Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Radicalism of the Revolution

Earlier this week, the favorite historian of the American establishment, Gordon Wood had an op-ed piece in the NY Times reminding us that "the men who led the revolution against the British crown and created our political institutions were very used to governing themselves."  He notes that one thing that set Americans apart from just about everyone else in the world in the 1760s and 1770s was that large numbers of people could and did vote.  Moreover, they were used to politics. They knew the difference between compromising and selling out:

If one wanted to explain why the French Revolution spiraled out of control into violence and dictatorship and the American Revolution did not, there is no better answer than the fact that the Americans were used to governing themselves and the French were not. In 18th-century France no one voted; their Estates-General had not even met since 1614. The American Revolution occurred when it did because the British government in the 1760s and 1770s suddenly tried to interfere with this long tradition of American self-government.

After the revolution, Americans made some efforts to guarantee rotation in office, but, in the end, they decided that such rules were problematic, for they would deprive the government of expertise. Taking dead aim at anti-incumbent sentiment, he concludes, "Yet precisely because we are such a rambunctious and democratic people, as the framers of 1787 appreciated, we have learned that a government made up of rotating amateurs cannot maintain the steadiness and continuity that our expansive Republic requires."

The founders also knew that establishments grow insular, and need to be shaken up from time to time.  They did not live in a world where incumbents won re-election more than 90% of the time. 

We should also remember that in the early republic there was virtually no permanent bureaucracy, and the legislative branch was jealous of its prerogaties.  Nowadays, the legislatre often delegates legislative power to tenured civil servants.  That's hard to square with government by consent, and, therefore, with the principles of 1776.

It is also amusing to see someone who claims to think that the "historical process" is the driver of history employing history in the "philosophy teaching by example" mode.

Categories > History

Discussions - 18 Comments

Wood seems to have a very divided mind over what the right lessons of history are. More recently, in his "Empire of Liberty" he has wholeheartedly embraced the historiography that argues the Constitution of 1787 was a counter-revolution against the popular principles of 1776 and argues that the Federalists truly were a party of the interests while the Dem-Republicans were the party of the people resisting tyranny. That seems to be the basic tenor of his op-ed.

But, then, the last paragraph seems to contradict that, arguing that self-government by the ordinary farmers and artisans rotating in office to inhibit tyranny and return to the people often really isn't possible. Rather, he embraces the progressive idea that the people are too dumb to govern themselves and that if over "expert" government bureaucrats ran things scientifically and efficiently, society and the economy would be ordered.

Wood's a fine historian, and does take the more radical historians to task for their attacks on the Founding, but his politics are more liberal and progressive than his more moderate view of academia and history.

I can't tell what Richard Adams is driving at.

Tony, you're being too kind. Wood's history of the founding completely distorts the founders self-understanding of democracy. In the Great Republic book he reduces the arguments in The Federalist to "disingenuous democratic rhetoric" . Now that his party is in power, he thinks such arguments (or history) serve as helpful reminders of the excesses of democracy. What spin! Using the founders statesmanship to put the brakes on the "manly vigilance" of democratic citizens. Wood's abuse of history is almost as bad (or smug) as our president calling today's tea parties "amusing"

Leaving aside the relative partisanship of Woods for a minute, I think he raises a fair and useful point as regards term limits. Richard raises a fair and useful rejoinder in pointing to the central issue of American democracy which is the question of consent. He says that because of bureaucracy and progressive "reforms" the degree to which we may be said to consent to our laws is in question and the motives of the legislature are also in question as their capacity to win election after election is enhanced by this shifting of blame and responsibility. Interesting and thoughtful point . . . very interesting, in fact.

But I'd ask Richard to consider, too, the degree to which consent might be violated if, in limiting the terms of the legislature (as we have those of the President--unhappily, some may argue . . .) we are denying the people their right to choose the candidate best suited for and desirous of the job? My strongest objection to term limits is not that it denies us the privilege of the experience of wise statesmen (though it may, sometimes, do just that) but more that it is a limitation on the principle of consent. It may be an unnecessary one.

The best essay on this topic, by the way, that I can recall was written by Charles Kesler some years ago (maybe as many as 20?!) for Policy Review. I don't know if it is available online or not . . . but it is worth digging up if you are interested.

Isn't the question whether term limits would be a reasonable instrument of prudence to check the democratic elements of our constitution?

There's also a difference between wave elections and term limits. The more regular turnover there is, the less likely it is for term limits to be a reasonable tool.

The motivations and assessments of Mr. Madison et al. can be interesting history but should not trump the actual experience with the institutions erected by that document or the actual experience of foreign countries with their constitutional systems. Sociology and history are more instructive than theory.

