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Publick Occurrences 2.0

January 11, 2013

The Value of Studying Politics in Context

Several years ago, the student conservative publication on the campus of a friend published a screed against newfangled history, decrying the rise of courses that focused on race, class, and gender, and bemoaning the lack of courses on serious subjects such as politics and economics. The publication singled out for praise a course taught by that friend on American business history. I chuckled when I read the article because the course in question focused heavily on—you guessed it—issues of race, gender, and class in American business. There’s only so much one can learn by reading course titles.

That story came to mind today as I read from a Facebook friend that the National Association of Scholars (and its affiliate group, the Texas Association of scholars), were releasing a report on Texas public universities that claims that the American history taught at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University contains too much social and cultural history (with “race, class, and gender,” or “RCG” as their stand-ins) and not enough political, economic, or diplomatic history.

Several people, including me, posted the report and discussed it on Twitter yesterday afternoon with a fair bit of derision and snark, pointing out, for instance, that the report flagged as objectionable The Minutemen and Their World, Robert A. Gross’s classic study of Concord in 1775, and Liberty and Power, a book whose subtitle is The Politics of Jacksonian America. Using syllabi, as many have argued, is an imperfect measure of what happens in a classroom; I offered as an example that my students listen to the Gettysburg Address in class rather than reading it at home.

That’s all well and good, and self-satisfying to boot. But for a moment indulge me in taking the report seriously to see whether those of us who practice political history in a way that attends carefully to society and culture can learn anything about how we pitch our work.

First, take a look at the report’s ten recommendations (pp. 47-49 of the report). At the topline, they are completely and utterly unobjectionable (in part because they are so vague):

  1. Review the Curriculum.
  2. If Necessary, Convene an External Review.
  3. Hire Faculty Members with a Broader Range of Research Interests.
  4. Keep Broad Courses Broad.
  5. Identify Essential Reading.
  6. Design Better Courses.
  7. Diversify Graduate Programs.
  8. Evaluate Conformity with Laws.
  9. Publish Better Books.
  10. Depoliticize History.

See? Nothing objectionable, except insofar as faculty around the United States are already doing nearly all of those things. We all worked to improve our courses, to “identify essential reading,” to address broad questions in survey courses, and so on. Nearly all of us try to publish better books, and our departments conduct frequent curricular reviews (my own department is in the midst of one this year). The problem, of course, is that a conservative organization such as NAS sees the outcomes of those efforts as fundamentally different from many academics.

To understand how, I want to talk more about the tenth recommendation. Here’s the full text after the brief nugget:

The root of the problem is that colleges and universities have drifted from their main mission. They and particular programs within them, increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry. When universities and university programs consider it necessary to atone for, and help erase, oppressions of the past; one way in which they do so is by depicting history as primarily a struggle of the downtrodden against rooted injustice. This pedagogical conception may be well-intended, but it is also a limited and partisan one, and history teaching should not allow itself to become imprisoned within a narrow interpretation. A depoliticized history would provide a comprehensive interpretation of American history that does not shortchange students by denying them exposure to intellectual, political, religious, diplomatic, military, and economic historical themes.

The dominance of race, class, and gender themes in history curricula came about through disciplinary mission creep. Historians and professors of United States history should return to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.

The last sentence is the crucial one. The conservative impulse, as Jeremi Suri noted, is to teach “a simple and one-sided history of just a few people.” I attended a seminar this summer in which someone argued that you simply needed to “give students the documents” and they would be able to understand their meaning, and another person argued with me that I should be teaching the “enduring meaning” of the Constitution. (My response was that the Constitution hadn’t endured in 1787 when it was written, its drafters were in fact incredibly nervous about whether it would endure, and that the Civil War poked a rather gaping hole in the suggestion that that 1787 Constitution was fine as is.)

Teaching history that way, however, does an enormous disservice to students. As a political historian, I agree that teaching political history is important, and I emphasize it in my own survey course (my analogy to Texas is a state law here requiring instruction in both the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions). I believe, as I’ve argued here before, that civic education is an important function of American history courses. Understanding the political history of the United States better, including comprehending just what documents such as the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation meant to various groups, can only help modern political discourse. But I don’t want to pass on a simple story to my students, in no small measure because there is no simple story. In fact, I would argue, college history is not about answers, as NAS wishes, but about asking useful questions. I want, and I think many of my colleagues, to empower students to engage with the fullness of the past, to understand how debates in Philadelphia in 1787, in Congress in January 1865, at Versailles in 1919—choose your example from the standard narrative of political, diplomatic, and economic history—shaped and were shaped by social and cultural forces out of doors.

