Sympathy for the Founders

One day soon, someone will write the history of the bankers, fund managers, lawyers and accountants who helped make our present financial crisis. When they do, they’ll need to be careful not to lose sight of the far larger group of people – really, everyone – who were also part of that process, the suffering they endured and the resistance they enacted. It would need to be a cultural, intellectual, legal, political, and social history that gave account not only of how the financial elite thought and acted, but how that thought and action was shaped by structures and events. It would see the world reflected in their eyes. In that moment, it might show a little sympathy.

That’s how I feel about my own project, a history of power and ideology among American elites in the 1780s. The first question that troubles me – why study elites? – tends to dissolve into a slightly different one – what does it mean to study elites? To be meaningful it has to be a way of studying how historical change happens and how the conditions of life are produced. Elites are both separate and inseparable from the rest of society, linked in a complex, ambivalent embrace that constitutes a kind of class struggle. And class struggle is history in action.

My point of departure is an effort to take elites seriously as ethical and cultural subjects as well as material agents. Rational self-interest (however we might try to understand that) does just as poor a job of explaining them as it does for anyone else. But the historiography of class struggle is too often read in that straightforwardly material way. It’s ironic that Charles Beard now stands as a paragon of precisely that approach (“discredited,” “outdated,” etc.) when his work actually framed itself as a study in complex class identity. He showed the way, but his Cold War critics saw only the end of the road.

Personal and class identities, motives, and subjectivities are formed and continually re-formed in dynamic interaction with a world that is more than material. The historians who have done most to illuminate this process in relation to America’s founders seem to have been the most sceptical about their role in class struggle itself – Douglass Adair being a notable example, along with Eric McKitrick and Stanley Elkins who I’ll be writing about here next month. More recently scholars like Andrew Trees, Eric Slauter, and Carol Smith-Rosenberg have in quite different ways added to the complex picture of identity-formation, and linked it to the politics of the founding. The legal, political, and rhetorical strategies available to any individual or group shape, and are shaped by, the ways they imagine themselves and others.

It’s in trying to understand how America’s founders imagined themselves that I think sympathy has a role. In his post here, Michael D. Hattem pointed out Henry Wiencek’s insight on Jefferson – “This S.O.B. is utterly cold.” It might be more helpful to think of our subjects as warm: that is, as humans who lived. Like us, they hold inconsistent positions and do contradictory things; they look out for themselves but they also care about others; they have ideas about justice and goodness; sometimes they have faith. Historians can try to show how all these aspects of real human life fit into the problem of historical change and conditions – of power, ideology, and class struggle. In turn, a bit of sympathy might help us think about our own complex role in those things.

6 comments on “Sympathy for the Founders

  1. Aaron Knapp says:

    Thanks very much for these provocative thoughts. I am also looking very closely at the 1780s in my research. Four thoughts in response:

    1. I like the title of the post — perhaps a veiled reference to the Rolling Stones’ song? But is it possible to have sympathy for the devil? For Charles Cotesworth Pinckney who held the Philadelphia Convention hostage by bluntly declaring that SC would not ratify unless slavery was afforded constitutional protection? For the other men who caved to Pinckney’s ultimatum?

    2. As to Beard’s interpretation of the men of ’87, I think it’s experiencing something of a revival, no? (Thinking in particular of Woody Holton’s Unruly Americans, but others too). In any case, I think it deserves a revival — and I like your idea of rediscovering the nuances of an argument too often oversimplified by critics. I, for one, have always thought Beard’s book, while certainly not unassailable, stands as a picture of compelling, courageous historical exegesis. The Beardian view, however, must confront significant contemporary headwinds — primarily from very influential revisionist constitutional historians (thinking of Akhil Amar) who see the founding through rosy-colored lenses.

    3. I think we certainly owe it to dead people to try to understand their complex worlds — to treat them sympathetically, as you say, as warm bodies — before we indict, celebrate or otherwise apply anachronistic norms or values structures to their ideas or conduct. Then again, perhaps as historians we have no business making judgments about historical actors by any standards other than their own. A true Beardian revival, however, would take issue with this position, for Beard viewed the historian as, in part, an activist!

    4. Finally, as to elite history, if during a particular time period certain elites lead public opinion on particular questions, doesn’t this problematize the distinction between “social” and traditional “political” history with respect to those questions? I personally believe that elites did substantially lead public opinion in the resistance and revolutionary movements in the 1760s and 70s — and also in 1787. The Critical Period is a closer question, so you may have some interesting difficulties to confront in your research. (As do I). As to most antebellum reform movements, inc. anti-slavery, I think the impulse began below.

    Thanks very much.

  2. Tom wrote: “Personal and class identities, motives, and subjectivities are formed and continually re-formed in dynamic interaction with a world that is more than material.”

    This is something I have tried to do in some of my work. I think a mistake of Progressives and neo-Progressives, like Nash, Countryman, Holton, etc…, was that their inquiries into class were based largely on conflict. Personally, that is almost as historically unsatisfying as an old-school 1950s consensus position. In my own work, I have tried to get past the old narratives by attempting to understand class relations (or negotiation) as opposed to class conflict, which necessarily constricts one’s historical frame. This is not to minimize conflict between classes (and to be honest I’m still hesitant about using the term “classes” when talking about the eighteenth century), but I believe we have to recognize that there were beneficial interrelationships between classes (some of my own work has focused on inter-class relationships in terms of political economy). Once we do that, we can begin to explore those interrelationships, which I suspect will add subtle but significant levels to our understanding of the Revolution.

    All that said, I have recently noticed that I know more than a few early Americanist graduate students who work on elites. The taboo about doing so that developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s and continued to pervade graduate training long after seems to weakening. The key for anyone studying elites at this time is to approach them in ways that nullify the old Progressive and social historian’s elitism critiques. Perhaps exploring the dynamism described in Tom’s quote above and inter-class relationships might be two (of many) modes of approach.

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  4. Tom Cutterham says:

    Thanks for your comments, guys. I’m going to respond to Aaron and Michael at the same time. I think that both your comments imply slightly different approaches to mine, and I want to try to draw out the differences.

    I’m glad you got the Rolling Stones reference, Aaron. I intended it in a spirit of ambivalence that your comment about Pinckney seems to miss. The point is that I think it’s possible to use sympathy in our historical practice without neglecting the important task of political and ethical judgement. I’m sympathetic to these elites, but they’re still devils. Even the ones who opposed slavery.

    So on your third point, as well as your second, I’m with Beard. Historians must also be activists; writing history is an ethical and political activity. One of the reasons I wanted to post this was to draw out people who might be interested in these topics and problems. Click on Charles Beard’s name in the post and you’ll get the CFP for my forthcoming conference on him – I really hope you’ll propose a paper!

    As to the study of elites, the concept of “leading public opinion” isn’t that useful to me. My work is actually largely about the reactionary nature of elite thought and culture in the 1780s – the way they try to adapt to post-revolutionary conditions that are frightening to many of them. I’m not so interested in determining who’s leading or following, so much as how different groups, classes, and discourses are influencing one another.

    That said, I really think the phrase Michael should be reaching for in his comment is “class struggle.” That’s a concept with perhaps a broader range of connotations than “conflict,” but one that still captures the fundamentally antagonistic nature of the process. This struggle is enacted through many different strategies, not always (very rarely!) head-on collision. Importantly, it’s not always interpreted as such by the antagonists themselves. It’s precisely for that reason that I find identity, self-fashioning, and self-understanding so interesting.

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