Following the recent election, much has been made of the alternative reality created by the “conservative entertainment complex.” However, conservative media has not only created its own contemporary reality; it has also created its own historical reality, through what one might call the historical wing of the conservative entertainment complex.
In recent years, men like David Barton, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, among numerous others, have written a number of books on eighteenth-century figures and events. But though they claim to be getting their principles directly from “the founders,” what they are really doing is giving their principles to the founders and the eighteenth century, more generally. This revisionism, promoted by conservative think tanks, was lapped up by hardcore conservatives and perhaps no group of people has been a more receptive audience than those who identify themselves as supporters of the Tea Party.
A few years ago, Tea Partiers began appearing at public rallies dressed in inaccurate historical garb and carrying homemade signs, some of which took a decidedly eighteenth-century approach to spelling. The rank-and-file claimed (and believed themselves) to be independent of the GOP and sincerely called for a return to the Constitution and to our “founding principles.”
But, as the agenda of the right-wing intelligentsia and their interest groups insidiously took greater precedence, the Tea Party and the historical wing of the conservative entertainment complex were forced to twist the founders into ideological and historical pretzels until they appeared to be nothing less than spokesmen for the 21st-century GOP agenda, i.e., the founders as right-wing “fellow travelers.”
Through this revisionism, the founders have not only become honorary NRA members, they have also by turns become monolithically anti-tax, anti-government, pro-free market, pro-individualism, and deeply religious fundamentalist Christians.
Undoubtedly, there were some at the time who held some of these views, but claiming rigid ideological positions attributable to all of the founders is a historical fool’s errand. Nevertheless, it was something relatively easy to push on rank-and-file Tea Party members whose actual knowledge of eighteenth-century thought on politics, social organization, political economy, and theories of government was limited at best and, more often than not, non-existent. Since many of their claims have been debunked by much better historians than myself, I’d like to subject to scrutiny a few of this conservative revisionism’s broader characterizations of the eighteenth century and to show that even the founders themselves took opposing positions.
The most popular example of this right-wing revisionism may be Sarah Palin’s account of Paul Revere’s midnight ride:
“He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free and we were going to be armed.”
Perhaps the easiest of all of which to convince the rank-and-file was the anti-tax argument. After all, the Tea Party itself was a protest against a tax, right? And didn’t we all learn in elementary school that the founders revolted against the tyrannical King George III and his unreasonable taxes? Unsurprisingly, the reality was more complex than either your fourth-grade teacher or the Tea Party rank-and-file would have you believe. The reaction against British taxes was not due solely to a rigid anti-tax ideology, but against taxes designed specifically to raise revenue for Britain by a legislative body in which they were not represented.
Indeed, throughout the eighteenth century, taxes were not considered tyrannical in and of themselves and most well-off white men understood the benefits of taxation. The colonies’ had taxed themselves since the beginning and used that money to build roads, bridges, and public buildings, as well as contribute to British war efforts. Indeed, the “cheerful taxpayer” was an eighteenth-century ideal; he was “an informed taxpayer, freely consenting to the tax and intelligently acknowledging its necessity.“ In a hierarchical society /characterized by striving and an uncommon level of social mobility, the ability to owe and pay one’s taxes was itself a marker of wealth and status. Hence, the title of Benjamin Franklin’s 1758 essay, The Way to Wealth and a Plan by which Every Man may pay his Taxes.
The founding generation, unlike modern Tea Partiers and Libertarians, generally had no problem with being taxed by their own elected representatives, i.e., with their own consent. That is because they were not rigidly anti-government and pro-individual. The myth of “rugged individualism” that so many conservatives associate with the founders was actually a product of the nineteenth century.
This mistaken identification also contributed to Tea Party characterizations of the founders as pro-free trade, pro-capitalism, and anti-regulation, or, in today’s terms, anti-socialist. But both the society and economy of eighteenth-century America were far more collective than individualistic. From England, the settlers had also brought over their own “corporatist” practices or moral economy. Towns regularly instituted price controls on necessary goods in an effort to keep merchants from manipulating local markets and driving up prices.
