The Clare Spark Blog

October 30, 2011

Collectivism in the history establishment

Gordon S. Wood, prize-winning historian

I have spent the last week trying to read Gordon S. Wood’s first book, The Creation of the American Republic (U. North Carolina Press, 1969), perhaps an expanded Harvard U. dissertation written under Bernard Bailyn. It was the beginning of Wood’s stellar career in writing the history of the early Republic, and an example of what was called in graduate school “the republican synthesis” as put forward by the most left-liberal professors in the field. If Wood is correct, then my prior enthusiasm for Alexander Hamilton’s bow to popular sovereignty in the Federalist Papers, is sorely misplaced. Rather, I am to view the Federalists as confidence-men, who cunningly adopted the time-worn phrase “popular sovereignty” (a feature of monarchies too) to install a fundamentally aristocratic government that did too much for individuals and the meritocracy, while betraying the “out of doors” “mobs” that had not only fought for liberty in the Revolution, but legitimated a Constitutional Convention in 1787 (319, 363, 382).

Although to read the Federalist papers, one might think that the Constitution advocated a government that was grounded in the House of Representatives, complete with separation of powers and checks and balances, in Wood’s reading, natural aristocrats (562 and passim; i.e.,  Alexander Hamilton, crypto-Jew*) sneaked in a government that made the Presidency tantamount to a monarchy and the Senate an aristocracy, while the judiciary would ever thwart the will of the truly democratic, public-interest-minded People, who were only apparently in control of the House of Representatives. This is populist reasoning that would find its apotheosis in the New Left that identified “corporate liberalism” as the enemy (big business and the state in cahoots at the expense of the little guy), and in the popularity of Noam Chomsky and in the OWS movement that has roiled the media for the last month. (i.e., corporations are NOT people).

I am not sure that I fully understand Wood’s argument. I certainly do not agree with one statement that seems to be crucial. After a long paragraph on the luxury debate (republican simplicity is threatened by pomp/consumerism, hence the source of decadence), Woods writes, “Like Puritanism, of which it was a more relaxed, secularized version, republicanism was essentially anti-capitalistic [what?** C.S.], a final attempt to come to terms with the emergent individualistic society that threatened to destroy once and for all the communion and benevolence that civilized men had always considered to be the ideal of human behavior. Right from the beginning of the Revolution there had been some Americans who had doubted the ability of any people, including the Americans, to surrender their individual interests for the good of the whole.” (418-419)

Here is another quote that suggests that the Federalists had cunningly co-opted the [indescribable, who were too diverse to put into one bag] Antifederalists: “Considering the Federalist desire for a high-toned government filled with better sorts of people, there is something decidedly disingenuous about the democratic radicalism of their arguments, their continual emphasis on the popular character of the Constitution,*** their manipulation of Whig maxims, their stressing of the representational nature of all parts of the government, including the greatly strengthened executive and Senate. In effect, they appropriated and exploited the language that rightfully belonged to their opponents. The result was the beginning of a hiatus in American politics that was never again closed. [He goes on to say that “the real social antagonisms of American politics” were masked. The Federalists should have said that they were really aristocrats.] (562)

So is republicanism a good thing or a bad thing? This seems to be the double-talking voice of agrarian radicals, such as  Jefferson and Jackson, then the Progressive movement and of the New Deal, appealing to present-day “out-of-doors” democrats, massed to complain of “inequality.” It necessarily looked backward to an imagined medieval polity, where the Good King unified the people in a healthy body politic, one that had happily delegated the power to speak and act for themselves. It is a strange construction of Liberty, but also an awkward attempt to see nothing but “communion and benevolence” in a reinterpreted, truly “living Constitution” that ostensibly protects capitalism, unlike its pseudo-democratic pseudo-capitalistic predecessors in the 18th century. Think of FDR and his foiled attempt to pack the Supreme Court.

*Stephen F. Knott quotes Wood: “…Hamilton led a faction in the 1790s that ‘was promoting the interests of financiers and monarchists at the expense of the general public'”(208). Knott’s chapters 5 and 6 take up the Hamilton as Jew theme, citing such as Father Coughlin, Ezra Pound, and (subliminally) William Carlos Williams. See Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (U.Kansas Press, 2002): 112, 128ff. A particularly offensive line from Pound, writing in 1954: “Hamilton was a kike, a red headed scotch chew.” Knott also emphasizes throughout that Henry Adams was the origin of the fourth-hand rumor (taken to be fact by all the subsequent Jeffersonians) that Hamilton stated that the People was a great Beast. Henry Adams’s opposition to modernity and to Jews is not in dispute.

**Perhaps Wood was thinking of John Winthrop, who is often quoted by left-leaning liberals as a model for the New Deal. I laid out the Antinomian Controversy (1636-38) here in a four-part essay: https://clarespark.com/2010/05/15/blog-index-to-anne-hutchinson-series/. Winthrop wanted medieval-type wage and price controls, while Hutchinson foreshadowed market economies.

*** When I was in graduate school at UCLA, Gary Nash pointed to the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 as the model of direct democracy. I suspect that Gordon S. Wood also compares more complex governing models to this example of popular radicalism. For instance, Pennsylvania at that moment had a unicameral legislature elected every year; also the state militia enlisted men elected their officers. This type of democracy harkens back to the Levelers of the 17th century English Civil War, and Wood makes the comparison himself. But I should not single out Gary Nash. The “republican synthesis” referred to the anticapitalistic Country party in England, that opposed Walpole’s economic measures, and was espoused by Joyce Appleby and her graduate students. Nash and Appleby were the chief organizers of the much contested National History Standards, and are both left-liberals. For a contrast, see Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (UP Kansas, 1985): 67, and fn25. Republicanism, he argues, contradicting Wood, commonly signified representative democracy. Not that FM discounts the penetration in America of Country party Opposition in Britain. Republicans in b0th North and South feared selfishness and effeminacy, though FM distinguishes between Northern puritan republicans and Southern physiocrats; the corrupters were “Standing armies, priests, bishops, aristocrats, luxury, excises, speculators, jobbers, paper shufflers, monopolists, bloodsuckers, and monocrats….” (77). McDonald is a self-described “paleoconservative” and also an indefatigable researcher.

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