Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tea Party history and "Big Picture"

In one of his comments in the thread on all the things wrong with the Tea Party version of history (see here ) Nathan accused Dr. McClanahan of the Tenthers movement, and by extension all other authors sharing this ideological platform, in methodologically wrong approach to history. Two main points of Nathan's indictment were: 1. McClanahan cherry picks historical facts and quotes of historical figures that suite his political agenda, and 2. He uses a "welter of detail" (thanks, Nathan I learned a new word!), without showing the place of these details in a bigger picture. Well, Nathan, in my opinion, this criticism is not entirely fair, and is based on misinterpretation of objectives of McClanahan's article. If McClanahan tried to argue that the ideas of the compact theory and of strictly limited federal government with enumerated powers in early American history was the singular or at least a prevailing point of view, I would have wholeheartedly agreed with you. However, his objective, at least the way I saw it, was very different and much narrower. All what he tried to do was to repudiate the notion that these ideas, which were the basis of the Tenthers movement, never played an important role in earlier American political discourse or as Mr. Millhiser (McClanahan's liberal opponent) put it "tentherism has no basis in the Constitution or its history. President George Washington himself rejected tentherism early in American history, and this radical view of the Constitution gained no traction at all until fairly late in American history." With this limited goal in mind, I think that McClanahan's use of quotes from Hamilton or Marshall is justified. Dr. McClanahan is obviously well aware of political positions of both these men and of devastating effect on the "compact theory" of the Marshall's ruling in McCulloch v. Maryland . This circumstance, however, makes these quotes all more important because they essentially confirm the point that the ideas supported by the Tenthers were pretty much on the mind of the leading politicians of the time including those who eventually accepted the opposite point of view. I am not arrogant enough to think that I can say anything new about Marshall's ruling in this case, which is probably one of the most studied and written about Supreme Court cases in US history, but I would like to bring to attention the opening phrase of his arguments, which says: "This government is acknowledged by all, to be one of enumerated powers. The principle, that it can exercise only the powers granted to it, would seem too apparent, to have required to be enforced by all those arguments, which its enlightened friends, while it was depending before the people, found it necessary to urge; that principle is now universally admitted." This statement is in direct contradiction with Millhiser's assertions, and even though Marshall continues to establish the idea of implied powers and to negate the compact theory, this opening confirms than the notion of enumerated powers is not the figment of Tenthers' imagination, but played an important part in establishing American Constitutional order.

