Between Jefferson and Sieyès?

I don’t want to dwell on the political argument of this National Review piece arguing that Bernie Sanders’ upholding of Denmark as a model for his kind of socialism is wrongheaded and reflects ignorance of the nation he’s such a fan of. Needless to say, it’s pretty bad. But I’ve returned to posting here with the intention of making this more into a history blog than a politics blog. So, here’s some history according to Kevin D. Williamson:

The American revolutionaries emerged from a Puritan-Quaker culture shaped by the hardships of colonial life with the savage frontier in front of them and the Atlantic Ocean at their backs; the French revolutionaries emerged from a decadent Catholic culture shaped by court life and European rivalries. Both parties cried “Liberty!” but one produced the Bill of Rights and the other produced the Terror. The cultural distance between 21st-century Anglo-American liberals and tribal jihadis in the Hindu Kush is rather greater than was the distance between Thomas Jefferson and the Abbé Sieyès.

I’m also not going to talk very much about the Orientalist musings into which this is awkwardly embedded. I just want to address a few points on the histories of the American and French Revolutions. Williamson has not cited any sources for this brief lesson, and while it’d be unreasonable to expect detailed citations for such an off-hand comment, it forces us to rely on his own personal authority as a “roving correspondent” for the National Review, which does not fill me with confidence. I won’t be citing anything either, relying on my personal authority as a student of history whose research focuses on the influence of the French Revolution on the United States and comparative revolutions, but I’d be happy to do so for any of my claims on request.

So what’s the problem? It may seem too small, too petty, to get worked up about. But that’s what’s so infuriating: this was not a well-thought-out explication of history, which indicates that this is what Williamson comes up with by absentmindedly scraping around the bottom of the history barrel. It’s the thoughtlessness of it that’s the problem, the fact that these kinds of cliches and factoids and mythic narratives are what so many people turn to in order to understand our past and our place in the world.  Where did these ideas come from? Why do they keep plaguing us? And how do we get rid of them?

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The Heroic Master and the Fortunate Slave

Apparently, The Economist magazine published a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism that was too hot for them to handle. They have since retracted it. Much of the coverage of this review focuses on its explosive final lines: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” Sure, this is bad enough to deserve a retraction, but what does it mean? And is there anything at all of merit in the review? I set out to find out, and in so doing, uncover the mystery of black slaves who weren’t victims and white masters who weren’t villains.

The review sums up Baptist’s thesis and offers an initial point of critique:

…Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Now, we only have the reviewer’s word and a quoted phrase to go on that Baptist outright dismisses these factors rather than merely questioning their importance. However, these factors were embattled long before Baptist’s book. Worse is that the review never really substantiates this counterclaim:

Take, for example, the astonishing increases he cites in both cotton productivity and cotton production. In 1860 a typical slave picked at least three times as much cotton a day as in 1800. In the 1850s cotton production in the southern states doubled to 4m bales and satisfied two-thirds of world consumption. By 1860 the four wealthiest states in the United States, ranked in terms of wealth per white person, were all southern: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.

Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.

So, if we assume that the review is at least honest and accurate in this summary, Baptist argues that the increased productivity of slave labor was the result of increased brutal discipline. Here, I struggle to see how “individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies” are plausible alternate explanations for slavery’s increased productivity. Perhaps if individualism exists only for white planters, perhaps Puritanism secretly became a major religious force in the South during this period, perhaps the “lure of open land and high wages” refers to slavery’s western expansion or the increased price of Upper South slaves in the Deep South. On the other hand, we can give ingenuity some credit, since the cotton gin did breathe some new life into slavery by making cotton easier to process, and government policies protecting the right to own slaves, and to treat them however their owners saw fit, certainly played a bit of an important role.

