Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Historical Blindness

What’s so maddening in attempting to really get to the historical truth behind the Constitution is the way in which historians themselves—consciously or unconsciously—continue to perpetuate American mythology through the repetition of societal norms that keep the truth buried. When blatant right-wing historians do this it’s understandable because they have either an ideological axe to grind or they benefit in some way from the standard belief system that has been indoctrinated into U.S. citizens almost from the time they’re born. What’s more unsettling, however, is when otherwise respected historians accidentally slip these kinds of things into their texts because they don’t understand the way they themselves have been indoctrinated. Joseph J. Ellis is a case in point—though it’s impossible to say which of these categories he fits into. Ellis, the author of the very popular Founding Brothers, which was made into a miniseries by the History Channel, more recently published a book entitled American Creation, which takes a look at the period from the Revolution to the Louisiana Purchase through a series of lengthy, interrelated essays that examine events though a tightly focused lens. In his otherwise informative section on James Madison’s work on the Constitution, writing about the debates between the Federalists and Antifederalists, this startling passage by Ellis suddenly appears:

          All attempts to explain the debates in primarily or exclusively economic terms have been discredited
          by modern scholars. The messy truth is that there was a maddening variety of voting patterns from
          state to state, and within states from county to county, that defied any single explanation, economic
          or otherwise. (Ellis 114)

He then moves on as if all this is self-evident. There’s not even a citation to back up his assertion, attempting to obviate the need for that through the collective weight of his anonymous plural “modern scholars.” I hear people talking . . .

Ellis does his work well here in the way he uses the phrase “any single explanation.” Given that very specific context, he’s right, there wasn’t any one, single explanation for why individual delegates framed the Constitution he way they did. But where alarm bells go off is when he says the motivation of those involved cannot be understood in “primarily . . . economic terms,” which is patently false. Even Madison understood that. His list of grievances against the individual states in their obvious scorn for the Articles of Confederation were all economic. Madison’s second reason for why anyone even goes into politics in the first place was economic. Everything from Indian removal, to taxation of citizens, to slavery was “primarily economic.” So it seems quite disingenuous to make a blanket statement that utterly dismisses the major economic underpinnings not only of the Constitution itself but the formation of political parties, the efforts of lobbyists, and the economic right-wing agenda that has continued in an uninterrupted line from the founding to the present. Politics, in America, from the very start, has always been about economics, and to suggest otherwise is incredibly misleading.

But it’s not until the next essay in his book, about the formation of political parties, that Ellis’s pose as an impartial historian completely unravels. One of his early salvos is to perpetuate another sacred myth in American history that has no basis in fact, and this has to do with ignoring the crippling effect of the two-party system on the ordinary citizens of the United States.

          From our modern-day perch it is easy to see the indispensable role that organized political parties
          came to play later on in channeling the combustible energies of a wild-and-woolly democratic culture
          into a coherent and disciplined framework. It is also possible to discern the invaluable contribution
          that the two-party system made in providing a safe and structured location for ongoing dissent, in
          effect creating a routinized and institutionalized outlet for argument in lieu of the guillotine or the
          firing-squad wall.

The rhetoric here is chilling. First he uses the smug security of hindsight to suggest the we can understand so much better than the founders how things were to turn out. Of course the phrase “organized political parties” has nothing controversial about it, and it makes sense that those parties would be the most rational way to focus the energies of “democratic culture.” But that in no way should imply that limiting the country to only two of those parties is better than, say, half a dozen parties that could more accurately represent the varied interests of the average citizen in Congress and the White House. And yet, from there Ellis immediately goes on to tout the “invaluable contribution” of “the two-party system” before indulging in a whopping false equivalency by suggesting that any democracy with more than two parties leads inevitably to “the guillotine or the firing-squad wall.”

This is absolutely crazy. In the first place, parliamentary democracies around the world have used multiple-party systems for centuries—England being the primary example—and yet throughout Western Europe there have been no firing squads or guillotines for hundreds of years. It is only when the number of parties has been reduced to one that the people suffer under tyrannical dictatorships as they did in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and in the Soviet Union. The crippling flaw in the two-party system in America is that it leaves citizens in a highly vulnerable position. As Republicans have worked assiduously over the last thirty years to jerrymander districts, restrict voter access, and obstruct beneficial Democratic legislation, the majority of the people in the U.S. are dangerously close to becoming disenfranchised. The great danger in having only two parties, is that if one takes over there is nowhere left to turn. Author Jason Stanley, whose book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them came out during the middle of the previous administration, says, “That’s where we’re tilting, at the very least, into a one-party state where that party is supported only by a minority of the population . . . That is where we’re headed unless Americans wake up and we all do something about it together.” And yet like all dangerous myths Ellis simply pronounces the obvious good of the two-party system as if it’s a given that requires no other explanation. “The invention of the two-party system was a major achievement . . . that seems beyond contention” (Ellis 169).

