Wood & Holton on the Constitution

Was the purpose of the constitution to protect democracy from being ruined by the people or to protect commerce from being ruined by democracy? This was one of the questions put to Gordon Wood and Woody Holton in a debate held a few weeks ago at the University of South Carolina. A full video of the event has just been released on YouTube, and is embedded below. For anyone familiar with the work of these two historians, the debate will constitute a useful recap of the distinction between their two interpretations of the origins of the federal constitution. And for others, I hope it might be a kind of teaser for their excellent books!

For me, the most striking dynamic in the conversation was the degree of agreement between two scholars who are usually seen to represent opposite ends of the spectrum of academic opinion on the constitution. That the constitution’s authors were aristocratic-minded gentlemen with serious reservations and often outright disgust for democratic tendencies and institutions, and that they rigged and manipulated the process of making a new government, is now beyond argument. What is at issue has much less to do with the concepts of democracy and republicanism—the mothers’ milk of mid-twentieth-century debates around the constitution—than it has to do with concepts like credit and commerce. Whether or not you think the label is unhelpfully anachronistic, the history of the constitution is most interesting now in its relation to the history of capitalism.

As Holton put it in a straightforward summary of his position, “It was an anti-democratic document in order to be a pro-capitalist document.” But it is the nature of capitalism, rather than of democracy, that was most fraught with disagreement in the debate, even while it was never directly addressed. For Wood, responding to Holton’s argument, “Hamilton is not thinking in terms of making money. He wants to build a great nation. He’s thinking in aristocratic terms… He wants the credit of the United States to be solid because otherwise you can’t have a great nation.” Few would disagree about Hamilton’s motivations. But we might not be so willing to equate capitalism with just making money. What matters is not individual motive but political economy, and the corresponding ideology.

Is it true, as Wood told the audience, that “you can’t be a businessman and be an aristocrat”? Certainly, leading architects of the constitutional movement like Robert Morris and James Wilson were deeply engaged in hugely risky economic enterprises. They were the venture capitalists of their day. And like those of our own, they used their access to elite networks to help hedge their risks and increase their advantages. Those networks of power and information, which include many people who aren’t businessmen per se, are integral to the operation of capitalism, just as they were to the economy of the new republic. The questions new scholars of that era have to ask are about the deep and multifarious connections at play here. How and where were relations of power formed, transformed, and reproduced? What was the historical relationship between commerce and democracy, credit and the state? And looking back from the age of the one per cent, just what is the difference between a businessman and an aristocrat?

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