Ever since the 1820s, Americans have recreated the Founding Fathers they wished they had and used them in convenient ways to promote their own agenda. Little has changed over the decades except the addition of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and to a lesser extent, Theodore Roosevelt, to the pantheon of people who you can pull quotes from without context to promote your positions. Thus the MLK conservatives can claim to support, laughable as that may be to anyone who knows anything about the man.
Although it certainly never disappeared, this sort of thing went through a bit of a lull after World War II, as historical studies of the constitutional period went out of fashion and were replaced by Arthur Schlesinger and others studying the Jacksonian period for the roots of American democracy. In recent decades, conservatives made the wise political move to reclaim the Founders, even if they are as fabricated as their MLK. Scalia’s originalism, patent fraud that it is, has roots in his version of the Constitution. Of course, he, like most Americans, sees the Constitution as a living document despite his protestations. So the 2nd Amendment is deified and the 4th Amendment flushed down the toilet. There’s a long history of this sort of thing, including Gilded Age courts finding an expansive interpretation of the 14th Amendment for corporations while not applying it to African-Americans at all, even though it was written for the latter. In the end, the Constitution has worked reasonably OK for a pretty long time, and it’s hard to ask much more of a government, at least when compared to other governments in history. But the attempt to tie everything to what a bunch of elite men in powdered wigs thought 225 years ago causes more problems than it solves for modern society.
My favorite story around this absurdity is the following:
“What Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games,” and if “he enjoyed them,” Justice Alito said sarcastically. Justice Scalia shot back, “No, I want to know what James Madison thought about violence.”
Who knows! And why should we try to answer an unknowable and absurd question! In effect, the Constitution means whatever we want it to mean in a given time. But to say that makes people very uncomfortable, I think because we ultimately still want to revere the Founders.
In recent years, liberals have tried to play catch up on originalism, for better of for worse. I’d probably argue for worse because I don’t think originalism is particularly helpful except as a rhetorical political tool. There’s certainly no sanctity in the words or intentions of the Founders.
I mention all of this because of Christian Parenti’s article in Jacobin arguing for a left-wing Alexander Hamilton that has useful lessons for modern Americans on fighting climate change. The article itself is relatively unobjectionable, except that I don’t think Hamilton has any meaningful lessons for us on fighting climate change. Parenti is certainly correct about Hamilton’s modern vision of what would become industrial capitalism and of course his vital role in creating the financial institutions of the new nation is not in question. Parenti’s fundamental argument is that leftists have long fallen on the wrong side of the Hamilton/Jefferson divide. He notes that Jefferson was a slaveholder who had a backwards view of economic development and Hamilton was anti-slavery with a vision of economic growth, and that Hamilton’s idea of an activist government needs to be resuscitated by modern progressives who need to fight back against conservative Jeffersonianism. A Hamiltonian government, not a Jeffersonian one, is the only Founding vision that can effectively fight against climate change.
I have no problem with the left abandoning its idea of romanticized agrarian Jeffersonianism. Leftists love talking about Jefferson’s vague revolutionary words, but I don’t think that’s all that useful for a democratic leftist revolution that is probably never going to happen, at least within my lifetime. Yet is tying our boat to Hamilton any better? Parenti notes that Hamilton has long been perceived as anti-democracy. There’s a good reason for that. Hamilton was anti-democracy. You can’t wave that away. I’m also a bit turned off by the slavery argument. Yes, Jefferson was a slaveholder and a bad guy for it, but that point does not immediately mean that, if we are supposed to learn anything from the Founders, that Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and the other slaveholders are immediately disqualified. If there is value to be gleaned from these long dead men, I don’t think one, admittedly quite horrible, sin automatically means they are out of bounds on everything else, especially given that the non-slave holding Founders also held political positions reprehensible to left-wing Americans in 2014.
Ultimately, I have two much larger problems here. First, Parenti is correct that we need to argue for the activist state. Hamilton is useful for that argument. But if that alone is the argument, we can draw off of Lincoln, FDR, Lenin, a pantheon of people. It’s not that Hamilton has lessons to teach us. It’s that there is a whole history of people showing that an activist government can accomplish a great deal. Tying that to Hamilton is just a politically convenient way of doing that because of the power of using the Founders. And maybe that’s OK.
