Every Man His Own Historian

Alexander Hamilton

In our post-factual world, history has become another battlefield, with far-flung hostilities over cultural and political differences as well as the imperial adventures abroad. But, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked, we are entitled to opinions, not to our own facts.

Glenn Beck peddles a notion of the “Progressive Era”—a time when Republicans and Democrats and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson proudly called themselves “progressives”—as the period when all the evils of modern America became manifest. Original, yes. Factual, no.

Then we have Dick Armey, once a leader in proclaiming a “Contract With America” and currently head of Freedom Works, one of the more vocal incarnations of the tea party that provides a ready microphone for well-heeled right-wing backers and their views.

Armey now has given us a classic perversion of history. At a gathering to vent against President Barack Obama’s tax and health policies and alleged socialism, someone in the audience questioned how the movement could use the Federalist Papers, largely written by Alexander Hamilton, as any basis for its beliefs. After all, Hamilton, the questioner contended, was “widely regarded” as a strong nationalist, who advocated life terms for the president and senators, a strong national bank, protective tariffs, the assumption of state debts (to ensure their payment and thereby establish a creditable international standing), state governors appointed by the president, and the diminution of state authority to little more than an administrative role. That is History 101, of course, but a good question for those who insist on Hamilton as a patron saint of American “conservatism.”

Armey was incredulous, even contemptuous, and simply dismissed the questioner, as well as history. “Widely regarded by whom?” he asked suspiciously, and then answered his own question. “Today’s modern ill-informed political science professors … ? I just doubt that was the case, in fact, about Hamilton.” In the great tradition of Henry Ford, Armey simply would dismiss history as “bunk.”

Hamilton certainly is the patron saint of the American state. As George Washington’s secretary of the treasury, he fashioned public policy based on the necessity for strong authority at the center, saying things like “A national debt is a national blessing,” “Every Power Vested in Government is in its nature Sovereign,” and “A Well-Organized Republic can scarcely lose its Liberty from any other Source than that of Anarchy.” Hamilton knew that the nation’s earlier failed experience under its first constitution, the Articles of Confederation (still “fundamental law” for Justice Clarence Thomas), demonstrated that the national government lacked not so much powers as the power to enforce its will. The Constitution without doubt recognized and rectified the defects.

Conservatives historically celebrated Hamilton (and Abraham Lincoln) for pursuing public policies reflecting a strong national government. The first Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.), perhaps best known today for his opposition to President Wilson’s League of Nations, wrote a famous biography of Hamilton extolling Hamilton’s virtues, but that was in a time with a different understanding of “conservatism” than today’s. Armey and his sponsors—not his followers—love Hamilton for his famous contempt for democracy: “Your people, sir, is a great beast.” Hamilton surely would welcome the manner in which Armey and his backers manipulate the ignorant, ill-informed masses. Nevertheless, Armey and his patrons’ goals are not what Hamilton envisioned for this nation.

The hoary hoax of applying the Constitution’s “original meaning” to determine the validity of legislative policy is rooted in spurious scholarship—or, more properly, the lack of any. Even a Ouija board cannot give us certainty in this area. The 1787 Constitutional Convention’s proceedings have been extensively studied, and the best we can conclude is that despite an overwhelmingly favorable vote to adopt the new instrument, significant disagreement existed on any number of issues. Then, when we look at the hundreds of delegates to the state ratifying conventions, clearly we know that disagreement was rampant. Pauline Maier’s magisterial new book, “Ratification,” underlines the plethora of contemporary views. Maier’s resurrection of thousands of documents pertaining to ratification leaves no doubt as to the range of differences—and yet, strikingly, the agreement to ratify.

Robert Bork laid down precepts for judicial decision-making based on the “original meaning” of the Constitution. Justice Scalia has been our most visible practitioner of the idea, and he denounces any believer in the notion of a “living constitution” as an idiot. Scalia’s Camp Idiocy would have to enroll John Marshall, our first great chief justice and a prominent participant in the Virginia ratifying convention. Marshall could preside over the company of 100-plus Supreme Court justices, distinguished and undistinguished, Federalists, Whigs, Republicans, Democrats, “liberals” and “conservatives.”

Bork and Scalia’s “judicial philosophy” is based on precious little scholarship. With their ideological compatriots they have manufactured a theory out of whole cloth and foisted it onto the public, unchallenged by the media amplifiers and, sadly, by too few scholars.

The chestnut of secession, slavery and the Civil War still divides us, but here, too, the historical presumptions border on the absurd. Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican (certainly there is a historical joke in this label), seems to have a corner on the microphone to proclaim the virtues of his constitutionalism. His television appearances are marked by a backdrop of the flag and the Constitution. DeMint insists he will reject legislation not tied to specific constitutional authorization. Perhaps that means Social Security and Medicare, which are nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, but instead derive from the proviso of the “power to tax and spend … for the general welfare.” We can only anxiously await his views on the post-Civil War amendments, the 13th, 14th and 15th.

DeMint’s congressional and ideological predecessors believed in the right to secession and disunion—of course without constitutional authorization, as Abraham Lincoln steadfastly maintained. It took four years of bloody war to quash that notion.

DeMint’s allies in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Confederate Heritage Trust are preparing a sesquicentennial secession ball in Charleston and a 10-day re-enactment at Fort Sumter, apparently with the support of the state. The sponsors insist they merely will honor those who signed the secession ordinances. A spokesman maintained they were not defending slavery, but rather “defending the South’s right to secede, the soldiers’ right to defend their homes, and the right to self-government.” And now, 200 years later, they can celebrate history without acknowledging slavery as the cause of secession. They will not quote what Mississippi said in its secession ordinances, that slavery was “the greatest material interest of the world,” or mention its fear that abolition would undermine “commerce and civilization.” Slavery obviously caused the Civil War, Confederate glorifiers notwithstanding.

stanley kutlerThe right’s twist of history to please its backers and fuel its agenda is a vigorous enterprise. Serious history, serious scholarship and serious discussion of facts and ideas are dismissed with tunnel vision. In Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” Humpty Dumpty scornfully said “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” When Alice protested, Humpty Dumpty replied that the issue was “which is to be master—that’s all.” But take hope—Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

Stanley Kutler

Reprinted from Truthdig with the author’s permission.

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