Sunday, February 20, 2011

American Founding: Getting It Right

Do you think you know the birth of our nation? John Adams doesn't think so. "The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other," he railed in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush in 1790. "The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical rod smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod, and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures and war."

I ask audiences how they would characterize what happened between 1761-1815 in Anglo-British North America. Something obviously changed.

Words matter. Ideas have consequences. Different words are used to characterize the change. Does the grand term "American Revolution" best capture what happened? Or does emphasizing the more defensive nature of the conflict with the term "resistance movement" seem more accurate? Some people highlight the military conflict, the "War for Independence." Others underscore the more positive action encapsulated by the term "American Founding." Still others perceptively insist that the conflict on both sides of the Atlantic was in essence a civil war over the meaning of the British constitution and ancient rights of Englishmen.

Perhaps it takes all five terms to characterize the change in Anglo-British North America between 1761-1815: What began as a constitutional debate turned into a resistance movement; the resistance movement morphed into a kind of civil war for independence; victory on the battlefield enabled Americans to found a new nation; Americans had to reassert that victory on the battlefield and at sea in the War of 1812; in retrospect, some of the changes during the war and founding were intentional and revolutionary. This is, indeed, a precis of what happened in Anglo-British North America between 1761-1815.
The purpose of the following essays is to get behind the convenient label "American Revolution" that we put on the box crammed with founding era stuff. The purpose is to explore the meaning of the changes in Anglo-British North America between 1761-1801. February 24, 1761, is a convenient beginning because that is when one of the chief protagonists of the story, John Adams, listened to a James Otis speech in a courtroom and was later moved to claim, "Then and there, the child independence was born." March 4, 1801, is an important marker because another chief protagonist, Thomas Jefferson, would look back and see the day of his inauguration as a second American Revolution.

You note that I follow some historians who stretch the ending of the period to include the War of 1812, often referred to as the Second War for Independence since the Americans and Brits still had not settled fundamental differences. U.S. territory was invaded and our nation's capital burned.

Other historians measure the end of the era with the presidency of John Quincy Adams or Andrew Jackson, the nation's last commanders in chief to have participated in some capacity in the era of the Revolutionary War. 

Historians vs. Hotheads

In any case, to understand two-and-a-half centuries of debate over the American Revolution, one must grapple with the legacy of the French Revolution (1789-'99). Although the French Revolution occurred in the 18th century, much of the history of the 19th century was a reaction to it. La Révolution française spawned or reinforced a passel of "isms" -- romanticism, liberalism, socialism, Marxism, progressivism, anarchism, social Darwinism, conservatism -- all competing in the marketplace of ideas. These ideologies generated a variety of polemical works not just about the French but also about the American Revolution. They can be fascinating reads, but they are not necessarily good history.

Out of the French Revolution and subsequent "isms" came the modern notion of the ideologue. The first known use of the word "ideologue" was, not surprisingly, in French in 1815. Merriam-Webster defines the ideologue as "an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology." Synonyms include crusader, fanatic, zealot, militant, partisan, red hot, true believer.

Philip Tetlock has humorously opined that partisan-ideologues "across the opinion spectrum are vulnerable to occasional bouts of ideologically induced insanity."

If ideologues are by definition incapable of dispassionate work, can their writing be historically sound? Sure, parts of their writing can provide insights and the stimulus to further research. But the very definition of the word "ideologue" casts doubt on the historical integrity of their writing.

In part to take on the hotheaded "history" of the ideologues, academic history congealed as a profession in the 19th century. The new profession was an extension of the Enlightenment project and highly influenced by the German historian Leopold von Ranke. This father of modern history left a huge footprint on the historical profession. For he stressed the empirical method, gleaned facts from primary sources, constructed narratives that limited speculation, and resisted abstract theories. History should be written wie es eigentlich gewesen -- "as it actually happened." Moreover, professionally trained historians were to keep cool heads. They were to resist being co-opted by hotheads -- ideologues -- who subsumed all else to some religious, political, or social agenda. The antidote to ideology, this.

The trouble with historians is that they can appear to be dispassionate when in fact they are partisan. The trouble with ideologues is that their religious, political, or social agenda trumps the search for historical truth. Conflate the two, and such ideologically motivated historians should be handled with tongs. Their agendas are likely camouflaged by such trappings of objectivity as the use of archives, primary sources, direct quotations, footnotes, bibliographies, refereed literature, and other scientific apparatus. Don't be fooled. These trappings no more guarantee objectivity than makeup guarantees beauty. When a religious, political, or social agenda is considered more important than scrupulous inquiry into the past as it actually happened, then inconvenient evidence is ignored or manipulated. Tensions and paradoxes go unacknowledged. Historical narrative is warped by polemical assertion.

Ideology -- modernity's intellectual alchemy

Another antidote to ideologues and ideology goes farther back than Ranke. It is the scientific journal, an innovation that appeared in the 17th century at the dawn of the Enlightenment. Many honest seekers of knowledge about the natural world -- dubbed "natural philosophers" in early modern Europe -- were frustrated by alchemists who claimed secret knowledge of nature and refused to share that knowledge or submit their secrets to a candid world. To flush the alchemists out, these natural philosophers began publishing scientific journals. The idea behind scientific journals was to propose a more intellectually open and honest model to advance knowledge of the natural world. Pioneeering natural philosophers submitted their hypotheses, methods, data, knowledge, and assessments to a candid world so that anyone could test claims for themselves and evaluate the findings, consistent with the canons of evidence and the laws of thinking. Knowledge became established -- "laws" became paradigmatic -- when corroborated by subsequent experiments that were corroborated by universal reason over time.

