J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

“A Mentality Inherited from the Founders”?

David Brooks succumbed to historical fundamentalism in his New York Times opinion column yesterday:

For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn’t because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders.

According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can’t quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don’t think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character).

This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness.
As usual, Brooks was unable to name names while criticizing the American right, but able to do so while criticizing the American left. His column never mentions the last time the U.S. of A. was not adding to “huge peacetime debts” (the Clinton administration). In advocating a non-factional approach to problem-solving, it never mentions the last time a new President invited three members of the opposing party to join his Cabinet (Obama).

Brooks’s presentation of history was equally selective. He described the founders’ stated ideal of “a state of equilibrium between [the nation’s] many factions” while ignoring how they quickly ended up practicing factional politics. Not only was the first generation of American politicians not above partisan strife, they weren’t above anathematizing their opponents.

Brooks’s description of “a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness,” fits perfectly with the Federalist-Jeffersonian battles. Only a month ago Reason TV uploaded a parody attack ad for the 1796 and 1800 campaigns using quotations from John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and their adherents.

As for Brooks’s attempt to tie that approach to politics to “huge peacetime debts,” let’s look at the level of federal debt from 1800 to 2000 (i.e., not including the last decade). The debt was lowest during Andrew Jackson’s administration, just before the Civil War, and in the 1910s. Were those all periods of bipartisan cooperation and respect? Not really.

Federal debt went up as a percentage of G.D.P. during wartime, but also during peacetime economic downturns, including the Panics of 1837, 1873, and 1892, and the Depression of 1929. After the very large spike during World War 2, which ended with the U.S. relatively unscathed among major powers, the country paid down its debt steadily until the economic problems of the 1970s, then borrowed heavily in the 1980s. For more recent history, Wikipedia offers a helpful chart of the growth of U.S. debt, broken out by recent presidential terms.

Again, I’m not seeing the historical correlation that Brooks perceives. Instead, I’m seeing in his column the hallmarks of historical fundamentalism: declaring that the first generation of American founders were:
  • in fundamental agreement with each other.
  • largely right on most major issues.
  • remarkably in line with the author’s own views.


Todd Gardner said...

Brooks apparently has not read the "Ascent of George Washington" by John Ferling either. To suggest that the founders had within them some sort of calculated notion of balance and that this mentality was somehow inherited is just gibberish. And to suggest that issues of debt had nothing to do with "fractionalizing" of the American parties makes less sense. This so-called "ethos" of our fore-fathers is re-written history. While Jefferson and Madison are on their "sight seeing trip" to the North, Hamilton is laughing all the way to the bank.

Jan said...

My impression is that David Brooks simply picks a theme and then writes on it, irrespective of the actual facts that support or undermine it. An article several years ago in the "Philadelphia" magazine found that Brooks doesn't actually fact-check his writing.

I don't like intellectual laziness or people who are praised for traits they don't actually possess (like, in Mr Brooks's case, evenhandedness and accuracy); so thank you for adding to my list of debunked Brooksisms.

RFuller said...

Wasn't Jefferson himself, as were many Virginia planters, deeply in debt to London bankers and tobacco dealers? The latter fronted them the money to keep their upper-class lifestyle going in America, beyond what their products could fetch on the market. They often died, like Jefferson, in debt.

It is easy to forget that the Founding Fathers were deeply flawed men who realized their failings as well as their strengths. They were not gods, nor saw themselves so. They had been through war, a revolution, financial ruin and, in the case of Jefferson and Washington, were ambivalent, often troubled owners of slaves. Hence the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and many of their writings can also be seen as documents based upon "We've seen how bad men can be; don't do as we did".

J. L. Bell said...

I saw Ferling’s Ascent as the story of a man who eventually overcame, or satisfied, the ambition that drove him in his early years. Of course, Washington remained very touchy about his personal reputation through the end of his life, but he really did seem to find a personal balance. But that doesn’t mean all of his peers did, or that they agreed on some sort of national balance.

The comparison with Jefferson seems apt. Washington left a valuable estate, in large part by getting out of tobacco as his main crop, and increased his wife’s fortune. Jefferson left debts for his family because he never could cut himself off from European credit. Even though he disliked Hamilton’s bank and all it represented, Jefferson went through life as a borrower.

Thanks for the link to the article on David Brooks’s “bobo” columns. There’s a reason some journalists go into opinion-writing rather than reporting: they can’t actually do reporting.