Indeed, in 1774, when the First Continental Congress signed the Articles of Association, they actually included rather strict and well-defined price regulations (designed to keep greedy merchants from price gouging) and created a revolutionary bureaucracy to enforce them. Article 9 states, “Such as are venders of goods or merchandize will not take advantage of the scarcity of goods, that may be occasioned by this association, but will sell the same at the rates we have been respectively accustomed to do, for twelve months last past,” while Article 14 demands, “That all manufactures of this country be sold at reasonable prices, so that no undue advantage be taken of a future scarcity of goods.” Hence, in one of the first official documents of the Revolution, the men in the Continental Congress felt it both necessary and appropriate to use the revolutionary government safeguard the economic interests of the many over the few.
As Occupy Wall Street emerged in 2011, the issue of economic inequality entered our political discourse. The right-wing’s founders—ruggedly pro-individual and doggedly anti-government—felt no desire to address such an issue or simply would not have recognized it as a problem. After all, they would argue, there was surely more wealth and income inequality in the eighteenth century than there is now and they didn’t do anything about it then. But, in fact, those assertions are false.
First, there was significantly less wealth and income inequality in 1774 than in America today, according to Alice Hanson Jones’s study of wealth in colonial America:
Top 1% (wealth) 14.6 34.6
Bottom 80% (wealth) 26.8 14.9
Top 1% (income) 8.9 21.3 (2006)
Indeed, the lack of gross wealth and income inequality and the social mobility it indicated was a point of pride and one of the defining features of early America for those of European descent. In a letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families. [. . .] Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”
And Benjamin Franklin, in a pamphlet from the early 1780s entitled Information to those who would remove to America, wrote,
“The Truth is, that though there are in that Country few People so miserable as the Poor of Europe, there are also very few that in Europe would be called rich; it is rather a general happy Mediocrity that prevails.”
After all, a successful republic required virtuous and independent citizens, which required a more even distribution of wealth (or, in eighteenth-century terms, land). This is why, in his first draft of the Virginia state constitution, Jefferson included a provision that would have entitled “every person of full age” to “an appropriation of 50 acres of land.” Later in the early national period, Jefferson and Madison sought to craft economic policies that would stave off the inequality that naturally arose in manufacturing societies. Franklin deplored the conditions of the laboring poor he saw while in Britain and attributed it directly to the rise of manufacturing and industrial capitalism. He also believed it was morally just for the wealthy to pay taxes that provided a safety net for the laboring poor, from whose exploitation the rich benefited.
They were also keenly aware of the possible dangers of speculators and many were deeply mistrustful of the “stock-jobbers” of the young nation’s emerging financial sector to the economic well-being of citizens. All three believed it was the responsibility of the government to help foster economic equality or at least minimize economic inequality. Even Alexander Hamilton, the one founder held up by those on the right as the man who “made” modern capitalist America, believed the government had a significant role to play in fostering economic growth.
The Tea Party’s founders are not those of the eighteenth century, but individuals trapped in a time warp between then and now. Ironically, when they use the term “founding fathers” to mean a group of men in the eighteenth century opposed to strong centralized government they are really talking about the antifederalists, who were the original opponents of the Constitution, for which the Tea Party professes such deep affection. The field of early American history is perhaps the most politicized in our current political culture, so much so that historians or works that challenge the construction of the founders as right-wing fellow travelers can find themselves under attack by monolithic and endlessly funded lobbying organizations.
As Americans, we have a connection to the founding generation of our nation that is quite unusual in the modern world. In many ways, we see them in the sort of mythic terms in which the ancient Greeks saw their “lawgivers,” Lycurgus and Solon. Yet, the distortions of the founders’ thought and the eighteenth-century world in which they lived for distinctly partisan purposes does a serious disservice to both them and their time and actually detaches us from rather than getting us closer to their ideals and hopes for the country which they helped to establish.
That is, of course, if you are so inclined as to believe that were the founders alive in the twenty-first century they would be prescribing and pronouncing the exact same ideas and policies which they used and developed in their own unique context and that of the eighteenth century more generally. But that is another piece entirely…
1. Anthony Joseph, “The Decline of the Cheerful Taxpayer: Taxation in Pennsylvania, c. 1776-1815,” in Pennsylvania’s Revolution, ed. William Pencak (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 284.
