It has long been a truism of American politics that electoral success is impossible without genuflecting to the founders and the flag. This is always absurd, not to mention frequently ahistorical, as when Thomas Jefferson, who prescribed a revolution every 20 years or so, is toasted as the paragon of stable conservatism. In recent years, however, the tendency has reached new heights of idiocy. When he announced his campaign for the presidency last year, self-described “constitutional conservative” Ted Cruz compared himself to Patrick Henry, the Virginia revolutionist who fiercely opposed the Constitution in the debate over its ratification. “I have the highest veneration of those Gentlemen,” Henry said of the propertied elite who took it upon themselves to write a new, more creditor-friendly Constitution. “But…what right had they to say, We, the People?”
It is refreshing, then, that a candidate for the highest office in the land appears to possess an at least slightly nuanced understanding of the American founding and all its annoying complexity—including the class struggle that contemporaneous participants and observers understood to be at the core of the intense battle over it. The argument that American politics is and ought to be fundamentally anti-democratic appears to be the latest pin with which Hillary Clinton is trying to pierce the Bernie Sanders balloon.
In an interview last week with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who alley-ooped the former secretary of state by saying of Sanders, “You can call for a revolution but it ain’t gonna happen,” Clinton responded:
Our system is set up to make it difficult. Checks and balances. Separation of powers. Our Founders knew, if we were going to survive as the great democracy that they were creating, we had to have a system that kept the passions at bay. We had to have people who were willing to roll up their sleeves and compromise. We couldn’t have ideologues who were just hurling their rhetoric back and forth. We had to actually produce results. That hasn’t changed since George Washington.
First, let’s dispense with the contradiction at the core of this argument. Very simply, and incontrovertibly: The founders did not intend to create a “great democracy.” They were terrified of democracy, and of the people. That’s why they secretly gathered in Philadelphia in the first place: bands of angry and indebted Revolutionary War veterans were marching around the countryside in Massachusetts and elsewhere, threatening to shut down courts and to take over military arsenals if the state governments didn’t stop burdening them with oppressive taxes to pay off the wealthy bondholders who had snatched up promissory notes given to soldiers at the end of the war against Britain. Robbed both coming and going—by the weak federal government, who tried to create a new American aristocracy by giving military officers far more lavish pay than their men, and by tax-happy state governments in hock to those nascent aristocrats—the rebels demanded less taxation and more representation. The point of the Constitution was to give them exactly the opposite.
Respectable historians have long known this to be the case, but unlike her comments last month disparaging Reconstruction as regrettably disharmonious—a reading of history associated with resurgent white supremacists in the 20th century and long since debunked, most decisively by Eric Foner—Clinton’s claim that the founders intended to create a “great democracy” was scarcely noticed. By minimizing the accomplishments of the first truly multiracial democracy the world ever saw, the Dunning School did a lot of damage; by expunging class struggle from the origins of the republic, the fairy-tale view of the American founding has arguably done a whole lot more.