The reviewer’s point, that the sources may not support Baptist’s explanation for slavery’s productivity, has a kernel of fairness. The testimony of former slaves can tell us about the conditions of bonded servitude, but not necessarily about the large-scale economic results of those conditions for the entire slave system and the capitalist economy based on its commodities. However, the reviewer does not make any such counterargument. The  problem, rather, is that the testimony of only some “few” former slaves was used to characterize slavery as painful and brutal. It is possible that these informants do not “speak for all.” What the reviewer seems to be pointing at here is the possibility that other freedman informants might tell of a bearable, even comfortable, enslaved life. Well, who knows? I am not familiar enough with slave narratives as a source to say that no such testimony exists. So, let’s assume for the sake of argument that some does. What does it mean? The explanation is found in the climax of the whole thing, the context for the now infamous final lines:

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

In other words, if some other slaves, whose testimonies Baptist did not use, recalled decent conditions, this reflects masters having had an interest in keeping their property in good condition. At last the mystery is revealed: it is possible that some blacks weren’t victims and some whites weren’t villains in the antebellum South because some blacks were maintained as healthy and well-fed livestock by white masters who had the same conception of enslaved human beings that modern “free range” ranchers have of cattle! Well… that seems like damning with faint praise, doesn’t it?

In summary, I can only say that there is very little of value in this review and that what little there is, is unintended by the reviewer. In trying to defend the now-discredited conception of slavery as a generally benign paternal system, the best argument the review could make implicitly relies on dehumanizing slaves so that the logic of the property owner’s interest in cultivating his property can apply to people treated as valuable instruments of another’s profit. In doing so, the review reinforces the old truth, going back to the antebellum debates over abolitionism, that some theoretical relations of kindness and decency between hypothetical slaves and masters do not negate the evil of the system overall. Treating people as property is monstrous regardless of how big an investment a person with a price might be.

[Postscript clarification: My paragraph beginning, “The reviewer’s point,” should not be interpreted as an actual endorsement of either the proposition that Baptist’s book actually relies on only a few freedman testimonies, or that substantial testimonies portraying slavery positively definitely exist in such number as to be some kind of game-changer. The point of this paragraph, subordinate to that of the whole article, is that even if we take the review at face value and trust its claims and implications, its conclusions are still horrible. I was always skeptical that Baptist’s source base was this scanty, as there is no reason any historian of US slavery has to be so limited. In fact, as Baptist confirms, his sources are much more extensive. It is also worth paying attention to the implicit issue of objectivity and bias in the accounts of former slaves and former masters.]

Quick Note: On Republics

How often do we hear the sage formula, with every pretense of nuance, that the United States is not a democracy but a republic? You don’t have to look far for examples of it in action: find any situation where one side complains that some policy proposed by the other violates the principle of democracy, and invariably, the other side will trot out this insight.

The lesson is one straight out of the political thinking of the 18th and 19th centuries: democracies are unstable and will lead to mob rule and (horror of horrors) leveling, etc. And so, there’s nothing for it but to limit democracy somehow, to make a government that represents the people (the Latin res publica), but does not grant them unfettered power (the Greek dêmos kratos). It’s not clear to me how this functions as a defense for any particular anti-democratic policy, but the unacknowledged implications of this line of argument are disturbing.

This country was indeed intended to be a republic. And like most good classical republics, it sharply limited the franchise; in our case, despite some local variation, mostly to rich white men. In the south you even had a slave society propping up a leisured upper class, mirroring those liberty-loving slave-owning city-states of Classical Greece. People touting the “republic” talking point never seem to know how right they are, but many Enlightenment thinkers considered Sparta a model of sound governance, and it shows.

What this talking point always seems to elide is that the development of American government since “the Founders'” limited vision of an elitist state is a process of democratization. On the one hand, more and more government functions became subject to the popular vote. The Electoral College, as originally conceived, had nothing to do with any number of regular citizens voting for presidential candidates. Nor were Senators popularly elected. On the other, there was a democratization of what it meant to be a voter: first, classist property requirements fell. Next, slavery was abolished and racist restrictions of the vote to white people were (in theory at least) lifted. Then, the sexist limitation of the franchise to men was abolished. When people drone on about how we are a “republic” because of “the Founders'” vision, what they are doing is repudiating 144 years of progress.