Here is a question: statesman 'experienced' in what way? Barney Frank has held elective office without interruption for 37 years. Prior to that, he held a patronage job in City Hall in Boston. Prior to that he was in graduate school. He is 69 years old and has been in politics for 41 years. Trent Lott completed his law degree in 1967 and was then hired for a staff position in the offices of James Eastland. He was elected to Congress himself not six years later and there remained for 34 years, departing to take a position in a lobbying firm. Loads of experience in the arts of fund raising, spin doctoring, and gamesmanship is not good for the Republic. You can (channeling David Broder) say characters like these are a minority; alas, they end up being the gatekeepers in Congress and even when not can be decisive in preventing any authentic reforms.

Those of you who profess to be admirers of Ronald Reagan might remember the two most appealing things about the man:

1. He was a conviction politician;

2. Any political activity he engaged in prior to the age of 55 was strictly avocational. Most of his adult life was spent in the entertainment business, as a performer and as a union official.

Term Limits...yes, er...there are two important sides to...on the one hand...yawn...oh, well.

Gordon Wood the historian, now that is a more interesting subject indeed. But I'm afraid this post and many of these comments do not do the man justice.

Steven Thomas is right about the main post.

The fine Hayward essay linked here gives you, below its too harsh leading paragraphs and above its too harsh concluding ones, a good sense of the problems Wood's scholarship poses, and also of its high quality. And can we also talk about it's excitement? Radicalism of the American Revolution, and Revolutionary Characters, those are both intellectually exciting yet accessible books.

Hayward has to admit that lefty intellectuals may be getting Gordon wrong, but he does this only after making too much of the fact that they like to quote his first book.

I think it is wrong to suggest, as Hayward's title does, that he is a usefully-respectable founder-reverencing but faux-moderate scholar who always winds up tilting leftward. We do have such scholars (e.g. Jack Rakove), but I don't think Wood really fits the bill. Do we not like persons and scholars who fit no convenient bill? And he is pro-Democrat here how?

Tony, sorry to hear about the overt turn (another one?) against the Federalists in the Empire book--not shocking, given other lines of argument Wood has taken, but disappointing nonetheless. Could you provide a page reference? He so delightfully tweaked the Jeffersonian brand of naive proto-progressivism in the Revolutionary Characters book, that I expected better.

I think you mean Adams and not Hayward . . . but I am not sure what you meant.

Carl, he basically argues that throughout most of the first half of the book. As I pointed out in my review of Wood at http://www.internetreviewofbooks.com/dec09/empire_of_liberty.html I took him to task for actually siding with the Dem-Reps when they accused the Federalists of betraying the Revolutionary principles. Everyone recognizes that both parties each accused each other of that, but I didn't think that a historian like Wood would actually agree with one side.

That's a fine lil' review, Tony. I didn't know about the internet review of books--nice site. And boy that is a bad quote you feature...although not awful enough to quite put Wood in line with standard Jeffersonian Republican rhetoric against the Federalists.

And Julie, the first link is to an old Hayward CRB item--that's where Adams gets the tag "establishment's favorite historian."

Nice review. I don't, however, think Wood's view of the Federalists has changed. In Creation of the American Republic he gives a quasi-Beardian reading of the Federalists. (He also, to accentuate the originality of the federal constitution, and to describe the 1780 Massachusetts constitution as a conservative reaction to the progressive PA constitution, skips over the fact that it was the first constitution drafted by a special convention and ratified directly by the people.)

His take on the Federalists in Radicalism is very similar to that which he gives in the new book. See his account of Robert Morris, for example.

Wood does not like moralistic history (of the race, class, gender variety), and, therefore does not like most hard-Left history. He's still fighting against the cultural left of the sixties from the perspective, roughly, of a Great Society Democrat.

Richard Adams, I don't think we read the same book. Quasi-Beardian reading of the Federalists??

Don't know what book you read, but in Creation Wood presents the Federalists as conspirators, reacting against the excess of democracy. In Wood's presentation, however, they are trapped by their own rhetoric. They pretend not to be aristocrats, and, as a result, no one after 1789 in the U.S. can claim to be one. Wood, in Creation, presented that as a mixed blessing at best. Diggins' 1987 essay was good on this point.

In Radicalism, Wood makes a similar case. The would-be arisocrats (ie: Federalists, who clung to the "republican" ideal) are pushed aside by democracy, along with their ideas of virtue and restraint. In 1992, however, Wood was more optimistic about the resultant American democracy, so he's happier at the end of the book.. (By his own historical standards, however, such moral judgments, are not the job of the historian.)

"Conspirators" is not a fair reading of the book. As for your "quasi-Beardian", I suppose that's a way to interpret Wood's note on Beard, Brown, and the literature at that point -- as if Wood is the same kind of progressive! But, again, I don't see what your overall point is. I guess you don't like him, but we have no clue why.

You need to read more closely. Consider this comment: "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 . . ." (Creation, 562)

I just considered it. Is this what you think is a conspiracy?

Your posts, I have to say, do not reward or encourage careful reading.

When one reads the whole paragraph in context (I didn't want to type the whole thing), Wood is saying that a relatively small group of elites used rhetoric that they did not believe, to make themselves seem to be democratic, in order to keep themselves in power and to limit the power of the masses.

Some posts are closely written, some make a few unrelated, or partially related points..

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