Worse still, Ellis then goes on in the essay to suggest those founders who were alarmed by the economic hegemony of the federal government—specifically Madison and Jefferson—were in some way mentally unstable. In fact, he goes so far as to label Madison and Jefferson’s beliefs as a “conspiracy theory” in order to undermine their concerns completely with the reader. Author Joseph E. Green has gone to great lengths to explain how the very words “conspiracy theory” have been used historically to label someone as outside the mainstream of thought and cast aspersions on their character, while at the same time reassuring the users that they are members of the group with correct beliefs, all this from a two-word phrase whose only function is to destroy credibility at a single stroke.

          The term “conspiracy theorist” is meant to be dismissive, obviously . . . You call someone a “con-
          spiracy theorist” to put them down or accuse them of being an intellectual outcast without having
          to think hard about it . . . The term is a psychological attack meant to marginalize the speaker of
          the improper thought . . . However, this is only one half of the equation. The other half is that the
          term imbues the speaker with psychological reassurance and power . . . When this power is given
          over to television networks and beat reporters and those who provide opinions in voice and print,
          there is an incredible foundation laid to support the “sacred” premises against the “profane” ones
          . . . to promote a dedication to certain ideas that short-circuits our reason. We hear certain concepts
          and are granted a pass from thinking about such unpleasantness. That guy is a conspiracy theorist.
          (Green 2014, 13-14)

What makes this chapter in Ellis’s book so bizarre is that he goes to great lengths to disparage both Madison and Jefferson in order to reinforce the mythology that he apparently believes, societal assumptions like capitalism as an unquestioned good, a two-party system that is likewise the apex of political organization, and that criticisms of the Constitution by certain of the founders were little more than conspiracy theory. Ellis describes these criticisms by Madison and Jefferson as “distinctly hyperbolic.”

          If you accept their rhetoric at face value, the deepest impulses of the American Revolution, the true
          “spirit of 76,” were being hijacked by a conspiracy of northern bankers and “paper-men” who com-
          posed a “speculative phalanx” moving forward behind the satanic leadership of Alexander Hamilton.
          Though these men represented a tiny minority within the overall populace, they had somehow managed
          to engineer a hostile takeover of the fledgling American republic and were now poised to consolidate
          their control to the detriment of all the ordinary citizens, mostly farmers, the true lifeblood of the nation.
          The ultimate goal of this Federalist faction was to undermine the republican government and replace
          it with a monarchical state in which the presidency became a heredity rather than an elective office
          and “money-men” became the new American aristocracy. (Ellis 170-71)

Other than the “hereditary state” aspect of what Ellis considers the two men’s fever dream, all of these things are true. In the twenty-first century it is crystal clear that a “tiny minority” is in fact working to take control of the government, “to the detriment of all ordinary citizens,” and this capitalist oligarchy has every intention of becoming the “new American aristocracy.”

Ellis goes to great lengths to portray these two founders as somehow mentally unbalance for the simple fact that they were able to see how a federal government almost completely focused on economic growth was going to marginalize the vast majority of its citizens.

          There is no question that Jefferson and Madison were sincere; their personal correspondence
          confirms the heartfelt conviction that a Federalist plot was afoot. There is also no question that
          Jefferson and Madison were wholly sane and thoroughly rational men. The question then becomes:
          How did they develop such a quasi-paranoid image of the Federalist agenda? . . . By any neutral
          standard, the picture that Jefferson and Madison saw in their heads was a preposterous distortion.
          (Ellis 171)

The condescension is thick here as Ellis admits that both men were “sincere” and “sane” before going on to call them “quasi-paranoid.” Then he has the audacity to claim that “by any neutral standard” the two men obviously had become unhinged. This is a common rhetorical device, to enlist the agreement of the reader by suggesting that the only sane—neutral—position to hold is to agree with the author. But this is disingenuous at best, and insidious at worst. It’s a travesty to the legacy of two great men in this nation’s history that an historian like Ellis can cast aspersions on them because they were able to see what others weren’t—and apparently Ellis still can’t. But it also makes it painfully obvious where Ellis’s affinities lie, as what Madison and Jefferson warned about has actually come to pass. Ellis’s attempt at obfuscation of the truth is shameful.