Interestingly, the racial barrier to voting isn’t actually a dead issue, thanks to conservative policy initiatives: from the racist enforcement of drug laws combined with disenfranchisement of ex-convicts; to dubious “voter fraud” reduction laws which, as implemented in the time frame proposed, would have effectively barred many African-American citizens, among others, from voting in the most recent election; to recent attempts to take advantage of gerrymandering to undermine the popular will in presidential elections. Additionally, there is a rising trend of actively rejecting democratic progress with an explicit call for a return to the Founders’ vision in political structure, chock full of all the old tropes about unstable democracies. It seems the “Lost Cause” of the “Old Republic” is still a vital motivating force for the political right.

Lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

This past Sunday marked the 101st anniversary of the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory. This incident had, before the September 11th terror attack on the World Trade Center, the dubious distinction of being the worst fire-related workplace disaster in New York City history. The level of qualification present is an important element of its description, as there have been worse incidents of loss of life, in New York City, in fires, and in labor disasters generally. Despite this, the Triangle fire holds an iconic place in the history of labor relations and progressive politics.

In the standard narrative, the Triangle fire was the result of the unsafe working conditions and inhumane policies maintained at workplaces in the heyday of laissez-faire capitalism in the United States. The tragedy of its hundreds of deaths started a reform movement in government to create workplace safety regulations with teeth, resulting in the relatively safe working conditions we enjoy today. More complete treatments mention the strikes and protests by the labor movement leading up to the fire, and Tammany Hall’s obstructions and corruption. What comes out of this narrative is the clear message that the Triangle fire is why we have workplace safety regulations and that the government is exercising proper authority in enforcing them.

It is thus a cornerstone of the American liberal stance favoring state intervention, a stance which only makes sense in context of the American conception of an antagonistic political divide between government and private industry. It is used as a “teaching moment” in political discourse, an origin story for the state regulatory apparatus. In this, the standard narrative obscures the picture of how capitalism and the state interacted in the lead-up to the Triangle fire, and the role of mass action and organized labor. A fuller understanding of the meaning of the Triangle fire in both history and politics can only come from looking at it in the context of mass action and public outcry for reform. Moreover, contrasting the Triangle fire with other, similar disasters which have not become historical icons reveals the importance of that context: it turned the Triangle fire into a “spectacle of justice.” This term denotes a process by which public understanding of an event is heightened through a dramatic spectacle, which plays out in the public theater of mass protest actions and criminal trials, surrounding a claim of societal injury which must be rectified. In other words, what is it critical to understand about the Triangle fire is how prior mass action against the conditions that made the fire possible “set the stage” on which the fire became a highly visible offense against society, inciting mass public outrage and desire for change, which in turn forced or enticed power elites to create a just outcome in order to quell the public’s anger, a success which those power elites appropriated. Continue reading

On Agency in History

In my review of 1491, I wrote about Mann’s revision of traditional narratives about Indians in history, how “the portrayal of Indians as passive recipients of European actions, either as enemies or victims” is false, as “the first peoples of the Americas were active in history…” Activity in history is an important theme of much recent scholarship, especially in the study of traditionally marginalized groups. The reduction of Indians to passive victims or unthinking barbarians, either way destined to be swept aside, is prevalent in the historiography of other peoples, such as slaves and the victims of colonialism. Note the construction I used, almost reflexively: “victims of…” This thought process is the problem which the new narrative of historical activity seeks to rectify. It is the study of agency.

Agency, in simplest terms, is the ability of a person to be an actor, to be at least partially in command of her own destiny, rather than a “thing” that is acted upon or manipulated. It’s an important shift in the narrative of marginalized people. The first accounts were those “written by the victors,” which justified conquest by the vices of the conquered, or glorification of the conqueror’s virtues. This account, in addition to rendering marginalized peoples into passive things, made them into villains. The first round of corrective revision focused on the moral dimension and ignored the issue of agency. Essentially, the moral narrative is reversed: marginalized peoples had more virtue than had been recognized, their vices had to be placed in context, and the process of their marginalization and subjugation was a great crime. While a useful corrective to an account of history that effectively functioned as apologia for power, and which still serves that role, it still relegates its subject to the margins, now as victims of historical injustice rather than righteously punished enemies. They are still not actors in history.

