This week Barack Obama started a speech on economic policy in New York with this analysis of the U.S. debate over that issue—in the late 1780s:
With all the history that’s passed through the narrow canyons of Lower Manhattan, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the role that the market has played in the development of the American story. The great task before our founders was putting into practice the ideal that government could simultaneously serve liberty and advance the common good.It’s so refreshing to imagine a President discussing history with more command than a sixth-grader sullenly reading something his teacher has written for him. And without the serious errors of fact that other candidates made in the last year when trying to invoke the Revolutionary era. Of course, Sen. Obama was a professor of constitutional law for several years (though the law’s approach to history is not always the same as historians’).
For Alexander Hamilton, the young secretary of the treasury, that task was bound to the vigor of the American economy. Hamilton had a strong belief in the power of the market, but he balanced that belief with a conviction that human enterprise, and I quote, “may be beneficially stimulated by prudent aids and encouragements on the part of the government.” Government, he believed, had an important role to play in advancing our common prosperity. So he nationalized the state Revolutionary War debts, weaving together the economies of the states and creating an American system of credit and capital markets. And he encouraged manufacturing and infrastructure, so products could be moved to market.
Hamilton met fierce opposition from Thomas Jefferson, who worried that this brand of capitalism would favor the interests of the few over the many. Jefferson preferred an agrarian economy, because he believed that it would give individual landowners freedom and that this freedom would nurture our democratic institutions.
But despite their differences, there was one thing that Jefferson and Hamilton agreed on: that economic growth depended upon the talent and ingenuity of the American people; that in order to harness that talent, opportunity had to remain open to all; and that through education in particular, every American could climb the ladder of social and economic mobility and achieve the American dream. In the more than two centuries since then, we’ve struggled to balance the same forces that confronted Hamilton and Jefferson: self-interest and community, markets and democracy, the concentration of wealth and power and the necessity of transparency and opportunity for each and every citizen.
Obama’s descriptions of the U.S. of A.’s founding are hardly revolutionary, either in promulgating an unusual view of that history or in invoking historical traditions that favor major change. Indeed, his statements reflect a consensus view of the nation’s beginning that most Americans find reassuring. Even this discussion of the deep disagreements within George Washington’s cabinet leaves out the vituperation of the press in those days, and the fact that Hamilton was eventually killed in a duel fueled by politics. We don’t work out our economic difference that way anymore.
Earlier in the month William Hogeland, author of somewhat iconoclastic history The Whiskey Rebellion, analyzed how Barack Obama described and invoked America’s founding in his already-famous speech on race:
Voters of many persuasions have viewed Barack Obama as coming from the left. Yet in his March 18 speech, addressing both his relationship to the black activist preacher Jeremiah Wright and the history of slavery and race oppression in the United States, Obama hymned the creation of the U.S. Constitution in terms that gave off no whiff of radicalism. . . .Hogeland restates his opinion most succinctly in a comment that follows the article:
Obama’s speech thus opened with a particularly jaunty rendering of what historians call the “consensus” interpretation of the founding. It has its points. Nobody expects anyone running for president to explore less happy interpretations of our constitution’s history: the “strict constructionism,” say, that turns a cold eye on amendments and judicial decisions crucial to Obama’s faith in progress. Or readings that emphasize another stark omission made by the framers, enfranchising women (especially relevant to the current moment and all but absent from Obama’s speech). Or arguments made for a century by progressive historians that the constitutional convention by no means meant to enable an “experiment in democracy,” as Obama has it, but the very opposite: to repair what Edmund Randolph of Virginia, in the convention’s opening speech, called “insufficient checks against the democracy” that had been unleashed by events leading up to the Declaration. . . .
The March 18 speech has been praised for not talking down to its audience. That would mean Obama genuinely believes that our settling, founding, and progress through the centuries add up only to a string of moral triumphs that can’t be described in terms elevated enough to do them justice — marred, horribly, only by slavery and racial oppression. If he does believe that, he’s got plenty of company. It’s the view routinely dramatized in museum exhibits, documentaries, and other manifestations of well-funded public history, offered to large audiences who can’t tolerate — so our curators, as well as our politicians, seem to be certain — even a hint of complication.
Obama invoked the popular understanding of the framing of the country. But that understanding isn’t just oversimplified; it’s false, even in certain ways absurd. Certainly many a pol before him has invoked the comfortable, July-4th-parade falsehoods; they’re standards, as you say, and clichés, as I do. But to extinguish the reality of the social turmoil of the founding, when “democracy” was a dirty word to almost all of the framers, in the service of serving up a stronger dose of reality on the history of race than has been given before, places Obama in an untenable position (intellectually, I should emphasize, not necessarily politically).I think this response reflects the exceptionally high hopes and standards many people have for Sen. Obama. Most of us Americans look upon the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution of 1787 as part of a single organic “founding,” and sometimes we throw in the British settlement of the country more than a century and a half before as well. It seems a lot to ask of any candidate in the middle of a presidential race to argue the public into accepting that our Constitution was actually an elite pushback against the regional populism of 1774-1786.
In emphasizing “democracy” and “opportunity for each and every citizen,” Obama seems to me to be taking the approach represented by another Illinois politician, Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address. Lincoln emphasized the Declaration’s and Constitution’s statements of equality rather than their statements of organization and hierarchy. He recast “All men are created equal” from a supposedly self-evident triusm into a “proposition” the U.S. of A. was dedicated to proving, acknowledging the imperfections of the nation in its early decades while laying out the potential for a progressive national narrative.
(Though it’s not directly related to the topic of this posting, I want to praise former candidate Huckabee’s response to the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments. As a fellow preacher, he understood their context, and as a Southerner, he grounded his comments in a solid understanding of 20th-century history.)