These quotes also play an important role in understanding the "Big Picture", which you, Nathan, are so concerned about. I agree with you that the key members of the Founding generation were complex people, who constantly debated the ideas that laid the foundation of American Constitution, revising and developing them and their own views on various principles of organization of American republic. They were not a uniform group of people, there were fractions and counter-fractions and political maneuvering sometimes of the worst kind. One thing, however, united them all, and this is my understanding of the Big Picture. They participated in the birth of a new political order, which was a product of the rebellion of people against the King. This idea of the King, understood in a broad metaphorical sense as any arbitrary rule with unlimited powers over men, was pretty much on the minds of everybody in the Revolutionary generation. The new order, which they created, was supposed to eliminate the King, make it impossible for any person or institution to become the King. Thus, the idea of limiting the power of government, particularly, federal government was the central theme of all the debates that seek to find the right compromise between the form of government that could actually govern without becoming the King. In this context, the quotes from leading proponents of stronger government, which were cited by McClanahan, are very important. They allow to suggest that when Hamilton, or Marshall, or Madison talked about strong central government they actually meant something different from what present days supporters of the strong government have in mind. This is a frequently occurring but not too often acknowledged linguistic and gnoseological phenomenon - the substitution of the meaning. The phrase "strong central government" is just a "meaning holder", an empty frame, which is being filled with different meanings in different cultural and political contexts. I do not think that Hamilton in his wildest dreams envisioned that his views of strong government would be taken to give the government the power to establish the Department of Education, to control the minimum wage or hiring practices of private businesses, or to establish the system of public welfare. All these things might or might not be justified on various grounds, but to use the position of Hamilton to justify them is historically and logically wrong. Take the case of Madison, for instance, who is said to be flip-flopping on the issue of the strong federal - versus state governments. You mentioned that Madison became a supporter of the former, but the context of this flip-flop is very telling. He just lost a humiliating war against Britain and realized that one cannot fight a war with state militias, without a centrally commanded standing army and without centralized means to finance it. Thus, he became a supporter of the "strong federal power", but for him it meant just two things: to have an army and to be able to issue federal currency. This is a far cry from "implied powers" of today's federal government.
This is essentially the "Big Picture" how I see it. And in my mind this picture only proves how right was Jefferson, when he warned against the dangers of federal government without explicitly specified limits on its power. The history demonstrates that governments behave like gases: just as a gas expands to occupy all available to it volume, governments expand to grab all the power, which is not explicitly denied to them. It is sadly ironic, of course, that Jefferson himself contributed to the demise of his concept of limited government through his Louisiana Purchase. This story, however, is more complex than your, Nathan, comment suggests (see its nice recapitulation here . Jefferson understood very well that this act was unconstitutional and wanted to pass a Constitutional amendment to remedy this situation, but he fell the victim to the political expediency as so many other great men after him. Unfortunately, his weakness opened the flood gates of federal activism and expansion of federal powers, which sometimes, indeed, have been used for good, but most often, were detrimental to the development of the country.


  1. Lev, thanks for the interesting and substantive post. I doubt I'll get to all the point you raise, but here are a few reactions to start things off.

    I'm glad to see you starting to focus on the big picture. I'm afraid, though, that your version of the broader vision of the founding father is a little bit off historically. You say that the King was equated symbolically with arbitrary power and unlimited rule. But England in the 18th century was not an absolute monarchy. This had been resolved once and for all a century earlier with the English Revolution, culminating in the Bill of Rights of 1689.. In fact what the colonists wanted was essentially what the English already had. "Taxation without representation" was their rallying cry of protest. What did they mean by representation? They meant the right enjoyed by all English men of property to be represented in Parliament. Of course there were many other factors involved in the American Revolution, and the question of why some sided with the rebels while others remained loyalists is tremendously complex. Personally, I probably would have been a loyalist. But I'm not about to refight the American Revolution, so back to the big picture.

    It seems to me that in your post, you continue precisely the pattern that I described with regard to McClanahan—honing in on the details and neglecting the broader implications. I'll grant that McClanahan shows that some of the founding fathers at various points did espouse the idea of a federal government with strictly circumscribed authority based on a narrow reading of the powers enumerated in the Constitution. But here I'll pose the question that historians love to ask others, and hate to be asked themselves -- so what? First of all, the point is rather obvious--if we agree that there were debates over these issues, then clearly there must have been two sides. Furthermore, no one would claim that the events like the Kentucky and Virginia declarations of 1799 did not occur. So if McClanahan's goal was simply to show that these ideas existed, then it seems to me that he has wasted a good deal of time and metaphorical ink charging through an open door.

    So where does the big picture enter into this? Precisely in the fact that these arguments were rejected, both in their own time and in posterity. Can you name a single major court decision in the country's first 100 years that contradicted the fundamental principles laid out by John Marshall in McCulloch v. Maryland? Can you name a single President who acted to circumscribe the powers of the Federal government and devolve power to the states, including the power to determine on their own the constitutionality of Federal law? Can you name a major act of Congress that had a similar effect? I certainly can't. I believe this is what Millhiser meant when he wrote that "tentherism has no basis in constitutional text and history." It's not that these ideas didn't exist (how could they not if George Washington himself rejected them). But these were not the ideas that shaped the course of history and were enshrined in constitutional law.