The new narrative of agency corrects this aspect, but invites other problems. One significant “mixed blessing” is in abandoning the moral argument. On one level, continuing a moralization of marginalization beyond the point of counterbalance returns to a propagandistic mode that obscures our understanding of history, and so an “amoral” or value neutral exploration is desirable. On another, it’s problematic when agency itself becomes a moralized virtue. After all, few would doubt the “agency” or the conquistadors. Agency can mean active complicity in some truly horrific things. Moralizing agency as something to be celebrated rather than explored can also lead to an exaggerated glorification of historical actions in anachronistic ways.

In “The costs of coercion: African agency in the pre-modern Atlantic world,” Stephen D. Behrendt, David Eltis, and David Richardson give an account of slave revolts aboard slave trading ships that exemplifies the different aspects, positive and negative, of placing emphasis on agency in history.1 It is also a fascinating and informative analysis of the economic dimensions of the slave trade. Essentially, the frequency of revolts aboard ship increased risk in the trade and thus raised the costs of shipping slaves. While each individual revolt was unlikely to succeed, the constant fear of revolt required preventative measures which raised costs, and thus prices, leading to reduced demand (when compared to a hypothetical slave trade that did not need to fear revolts) and thus lowering the volume of trade.

In what I would call a “neutral” application of agency analysis, the authors examine the frequency of revolts by region of origin for slaves. Different parts of Africa apparently yielded slaves with differing likelihoods for shipboard revolt, and this correlated with European “patronage” of these regions: slaver traders focused on markets in regions from which they could buy slaves who tended not to revolt aboard ship. Thus, the character of Africans shaped the patterns of the slave trade. This is what agency means in the broadest sense: people in history having a significant effect on its course by their own actions. There is no moral dimension to this observation, it simply relates how Europeans had to react to the actions of Africans, and how this affected the cultural makeup of slaves in the Americas and thus the contributions of Africa to the nature of the nations and societies formed in the New World.

Indeed, on a large enough scale, the effects of slave revolts on the Middle Passage had massive historical consequences. The risk and thus cost of transporting slaves meant that Europeans were less keen to begin importing slaves, and more keen to stop. In essence, other methods of obtaining productive labor were more attractive, for longer (in the case of European colonists and native workers) and earlier (in the case of industrialization and contracting cheap wage labor from other parts of the world). Revolts on slave ships thus shortened the duration of the slave trade. The aggregate decreased demand also led to a decrease in the total number of slaves sold. The authors calculate that in the 18th century, 600,000 fewer slaves were transported to the Americas as a result of the increased costs of preventing revolts, meaning that every rebel aboard ship saved many other Africans from slavery.

This is where agency has the potential to become problematic. To describe this aggregate effect in terms of salvation, as the authors do, is to apply a moral value that is somewhat anachronistic. From our perch in the present, we see this large-scale effect, but the mutinying slaves themselves were unlikely to have had this perspective as a motivation. There is inspirational bravery in their desperate fights for freedom, but basing further valorization on historical consequence occludes history. It creates heroes of legend rather then actors in fact. Still, this is more of a stylistic concern than a cause for alarm. Learning about the positive effect which these slaves in revolt had is heartening, and valorizing them and the importance of their actions reveals a useful lesson about the importance of resistance, even if it seems futile. The authors are not engaging in propaganda simply for finding legitimate inspiration in the record they have uncovered.

The authors then turn in their analysis to events in Africa, and this is where a possible “dark side” to appraising agency appears. When Europeans first began expanding into the Atlantic, their first probings and colonization efforts crept down the coast of Africa. However, they were unable to effectively control very much territory on the continent itself, and were not able to subdue local populations and polities. This forced the march of the plantation economy to change direction and move all the way across the ocean, to South America. In effect, the active resistance and strength of African polities resulted in the distance between the site of production and the source of labor that necessitated the slave trade.

A simplistic evaluation of this effect (which, I should make very clear, the authors do not make) would seek to place blame. It would say that Africans are partially “at fault” for the slave trade. Among other problems with this judgment is that it ignores European agency, and thus responsibility, for seeking to create a plantation economy and buying slaves to run it. Additionally, it is in some ways as “anachronistic” as idolizing slaves in revolt for saving people in Africa from slavery through the high-level operation of market forces. Native Africans did not seek to create a transatlantic slave trade, they sought to keep control of their land. The African “role” in creating the slave trade was something of a side-effect of their actual motives, as much as was the African role in reducing the volume of the trade through revolt.

