01 January 2013

Give Me Liberty (And Protect My Property!)

A second-hand discussion because I'm linking here to a book review by David Skeel. Skeel reviews Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation (Discovering America) by William Hogeland. Hogeland's thesis is that the Constitution was an anti-democratic document far less intended to protect individual rights than to guarantee the existing rights of property (and, I would add, contract) against populist encroachment. My previous posts about Skeel's work suggest that I might think he's the right person for such a review (see here, here, and here). And he is.

Hogeland, Skeel observes, correctly points out that the "Founders" were aghast at the increasingly democratic "excesses" of the various States. Skeel also quotes Hogeland to the effect that "The financial wracking of America in the 1780s was the open struggle between ordinary people and upscale investors," which was "edited out of our common memory long ago." In fact, it is the overlap between populism and finance that more than anything prompted the Constitutional Convention. Increasing inflation of state-issued currency, interference with the collection rights of creditors (including English ones), and direct action like Shay's Rebellion terrified the elites who met in Philadelphia to craft a strong central government that would ensure a stable economic superstructure free from democratic intermeddling.

Thus, both the radical Left and the Tea Party right have misconstrued (or mispercieved, or perhaps misrepresented) the Constitution. In other words, the Constitution was written neither to maximize sexual autonomy in its many flavors nor even to protect individuals from federal power. (The Second Amendment is, after all, an amendment to the Constitution, added at the behest of the democratic Anti-Federalist forces (like Patrick Henry who "smelled a rat") opposed to the Constitution's ratification.)

You can read Skeel's review to get the full flavor of Hogeland's book. My only quibble, at least as it comes through the review, is Hogeland's dissing of Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty, the magisterial account of the early American republic (1789-1815). It is Wood who firmly, patiently, and with great detail describes the rending of the economic and social fabric of pre-Constitutional America, which generated the Constitutional reaction. And more than any else I've read, it is Wood who explains in understandable language the brilliance of Alexander Hamilton in engineering the assumption by the new federal government of the states' war debts and the creation of the first Bank of the United States to issue notes that could be exchanged in lieu of currency. (Quantitative easing, anyone?)

Of course, the high Federalist early years of the Republic came to an end with the election of 1800, never to return. And the social fabric of America was substantially re-knitted with the Civil War so that the greatly strengthened federal government of the "second republic" saw (and continues to see) its role as something other than preservation of property and contract remedies. The differences in worldviews of the Founding elites and the contemporary ones can hardly be overstated. Yet it is important to recall that then and now the Constitution was an instrument of and for the elites. Which, come to think of it, pretty well describes civil governments generally.

1 comment:

  1. Great article about giving the liberty to protect your own property. Even i agree with the difference in worldviews of founding elites.