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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Conservatives need more accurate historical icons

One of the happier byproducts of the Texas School Board's campaign against "liberalism" in textbooks was the alienation of Texas conservatives from Jefferson. I call this a happy development, because, as a conservative myself, I am perpetually annoyed by conservatives' willingness to embrace anyone with a periwig and 18th century diction as one of their intellectual ancestors. Modern Tea-Party types need to realize that their mixture of beliefs -- libertarianism, suspicion of both financial and intellectual elites amounting to anti-intellectualism, dislike of financial corporations, fear of centralization, belief in a republic of small property-holders, obsession with the right to bear arms, paranoia about taxation -- comes from a deeply rooted but contrarian Country Party tradition that is actually at odds with most of the iconic figures from the American founding that they embrace.

Take, for instance, Glenn Beck's effort to appropriate Thomas Paine as the inspiration for Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government. I assume that Beck's beliefs are roughly libertarian, pro-"Christian" in some sense, and generally anti-redistributivist. Paine, by contrast, was (1) a tax-and-spend liberal who (for instance) wrote six pamphlets defending the proposed national 5% impost against its small-government attackers in Rhodes Island; (2) an egalitarian who called for redistribution of land in his pamphlet, Agrarian Justice; (3) a Deist who ridiculed the Bible as a pack of socially destructive lies in The Age of Reason; (4) a self-proclaimed centralizer who teamed up with Pennsylvania Federalists like Robert and Gouvernour Morris to press for a powerful and consolidated national government; and (5) a citizen of the world who participated in the French Revolution and called on America to receive the fugitive from abroad (to the irritation of John Adams who denounced "the disciples of Thomas Paine" to John Marshall as European intellectual riff-raff -- "a company of schoolmasters, painters, and poets" -- more undesirable as immigrants than Caliban and Ariel "with a troop of spirits the most mischievous from fairy land").

So why does Beck want to associate with Paine when other conservatives are dumping Deist founders like Thomas Jefferson as alien to their conservative beliefs? I assume that Beck simply has no idea what Paine really wrote or believed: He just needed a historical reference that readers of bestsellers could dimly recognize as vaguely 18th century. But, rather than pick the one guy from the 18th century that stands opposed to all of his beliefs, I'd urge Beck to popularize neglected American writers who really embraced Tea-Party sentiments: He ought to embrace those backwoodsy Anti-Federalist oddballs described so well by Saul Cornell -- guys like William Findley and (albeit much more moderately) Melanchton Smith. These were the founders who hated international law, disliked banking corporations, were paranoid about national government's power, and despised the nationalist intellectual elites of Boston, New York, and Princeton. They were obsessed with the right to bear arms and deeply suspicious of taxation of any sort. Unlike Paine, they campaigned against aid to the Bank of North America and the 5% impost.

So come on, Tea Partiers: Reclaim your Anti-Federalist roots. Dump Paine, Hamilton, Madison, and the rest of those tax-and-spend, cosmopolitan, deist, elitist nationalizers along with Tom ("Wall o' Separation") Jefferson. The Anti-Federalists, your true ancestors, await your re-discovery of them.

Posted by Rick Hills on April 18, 2010 at 03:14 PM in Culture | Permalink


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I like this backwoodsy William Findley, who might have been speaking of the Tea Parties when he said "It may be plead, that popular meetings are often conducted with indiscretion, and have a tendency to promote licentiousness.... But it does not therefore follow, that such meetings should be prohibited by law or denounced by government..."
Findley believed that "men of discretion" should attend such meetings and be "industrious in instructing their neighbors."

Findley represented Western Pennsylvania in the US Congress during the Whiskey Rebellion. He blamed the insurrection, which he attempted to moderate, on poor information of the public, as well as bad faith by the government.

Findley served in the US House of Representatives between 1791 and 1817, and was key in founding the House Ways and Means Committee.

From Saul Cornell:
"For democrats such as Findley, the public sphere was more egalitarian. The men most capable in that venue were, in his view, not natural aristocrats, but men of middling fortunes. Moreover, the goal of refining the public will existed in delicate balance with the need to represent that will."...
"Findley's democratic and egalitarian beliefs led him to bridle at Federalist denunciations of popular meetings and self-created democratic societies. The goal of these attacks was to undermine the constitutional right of the people to associate and demonstrate."
"Findley sought to position himself as a spokesman for an enlightened and moderate middle position, one typical of the vast majority of citizens who constituted the substantial yeomanry."