2. Edward Countryman, The American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 27.
3. The Articles of Association, October 20, 1774, Avalon Project. See Articles 9-14.
4. Alice Hanson Jones, Wealth of a Nation To Be: The American Colonies on the Eve of Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 162. Her raw data can be accessed at “America Colonial Wealth Estimates, 1774,” (website). For the subsequent context see, Peter H. Lindert, Jeffrey G. Williamson, “America’s Revolution: Economic disaster, development, and equality,” (website). For the current statistics, see “Who Rules America?” (website).
5. Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Thomas Cooper, September 10, 1814.
6. Thomas Jefferson, Draft Constitution for Virginia 1776, Avalon Project.
7. Drew McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).
8. Benjamin Franklin to Joshua Babcock, January 13, 1772; Benjamin Franklin, “On the Laboring Poor,” Gentleman’s Magazine, XXXVIII (April 1768), 156-7.
I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Every time the “historical wing of the conservative entertainment complex” (an apt moniker, I think) invoke the founders in support of their political agenda, I think of Merrill D. Peterson’s masterful The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960). I think it is indeed timely for other historians to continue to adopt Peterson’s approach to Jefferson as a way of speaking to the broader misappropriation of the founders’ images for partisan ends. I look forward to reading much more from you and the other contributors to this blog!
Excellent article. I’ve long paid attention to the gap between scholarly history and popular history as well as the gap separating scholarly legal/constitutional history from lawyers’ legal/constitutional history (also known as law-office history).
There are studies following in Peterson’s wake — for Jefferson, that of Francis D. Cogliano; for Washington, that of Barry Schwartz; for Hamilton, that of Stephen Knott; for Franklin, that of Nien-sheng Huang. We need one for the Adamses, but generally we need more of this kind of work. My own THE FOUNDING FATHERS RECONSIDERED discusses this question both for the founding guys as a group and for individuals within the group we revere as the founding guys.
I hope this post gets a lot of comments, because it’s forcefully argued and quite flawed. I know you intended to provoke, so I’ll take the bait.
1. One general thought: “fostering economic growth” and taxing the cr*p out of individuals are two different things.
2. Your apparent concession that the Tea Partiers and Antis share some things in common actually undermines your main contention. Constitutional historians have ably shown that the Antis significantly shaped the constitutional vision in 1787 and during the ratification debates — and we need look no further than the Bill of Rights for proof.
3. Apparently, one of yours points is that early Americans only opposed taxes on principle when imposed by a government in which they had no direct representation? If so, then we need to account for Shays’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion and Fries Rebellion — all revolts against taxes imposed by fairly elected representatives, no?
4. Individualism was not a “product of the nineteenth-century,” but a product of the seventeenth-century (See, e.g., Jack Greene). This remains all too obvious in the Chesapeake. In New England, it had emerged out of the womb of Puritanism long before the nineteenth-century (See Weber).
5. I think the colonial background deserves some discussion. As to colonial price controls and as background to the provision you cite in the Articles, we need to distinguish between the Chesapeake and New England; the former had no such price controls as far as I know. This was an early Puritan thing that went out the window in the 1690s. With respect to taxes and duties imposed by London from the Restoration forward, the colonies (esp. Massachusetts) abhorred and largely ignored them. Why? Nothing very weighty — acquisitiveness, self-interest, anti-authoritarianism — probably the same things that, at bottom, animate the Tea Partiers today, even as they attempt to wrap these visceral impulses in constitutional garb. Colonial assemblies imposed essentially no taxes at all, except during wartime — and Quakers, among others, refused to pay even war-related taxes. The larger point: resistance to taxation forms a tradition in American life stretching clear back to the colonial founding.
6. Aren’t some of the provisions you cite in the Articles aspirational — that is, unenforceable at the confederation level? In any case, be careful what documents you cite — certainly no taxing power existed under the Articles — decidedly so! — and Tea Partiers might easily cite to this to support their position.