But this gets to the second problem. If Hamilton’s view of an activist government means that we can use government to fight climate change, Hamilton himself pushed that activist government to facilitate industrial capitalism, i.e., the very system creating catastrophic climate change! Until industrial capitalism is solved, we aren’t going to create a comprehensive response to climate change. If that means a comprehensive response is not going to happen, well, yes, because that is actually what is happening.
In other words, saying Hamilton can guide us today requires a) taking the man out of context or b) making the lessons impossibly broad. There is no “leftist” Hamilton because he would never have recognized such a thing could be possible. It’s a construction of Hamilton based upon chosen facts and stories that serve a modern political purpose. I guess that’s alright, but it certainly raises the eyebrows of this historian. And if we are to learn this lesson from Hamilton, what other lessons should we learn? That the Alien and Sedition Acts were a good idea? That democracy is scary and should be crushed? None of these Founders are less complex than Jefferson; that the latter was a slaveholder who hated the urban poor was terrible, but he did genuinely believe in a form of democracy that was advanced for its day, even if it was a herrenvolk democracy. Hamilton sure didn’t believe in any form of democracy that advanced. If we are reappropriating Hamilton for the left, we have to reckon with these questions because they are as central to his being as creating the institutions of American capitalism, including a functioning federal government. Otherwise, we are cherry picking what we like about him.
I completely agree with Parenti that environmental activists need to double down on their focus on the state, but then I don’t agree with him that lots of greens today don’t rely on the state. That may be true with some grassroots activists, but it most certainly is not true of the big green organizations who are so reliant on the state that they struggle to even comprehend how to motivate the grassroots in an era where they can’t get legislation passed for the first time in a half-century. It’s also not true of the 350.org movement, which is completely reliant upon pressuring the state not to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. I don’t doubt there is an anarcho-environmentalism that’s popular in some grassroots groups, but that’s hardly indicative of a movement that has long understood the power of the state to enact change. Even here though, Parenti seems to be talking about a libertarian environmentalism that argues for corporate social responsibility. Those ideas are out there but I think is more of an environmentalist strategy in the face of hostile government shutting off legislation than an end game.
Personally, I would rather we not turn the Founders, ever more distant in the past, into people we bow before, or at least their faces chiseled on the sides of South Dakota mountains, an odd American institution. I think it’s really problematic because it relies upon constructed histories of them that almost inherently have to leave out difficult facts. It also reinforces the narrative that change is primarily created by wealthy white great men, not a theory with which I am particularly comfortable. The left likes to talk about “the people,” but it sure loves its great men.
So what is history good for then? I speak for no one but myself, but for this historian, there are very few “lessons” from the past that we can easily learn. Nothing can be understood without the context of the time. What history offers is the understanding of how we got into the situation we are in today, whether positive or negative. For example, we can’t understand Ferguson without understanding the history of slavery, Jim Crow, urban segregation, police violence, etc., both nationally and in the context of the St. Louis area specifically. That’s not a lesson, it’s figuring out the context of what is happening today. It’s the actions of millions of individuals, the ideology of white supremacy as it has developed through time, and the decisions made by municipal, state, and federal governments, not to mention the entire economic context around the disappearance of jobs for the poor, and especially poor people of color. In other words, it’s really hard and certainly not dilutable down to a simple lesson for public consumption.
Although far less intellectually honest than Parenti, Jody Hice, your next congressman from Georgia’s beet red 10th district is promoting made up quotes about the Founders on his Twitter feed. Some of these are misattributed, some are just plain nuts, but in a way it doesn’t matter because the Founders are constructed to be useful to everyone and therefore are probably useful to no one except as a political tool. Which is fine I suppose. It’s a usable past. It just a false one in Hice’s case. Both sides hitch their wagons to the Founders, making them mean whatever the individual wants them to mean.
Finally, I’ll note that for an article in Jacobin, Parenti’s piece can easily be construed as quite the defense of capitalism. Of course, one must acknowledge the reality of capitalism, but Parenti argues simply for a more robust role of the state in operating it. Which is not a radical argument, however defined.
This is all me spitting in the wind. People are going to keep using the past to justify their own positions no matter what any historian says about it. If you want to think Hamilton has lessons for you, go for it. But I think those “lessons” are really tenuous and have to be so broad as to lose the specificity for that person. If they help people decide government is good, I guess that serves a social good and I am just a cranky historian. Print the legend.