  2. I'm both intrigued and perplexed by your discussion of the question of meaning. Yes, of course, the meaning of words and expressions change, and it is very important to consider them in their native context rather than imposing our present day understanding. But to view language as merely an "empty frame" that can be filled by whatever meaning people see fit seems rather extreme--I don't think even Derrida would go that far. But for the sake of argument, let's assume you're right, and that Alexander Hamilton's understanding of strong government was nothing like what we assume it be today. Isn't that the same as saying that meaning itself is fundamentally inaccessible, that we can never really know what another person, particularly one who lived in the distant past, actually meant by a given phrase or expression? If that's the case why do you think your interpretation is any more valid that anyone else's? And why should those few cherry picked phrases of Hamilton that seem to suggest that he supported states rights be crystal clear, while the long and detailed arguments that he made in favor of a strong state are so prone to misinterpretation? If you're going to be a deconstructionist, at least be consistent.

  3. You say that Hamilton while might have approved of a central bank, but he would never have approved of a Department of Education or a minimum wage. I'm not so sure about that. The point is that Hamilton lived in a very different time when there was really no need for these measures. Certainly the existence of slavery throughout much of the country would have made the minimum wage rather a moot point. Moreover, in preindustrial America, a large percentage of the population would have been engaged in unskilled or semi-skilled manual labor, farming for the most part, but also handicrafts and trades. From the perspective of the state, these people did not need education--it might even be construed as harmful to the extent that it drew them away from their natural calling in life. It was actually the churches, especially the Protestant denominations, that promoted education, since reading the bible was seen as necessary for salvation. Not surprisingly much of the educational establishment was in the hands of religious institutions. Hamilton would have had no compelling reason to be dissatisfied with this state of affairs--the country simply didn't need that many educated people.

    Shift forward a century, and we find a very different situation--a complex industrial society requiring large numbers of people with advanced technical training to stay competitive. And this was true not only for the economy in general, but for the military as well. Back in Hamilton's day, common soldiers were essentially cannon fodder. All that was required from them was physical dexterity, endurance and the ability to master a basic drill. By the end of the 19th century, warfare had become much more complex. Literacy and mathematical skills were essential assets even for ordinary soldiers. A century after Hamilton, education had become a matter of national security. The government could not afford to leave it all to the churches and private sector and let matters take their course. The state had to get involved in supporting education for the good of the general welfare. Hamilton would certainly have approved. In fact, he stated his position quite clearly: "This criterion [of what is constitutional] is the end, to which the measure relates as a mean. If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified [Constitutional] powers, and if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the Constitution, it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority." (source). In other words, if the end is to enhance the general welfare and provide for the national defense, and if an educated population is a necessary component of that end, then the means, a federal office to promote and oversee education, is undoubtedly constitutional.

  4. One last comment: this discussion, it seems to me, points to a larger problem with a literalist reading of constitutional history. Reality has a way of intruding into neatly arranged ideological schemes and eroding their foundations. Both Jefferson and Madison were proponents of the idea that federal powers should be limited to those explicitly enumerated in the constitution. But both, as presidents, encountered situations in which these narrowly construed powers proved to be inadequate. Both came to understand that the state requires the ability to wield its powers in new unforeseen ways in order to respond to new unforeseen circumstances. For this to happen, the powers given in the constitution need to be seen as broadly defined ends, not as strictly circumscribed means. Of course the state is still bound by the limitations placed on its activities by the Bill of Rights and other statutes. But new historical conjunctures may open new spheres of governmental activity that the founding fathers could never have envisioned. To tie the government's hands by restricting its ability to respond to these new circumstances is not only counterproductive, but potentially suicidal. So the tendency of government to expand the sphere of its activity is not due to some innate quality, a primordial megalomania that causes it to blow up like a gas to fill every last millimeter of space. Rather it is due to the practical need to respond to changing historical circumstances. As society becomes more complex, the state finds that it needs to apply its powers in a host of new areas. I, for one, don't necessarily think that this is a bad thing, although undoubtedly abuses have and will continue to occur. It's a good thing that Jefferson agreed to the Louisiana Purchase, and I'm glad that Madison finally realized that you can't fend off the British Army with the village militia. Times change, and with them change the powers of the state.