7. To say that Jeffersonians sought to encourage equality and independence through expansion and land grants says very little about their views on taxes. Actually, let me take that back — the yeoman republic contemplated no taxation at all! That was the whole purpose, no? I think the record demonstrates that Thomas Jefferson wanted to shrink the federal government as much as possible and for the Feds to simply to get out of the people’s way. Jefferson was anti-tax — particularly at the federal level.
8. Last, I think we need to distinguish between the kinds of taxes imposed or contemplated in early America, and those we must bear today. Really apples and oranges — or, really, peas and watermelons!
Which leads to my final point: I think the better way to oppose the Tea Partiers is to debunk originalism entirely — instead you seem to have taken this flawed and moribund doctrine for granted. But if you really believe originalism has legs, then I think you have elided your strongest piece of evidence — Article 1, Section 8, clauses 1 and 8 of the United States Constitution!
With all that said, I thank you for your piquant post.
(Also, for some interesting perspective on the Palin quote, see http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2011/06/06/palin_defends_paul_revere_comments/)
You seem to have misunderstood the point of my post. Perhaps the fact that I loaded it with examples obscured the point, but I am certainly not buying into originalism. I am doing the opposite. I am giving examples which contradict the broad generalizations that those on the right make about the “founders” and the eighteenth century in order to show how futile the enterprise of originalism is, especially when one has a only a tenuous understanding of “the original.” Let me address your comments in turn:
1. Agreed. I don’t think I equated the two at any point in the piece.
2. I didn’t argue that the anti-federalists had no role in shaping the Constitution and, of course, the Bill of Rights. I just pointed out that the Tea Party ideology is closer to that of anti-federalist critiques of the Constitution (particularly before the ratification process), which is more pointing out an irony than making a concession (after all, I’m not arguing that those in the historical wing of the conservative entertainment complex have NO knowledge of the eighteenth century, but that their not having enough contributes to their mischaracterizations.)
3. In that sentence, I used the term “generally” because obviously no statement can be true for everyone, which is one of my critiques of the Tea Party’s historical perspective. You seem to be mistakenly assuming that I am arguing the contrary position to the Tea Party, when in fact I am rejecting the basis for the position. I am trying to show how the past was much messier than the Tea Party’s historical perspective, hence making originalism an untenable source for contemporary politics and policy. This is why at the beginning I acknowledge that some of the positions they talk about were held by some founders. Also, my use of the term “eighteenth century” fails to distinguish between pre- and post-war and in this case I was talking more about the colonial period. The citation discusses the eventual decline of the ideal of the cheerful taxpayer, of which the events you refer to are good examples.
4. Fair enough from a historiographical perspective, but I am describing the cowboy, Wild-West version of individualism that is prevalent on the right. After all, how many Tea Partiers or even conservative intellectuals read Jack Greene or Max Weber?
5. Price controls did indeed decline, but they lasted into the eighteenth century in many places. New York had price controls into the second half of the eighteenth century. And in places where price controls were no longer instituted, the people often rioted in order to bring down prices (see Barbara Clark Smith). Either way, there was a sense in the colonial period that the welfare of the community should not be sacrificed for the gain of an individual. As for the Chesapeake, there were county and parish levies, poll taxes, etc…. Again, I am not arguing everywhere had all of these things; I said “towns,” not “everywhere” or “all towns.”
6. Here, I don’t know what you mean exactly. There was no “confederation” when the Articles of Association were signed in 1774. They were indeed unenforceable by the Continental Congress itself (as was much of what it did). Enforcement of the measures suggested in the Articles was left to local Committees, leaving mechanics and other non-elites to assume policing duties, which in most places they did with gusto.
7. I never said that about “Jeffersonians.” I don’t think I used that term. I was speaking only of Jefferson and Madison and their adventures in political economy in the later eighteenth century (see Drew McCoy). And I posited no connection between colonial taxes and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicanism of the 1790s and 1800s. Jefferson, indeed, was not a fan of taxes, but I never said he was, and I never said everyone in the eighteenth century enjoyed or supported taxes.
