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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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Barack Obama and the Founders

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.

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.
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’).

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. . . .

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.
Hogeland restates his opinion most succinctly in a comment that follows the article:
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.)


Brad Hart said...

Interesting post. Obama's view on the emergence of the American market economy reminds me of the work done by historian Charles Sellers. In his book, "The Market Revolution," Sellers analyzes how the emergence of the Market economy was central to the development of America's social and cultural identity.

I couldn't agree more with you when you state, "It’s so refreshing to imagine a President discussing history with more command than a sixth-grader." Amen to that!

Anonymous said...

Very much appreciate your bringing my piece on Obama's Constitution into such a thoughtful discussion of Obama on Hamilton, Jefferson, and the economy, and of our hopes and expectations of the candidate. And despite the starkness of the contradiction that I discern in Obama's view of the Constitution, I can't help but agree: the very fact that we, and others, are getting into a position to assess and criticize a cogent view of history taken by a presidential candidate is something to be at the very least grateful for.

What continues to strike me is the degree to which Obama's view of history insists on being the most comfortable, even complacent, imaginable, a situation I find ironic -- possibly in the tragic sense - given the disequilibrating role his candidacy supposedly intends to have on business as usual. "What else can he do?" would be the natural question, one I can't answer; it's not that I expect anything more from hi, or any candidate; I suspect the strategy is to position his ascending to the presidency as nothing less than the culmination of the greatest story ever told. (Not a bad strategy either.)

But given that he, more than any other candidate, relies on repeatedly framing his ideas and aspirations in triumphal historical terms, invoking the great goosebump moments from Lexington and Concord on, and given that some of us agree with him that we ought to look at history when wrestling with current issues from race to the economy, I think his historical ideas cry out for interrogation, not in order to assess his particular political viability but because they're important in themselves.

Obama's remarks about Hamilton and Jefferson epitomize, as you note, the consensus view, which may never have been summed up more deftly than this: "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. That description does, I'm afraid, leave both him and us back in sixth grade -- a sixth grade, at that, without much teaching going on. It's fanciful, at least regarding Hamilton (you were kind enough to link to my long Boston Review piece on this very issue some months ago), whose legacy has been claimed lately by everybody from Secretary Paulson to Robert Rubin. But more impotantly, it's overdetermined, therefore useless to helping address or communicate economic issues. The trouble with consensus history isn't that it's always necessarily wrong but that the need to discern consensus overrides the need to confront conflicts that, if they're not irreducible, can't be reduced by pretending they don't exist.

Maybe there's a way for Obama to add nuance and realism -- toughness? -- to his rosy renditions without losing his audience, and maybe there isn't. But as historians, we have to realize that whatever Obama will really do about the economy, say, simply can't -- we have to hope! -- be found in the simplistic view of history he has been incessantly promoting.

J. L. Bell said...

Bill, you write, “we have to realize that whatever Obama will really do about the economy, say, simply can't -- we have to hope! -- be found in the simplistic view of history he has been incessantly promoting.”

Indeed, the last place I hope any 2008 candidate would look for economic policy is in the eighteenth century. The policies and solutions of that time obviously don’t apply to our situation today.

In invoking the economic debates of the founding era, Obama seems to be doing two things. First, he’s trying to articulate principles from that period. Since history is immensely detailed and complex, it’s possible, given enough history, to support almost any principles one wants. However, we can nonetheless gauge what ideology Obama feels should be supported by how he interprets the past for us.

Second, Obama’s trying to use those references to root his ideas and himself in the American heritage, as all national candidates do. It’s part marketing, part genuine ideology.

Would good historians make good politicians? The last history professor we elected to the presidency was Woodrow Wilson. I believe the last one to be a major political figure was Newt Gingrich. Among major historians to hold political offices I can think of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and George Bancroft. All of those men presented the American story as one of progress, liberty, and equality (as they chose to define it). Is it possible for a historian to be politically successful with any other point of view?

Anonymous said...

"Indeed, the last place I hope any 2008 candidate would look for economic policy is in the eighteenth century. The policies and solutions of that time obviously don’t apply to our situation today." Well, in that sense, sure. The thing is, Obama is looking to the eighteenth century, explicitly rooting current challenges to "the same forces that confronted Hamilton and Jefferson." And I think his reliance on the famous TJ-AH polarity lacks much realism -- the realism that might repay looking to history, and using historical references as benchmarks. I'm not sure that any kind of intellectual, historian or otherwise, can make a good politician, for the reasons you suggest: consensus, real or manufactured, is the song successful politicians sing; intellectuals must deal in conflict. Thus any pol's citing a historical interpretation raises questions, and hence the sheer weirdness of the issue for Obama, whose comments on race, in the context of discussing Wright's sermons, though emphasizing progress and consensus, also demanded of his audience a greater sense of historical realism and complexity than Obama himself is willing (for all the understandable reasons you mention) to grant other relevant aspects of our history. Thanks again --

Chris McNulty said...