We all know the limits of the Enlightenment ideal: (1) Reason is not the only way knowledge is acquired -- think of how important instinct, intuition, and emotional intelligence are to knowing. (2) Even when reason is scrupulously applied to the evidence, radically different interpretations -- each valid -- can result. (3) Believers in the three Abraham faiths -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- believe that there are some things that human beings need to know but cannot know on their own, thus the necessity of God's revelation as a source of knowledge.

Whatever its limits, the Enlightenment model became normative for the historical profession. It proved useful for the acquisition of public knowledge of the past. It is the working assumption of historians trained after Ranke that knowledge of the past is advanced when researchers have open, equal access to the same archives and historical materials. Ideologues are not indifferent or friendly to this ideal. Worse, they do not have the courage, as Stephen Tonsor used to tell his students, to follow the evidence wherever it might lead, no matter how upsetting it may be to the status quo or to conventional wisdom. Ideologues are threatened by the open search for knowledge. They seek to coopt the evidence for their own purposes, often hiding behind jargon-laden theories that are comprehensible only to the gnostic few. They are yesterday's alchemists.

We have all heard about sensational instances of fraudulent science (fluoride, vaccines, aspartame, and both sides of the global warming debate). History is no less prone to fraud. Numerous flawed or fraudulent monographs have been foisted on the scholarly community and book-reading public. Perhaps most famous of all is David Irving's work that denied the reality of the Final Solution. Another notorious example of problematic "scholarship" is Michael Bellesiles's Arming America (2001). Because the author could not produce the evidence he claims to have consulted, the work appears to be more of an attack on the National Rifle Association than an accurate study of early American gun ownership. The History News Network has posted a longish list of authors who have been accused by of sloppy, misleading, or outright dishonest scholarship.

As William Kelleher Storey points out in Writing History, "Real historical writers probe factual uncertainties, but they do not invent convenient facts and they do not ignore inconvenient facts. People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts."

McDonald vs. Beard

The American founding is one of the salients over which historians of various schools and ideologues of various stripes have fought. One of the most famous contests occurred when Forrest McDonald answered -- and corrected -- Charles Beard's highly partisan interpretation of the Constitution's framers. Beard's Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) reevaluated the founders as economic agents. In deliberations over the Constitution, their votes yea or nay supposedly reflected class- and self-interest above all else. It was a questionable assumption but, among progressive historians, the work was well received. Beard's career took a turn for the worse when he asserted that Franklin Roosevelt was more to blame for American involvement in World War II than Japan or Germany.

As a graduate student, Forrest McDonald challenged Beard by revisiting the source material and discovering that the Constitution's framers were motivated not so much by economic interest as by the political ideals and experiences of a people living in the legacy of the Glorious Revolution and a century of self-rule. McDonald's work has stood the test of time. It is honest historical scholarship untainted by ideology. After McDonald published three books demolishing Beard, it was hard ever to read Beard's Economic Interpretation other than as a period piece of the Progressive Era.

One U.S. President's Interpretation of the American Revolution

Not surprisingly, U.S. presidents come to terms with the American Revolution in instructive ways. One president recently wrote of the Founders:
"It's not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of an idea or ideology or theology or "ism," any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single unalterable course, to drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad. The Founders may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them.... They were suspicious of abstraction and liked asking questions, which is why at every turn in our early history theory yielded to fact and necessity."
This passage is from The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (p. 93), by then-Senator Barack Obama. On the face of it, the author properly rejects ideologies and "isms." His interpretation sounds reasonable, but is it entirely plausible?

No doubt, some of the more intellectually radical founders -- Thomas Paine and the very young Thomas Jefferson -- did subscribe to the Enlightenment ideal of the open-ended pursuit of truth in all its manifestations -- theological, philosophical, political, and historical. But to claim that the Founders rejected absolute truth is inaccurate. More precisely, it is to commit the historical fallacy of presentism, which interprets the past not in its context but in ours.

There is evidence aplenty to refute the notion that the Founders were relativists. Even Jefferson by the time he was 33 years old was writing in the Declaration of Independence of self-evident truths established by the laws of nature and nature's God. Doesn't the notion of transcendent laws suggest that he and the 55 other signers of the Declaration subscribed to at least a few absolute truths, especially regarding the rights of human beings? Indeed, quite a number of founders were confident in a good many absolutes. Take John Jay, a devout, orthodox, church-going Christian through the entire founding period. He and other orthodox Christians rejected the more extreme claims of the radical Enlightenment then current in France. It was only because they were confident in "the protection of divine Providence" that the Founders could stake their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the revolution. It would be difficult to imagine such an assertion in the defense of a thoroughgoing relativism.

A later writer, John Courtney Murray, observed in We Hold These Truths -- and I thank Tracy Mehan for reminding me of the passage -- "The sense of the famous phrase ["We hold these truths"] is simply this: There are truths, and we hold them, and we here lay them down as the basis and inspiration of the American project, this constitutional commonwealth." Against the relativists, Murray argued that "the life of man in society under government is founded on truths, on a certain body of objective truth, universal in its import, accessible to the reason of man, definable, defensible.... If this assertion is denied, the American Proposition is, I think, eviscerated at one stroke."

Getting It Right

The American founding deserves to be understood as it actually happened. After all, this is our founding. It realized our inherent rights as human beings. It makes our way of life possible. Not only that, but it is also one of the top 25 threshold events in human history, guided by the most remarkable generation of political thinkers and actors the world has ever seen. We owe it to the rising generation (and of course to ourselves) to get the history right.

In the spirit of getting the history right, the following essays explore big issues of the American founding that have been historiographic and ideological minefields.

To learn more, visit

No comments:

Post a Comment