8. Of course, they’re different. The whole point is that the eighteenth century is not the twenty-first century. I am not arguing that the founders were radical leftists. As you can see at the end of my post, I wrote that the founders’ ideas and thought “developed in their own unique context.” You’re wanting to criticize me for making generalizations has caused you to make generalizations about my post and/or see them where they are not.
We both have interpretations based on the historical context we have as early Americanists. The characterizations of the eighteenth century coming from the right are not. It is motivated by their own contemporary political agenda. Because of the liminality of the eighteenth century in relation to modernity, it is easy for those who lack the kind of historical context that scholars who read deeply and broadly in the field have to fill in that missing context with their own time.
At the beginning of the piece, I said that characterizing all the “Founding Fathers” was a “historical fool’s errand.” The rest of the post was devoted to showing examples from the period that contradicted the characterizations and assertions regarding the founders and the eighteenth century often made by the right. By challenging some of my examples with other historical evidence, you have helped further my overall argument that the eighteenth century, and history in general, was not black-and-white, and the complexity of it cannot be boiled down to slogans on signs or 30-second SuperPAC commercials.
All that said, you have given me a number of things to consider and for that I am grateful for your taking the time to post such a thoughtful and challenging response to my post. Rest assured your comments on the blog in general are greatly appreciated.
Michael, thanks for your thoughtful reply and clarifications.
I thought you may enjoy this article:
Robin, thank you very much for commenting on the post. That article, like a number of others, attempts to vindicate Palin’s comments by claiming some metaphorical meaning or purpose to Revere’s actions. Revere (among others) was tasked with warning colonists in the countryside that the British forces were mobilizing to march on Lexington and Concord to sieze the colonial militia’s ammunitions stores. That was the purpose of the ride as well as the ringing of bells. It was not to convey a message to the British empire. Now, the colonists’ actions in fighting the regiment detached for that mission may have sent that message to the Crown and the Ministry, but that is something else entirely. Thanks again for commenting!!
Your welcome, Aaron. Your questions made me think very hard about how I might have better framed or structured the piece, and for that I am appreciative. Our biggest hope for the blog is that the posts will foster interesting discussion. Therefore I just want to say that all of us here appreciate your extremely thoughtful comments on a number of posts.
I am probably going way off topic here, but this article has inspired a synthesis of ideas regarding America’s domestic, as well as, international political designs.
A question that I find myself in constant challenge with is how can this nation claim to possess the rights of Liberty if governed by such inherent paternalism? Diplomatic historians claim that a true democracy requires a nominal population to exist and function properly. Capitalism, since its inception, has only served to expand all facets of our nation. This would imply that contemporary conservatives that while touting a reformation toward smaller government, however maintaining an economic ‘empire’, is a bit reductive, even in theory. But even more disconcerting is the broad number of Americans that fell in line in support of this self-evident ignorant notion.
Is this indicative that vast numbers of Americans have not received adequate education regarding early American history, as Michael has made clear, or is it that the American political party system has conditioned Americans into an unquestionable submission through manufactured moral principles which serve only to subdue and oppress genuine political discourse?
If the nation is a true democracy, which is a notion itself in constant question, but a great many Americans find themselves unaware of the nation’s fundamentals, than it would stand to reason that the general public understanding of America’s mission abroad – i.e. economic expansion/foreign policy; the virtue of patience while restricting American ideology – is also subsequently lacking. This, as suggested by diplomatic historian Michael H. Hunt -however should be noted is a synthesis of much earlier works by William Appleman Williams, who believed inherently in a sinister relationship between the state and the corporation and, even including the moralist perspective of George F. Kennan, who too, hinted of this relationship in his scholarship- is known as American Foreign Policy Ideology – inherent American ideological notions constructed from a racial hierarchy, American exceptionalism, and gross paternalism which were all tools that have aided the great expansion of US interests abroad.
This simple understanding demonstrates how democracy is not governed by the people, but instead by the economy or corporations; as they are not subject to the same legal boundaries that nations are. As Dean Acheson pointed out in the 1940s, “If you truly had a democracy, and did what the people wanted, you’d go wrong every time.” Suggesting that the uninformed masses are truly unable to govern, rendering the notion of democracy moot. If the American Government has wedded itself to the corporation (which, arguably of course, can create some positive attributes) then it stands to reason that the principles of the contemporary political parties would ultimately support the corporation’s existence for continued economic growth. Rendering both/all parties subservient to the same underlying set of manufactured virtues, however carefully branded to create an illusory ‘choice’ among one party or another. This creates the illusion that American citizens still exist in a democracy. When in reality they do not.