The impulse to “shift the blame” for slavery exists due to the profound and ruinous long-term after-effects of slavery on American nations. In the United States, there is an historical/political interest ever ready to defend the South and the Confederacy, explaining away the American Civil War as a conflict over “states rights,” thus making the Union an unprincipled, tyrannical aggressor, and to write off slavery as an African institution thousands of years old which affected the South for a tiny fraction of that time. Never mind that it was not an African institution to ship slaves overseas. Never mind the critical role of European demand for slaves in expanding both the scope of African slavery and changing its nature. Never mind the immense benefits reaped by white Americans, northern and southern, due to slavery, which persist today in the form of institutional racism. Never mind that the Confederacy was a self-conscious slave state that saw itself as a natural republic which, unlike other nations where members of the same race perversely subjugated each other, enshrined in law the natural relationship between an inherently servile race and an inherently free one.2

Where agency becomes problematic is in celebrating agency itself as a virtue, regardless of whether that agency is used for good or ill. The authors explore the fact that Europeans had to buy slaves from African elites, which necessarily implied that Africans and Europeans were on equal footing in the trade. While the authors note that this arrangement also reduced the volume of the slave trade, as Europeans could have obtained slaves much more easily by direct raiding, which they were not actually able to conduct, it’s possible to come away with the sense that African complicity in slavery is to be celebrated for the power it demonstrated. The fact that Africans had agency in the trade overshadows, in significance, their participation. We would look with suspicion upon an analysis of the European role in the slave trade that celebrated their business savvy and determination in building new societies at a perilous cost. Yet this is the mirror image of a celebration of African agency in the slave trade, rather than a simple examination.

This is also, in some sense, a simplistic analysis, but simplistic analyses are the heart of political abuses of history. By noting the aggregate effect which Europeans being forced to negotiate with African elites had on the volume of the slave trade, the authors clearly are sensitive to this. And yet, at the same time, the article’s very title puts agency front and center, thus making it seem to be a virtue in itself. The risk of abusing such an impression, however unintended, is lessened to the degree that agency is simply a factor to look for in traditionally ignored areas rather than imbued with an inherent significance. Much like the first round of revision, wherein the morality of marginalization in history was reversed, emphasis on agency is a useful corrective. And like that earlier revision, agency as a cause for celebration in itself runs the risk of distorting the record and inviting opportunistic abuses of history, however cautious historians may be to head off this possibility.

1. The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Aug., 2001), pp. 454-476
2. See, for examples: “Cornerstone Speech” by Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the CSA; “Slavery a Positive Good” by John C. Calhoun; and other examples from an article on “compensated emancipation” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Democracy: The Greatest Threat to Democracy?

Having written about the rhetorical and academic perils of assuming a direct relation between modern political concerns and those of people in past times, such as the Founding Fathers, it might be worth looking at some of the more practical dangers in this line of reasoning. To provide some grounding for my subject, “democracy,” consider the original extent of the electoral franchise in America: generally, only white male property owners could vote, and many positions for which citizens now elect candidates (Senators, the President) were appointed by representatives of the state governments. One could conclude that the Founders were a cabal of racist, sexist oligarchs, but this would be the same anachronistic error: it denounces historical persons for failure to live up to modern standards as if these standards were as relevant and influential then as they are today. The Founders were influenced by the prevailing ideals of their times, in which their “white supremacist patriarchal oligarchy” was one of the freest and most accountable forms of government on Earth.1 Hopefully, this is another area (like gun politics) where we connect with the spirit of the Founders’ ideals, rather than the implementation. When people talk about bringing the country back to the ideals the Founders wanted, surely they mean this in terms of general, abstract principles.

We could hope for that, but in vain. Recently, several public figures have expressed a desire to limit the franchise to property owners, or called into question the wisdom of allowing the poor to vote. Consider this statement by Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips:

The Founding Fathers originally said, they put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn’t you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.