In your list of of founding events I think you left out the high water mark of the Continental/Confederation Congress -- the Northwest Ordinance. It established the pattern of territorial expansion, curbed slavery, supported public education and civil liberties, and continued the democratization of real property.

J. L. Bell said...

Are you perhaps from the old Northwest Territory? I say that because I don’t hear a lot of New Englanders thinking of the Northwest Ordinance as a “founding” so much as ordinary government business like the Homestead Act. Regional prejudice, I’m sure.

In this context of what the American people consider the nation’s founding, I think the Articles of Confederation gets barely any attention at all and is really very important, so that would actually be next on my list.

Chris McNulty said...

I live in the hometown of the Suffolk Resolves (Milton, Massachusetts), and, no, New Englanders dont usually consider much outside of New England in founding history.

The popular history of the Revolution, according to a New Englander is:
-The Boston Massacre
-Tea Party, somewhere along the way
-Lexington & Concord
-Victory at Bunker Hill!
-Somewhere along the way the British left Boston
-The Declaration
-Six years of nothing happening [maybe Saratoga, if you're talking to a Vermonter -- whoops, the New Hampshire Grants]
-I guess the French finally showed up for Yorktown, and then we won!

Savannah, New York, Momouth, the Cowpens, Guilford Courthouse, etc., never happened in popular knowledge.
Nor, too, the Salem Alarm, the Siege of Boston (won without a shot) the batlle of Groton Heights, Newport, the invasion of Maine, etc.

J. L. Bell said...

I think we’re also generally willing to acknowledge that George Washington crossed the Delaware, though which direction he was going and why is fuzzy.

But that tiny detail aside, you’ve offered an excellent summary of the American Revolution from a Massochucentric perspective. And isn’t it lovely that, since New England was the center of American scholarship and publishing for many decades, that view of the war got stamped into a lot of history books?

Anonymous said...

Pre revolution.There are many things that led up to the revolt.One being the "Halifax Resolves".I am surprised to not find anything on your site about this.As these resolves and some others before.Are what led us to the
"Revolution".God Bless,Dennis

J. L. Bell said...

The statement later dubbed the “Halifax Resolves” was adopted in Halifax County, North Carolina, on 12 Apr 1776, by which time the American revolt was already well under way. British troops had been driven entirely out of the thirteen colonies (for a while), and every colony was being governed by an elected congress with no royal officials.

Those resolutions were one of many statements from various bodies supporting resistance to the Crown and independence from Great Britain. Pauline Maier’s American Scripture discusses these many documents.

As for their pertinence to Boston 1775, North Carolina is a distance from Massachusetts. But I can report that one of the Continental Congress delegates mentioned in the Halifax Resolves, William Hooper, was a graduate of the South Latin School in Boston.

Anonymous said...

The Halifax Resolves was the first official action by any of the 13 colonies.Calling for independence of the United Colonies.This was the foreruner of the Declaration of Independence.Something else alot of people dont know about is the Biennial Act 1715--1737.And the Mecklenburg Resolves.These were steping stones leading to the American Revolution.And showed the Crown.We are fed up,with the way things are going.So these would affect all the Colonies as well.And may we not forget the savior or Boston.Who shiped food and supplies there,when people where starving.By the grace and goodness of the people of Carolina.,God Bless,Dennis

J. L. Bell said...

Just as there’s a New England view of the Revolution that gives little attention to events outside the region and after 1776, so there’s a North Carolinian view of the Revolution. What seems important close up doesn’t prove to have much influence on other places. I think that applies to North Carolina’s Biennial Acts, the myth-shrouded Mecklenburg documents, and the “Halifax Resolves.”

Anonymous said...

Mr.Bell the Halifax Resolves.Are more than a "view".These were legal documents by which 83 delegates.Put their lives on the line for.Mind you,there were quite a few Mass folks here at the time.Several plantation owners.Who still lived in Boston.And because of this.They had a voice in the Carolinas.Are they not worth the lifes lost.Because of this.These did effect Boston.Maybe indirect.But they should be included in your sidebar links.As you have included others of less importance.By the way i do like this site.As it is a good resource for someone getting started in doing American Revolution research.Not just Boston.By the way i am a decendant of the Col.John Crane family.This is what brought me to this site.Would you please put a link to those mentioned.For others to use.To atleast let'em know.The efforts of their brothers in arms in Carolina.Had some impact,on the sceme of things.God Bless,Dennis

J. L. Bell said...

The long list of topics on the right are subjects I’ve written about on this blog. It’s not a comprehensive list of subjects important in the American Revolution. If I have new things to say about developments in North Carolina, or find sources that indicate those events affected the Revolution in New England, then I might well write about them, and they’d show up on the list. Until then, people would be better off starting with a Google search.