Ordinary People | The Nation


Ordinary People

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It's not every day that you read a book about American history that casts Abigail Adams as a villain. Perhaps "villain" is too strong a word, but in Unruly Americans, Woody Holton's analysis of the origins of the Constitution, Adams appears again and again as a spokeswoman for antidemocratic elites. And not just any antidemocratic elites. The elites being attacked here were the speculators in government bonds and currency who, Holton argues, demanded, framed, defended and won the adoption of the US Constitution--for the forthright purpose of reversing the democratizing effects of the American Revolution. Abigail Adams is best known for urging husband John to "remember the ladies" in 1776, but Holton tells us about the Adams of the mid-1780s: a hardheaded businesswoman, an avid speculator and an articulate expositor of the classic shibboleth of investors that astronomical windfall profits are only their due.

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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Like everyone else who has ever written about the origin of the Constitution, Holton, a professor of history at the University of Richmond, sees very high stakes in how Americans look back on the politics of the 1780s. He is not so worried about the views of the relatively uninformed Americans who routinely confuse the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence. Holton points out, as historians always do, that the Constitution contains none of the Declaration's soaring language about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," though he goes a bit further than usual in evoking the sinister character of the Constitution's aspiration to "insure domestic tranquility." He considers a government that is strong enough to crush popular violence to be inherently elitist, mainly because his idea of popular violence emphasizes events like Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts and the tradition of slave rebellions from Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment during the Revolutionary War to the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831 and John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. If Holton's examples included the antiabolitionist riots of the 1830s, the anti-Catholic riots of the 1840s, racist pogroms like the New York City Draft Riot of 1863 and the terrorism that was so rampant in the South for a century after the Civil War (not least the lynchings), a government that could "insure domestic tranquility" might look rather better.

Holton's real target is less the misty-eyed view of a democratic Constitution than the view of the more informed Americans--especially scholars--who agree that the Constitution was not democratic but side with the pro-Constitution Federalists anyway. In this Federalist view, the Constitution rescued the United States from an economic crisis that threatened its very survival. The causes of the economic crisis, in this telling, lay in the fact that during the mid-1780s incompetent plebeians controlled the state governments and gave their constituents what they wanted--relief from crushing taxes and onerous debts. Because nobody could discipline such "irresponsible" behavior under the feckless Articles of Confederation, the elites mobilized their considerable political and intellectual talents to replace the Articles with a better government in what was essentially a coup d'état. In this story, which Holton sees as prevailing among historians today, the Constitution was the handiwork of an energetic and talented elite who rescued the United States from democracy.

What's dangerous about this narrative, Holton argues, is that it grants "well-to-do and well-educated Americans a breezy sense of political entitlement" while exerting "just the opposite effect on ordinary citizens, chipping away at their self-confidence." Would that historians had such a direct impact on the public! It's hard to believe that ordinary citizens can possibly lose their political self-confidence because of an interpretation of the history of the 1780s when there are so many more proximate problems--from Diebold voting machines to felon disenfranchisement, Bush v. Gore and the other ways majority rule has been systematically undermined in the contemporary United States.

What Holton really wants is for Americans to understand that we have a grander political tradition than constitutionalism, a democratic tradition in which "ordinary farmers" used tangible power to win tangible gains. He recognizes that the farmers he is celebrating were white men who could meet property qualifications for voting and office holding, but he still considers them to be ordinary enough (and it is hard to disagree) that their ability to defy the shrieking complaints of financial elites to craft their own economic policies can be inspirational. It is almost as if Holton were assuring us that we really can elect populists who can then defeat entrenched interests like banks and insurance companies--no matter how loudly or haughtily the talking heads of the media conglomerates disagree.

One problem with this inspirational tale is that the unruly Americans Holton celebrates actually did not win, if we define winning the way he does. For Holton, they would have won if the United States had retained the highly democratic representative arrangements that existed in some states in the mid-1780s: direct and preferably annual elections, large legislative bodies chosen from small districts, legislative supremacy secured by a weak or nonexistent executive and a broad suffrage. The Constitution established the opposite: large districts for the House of Representatives (the first House had only sixty-five members) and the flagrantly antidemocratic three-fifths rule to inflate Southern representation; indirect election of senators by the state legislatures for staggered six-year terms; and a veto-wielding President allowed an unlimited number of four-year terms and chosen by an Electoral College that included the three-fifths boost for the South (since each state's electoral vote was based, as it still is, on the size of its House delegation plus its two senators). Toss in the federal courts and the clauses barring states from printing money or impairing contracts, and the result was a rout of Holton's version of democracy. Add to this the fact that the Philadelphia convention had never been authorized to write a new Constitution, and that its ratification procedure blatantly violated the amendment rule in the Articles of Confederation, which could be amended only by the unanimous consent of the state legislatures, and the result is quite literally a coup.

Holton admits that the supporters of the Constitution included some people who were not bond-holding speculators. Western settlers wanted a national government strong enough to fight Indians and expropriate more of their land. Residents of states without major ports wanted to stop paying their neighbors' taxes when they bought imports (for instance, when Connecticut residents bought goods on which New York or Rhode Island had levied tariffs, as they did until the Constitution granted Congress a monopoly on this form of taxation). Holton even concedes that the elites were right to emphasize the benefits the United States would enjoy once it established a financial environment safe enough to attract foreign investment.

Most important, the Constitution delivered the comprehensive tax relief that the "ordinary farmers" who populate Unruly Americans had fought so hard for and sometimes won in their states under the Articles of Confederation. Or, more precisely, Alexander Hamilton's plan for handling the Revolutionary War debt delivered this tax relief. Hamilton's plan to fund government bonds at face value, even though most were held by speculators (like Abigail Adams) who had bought them in depreciated currency for pennies on the dollar, certainly handed windfall profits to some lucky investors. His plan for the federal government to "assume" the war debts of the states amplified these windfalls by including more speculative investments in the boon.

But the very same programs also slashed the tremendously onerous tax burdens that some states had been imposing when they thought they had to deal with the costs of the Revolutionary War on their own. The state taxes, levied mainly on polls and property (supplemented by import taxes in a few states), were burdensome not only in their amount but also in their form: they had to be paid in lump sums and in "hard" money that was almost impossible to obtain. Taxpayers who could not pay these taxes, for whatever reason, risked losing their property to foreclosure. This, of course, was the farmers' worst nightmare. By shifting the burden of the war debt from these state taxes to a federal government that could raise large sums with relative ease at the nation's ports, Hamilton's program paired the speculators' bonanza with a powerful dose of relief for the "ordinary" American taxpayer.

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.

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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