The rise of the Tea Party is a significant example of my theory. How long did the Tea Party operate independently before the Republicans usurped the movement remanufacturing its goals to suit the needs of their party’s base? The same can be said regarding the Democrats and the Occupy Wall Street movement. This illusion of governance is a product of the Second American Party System implemented under President Andrew Jackson and has been the status quo ever since, which in itself is odd since Jackson stood alongside the Jeffersonian principles of smaller government practices against the Whig Party ideas of expansion with unrestricted economic growth. Harry L. Watson’s “Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America” effectively addresses this issue…
I will stop now… But thank you for an excellent article Michael Hattem your analysis has given me much to consider!
Jefferson never understood finances very well at all. His taxation system of no internal taxes made the revenues of the country fluctuate with the external trade. While there was no fighting between Britain and France it worked fine, but when they resumed hostilities the revenues plunged in 1804. Jefferson was very naive to think his ideas would work when it came to how government operated. His first term was one of the best of any president, but his second term was an absolute disaster. His ideas on government failed when confronted by crisis.
To put it bluntly, Jefferson was an idealist. See Joseph Ellis for more insight along with a lot of other historians. I just submitted my thesis for my MA and examined Jefferson’s ideas throughout his career and while his ideas on principles were great, his ideas on how government should operate were set in a Utopian world which didn’t exist. He was still trying to defend his actions and ideas in retirement and never seemed to understand where his mistakes were. Madison found out the hard way during the War of 1812 when Jefferson’s minimalist government ideas almost lost the war.
Fantastic stuff, Michael. This reminds me of Lepore’s smart little volume on the Tea Party’s “historical fundamentalism,” which I think is the correct description of what is going on.
Personally, I have always been interested in this topic. My master’s thesis at the University of Edinburgh, on the American responses to Paine’s AGE OF REASON, resulted from my interest in how the Tea Party was appropriating Thomas Paine.
Please allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment.
Isn’t ridiculing the grasp of some tea party members and others whose enthusiasm for history often outstrip their knowledge of its many complexities (note: it’s always those whose politics we disagree with that are to be made fun of – when those we’re more sympathetic with politically say something historically incorrect it tends to be quietly forgotten fn1) rather like shooting fish in a barrel for a Yale graduate student? Having been all but abandoned by those with a deeper understanding of history, many Americans must rely on the over simplified interpretations of non-academics who have the capacity to write in a manner the general public can comprehend. Why that is strikes me as a much more interesting question.
As you note, SOME of the Founders may have believed SOME of these characterizations (and Jefferson may have believed some of them at one point in his life and not others) and therefore it is wrong to ascribe to the whole generation a single coherent point of view about anything. But don’t you fall into the exact same trap by claiming that all of “the Tea Party and the historical wing of the conservative entertainment complex” shares “its own historical reality”? Who exactly are these people who all share the identical erroneous view of history? Instead it’s really a conglomeration of individuals who make their own, very separate set of errors that they may or may not share with others.
At least, unlike some who are highly educated fn.2, these people actually do care about history. They do not believe the Constitution is irrelevant or that the Founders aren’t worth studying.fn.3 If you want to ridicule the poor grasp of history of many of your fellow Americans, you should also ask why this came to be the case. You and the generation of historians who contribute to this blog have an opportunity to do a better job than your predecessors in reconnecting Americans with their history.
Alec, thanks for reading and commenting. I wonder why everyone assumes the point of this piece is “to ridicul[e] the grasp of some tea party members.” If you read the opening paragraphs, you will see that I am not ridiculing the Tea Party, but criticizing the conservative entertainment complex for presenting them with an overly simplistic and, at times, inaccurate interpretation of the founding and the eighteenth century. To demonstrate that, I spent 90% of the piece providing examples that contradict the most fundamental assertions that make up their interpretation.