  5. OK, I will reply to your comments one thing at a time. 1. The King issue. Of course, I am aware that Britain was a consitutional monarhy at the time of Amwerican revolution, and by mentinoning the King, I did not mean specifically George III. Thus, the word "metaphorical" in my post. Actually, it was foremost, the British Parlament, which was viewed as a sourse of arbitrary rule. In short, all what I wanted to say was that the Revolution was based upon republicanism as ideology, which specifically limits the powers of any government.
    2. Is McClanahan indeed charging through the open door? I would suggest comparing your comments on this issue with those of Millhiser. You admit that the issue of limiting powers of federal government was discussed during the earlier stages of American political dialogue, then claim that it was promptly discarded and has never been an issue afterwards. Millhiser, on the other hand, writes: "Contrary to the right’s claims, tentherism has no basis in the Constitution or its history. President George Washington himself rejected tentherism early in American history, and this radical view of the Constitution gained no traction at all until fairly late in American history". And then some more: "Tentherism may be relatively dormant today, but tenthers dominated the Supreme Court from the late 1800s until 1937, when a majority of the Court finally recognized that national leaders must be empowered to solve a national economic crisis like the Great Depression." (How FDR "convinced" Supreme Court judges to uphold his agenda is by itself an interesting topic for a separate post). Now, let's combine it with your arguments and we have a complete picture of several centuries long political discourse in which ideas of limiting federal powers played an important role. Let me make a wisecrack here: How many liberals does it take to prove that Tenthers' claim of legitimacy of their position is actually valid? At least two! Seriously speaking, can we agree that in the course of its entire history the country oscillated between periods of increased and diminished federal powers, and in view of this, the insistence of Tenthers that they represent a legitimate tradition of American political thought (it can be called Jefferson's tradition) has indeed some ground. To be continued.

  6. 3. The meaning of "meanings', deconstructivism, Derrida etc. First of all, I do not think that I am deconstructivist as I am not looking for internal contradictions in texts. What I am saying is simpler and more real. The idea is that any linguistic construction representing more or less complex concept does not have an 'a priori' meaning independent of the circumstances of the person who formulates the idea pronouncing and the other one who receives it. Since circumstances of different people are never the same, in most case what is said, and what is heard can be very different. This is true even on domestic level, but it is even more so when one tries to discuss political ideas. And, yes, in most cases we may never know what a person living 200 years ago actually meant. The best we can do is to try to approximately reconstruct the meaning of this person's ideas by analysing not person's words but rather his actions as well as actions of this person's supporters. Obviously, I did not invent any of this, but borrowed these ideas from a few seminars of Georgy Schedrovitsky, a Russian philosopher and methodologist.

    Now how all this applies to the topic at hand? How do I know that meaning of the construct ''strong central government" changed since the times of A. Hamilton? Well, look at his actions: he promoted government intervention on behalf of businesses and carried out protectionist economic policies. What do current supporters of the strong government do? They want government intervention in social areas (education, welfare, medicine, etc.). I believe, it says a lot about how differently this concept is understood now compared to 200 years ago.
    Can we apply the same analysis to the concept of limited federal government and state rights? Of course, and I would not argue that the meaning of this concept has also changed. It actually meant many different things in different times, including, yes, the protection of slavery and segregation. It would make a good Ph.D work in history to analyse the evolution of this concept, don'tI you think? Obviously, cannot give such a complete analysis here, but in all circumstances, the supporters of state rights wanted to limit the power of federal government at state, local and individual level. Thus, I do not see how I am being inconsistent here. To be continued

  7. 4. Complexity of society and the power of the state . I will leave you diatribe in defense of public education for future discussion. Let me just mention, that I do not object the government's participation in education on principle. I just think that it does a pretty poor job as compared, for instance, to private schools, but this is a topic for a separate discussion.