To address NAS on its own terms, one of its benchmarks for proper reading assignments is the National Archives list of 100 Milestone Documents. Go take a look and figure out how many of those documents one can discuss without any reference to race, class, or gender, NAS’s menacing troika. Maybe the Lend-Lease Act? The Manhattan Project’s notebook? Of course I’m not a twentieth-century specialist so I could be wrong about those. My point is that the political history that NAS and like-minded organizations promote looks desiccated and inadequate without any consideration of the important knowledge we’ve gained and the questions it allows us to ask over the past few decades. For a sample of that, I would just offhand recommend Benjamin Irvin’s book, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty, which recasts the political symbols that Congress promoted to develop American nationalism through an analysis of gendered language, or class implications. It’s a good example of what I aspire to (still working on the book manuscript…) in terms of integrating new questions about culture into an older narrative about American politics.

A conversation about teaching and practicing political history is useful, but the solution is not to ignore the best contributions of social and cultural history by winding back the clock and pretending that those questions don’t exist and don’t matter. And it’s the responsibility of political historians who see value in that process to engage those interested in old-fashioned politics and convince them that those questions do matter.

 

For more coverage, see:

“UT, A&M shortchanging students on American history, report says” (Austin Statesman, Jan. 9, 2013)

NAS press release: “Colleges Twist U.S. History”

Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History? (PDF)

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October 24, 2012

The “Wisdom” of the Founders

It’s October of a presidential election year, which means the political pundit class is alive with speculation of the likelihood of different results in the popular vote and the Electoral College or – and this one has really gotten people going, thanks to some speculation and number crunching by Five Thirty Eight blogger Nate Silver – if the Electoral College comes out in a 269-269 tie. (Two side points: first, take a look at the first scenario he games out; the scary part is it has the air of plausibility, that is, the electoral map theoretically could happen, even if the odds are extremely low. Second, as others have pointed out, you should know you’re being trolled when you read a sentence that states that the “probability [of a tie] has roughly doubled from a few weeks ago, when the chances had been hovering at about 0.3 percent instead.”)

The op-eds, editorials, blog posts, and tweets that game out these scenarios all operate under the premise that such an outcome would be a “constitutional crisis.” And that’s true to a point, but what I have not seen any discussion of in the mainstream media to this point is that such an Electoral College occurrence, however fluky it might be, would represent a failure not so much of the Constitution as of the political system built up around it. Such an election, in fact, does exactly what the Constitution of 1787 (as modified by the Twelfth Amendment) requires. The winner of the presidential election is the candidate with the most electoral votes; Art. II, § 1 is agnostic on the method by which each state determines its electors, and a popular majority was in no one’s imagination in 1787.

Why don’t commentators or politicians discuss the problem of an Electoral College tie (or a “split decision”) as a Constitutional matter rather than a political one? One answer comes from Sanford Levinson, whom I heard speak for the first time this week when he visited my campus. Levinson, who teaches at Harvard Law School and the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, argued simply that no one is willing to have the conversation. The discussion about the Constitution, he suggested, goes only so far for the two candidates as to express their devotion to the document of the Founders. (At this point Levinson expressed nostalgic longing for the campaign of 1912, which featured constitutional reformers Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt as well as the future Chief Justice William Howard Taft.)

Levinson is most famous in Constitutional studies circles for his advocacy of a new constitutional convention to remedy the problems he sees in the current document—and the greatest failure of 1787, he suggests, is the empty vessel of Article V, which provides for the Constitution’s amendment with absolutely no guidance as to how it might happen. He argued in his talk on Monday that the Constitution would “render the election (nearly) irrelevant,” a provocative claim that little would occur in the sphere of domestic policy no matter which candidate wins because of the likely split in Congress. In foreign affairs, he argued, the difference matters, but in that case he critiques Presidents (dating back to Truman) for ignoring Congress in matters of war, peace, and national security.

The discussion was intriguing, and I’m glad that a number of students got to see history in action, as Levinson touched on a number of areas that we had covered in the U.S. survey within the past week, not least the vagueness of Article II’s grant of executive power. Within the context of the talk, I asked Levinson how he proposed to get a constitutional convention enacted, given that it required the assistance of the very political structures that fail in other regards now and that the very vagueness that he critiqued was a feature of the Constitution that worked well for either party at various times. His answer was not particularly satisfying – either we have to go over the cliff and have a true crisis moment (which is hopefully unlikely) or people must decide they’re just fed up. I’m not sure I’d go as far as Levinson, though I do think the conversation would be helpful, and that historians can and should take part in it to explain the processes by which the Constitution came about in 1787 and those that have shaped the document since.