Posted by: Rachel Findley | Aug 19, 2010 1:44:33 PM

Madison remains the winner. Limited federal government and pro-religious freedom without the anti-religious baggage of Jefferson, and without the tilt towards nullification.

And Rick, as well you know, all of Madison's writings on the adopted text of the Constitution are consistent with his embrace of strict construction--and originalism. Perhaps he went into the convention supporting a more nationalist text--but he never wavered in his understanding of the text that was ultimately adopted. This includes his attitude towards the Bank, which he never accepted as justified by a proper interpretation of the constitution. He eventually deferred to decades of precedent, but he continued in his personal opposition to the interpretive theory which supported its enactment--and he specifically rejected Marshall's reasoning in McCulloch.

Posted by: Kurt Lash | Apr 20, 2010 1:35:11 AM

Tea partiers certainly have in common with Jefferson the gap between their rhetoric about liberty and the reality of how they live their lives. Cognitive dissonance is probably the most polite term for it.

Posted by: Mark Edwards | Apr 19, 2010 1:37:41 PM

But the problem with Beck and his followers invoking the Anti-Federalists is that the latter did not believe in a strong national government (indeed, in Russell Hardin's words, 'they did not want effective national government'), thus given the radical Right's obsession with National Security and infatuation with the military-industrial complex, it's hard to imagine they would acquiesce in any scheme that weakens the world's strongest military power: in the world of nation-states, city-state republics (i.e., Montesquieu's small-scale republicanism) are unrealistic and bound to be swallowed up or dominated by larger states.

And how realistic are the values of "communitarian rural citizens" in the age of globalization? And given the Right's love affair with capitalism, they share with the Federalists of yesteryear a predominantly commercial and financial orientation (which in today's world accords inordinate and democratically destructive economic and political power to Wall Street finanacial interests and large corporations), thus the marketplace is literally and metaphorically an ever-expanding sacred space crowding out any non-capitalist interests and values.

Today's Federalists and Beck aficianados share with the original Federalists an overweening focus on commercial purposes (in the earlier period, so as to trump the states). Tea-party activists cannot swallow such sentiment as that voiced by the anti-Federalist Richard Henry Lee, namely, that "the Spirit of Commerce is a Spirit of Avarice." Tea-party types, along with Beck, subscribe to the economic formula canalized in the subtitle of Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees: Private Vices, Publick Benefits.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Apr 19, 2010 9:40:43 AM

Check your facts, Professor Hills.

The Texas Board of Education didn't express any kind of falling out with Jefferson. He and his thinking still flow throughout the curriculum for American History.

The change occurred very differently from what has become common knowledge.

A question asking students to "explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present" was changed to "Explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone."

You can certainly argue that this was an attempt to inject religion into a previously secular topic, but I think extrapolating a broader falling out between Texas conservatives and Jefferson is going a bit far.

And Tea Partiers would actually do well to point to a lot of Jeffersonian ideals. Personally, I'm not a fan of the former or the latter--but the latter would certainly approve of the former's very locally organized structure. And since most of their rhetoric is agnostic when it comes to social issues, his Deism is no reason to condemn his entire philosophy.

Posted by: LegalCookie | Apr 19, 2010 4:44:34 AM

Calm down, Mark V, and answer me this: Exactly what paragraph, sentence, or even phrase aside from the title in "Common Sense" (by Paine) reflects any idea contained in "Common Sense" (by Beck)? Unless Beck is denouncing the idea of hereditary monarchy (not exactly a cause of current interest) or British colonialism (ditto), then I am at a loss to see why he claims Paine as a model.

Please note: I did not say that Paine wrote shameful things that Beck should spurn. (Personally, I liked Agrarian Justice and would have supported the 5% impost against Rhode Island). I'm just saying that Paine was essentially a pro-tax, pro-centralization, pro-banking, anti-Christian kind of guy who believed things Beck claims to dislike. Paine was the one 18th century writer with whom Beck and his followers share the least in common -- the American Revolution's only articulate Lefty (although I am not sure whether he actually sat left in the French Assembly). Beck's claiming some kind of affinity with Paine because Paine disliked hereditary monarchs makes about as much sense as Beck's naming his book, "Das Kapital: The Case Against Out-Of-Control Corporations" because Marx disliked bankers.

And Kurt -- as well you know -- Beck would have to determine whether he liked the pro-centralization pre-1791 Madison or the Anti-centralization post-1791 Madison. Even the latter eventually made his peace with the Bank. Hard to see Madison as the namesake for a modern movement named after an 18th century protest directed against a bailout of a financially precarious corporation (i.e., the East India Company).