Ellis continues on in this vein by asking a series of rhetorical questions designed, once again, to elicit the reader’s agreement. How, he muses aloud as though he’s Tucker Carlson, could Washington and Adams be considered “Tories?” And how could Hamilton’s financial program be considered bad for the country? Ellis inadvertently gives the answer to the latter question when he writes offhandedly, “The enrichment of a few investors was an extraneous by-product of an economic policy rather brilliantly designed” (Ellis 172). Brilliantly designed for whom? Madison and Jefferson could see the handwriting on the wall, and U.S. citizens of today are suffering under the reality of that prescience as a small percentage of Americans have manipulated the federal government into making them rich while the vast majority of citizens work as wage slaves. As to the first question, Ellis is monumentally dishonest to pretend that he doesn’t understand exactly what the two founders were saying. Washington and Hamilton weren’t monarchical “Tories” in the traditional sense, but the economic system they were designing had the potential to become something very similar. After all, it was obvious Hamilton wanted to emulate the most successful model of economic power he had available to him: the British Empire. Washington and Adams were simply guilty for letting Hamilton do whatever he wanted.

But Ellis actually answers these questions by suggesting that some kind of senility had overtaken them, that the two addle-brained men were attempting to re-enact their Revolutionary War triumphs all over again. The Revolution, he reminds the reader, was undertaken “because the American colonists were not represented in Parliament . . . taxes or restrictive laws were being imposed on them without their consent” and then with smug assurance adds that America’s representatives “were duly elected or appointed officials chosen by the citizenry in accord with the rules prescribed by the very Constitution that Madison had done so much to shape.” (Ellis 173). This coy attempt at deceit is maddening. The lack of representation in colonial times under the British is absolutely no different than what Madison identified as happening in the states under the Articles of Confederation after the war. And the abuse is no different today, with Republicans trying to tax the poor so that they have some “skin in the game,” while at the same time legislating gigantic tax cuts for the rich. And talk about restrictive laws. With the Supreme Court having been groomed over the last twenty years to strike down federal freedoms and allow states to enact draconian legislation that the vast majority of citizens disagree with is exactly like Parliamentary oppression. Finally, it’s positively ludicrous to suggest that the majority of politicians working in Washington are doing so in order to work for the public good. Even Madison could see that. When Ellis cries out, “How, in heaven’s name, could fiscal responsibility be seen as an unmitigated evil?” he might as well be writing Fox News talking points.

Ellis also portrays Madison and Jefferson as flip-floppers. “How did they develop such a quasi-paranoid image of the Federalist agenda, an image that would cause one of the primary authors of The Federalist to repudiate all his previous arguments on behalf of a sovereign federal government and make Jefferson, a member of Washington’s cabinet, believe that his highest duty was to subvert the very government he was allegedly serving?” (Ellis 171). This is especially galling considering that Ellis had already answered the question in a previous essay, and now completely ignores the implications of what he had already written. Madison was in favor of a strong federal government—not for economic reasons but for the good of the people. His experience of the behavior of the individual states toward their residents was disappointing at best. “The overwhelming evidence, as Madison read it, revealed a discernable pattern of gross irresponsibility, a cacophony of shrill voices, a veritable kaleidoscope of local interests with no collective cohesion whatsoever . . . and that there was a glaring gap between what advertised itself as the will of the people and the abiding interest of the public” (Ellis 105). It was the abuse of the people that prompted Madison’s belief in a strong federal government, in order to protect them from abuse by the state legislatures—abuse of exactly the same nature as that being experience today—and the two most important aspects of the new Constitution he was proposing were both meant to meet that obligation he felt to the people.