As to your comment about “quietly forgetting” historically incorrect statements from others, please see my reply to Robin’s comment. The Tea Party is a national movement with a public face who claim to base their ideology on that of “the founders.” The left-wing in this country is progressive and therefore, by definition, history and the past do not form the core of their contemporary political ideology in the way it does for the conservative right.
You say that Americans have “been all but abandoned by those with a deeper understanding of history.” I would agree with that to some extent but, at the same time, blaming the public’s lack of knowledge of history on historians is overly simplistic itself. We, as a nation, continue to put less emphasis on the study of history at all educational levels in favor of subjects which help students get jobs and make money. In addition, historians publish books all the time. A historian cannot force someone to read their books or articles. And in our polarized society, people increasingly read only that which will validate a perspective they already hold. How many on the Right will go into a bookstore and pass up the shelves and shelves full of Glenn Beck and David Barton books for an academic work on the Revolution in order to challenge their own views? And, of course, the same goes for those on the left. All that said, you are absolutely correct that it is incumbent upon historians to do their utmost to engage the public.
This piece is not political in nature, though you seem to be (and because of our contemporary political culture are conditioned to assume) that it is. I am identifying a group (the “historical wing of the conservative entertainment complex”) which is taking advantage of many Americans’ “poor grasp of history” by expounding an overly simplified and therefore inaccurate version of history for their own political agenda. As an historian of early America, I feel it is my duty to offer my “professional” take on those errors, and I am doing it on a public blog (not in an academic journal or book).
Also, I am talking about the Tea Party as a movement, not singling out individuals, so your attempt to turn my own criticism back on me is not accurate, especially considering that, insofar as I am talking about the Tea Party, I am talking about a movement defined by itself (see the links provided to those positions) and they are talking about an entire generation of a country. If there are Tea Party members who don’t believe all the founders were anti-tax, anti-government, and pro-free market ideologues, then of course none of this would apply to them, but since those are the ideas that define the movement, I expect they would be few and far between. By your logic, every group’s ideology would be immune to both criticism and, even, understanding.
Finally, I bristle at your repeated use of the word “ridicule.” You ask “why it is the case” that many Americans have a “poor grasp of history.” But I would say that it is more important to ask what we can do about it. And the very first thing we can do is to correct the errors that are put out to take advantage of those with a poor grasp of history. Hence, my piece.
Thanks again for reading and commenting!!
Thank you for the response and the clarification. It goes a good ways towards addressing the concerns I had with your original post. If “everyone” assumes that you had intended to ridicule the Tea Party members, you might want to consider whether the words you chose were sufficiently clear to convey your intent to criticize strictly those who deliberately perpetuated bad (or at least grossly oversimplified) history. It was not to me, but as you note we’re sometimes so conditioned to hearing such criticism that we read it where it is not intended. No exchange occurs without at least some substratum of context of both which writer and reader need to be sensitive. As for the posts you cite, you might want to take another look at the link to the Heritage Foundation, which actually rebuts what it labels the “myth” that “the Founders saw little or no role for government in the economy—that they embraced a purely laissez faire economic theory.”
As for the Tea Party itself, I’m no expert but I’m unaware that there is an official tea party position on their understanding of the nation’s history beyond a generalized belief that their views on a limited role for the federal government were compatible with those of the founders than the role envisioned by the progressives (whether we’re talking about the Founders or the Tea Party, it’s difficult to generalize and therefore criticize entire groups or movements as opposed to individuals, which was my point in my earlier post).
