Bad history!

(Via Washington Monthly)

As anyone who knows me personally understands, I get very annoyed when history is put to bad use in our cluster-fuck of a political discourse. Many commentators out there attempt to wield history as a political sword, seeking to use the a historical anecdote or a hazy historical argument to slash at their opponents and score political points. America’s “Founders” are especially vulnerable to this sort of political misuse and I often groan whenever I hear someone invoke them (even if I agree with the invoker!).

It’s one thing, a great thing, to draw inspiration from the past and see yourself carrying the legacy of one’s historical forebears. It’s different, a terrible thing, to invoke long dead leaders to endorse specific policy approaches. History must inform and aid our political beliefs and judgments for history has an infinite amount of lessons to teach us about today; but it must always be remembered that we do not live in the past. We can not let precedent trap us and prevent us from correcting moral wrongs and from addressing the problems we have today.

It’s one thing for a person in an argument at a bar to invoke Jefferson to prop up some argument, it’s another when someone who should know better does so.

This brings me to Joseph Ellis’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times this weekend. Ellis piece is a critique of those who damn Barack Obama’s non-partisan appeals. Critics, according to Ellis view this sort of talk as invoking an impossible”pipe dream”.

According to Ellis:

Central to the critique is the claim that Obama’s message flies in the face of U.S. history, that partisanship is, as one critic put it, “the natural condition of politics.” Zero-sum, “I’m right, you’re wrong” battles are fundamental to the republic. From the beginning of our history, so the argument goes, an Obama-like message has been a rhetorical veneer designed to obscure the less-attractive reality of irreconcilable division and an inherently adversarial party system.

Ellis then goes on to add (remember that Ellis is, perhaps the top Early American historian that appeals to a broad non-scholarly audience):

While you can certainly marshal evidence to support this interpretation, very few of the so-called founding fathers (save perhaps Aaron Burr[1]) would agree with it. And the first four presidents — George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — would regard it as a perversion of all that they wished the American republic to become.

I have to call bullshit on Ellis’s claim here because, like virtually everyone who attempts to evoke the “Founders” to prove their point, he has to muddle the ‘historical waters’ to make his point.

Essentially Ellis has to obscure what exactly the “Founders” meant when they talked about “faction” and how they viewed their opposite number across the partisan divide in order to make his point. I agree with Ellis in that most of the leading “Founders”, that we so swoon over, constantly denounced faction as a problem for the infant Republic. To the “Founders” factions were an aberration that was taking the country down the wrong path and must be stomped out. The problem comes when we understand that each of the early political parties (the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Federalists) viewed each other as aberrational factions, not as natural by-product of ideological disagreement. This was a revolutionary, pre-partisan age, were there was no “loyal opposition” each side saw the other as completely illegitimate. [2]

Jefferson, Madison and their allies views Hamilton and his allies as faction that was subverting the natural principals of American government and the “Spirit of ’76”. Hamilton and his ilk views the Jefferson/Madison axis as a faction seeking to illegitimately undermine the government and advocating dangerous, radical ideas.

Thus calls against the evils of “faction” were really calls about the evils of the opposition. Partisanship, as we understand it, with a role of a illegitimate opposition it did not truly arise until the coming of Jackson. [3]

Bi-partisanship, a word Ellis drops throughout his piece, could not exist in this sort of atmosphere. At best, leaders such as Washington and Adams, sought to be non-partisan, to act in what he saw as the national interest despite what their particular faction may or may not have approved of. This is not as we would understand it “bi-partisanship” because bi-partisanship means compromise and compromise was not really possible in the atmosphere of the Early Republic (especially during the Washington & Adams administrations).

At one point Ellis even cites Washington’s oft-quoted “Farewell Address”:

And here is how Washington put it in his Farewell Address: The spirit of party “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” Sound familiar?

This is a bad quote of Washington’s to pull out in defense of his famous “non-partisanship”. By the end of his second term Washington was at most partisan point of his public career, having been so sickened by Republican attacks on him and his administration. [4] Thus this call against faction was not a rallying cry to bi-partisan compromise but instead a rallying cry for the Federalist Party.

The thing is I agree with Ellis assertion that Obama’s bi-partisan/feel good message “is not a weird historical aberration” and has a historical basis and a real appeal. I just wish Ellis didn’t have to fudge history to make his argument.

__________________
Notes
(I’d like to have peppered this post with more footnotes, because I love footnotes, and even some primary source quotes but I’m away from the ‘Great Library’ thus don’t have access to my books. Thus this post was written “from memory”.)

[1] Poor Aaron Burr. I don’t think there’s a big name Founder-centric Early Americanist who hasn’t bashed the man. For an excellent corrective that oversells its case see: Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr.

[2] This is understanding of Early Republican politics is drawn, more or less, from Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic.

[3] The latest book I’ve read on this shift into a truly partisan politics is Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. My favorite history book of all time (Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln) is also useful in this.

[4] My understanding of Washington at this point in his political career is drawn from Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. For more enlightening discussion on the Farewell address see: Francois Furstenberg, In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation.

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