    Much more interesting is the idea that as society becomes more complex, it is necessary for the state expends its powers to new areas. While on the surface and in very general terms this argument seems to have some validity, its more close inspection reveals its weaknesses. First, this statement is too general, but as far as state's power is concerned, the devil is always in the details. Second, it assumes that the state and its power is the only mean a society has to tackle its problems. Luckily, this is not the case, and developed civilised society has a host of other ways to approach its problems. Actually, compared to private activities, the state has a rather poor record in problem solving. Undoubtedly, there have been limited successes, such as cleaning pollution, but in most cases government involvement produced nothing but waste, inefficiency, and ultimately a disaster. Think public education, welfare programs, Medicaid. Think of this: the only areas, where economical situation of minorities significantly improved on a mass scale, are the ones, where state did not intervene - sports and entertainment. It does say something, does it not?
    You see, the main difference between our positions is that you see the government as a first responder, and I see it as a last resort. You think that government must try to solve all the problems of the society, and I think that government shall get involved only if and when it becomes clear the private initiative fails.
    And given the unparalleled power of the state, it is, in my view, imperative that there are mechanisms explicitly limiting this power. This is another area where we disagree on philosophical level. You believe that people in power act out of desire to help the public, and I believe that the main motive for most of them is to expand their powers under the pretense of serving the "common good". Thus, I think, that the state does have an innate tendency to expand its sphere of influence, and while sometimes it might do some limited good, in general expansion of government produces just more abuse, inefficiency and wasted resources. While I agree that it is good that Madison realized the need of strong army, I think that Louisiana Purchase did more evil than good for the country. Jefferson, unfortunately, demonstrated that political expediency is more important than the Law and created very bad precedent.

  8. Please look up the word diatribe!

  9. used this word in its archaic meaning as a prolonged discourse. Source Merriam-Webster Dictionary

  10. OK--let's get back to business. I'll try to address your responses point by point.

    About the Tentherism business (which is getting a bit tired I think). I don't really see what the issue is here. No one disputes that these ideas of strictly limited government, states rights, etc. have been present at various points in American history. You may not have noticed that when I asked for examples of court rulings drawing on a narrow reading of the tenth amendment, I deliberately limited my time frame to the first hundred years of the country's history. I don't know all that much about constitutional law in the period from the 1880s to the 1930s, but I'll accept the views of Millhiser and others that the supreme court in this period was dominated by justices espousing a more limited vision of the role of government. So what were the results? Triumph of Jim Crow in the south; the rise of monopolies and trusts, bringing and end in many sectors of the economy to free market competition; corruption on a scale rarely seen in any other time in American history; brutal violence in the labor movement; environmental degradation; etc. etc. In short, this was not exactly a period to which we should aspire to return. Millhiser's point is that period is essentially an aberration, at odds with the previous approach to the role of government and rejected by those who came after. I'm not knowledgeable about the details of constitutional law to argue these points. All I can say is that if the Tenthers are offering the period from the 1880s to the 1930s as their model for how the country should be run, my only response is "thanks but no thanks."

  11. You are right - the Gilded Age was quite a brutal time. There was a lot suffering and violence and struggles. But this was also the time of incredible economic and technical achievements, the time when American wealth was created, and when the economic foundation was laid down for what had become the leading world power of 20th century. During these times a great number of people were propelled from poverty into middle class. This was the time of greatest philanthropic efforts in history, when Metropolitan museum and Carnegie Hall were inaugurated. Yes, the corruption was rampant, but please, note, the cause of corruption was not the freedom of economic activity from government intervention. On the contrary, whenever government tried to intervene in economics, the corruption flourished. One of the commentators in New Yorker recently said disapprovingly, that the 2nd Gilded Age is coming. I sure hope it is.