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The Changing Same of U.S. History

Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution
Gordon S. Wood
Oxford University Press, $24.95 (cloth)

The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America
Carol Anderson
Bloomsbury, $28.00 (cloth)

“Our Constitution is so old,” says Heidi Schreck in her 2019 Pulitzer– and Tony–nominated play What the Constitution Means to Me. The line is a deliberate double-entendre, its meaning turning subtly on intonation. On the one hand, it captures the complaints of those who want to change the system—so old carrying the sense of obviously obsolete. On the other hand, it gestures at the reverence of those who think it’s our rock—so old, in this case, meant as a badge of honor. By binding these two visions together, the line also gives expression to the ambivalence of liberals like Heidi and me, who were taught to believe that the Constitution can and does change but have learned to wonder about who has benefitted from its protections, much less its ambiguities.

Lately, the debate about whether the Constitution is the problem or the solution has reached a new level of intensity. An older standoff between originalist jurisprudence and living constitutionalism has come to seem quaint, especially in the face of design flaws, from the Electoral College to the Senate, that critics allege have never been addressed, much less fixed. The controversy is as weighted and as polemical as the famous debates between the Ancients and the Moderns over the value of Greek and Roman classics, a debate that in many ways set the stage for the Enlightenment, the Age of Revolutions, and the Constitution itself. Historians find themselves working overtime, called in as consultants, their work on the distant past suddenly rendered relevant. Two new books reveal the widening gulf between those who see the Constitution’s age as a sign of its wisdom and those who see it as the dead hand of the past. At stake is also a longer conflict about whether U.S. history is a matter of great changes or a changing sameness.

The terms of the revived debate today began to take shape in the early twentieth century, when a chorus of self-styled Progressives called for major policy changes to redress structural inequalities and rampant corruption. Though accused of being radical, and often moralistic, they were also professionals in their various fields, well-meaning, and not least burdened by a sense of guilt at their personal good fortune after a series of national economic downturns. They sought to use the tools of modern social analysis and science to create better government. In the young disciplines of history and political science, one of their controversial avatars was a Midwesterner and Columbia professor named Charles Beard, who in 1913 more seriously pursued the suggestion of an earlier scholar, Orin G. Libby, that perhaps the framers of the Constitution had been an alliance of commercial classes more than a virtuous convocation of statesmen. Beard pushed the class analysis even further, depicting the framers as a self-interested clique of bondholders. The implications were obvious. If the Constitution fashioned in 1787 primarily served the class alliances of its time and its authors, then its institutional apparatus could be tinkered with or even thrown aside as decrepit in its very mode of operation as well as its unfortunate results. (It was not a coincidence that the years between 1913 and 1920 saw constitutional amendments permitting the income tax, establishing the direct popular election of U.S. senators, and female suffrage.)

The backlash to Beard helped send an Ohio newspaper editor and former lieutenant governor named Warren G. Harding to a Senate seat and eventually the White House in 1920. Harding’s headlines screamed about Ivy League professors tearing down the “Founding Fathers,” a term he tried out in a subsequent speech that stuck long after its politicized origins were forgotten. The fact that Harding’s own administration reached heights of corruption not exceeded until Donald Trump has never given those who still refer to Founding Fathers any pause.

Despite the backlash in the political realm, Progressive approaches to history, including critical approaches to most of the American past, dominated younger and intellectual circles for a generation, surviving in the work of historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. (and his son, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.). It helped, as Staughton Lynd later pointed out, that Beard and his followers did little to question what Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois famously called “the color line.” Their great battle was between partisans of “the people”—usually farmers but sometimes including their urban working-class allies—and vested interests: businessmen, bankers, capitalists. In this scheme, slaveholding Southern planters and their descendants might be relied upon to lead yeomen (small property holders) against the capitalists.

But the intellectual prominence of the Progressives finally faded, too, beginning in the 1940s. In the middle of a burgeoning Cold War, it proved useful to see the American past as a story of well-meaning colonists taking up arms against the dominant empire of their day, especially as the United States seemed to be on the rise, not falling into corruption or decline. From this perspective, it was the Americans, including the framers of the Constitution, who were provincials, the colonized rather than colonizers, the underdogs who got out from under British dominance. Their financial interests and elite status didn’t matter so much, or even at all. Maybe they even saved the West and its traditions from corruption and imperial overreach.

Anti- or post-progressives thus found that they could have their Americanism and their critique of their colleagues’ Euro-snobbery (whether from the left or the right) at the same time. Ever Oedipal, young historians began to make their name by attacking the pieties of their Progressive forebears. (Not coincidentally, the U.S. academy at this time was growing by leaps and bounds: the generational critique proved fertile soil for career advancement.) The Progressives had been like the Populists, the argument went—their lame, homegrown quasi-socialism exposing them to be provincial rubes and fellow-traveling ideologues at once. The American Revolution and the Constitution were, in fact, worthy of celebration. Criticizing them as antiquated or bourgeois now seemed counterintuitive; they were valuable precisely because the nation hadn’t fallen into one –ism or another. The truths were held self-evident again.

The strength of this kind of history of the American Revolution, as its foremost practitioners Bernard Bailyn and his student Gordon Wood never tired of telling us, is that it has understood its prime movers, who they began calling “the founders,” on their own terms, which means examining their particular worldview sub specie aeternitatis rather than judging it as primitive and lacking or as propaganda, containing seeds of bias or oppression—the cardinal sin of Beard, in their judgment. This worldview could be called ideology—Bailyn’s most famous book traced The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967)—but even as such it was the key to understanding their motives and the reasonable, not regrettable, outcomes. By the late 1980s Bailyn and his students had stopped using the word “ideology,” as by then it smacked too much of critique.

Read entire article at Boston Review