Finally, we both seem in agreement with Professor Burrows: “nothing is more important than sharing what we know with non-historians.” Asking “why” Americans don’t know there history is, I think, the first step to getting to your own question, “what can we do about it?” A few causes I’d offer: academics shy away from the medium most non-historians seem to favor: the biography. Also their training consists of writing for narrow, technical journals that are not widely distributed and very expensive, and which place little emphasis on readability (in contrast, nearly every law journal in the country has gone to placing all of their material on line for free). This leads me to wonder whether those who are in a position to grant tenure don’t bear some responsibility for the failure of academics to communicate with a more general readership. Academics and more rigorously inclined “independent scholars” need to be creative in finding new avenues to reach a more mainstream readership As to what they can do to better interact with non-historians, you may be interested to know that Peter Onuf co-hosts a radio show (downloadable as a podcast) discussing contemporary issues from a historical perspective. Engaging the general public via blogs such as this is of course another excellent way, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your (and your colleagues) posts on this site. Another venue to consider is posting book reviews on Amazon. These are highly read, commented on, and used by everyday readers when choosing gifts and their own purchases. Prof. Bernstein contributes many very useful reviews and more reviews from experts such as him would I think be a useful way of steering non-historians towards higher quality works.
Many thanks for your response.
Could you please provide a link to Peter Onuf’s radio broadcast?
I am aware of Peter Onuf’s excellent radio show/podcast.He was my advisor’s advisor. You make a really excellent point about posting reviews on Amazon, which I hadn’t previously thought of in those terms. Thanks for that!!
In my community, Tea Party proponents often described themselves as “paleolibertarian.” Does your article challenge, confirm, or discount this designation? Please clarify.
Robin, I would gladly comply with your request if only I knew what “paleolibertarian” meant. If you could define the term or share with me the context (i.e., do they mean in the sense that they subscribe to the same beliefs as “the founders”) in which those persons use the term, I may be able to answer you.
Nevertheless, I fear you are misunderstanding this post as some kind of hit job on the Tea Party. I have no doubt that people who identify with the Tea Party movement are sincere and genuine (as I said in the post) in their love for the founding, the founders, and the Constitution. I am arguing that they have been lied to about those things by the right-wing intelligentsia and the historical wing of the conservative entertainment complex, both of whom have vested interests in presenting an ideologically skewed version of history. They are the ones who are at fault and whom I am criticizing.
I am an historian of early America for no other reason than I find the period, its characters, its events, and, most of all, its culture fascinating. My own political beliefs play no role in my work as an historian and I stand just as ready to correct anyone, whether they be right or left, conservative or liberal.
The whole point of the piece was to show that the version of the founding and the founders which writers and commentators on the right expound is overly simplistic, which is why I provided countervailing examples to many of their core characterizations, not to say mine are the true eighteenth century, but to say that none are. Those authors paint the founding as a golden age, a time when everyone agreed on these things, but, just like today, people in the eighteenth century (even those we call the “founders”) held many different, often opposing, views. Hence, broad characterizations of “the founders” as a generation or even as a group of people cannot be accurate.
Like today, history was not black and white. It was not the good guys vs. the bad guys. The founders were not infallible demigods. They were just men. Some were extraordinary men who did extraordinary things; some were ordinary men who also did extraordinary things. But that is why history is fascinating. When we begin to distort history to serve our own agendas (political, social, cultural, economic, etc…), we are in greater danger of losing both our understanding and connection with that history.
If by “paleolibertarian,” they mean they stand for the same things as the founders, then I would ask: Was Jefferson’s proposal for the government to give each citizen 50 acres of land a libertarian policy? Was Franklin’s approval of taxing the wealthy industrialists to pay for support for the indigent workers they exploited to gain that wealth a libertarian position? Was Hamilton’s national bank a libertarian institution? The point here is that the founders were not modern-day Libertarians any more than they were modern-day Democrats or Republicans.
Thank you again for commenting!!
Thank you for your thorough reply.
In 1957, Edmund S. Morgan published the following hypothesis (as you know):
“We may now be approaching a period when property, in another form, may again be widely distributed and again become the friend rather than the enemy of liberty Whether such is the case or not, as historians we should stop projecting into the eighteenth century the particular economic and social antagonisms that we have found in later generations…we should totally abandon the assumption that those who showed the greatest concern for property rights were not devoted to human rights.”
In my limited experience, when historians and political scientists request definitions to variant strains of floating “libertarianism,” pundits often cite such passages or reference “libertarian” journals such as “Right and Left” (which ironically aimed to collapse the distinctions that you also seem to abhor). Your post stirred my own contemplations on purpose and whether or not authors, readers, and/or both determine usable pasts. Thanks again.
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