Nope, it is the Anti-Federalist movement that Beck and his followers need to invoke.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Apr 19, 2010 12:28:33 AM

Oh, yeah, and what kind of President could Lincoln have been to suspend habeas corpus, to suppress insurrection of those who were free, yet lead a nationwide 'insurrection' on behalf of those who were not? Surely his duplicity there negates the Emancipation Proclamation.

Posted by: MarkV | Apr 18, 2010 10:32:02 PM

Or let's keep having fun with the nonsense -- maybe the Declaration of Independence losses its relevance due to Jefferson's dictatorial acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase by not consulting Congress. Maybe we should 'reclaim our tyrannical roots' and re-seek monarchical rule! For surely if Jefferson acted contrary to his writing, then everything else he wrote and did should not matter to us as well.

Posted by: MarkV | Apr 18, 2010 10:22:35 PM

This post makes little to no sense. Are we saying here that because Thomas Paine wrote other pamphlets that Common Sense was not the instant best seller that was republished at the time in all parts of early America? Because he authored The Age of Reason we should now see him as a less influential light than the early colonists saw him 200 years ago? Or that the lack of influence or popularity of the second pamphlet therefore negates the popularity and importance of the first? If this be so, then we of course should discount the entire Bible, for within it (don't you know) the Devil himself is recorded as quoting scripture! And since the Devil is believed to have 'authored' and touted other things contrary and less popular, maybe we should too reclaim our 'anti-christian roots'. The logic herein is rubbish!

Posted by: MarkV | Apr 18, 2010 10:18:42 PM

Anti-national bank? Check. Strict construction? Check. Freedom for dissenting speech? Check. Firm believer in both national and local governments if kept within their proper spheres (there is nothing truly anti-national government about the tea parties)? Check.

Winner: James Madison.

Posted by: Kurt Lash | Apr 18, 2010 9:14:25 PM

I agree that American politics is some synthesis of all these past ideas. But the political (as opposed to intellectual) story must be tied to some winner. That si the difference between an intellectual movement and a political movement? A political movement wants to draw support from beyond its base, so it must associate itself with core "American" ideals--which means the Founders and basically nothing else besides Ronald Reagan. To be taken seriously as a political movement, the Tea Party must link itself to a successful political leader/movement of the past--that is, successful in the popular narrative.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 18, 2010 8:12:43 PM

Don't count the Anti-Federalist ideology out: Country Party ideologues are winners just as often as they are losers. The Anti-Federalists (and their lineal descendants, the Democratic Republicans of the 1790s like John Taylor of Caroline, the "Quid" or "Old" Republicans of the early 1800s like John Randolph of Roanoke, and the post-1832 Jacksonian Democrats)won a lot more victories than the conventional story allows. The Anti-Federalists and Democratic Republicans won on a bill of rights, rejection of a specific power to charter corporations (see the September 14th, 1787 debates in Philadelphia), strict construction of limits on inferior federal courts' jurisdiction (to Justice Story's disgust), and the 11th Amendment. Their intellectual heirs, the Jacksonians, also won on the construction of the Constitution between 1832 and 1886, defeating not only the Second Bank but most federal infrastructure spending and most immunities for federal corporations. Their ideology was initially triumphant in Taney, Chase, and Waite court decisions narrowly construing the power of federal courts and Congress, only to be supplanted by the mid-1880s decisions of the late Waite and Fuller Courts when corporate market nationalists like Stanley Matthews and Horace Gray joined the Court. (Keep in mind that McCulloch was not cited once between 1832 and 1863, when it was revived by the Legal Tender Cases).

The Anti-Federalist (Country Party) tradition of near-paranoid distrust of cultural elites, bureaucratic experts, and financiers is, as it were, the antithesis to the thesis of expertise and centralization represented by the Federalists and their intellectual descendants, the Whigs, Republicans, Progressives, New Dealers, Great Society-ites, and -- I would say -- the Obama-ites. It is the synthesis of these two traditions that makes American politics distinctive, not the final victory of either side.

I just wish that the Tea Party folks would realize which side of the field they are playing on.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Apr 18, 2010 6:31:19 PM

Of course, there's a reason that group lost the first time around; I doubt they would fare any better today. The key to any movement is to appropriate the winners of the past (thus the reason *everyone* tries to link their ideas to Holmes).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 18, 2010 4:26:39 PM

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