Sunday, April 17, 2016

Andrew Jackson and the plague of hack history

I'm sorry. But despite the liberal facade, this is conservative, hack history. And in this case the headline is consistent with the text of the article, Anti-Slavery Hamilton May Get To Stay On $10 Bill While Genocidal Slaver Jackson Gets Pushed Off The $20 Huffington Post 04/17/2016.

In the article, Ryan Grim, Laura Barron-Lopez and Zach Carter write:

... now that nobody uses cash, a woman will finally get a spot on a dollar bill.

The tragedy, though, is which bill. Instead of pushing aside pro-slavery, genocidal President Andrew Jackson, the Treasury Department has decided to sideline the first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, to make way for a yet-to-be named woman.

Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, was a strong opponent of slavery, and was an early member of the New York Manumission Society, an abolitionist group that organized boycotts against merchants connected to the slave trade and lobbied for legislation abolishing the institution.
The article is a reprint of a 06/18/2015 piece. They reprinted it because the Treasury now says they are again considering replacing Jackson on the $20 bill.

I explained my own position on this in Andrew Jackson as a 21st-century political symbol 07/25/2015.

The Huffington Post's polemical contrast of the good Alexander Hamilton, the monarchist that believed republican government could only function through massive corruption on behalf of the wealthy, and Andrew Jackson, is hack propaganda, not any serious left view of history.

I say "left" rather than "progressive" here because part of the problem is that Progressive historian Charles Beard is responsible for a lot of this nonsense. Beard identified with the Progressive movement. And through much of his career, his views on more contemporary issues was in line with the pro-regulation attitude of the Progressives. The Frankfurt School's journal Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung published an short article by Beard, "The Social Sciences in the United States" in its 4:1 (1935) number.

But he also articulated a cynical, misleading and basically reactionary theory of early American history in which the Constitution was basically an anti-democratic document that represented overwhelmingly the interest of the wealthy only.

It was an interpretation that did not stand up to scrutiny. Nor did the accompanying idea that the pro-Constitution side can be identified easily with the later Federalist Party of John Adams and the anti-Constitution side with that of Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party, known in Jefferson's time as the Republican Party but under Jackson's leadership became known as the Democratic Party. It was a simplistic, distorted view whose long survival even in some forms today reflects in large part the interest of the economic Establishment in discrediting the traditional of radical democracy which was, yes, carried in major part by leaders like the slaveowners Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

Yes, that seems contradictory. And it seems that way because real history is contradictory. If even that much of a hint of Hegelian view of history is too much to swallow, well, welcome to David Barton territory. Even if the hackery is articulated under a liberal rather than a conservative framework.

But, as flawed as Beard's work was in major ways even before he wound up as the chief prophet of rightwing Pearl Harbor revisionism after the Second World War, he had a more informed and sophisticated approach to American history than a David Barton could even fathom. This passage from America in Midpassage (1939) by Charles and Mary Beard shows both the strengths and weaknesses of their approach to the early years of Constitution democracy in the United States (pp. 922-3):

For at no time, at no place, in solemn convention assembled, through no chosen agen ts, had the American people officially proclaimed the United States to be a democracy. The Constitution did not contain the word or any ward lending countenance to it, except possibly the mention of "we, the people," in the preamble. Nor, indeed, did the Constitution even proclaim a republic. It did guarantee a republican form of government in the states, but as John Adams wrote to Mercy Warren, during their heated controversy over political aims, nobody knew just what that meant. As a matter of fact, when the Constitution was framed no respectable person called himself or herself a democrat. The very word then had low connotations, though it was sometimes mentioned with detachment; and the connotations became distinctly horrible to Respectability after the outbreak of the reign of terror in France. Though denounced as a Jacobin by Federalists, Jefferson did not call his party "democratic," and was chary about mentioning the term even in private correspondence. As was said lang afterward, the founders of the republic in general, whether Federalist or Republican, feared democracy more than they feared original sin. Not until Andrew Jackson had retired from the presidency did his followers completely discard the old name "Republican" and officially call themselves "Democrats." After that date references to democracy usually meant "the Democracy," that is, Jackson's party which, strange to relate, soon passed largely under the control of slave owners.

The Whigs and their successors, the Republicans, whatever their popular inclinations, could hardly style themselves democrats, or the United States a democracy, after Jackson's partisans seized the title and identified democracy with their peculiar organization. Moreover one strong wing of the Whig-Republican combination was just as much opposed to everything that savored of democracy as any slaveholder or as any good Federalist of the Hamilton school had been in the latter days of the eighteenth century. If a "sound Republican" had been asked to characterize the United States between 1865 and the end of the century, he would doubtless have called it "a representative republic." Democracy he would have identified with direct government, the initiative, the referendum, popular election of Senators, majority rule, and disrespect for the Supreme Court. As the battle over "more democracy" intensified in the early years of the twentieth century, conservative Republicans grew still more suspicious of democracy. If they mentioned it with any favor, they were quick to make a distinction between "the true democracy" which they espoused and "the false democracy" which "demagogues" were trying to promote. [my emphasis in bold]
Even there we see some rhetorical hairsplitting that is always a sign that caution is in order. For instance, "Jefferson did not call his party "democratic,'" is true only in the sense that the Democratic-Republican Party he led was referred to in common practice as the Republican Party.

Here is the account from the ever-respectable Encyclopædia Britannica on the Democratic Party (online version as of today, text only; internal links not included:

The Democratic Party is the oldest political party in the United States and among the oldest political parties in the world. It traces its roots to 1792, when followers of Thomas Jefferson adopted the name Republican to emphasize their antimonarchical views. The Republican Party, also known as the Jeffersonian Republicans, advocated a decentralized government with limited powers. Another faction to emerge in the early years of the republic, the Federalist Party, led by Alexander Hamilton, favoured a strong central government. Jefferson’s faction developed from the group of Anti-Federalists who had agitated in favour of the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States. The Federalists called Jefferson’s faction the Democratic-Republican Party in an attempt to identify it with the disorder spawned by the “radical democrats” of the French Revolution of 1789. After the Federalist John Adams was elected president in 1796, the Republican Party served as the country’s first opposition party, and in 1798 the Republicans adopted the derisive Democratic-Republican label as their official name.

In 1800 Adams was defeated by Jefferson, whose victory ushered in a period of prolonged Democratic-Republican dominance. Jefferson won reelection easily in 1804, and Democratic-Republicans James Madison (1808 and 1812) and James Monroe (1816 and 1820) were also subsequently elected. By 1820 the Federalist Party had faded from national politics, leaving the Democratic-Republicans as the country’s sole major party and allowing Monroe to run unopposed in that year’s presidential election. [my emphasis]
It makes the important historical point that Jefferson's party found its antecedents not among the opponents of the Constitution as such but among the fact which considered a Bill of Rights to be a necessary component of the Constitution. The view that actually prevailed when the first Congress approved the addition of the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution.

The bottom line for this post: hack history is bad history.

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