Or from this essay by pundit Matthew Vadum:

…the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians. Welfare recipients are particularly open to demagoguery and bribery.

Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.  It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country — which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.

Encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn’t about helping the poor.  It’s about helping the poor to help themselves to others’ money.  It’s about raw so-called social justice.  It’s about moving America ever farther away from the small-government ideals of the Founding Fathers.

We should, of course, be disturbed by such sentiments, but what’s new here isn’t that people think like this, it’s that they’re being so open about it. The “competence question” is a common critique of democracy that argues that allowing everyone to vote is unwise since not all people are equally competent to make political decisions. It’s a neat trick that makes it easy to disenfranchise various groups so long as sufficiently few people understand that the purpose of democracy isn’t good government, but just government. It is unjust to subject people to laws unless they consent to the authority of the lawmakers. Democratic government is accountable government, and reducing the franchise is generally a way to make political decisions about people without their input. There are limits to this principle, of course: children are not allowed to vote on grounds of competency, but children are also not fully accountable to the law, and are not responsible for their own upkeep and legal participation, this being the obligation of parents or guardians. When people start wondering if some group is really competent to vote, or if there ought to be some special requirement, they should be asked if they are comfortable with grown adults being tried as juveniles and provided for as wards of the state.

This specific argument takes the question of competency and adds an explicit economic dimension. The poor are not competent to vote because they don’t have a “vested interest in the community.” While they presumably have a vested interest in the laws to which they are subject, this is itself a threat, since their interest is in voting themselves a share of others’ wealth. Poor voters thus cannot be trusted with the vote, since they will undermine the institution that is truly important to promoters of this opinion: property. The hidden, underlying assumption here is that property is more important than accountable government.

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Fundatores Volunt: Politicized Anachronism in American History

The Unknown Founder

Would be better at a carnival than in an editorial.

There is no more pervasive crime against history in American political discourse than our fascination with “what the Founding Fathers would have wanted.” This is a phrase for a bracelet pastors might hand out in Sunday school, not a serious consideration in judging policy. Perhaps every society needs its pantheon, even a modern, secular, materialist one. A true pantheon of gods or saints allows a society to refer to a rich and meaningful mythology to supply its cultural ethos; unfortunately, secular societies making historical figures into virtual gods have only facts to work with. Since that just won’t do for expedient and on-message legendry, the facts need to massaged, ignored, or invented to suit the pundit’s needs. Thus, real people who took real actions with real meaning become something like carnival cut-out figures, the kind with a face hole allowing a patron to pose for a photograph as a lion tamer or a bear or, in this case, a revered historical figure whose general form lends dignity to the grinning or glowering faces of our modern opinion makers. This process is ongoing, and we sometimes have a chance to watch it unfold before our eyes.

Speculation about the will of our forefathers is usually the hobby of the right. We see it most aggressively in the area of gun policy: George Washington as card-carrying NRA member. The idea is that, by gripping the tenuous theoretical thread of “supporting the right to bear arms,” 18th century statesmen can lend their support to 20th century causes, thus raising the possibility of Ben Franklin with an opinion on machine guns, or perhaps (since this should work in reverse), modern people clamoring for the right to privately own and operate battleships. It’s all pretty nonsensical, and only has power because The Founders loom over our collective political imagination. It doesn’t even have meaning, though, since it doesn’t really matter if the Founding Fathers would have supported shall-issue over may-issue, or opposed the assault weapons ban; these are ideas that can stand or fall on their own merits as consistent with precedent on interpreting the Second Amendment in the modern age. Transporting our modern ideas across more than two centuries on the gossamer strand of an abstract principle is as meaningless as it is anachronistic.

Sometimes, though, it seems to make sense to fight fire with fire. With the unsupported claim that the right has started raising the corpses of the Founders to fight for corporate greed, this essay launches into an argument that in fact, the Founders hated corporations! If this new rhetorical ploy by conservatives is a real thing (I haven’t heard of it), then this response is another example of liberals making the mistake of accepting conservatives’ framing and fighting on their terms. It simplifies and distorts a complex and meaningful history of American resistance to and accommodation with corporations that could have much to tell us, were it not cherry-picked for a hack propaganda piece.

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