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The Plague of Founder Hero Worship


If you haven’t read this William Hogeland piece on originalism, left and right, you should. Political theory is more djw’s field than mine, but I will point a couple of things out.

Left commentators like Rachel Maddow invoking the Founders in order to press current progressive political agendas make sense on a certain level–these old dudes in powdered whigs have a lot of currency in modern America, even if few understand what they were actually after. Plus, Americans have created useful narratives of the Founders to promote their own political positions since at least the 1820s. But I don’t think this line of reasoning is particularly helpful, largely because I don’t think it takes a genius to realize that creating policy that would please wealthy landowners in 1787 isn’t a particularly useful way to create policy for 2012.

To quote Hogeland, “For modern writers seeking founding heroes, his [Madison’s] theory remains pure.” I’d argue that founding heroes are not worth having. Not that they are all bad actors or anything. But hero worship rarely has positive value.

And in discussing Maddow’s connection between her own anti-militarism and what she claims for the Founders, Hogeland exposes the whole problem with founding hero worship.

Maddow is right to say that many of the founders, Madison perhaps most articulately, expressed fear of war’s effect on liberty and loathing at the idea of a permanent military establishment, what they called “a standing army.” But by glorifying a founding citizen soldiery and some founders’ philosophical revulsion at military adventurism, Maddow ignores the war that the new nation fought as soon as it was formed: the war against a Great Lakes Indian confederation to conquer what was then the Northwest. During that war, our first as a nation, the militia system was replaced as a national force by a professional, regular army, under the direct control of the federal government. The unabashed goal was vigorous national expansion. Maddow’s idea that the anti-militarist philosophy that Jefferson expressed to Congress in 1806 “held sway in this country for a century and a half” is appealing but wrong. During the Indian war, in response to events known as the Whiskey Rebellion, the government also sent 12,000 troops—more than the number of Americans who fought at the Battle of Yorktown—over the Alleghenies to suppress the entire populace of western Pennsylvania with door-kicking mass arrests, detentions without charge, and forced loyalty oaths. That effort was in support of a regressive tax, the first one ever laid on an American product, earmarked for paying the federal bondholders their interest—just what both Hamilton and Madison had worked for during the confederation period.

Oh yeah, the next chapter in the Anglo-American project of genocide against Native Americans leading to regressive taxation. Whoops. That fuzzes up that picture of founder purity a bit.

These people were complicated. We can take their ideas in a vacuum, without context, and make them fit what we want them to say. Or we can complicate the story to deal with the fact that these people who said really good words often did some really bad (or at least complex) things.

Also, Tea Partiers turning on Alexander Hamilton is hilarious since he created the capitalist structures that allowed their beloved form of economy to exist in its American version. Of course, a lot of Tea Party types seem to also think that the Articles of Confederation was the greatest period in American history. Which is just awesome.

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