          The legislative branch should be bicameral and, most crucially, both branches should be proportional
          according to population, thereby decisively shifting the core definition of representation from states to
          the citizenry itself . . . Madison regarded as his most controversial but nonnegotiable proposal, [that]
          all state laws must be subject to approval at the federal level in order to leave no doubt where
          sovereignty now resided. (Ellis 107-108)

But Madison didn’t get what he wanted, what he knew was best for the American people. The state delegates to the Constitutional Congress could only be induced to vote for the new document if one of the chambers of congress was not proportional to the population—the Senate—and absolutely refused to entertain any suggestion of a federal veto power over state laws. So that’s what Madison was stuck with, and in both of those compromises he knew, with absolute conviction, that the Constitution would be a failure because of it. So why did he exert so much energy in trying to get it passed? It’s because the Articles of Confederation had been such an unmitigated disaster. The Constitution might be a failure for the people, but it was infinitely better for the country than what the United States had at the present, which was almost equivalent to having no federal government at all. Once that task had been finished, however, it makes perfect sense that he and Jefferson would then try to correct the mistakes that had been made and attempt to fashion a federal government that was more responsive to the needs of the people than to business interests. They knew what the problem was. They could see it with singular clarity. And history has proven them correct.

Finally Ellis is unable to resist dredging up a favored trope among Revolutionary historians: slavery. Apparently, both Madison and Jefferson feared how powerful the federal government had become because they didn’t want the government to outlaw slavery. Now that’s an argument that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. In the first place, the most beneficial federal government to slave owners was the Constitution that slave owners had a hand in shaping. Slave states from Virginia to Georgia had refused the federal veto, and along with the non-representative Senate had increased their individual power in the Congress. And second, Madison wanted a stronger federal government, one that theoretically could outlaw slavery in any states it wished by overturning state law. What he didn’t want was one that was controlled by big money interests at the expense of the people.

          It was not just the bank itself, then, that terrified Madison and his fellow Virginians, though that
          source of dread was real enough. It was the open-ended definition of federal power on which the
          bank was authorized, which in effect gave the federal government a roving mandate to extend
          its authority wherever it wished, to include the thoroughly vulnerable issue of slavery. (Ellis 176-177)

How any historian can pontificate that slavery was vulnerable, when it was one of the largest business interests at the time, is inconceivable. And this is especially misleading when hindsight makes it quite clear that it took a civil war to finally end the practice. Not only was slavery anything but fragile at this point in history, in retrospect it appears positively invulnerable.

Ellis continues in the rest of the essay to trash Jefferson’s reputation, and Madison by association, but the whole exercise is sickening. Using snide comments and knowing asides he gleefully assassinates the third president’s character with just as much relish as he claims Jefferson did to Hamilton. To be fair, Jefferson from the beginning was much less interested in federal oversight of the states than Madison, but went along with his younger colleague to get the new Constitution passed because he also understood just what a disaster the Articles of Confederation had been, a most profound disaster when it came to his area of expertise: foreign policy. Jefferson’s concern, as was Madison’s, was for the people. And Ellis can’t help himself in attempting to cast doubt on that fact, with his claim that that the two weren’t real farmers because “neither man ever did a full day’s work in the fields” (Ellis 177). So what? Both Madison and Jefferson were part of the planter class in Virginia, slaveholders just like Washington—and, by the way, Ellis makes no such attempt at character assassination when it comes to Washington. Madison fought in 1790 to prevent the federal government from having authority over slavery, only to get them to honor the twenty-year moratorium that they had initially agreed upon. But he knew that the clock was already ticking. It’s a matter of record that all the founders from Virginia were bothered tremendously by slavery and at a loss as to what the answer was short of abolition. Nevertheless, Jefferson continued to remain a staunch supporter of the yeoman farmer throughout the republic, and yet the fact that his efforts on their behalf just happened to coincide with the planter class is simply something Ellis doesn’t even want to consider. He’d rather make him out to be an evil schizophrenic instead.

The snarky tone of the whole chapter is incredibly off-putting, but even worse is the blithe perpetuation of the myth of capitalism. All of the capitalist givens that Ellis accepts without question—and wants the reader to accept as well—are in truth the reason that the United States is in so much internal trouble today. Corporations and the wealthy continue to demand that their employees in Congress give them bigger and bigger tax breaks, and allow monopolistic practices like price gouging, collusion, pollution, and wage slavery to punish the working class. The one percent has a strangle hold on the citizens of this country, and yet Ellis has no problem touting how great those “innovations” are that gave them that power, while at the same time making a mockery of the Founders who could sense with alarm where the emphasis on economic power and lack of proportional representation in the federal government was going to lead. All of which supports the conclusion that Ellis is little more than a right-wing shill instead of a serious historian. That the federal government has to take a backseat and watch while state legislatures oppress their people is simply wrong. That the two-party system has allowed this kind of abuse to continue is simply wrong. And that a capitalist cabal has been able to take control of the government and continues to line their pockets while bankrupting the majority of the country is simply wrong. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Ellis’s book.

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