Ordinary People | The Nation


Ordinary People

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Despite the dark nature of Holton's analysis of the antidemocratic origin and character of the Constitution, the tone of Unruly Americans is relentlessly upbeat. It is true that the lifelong and articulate rebel Herman Husband, here cast in the hero's role as opposite number to the villainous Abigail Adams, died shortly after (and possibly because) he spent six months in jail for participating in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Holton is also enraged that the framers often get the credit for the Bill of Rights, even though they opposed it until it was forced on them as the price of ratification of the Constitution. And, in addition, there is Holton's denunciation of the historians who browbeat ordinary citizens by citing the Articles of Confederation era as proof that "the people" cannot govern without elite supervision.

About the Author

Robin Einhorn
Robin Einhorn teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of American Taxation,...

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Even so, Unruly Americans brims with optimism. Most of the book is a celebration of the democracy that gets defeated in the end. Holton manages this feat by devoting almost the entire work to the couple of years when the "ordinary" farmer seemed to be winning. You simply can't read Unruly Americans without admiring the depth of Holton's research into the financial and political debates of this brief period in the mid-1780s. Currency depreciation, bond speculation, economic policy, the war debt: these are the subjects that the players in Holton's story most wanted to argue about--and did argue about in the greatest detail. Although this discourse lends Holton's work its rhetorical richness, his reliance on it leads him to ignore the question that has dominated much of the most recent historical writing about the origin of the Constitution--the influence of slavery, not least in helping to load the document with the very antidemocratic provisions that Holton criticizes. This was a subject that the players in Holton's story most definitely did not want to discuss. Thus, while Holton makes the obligatory bows to the struggles of African-Americans against slavery and of Indians against land grabs, his noticing these issues does not alter the inexorably traditional--and at times quite repetitive--way he tells his main story.

Holton's adoption of a kind of faux-naïve tone when referring to the work of other historians--as if he were saying, Gee whiz, the debate over the Constitution was nothing like what they taught me in school--can be maddening. Yet it makes a certain kind of sense, since the historians with whom he is most deeply engaged are Charles Beard and Merrill Jensen (Beard's most important disciple). Beard's pathbreaking An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States appeared in 1913, while Jensen's most influential work, The Articles of Confederation, appeared in 1940. Holton is in a constant debate with Beard and Jensen about the details, but he is writing squarely in the "economic" tradition they established and coming to essentially the same conclusion: the Constitution's adoption was the climax of a long and bitter class conflict in the early Republic. The crucial characteristic of this class conflict is that it was nationwide, looking pretty much the same in Massachusetts and Virginia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, Connecticut and Georgia. This conflict ended in a victory of the rich over the poor, the creditors over the debtors and the merchants over the farmers and artisans. The Constitution was, in this sense, the American Thermidor, the triumphant conclusion of a long struggle, in Holton's words, "to put the democratic genie back in the bottle."

As Staughton Lynd noticed decades ago, this thoroughly traditional story about the economic origin of the Constitution is based on a profoundly skewed portrait of the eighteenth-century class structure--a portrait that originated as a bit of partisan spin in the 1790s. Through the timeless strategies of rhetorical framing and on-the-ground organizing, the most talented politicians of the era, Thomas Jefferson and his allies, sold Americans the story about a nationwide class conflict in a way that wrote slavery out of the picture of early American politics almost completely. But this was a society that enslaved one-fifth of its population. And, more important for questions of political power, it was a society with a North that enslaved only 2 percent of its population and a South that enslaved one-third of its own. By defining the American "elite" as consisting of a small group of Northern merchants and speculators, and defining "the people" as everyone else (that is, all other white males), the Jeffersonians worked out a partisan way of talking about class conflict that let the owners of dozens or even hundreds of people appear to be members of the oppressed plebeian class--especially when they did not want to (or could not) pay their debts. Holton never questions this slavery-erasing portrait of nationwide class conflict. On this, he is with Beard and Jensen against Lynd as well as Leonard Richards, Paul Finkelman, Mark Graber and others who find Southern concern for the protection of slavery to be critical in the debates over the Constitution, even when the participants wanted to be talking about bonds, debts, taxes and currency.

Nor does Holton ask whether there were systematic differences in the state-level constitutional rules he uses to assess democracy. He writes as if a Massachusetts example were interchangeable with a Virginia example, and so on. He is dead wrong about this. The Northern governments actually were much more democratic than the Southern governments, with many more officials elected rather than appointed, and with the elected officials chosen more directly and on the basis of a broader suffrage. The politicians from these more democratic Northern states may well have supported the Constitution to discipline the "irresponsible" state legislatures, but they had not inherited their political positions in the almost literal manner of the South, where careers often began with an appointment by friends of fathers to a local office that would have been popularly elected in the North.

However misleading Holton's story of nationwide class conflict in the 1780s might be, it does have a rhetorical virtue. It is the easiest way to write with optimism and confidence about democracy in American history and to use American history to legitimate further democratizations. Beard's attack on the elitism of the framers helped legitimize the Progressive Era constitutional amendments, including the direct election of senators, women's suffrage and the income tax (though also Prohibition). Holton's message to Americans today--and it looks like we just might be on the verge of another period of democratizing change--is to remember that democracy has sometimes actually happened in the United States. Still, the fact that he has to downplay slavery to do this reminds us why it is hard for historians to dress up as cheerleaders, even for the causes in which we most ardently believe.

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