necessarily a bad thing

The spirit of Charles Beard (below right) is alive, well, and as relevant as ever in the work of Woody Holton. Not that Beard’s iconoclastic vision ever disappeared. Or that Holton agrees with it entirely. But in his new book Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, recently published in paperback (Hill & Wang), Holton reaffirms a much-contested tradition in the historiography of the Founding Fathers, one that takes on particular resonances in this age of bank bailouts.

In its forthright assertion that class conflict was the key engine of the Revolutionary era, Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution has generated controversy ever since its publication in 1913. A scholar in the Progressive tradition, Beard not only insisted that economic considerations were central to the development and ratification of the Constitution, but also that it was framed and promoted by people who, on close analysis, were creditors seeking to advance their financial interests amid the Critical Period of the 1780s, when state governments were relatively lenient with debtors. Beard's analysis was both controversial and influential in its own day, and animated the The Rise of American Civilization (1927), the bestselling book he wrote with his wife, Mary Beard

Later generations of scholars have argued against Beard’s view, not only in asserting that legal, constitutional, and cultural issues were at least as important as economic ones in the making of the Constitution, but also in asserting that Beard’s findings were inaccurate. This line of thinking was advanced by Richard Hofstadter in the 1950s (an at least partially admiring critic of Beard), and more recently by Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, who have emphasized the role of ideology in their highly influential works of the last forty years, among them Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) and Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), a title is that is perhaps misleading, since Wood’s larger point is to emphasized the relatively stable (if not entirely predictable or even gratifying) outcome of the Revolution for the Founding generation. Other scholars like Gary Nash and Ray Raphael, for their part, have carried the Progressive torch into the 21st century and even popularized it works like Raphael’s A People’s History of the American Revolution (2001) and Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution (2005), which foreground social conflict and mass protest.

Holton, for his part, arrived on the historiographic scene in 1999 with Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. That book emphasized the degree to which Founding Fathers like George Washington were forced to respond to tremendous pressure from below, including challenges to their own authority, in navigating their way though the Revolution.

Holton extends this line of analysis into Unruly Americans, depicting the volatile political and economic situation of the United States – but also questioning whether the situation was as ever as dire as is commonly believed. Like Beard, Holton believes that the push for a new Constitution was driven largely by those with a strong financial interest in levying taxes to pay interest and repaying bond holders with hard (as opposed to rapidly depreciating paper) currency. But Holton also explores subtleties that address some of the evidence that Beard’s critics cite to challenge what they consider a simplistic, even crude, proto-Marxist analysis. Holton acknowledges, for example, that James Madison, who engineered so much of the creation and ratification of the Constitution, was hardly a deep-pocketed investor seeking repayment from multiple creditors. But he wanted to be. Until foreign investors felt like the United States was truly a safe home for capital, Madison would be unable to borrow money to speculate on the scale of someone with his contacts and interests. And he was only one of a a number of Founders in a similar position. (Later of course, Madison ended up with a bad case of buyer’s remorse, transforming himself from Hamilton’s ally into a formidable adversary.)

One of the most striking aspects of Unruly Americans is the way it shows familiar people in a new light. Take Abigail Adams. We tend to think of her has the loyal wife of John Adams, or the prototypical feminist who admonished her husband “Remember the Ladies” when he was working on the Declaration of Independence. But Adams was also an aggressive, even greedy, speculator, when she managed family finances during her husband’s absences representing the United States in Europe. Resisting John’s instructions to invest in real estate, Abigail snapped up bonds at a discount – very often sold by war veterans who believed they would never be repaid – and then complained when she didn’t get interest on them at face value. (Holton is apparently working on a biography of Mrs. Adams, which should be interesting.)

Unruly Americans also illuminates other dimensions of the push for a Constitution. A good example is the connection between economic and military considerations for its proponents. Nominally, the United States controlled western territory extending to the Mississippi River, land that it could sell for revenue. But the value of this land remained in question while the government was not securely in control. A stronger federal government would have the financial resources to raise an army that could – and at the Battle of Fallen Timers in 1794, less than a decade after ratification, did – pacify this territory to the degree it could be sold, generating revenue for the government and relieving pressure on taxpayers back east. Thus it was that a strong military would pay for itself and more, the way empires, whether empires for liberty or not, always have. Holton is not the only historian to have made these connections, of course, but he connects the dots with notable clarity.

But the point Holton is most interested in making – the people he’s most interested in drawing our attention to – might be termed the silent majority of the eighteenth century. Many histories of the Constitution emphasize the complex series of compromises that went into the document, compromises which presumably demonstrate that its framers were not of one mind with regard to their financial interests. Yet Holton asserts these compromises did not so much reflect disagreements among the Founders on principle so much as it did their perceived need to moderate, even hide, their powerfully anti-democratic consensus for the sake of selling the document to a skeptical public. They knew if they overreached they would fail, and so they adopted subtly elitist strategies (like very large Congressional districts, which would dilute popular power) while emphasizing their commitment to The People. Their biggest concession was the Bill of Rights – a literal afterthought. The irony here, Holton emphasizes, is that this is actually the most cherished part of the Constitution, the one most Americans today will most instinctively invoke.

Holton is careful throughout to note that the people we have come to know as Federalists were not necessarily wrong in their assessment of an ailing American economy. Nor were the Anti-Federalists, however ineffectual their strategies, necessarily right. Instead, he asserts, both their positions made sense both from the perspective of self-interest as well philosophical consistency. His objection is a view that the Federalists not only won the argument in 1787 but have pretty much controlled history ever since, and he wants to challenge that. “Historians err in echoing the Framers’ belief that they had transferred power from the greedy to the selfless,” he concludes.

Holton, of course, was working on this book years before it was first published in 2007, just as our current economic crisis was emerging. In some fundamental respects, this crisis is different from the one he describes, most fundamentally because that one revolved around wealthy creditors while this one revolves around wealthy debtors (a term that is perhaps both paradoxical and an illustration of just how far we have come – fallen? – since 1787). The key similarity, though, is that we again live in a time when we are being told by our leaders that the collective security of all depends upon supporting, at great public expense, the wealthy and powerful. It wasn’t necessarily so then, Holton tells us. And it may not necessarily be so now, either. Yet now no less than then, the fix seems to be in. The spirit of Charles Beard may still be alive. But the realities of capitalism, whether of a mercantile, industrial, or finance economy, are as forceful as ever. It is, nevertheless bracing to be reminded that there was, and is, an alternative.