What I did not get to ask about, and which may take a few more blog posts to fully flesh out, is the importance of what Levinson alluded to at the beginning of his talk: reverence for the Constitution. Setting aside how to fix any problems with the Constitution, any conversation along those lines must start from the premise that the Constitution is changeable, and I’m not sure that’s an easy starting point for many people given the enduring popularity of originalism and “Founders’ Chic.” It’s difficult, in other words, to have a true conversation about the Electoral College that elides the fact that a 269-269 tie leading to the House electing Mitt Romney as President and the Senate re-electing Joe Biden as Vice President is precisely the system the Founders bestowed on the nation.

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June 1, 2012

Droppin’ Hamiltons like Aaron Burr

Before I say anything, I want to make sure I’m not stepping on Jeff’s post about university presses and state and local history. I hesitate to even click “post” before everyone in this profession reads what he has to say.

And following that, I should say hello again. I haven’t posted since 2010, about a week after my wife and I learned we were expecting a child. What followed was a rush to “finish” a manuscript, a bathroom renovation, a semester of teaching, and a bunch of the usual things. Blogging fell by the wayside in this fanatical effort to manage time and maximize productivity before the bambino arrived, and the last 10 months have been an exercise in seeing what I still care about now that I feel like an adult. Suddenly, the ‘blog it’ bar got harder to clear, and the ‘do I have time to read this?’ question became far more urgent.

But here I am, thanks to David Brooks.

I know it’s a bit of a parlor game to bash Brooks, the New York Times in-house conservative columnist. In general, Brooks strikes me as a guy trying to do a good job in a tough situation: the cheese slid off the cracker in the conservative movement, to the point where we’ve got a birther-curious GOP nominee who will say anything and a House Republican caucus that looks like a circus (did you ever watch special orders speeches at night on CSPAN? Oh my.) The kinds of Republicans Brooks really wants to respect are dead, retired, or Democrats. And yet he has this grating habit of embracing false equivalency, following in the vapid tradition of David Broder of proposing superior ‘centrist’ policies that equate and dismiss the ideological commitments and organized constituencies of both major political parties.

If you read his May 28 column, “The Role of Uncle Sam,” you know exactly what I mean.

But what interested – and irked – me was that the centrism Brooks proposes for the country he’s rebranded as “Hamiltonian.” As in Alexander Hamilton. Yes, the bank guy.

Brooks thinks the U.S. government has gotten way too big. He doesn’t specify what that means exactly, but his opening line is that “Government promoted industrial development in the 18th century, transportation in the 19th, communications in the 20th and biotechnology today.” Within that frame, “the federal role has historically been sharply limited” and our guy Hamilton was “the man who initiated that role” He was “a nationalist” whose  “primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal.”

You should read the column yourself and not take my word for it, but in short, Brooks posits that:

  • *The Hamiltonian tradition has been followed by “Whigs, early Republicans, and early progressives”
  • *People in the Hamiltonian tradition “reject efforts to divide the country between haves and have-nots”
  • *“generations of leaders [in this tradtion] assume that there is a rough harmony of interests between capital and labor”
  • *Everything was going great until progressives, the New Deal, and LBJ came along
  • *The so-called Tea Party was a culminating outcome of a decades-long festering revulsion among conservatives who were becoming anti-government

And finally Brooks’ conclusion asks:

 Does government encourage long-term innovation or leave behind long-term debt for short-term expenditure? Does government nurture an enterprising citizenry, or a secure but less energetic one?

Never mind the shoddy history of political parties in the 20th century, or the false choices and false equivalencies posed in those last two sentences.

(By the way, can someone explain why secure people aren’t enterprising? Would we all be more productive if we were being chased by lions or sleep better if we took the batteries out of smoke detectors?)

I’ve been reading Hamilton in a serious this-is-my-career way for the last 10 years, and what’s striking about the Brooksian verision of the “Hamiltonian tradition” is how utterly ahistorical these claims are. That’s not surprising from a pundit, but David Brooks is no ordinary pundit. He’s a Very Serious Person – a public intellectual. Yet he seems to be profoundly unfamiliar with the contours of Hamilton’s career in government and politics – one that was, need I remind you, very short and very learnable.

Look, I’m intrigued by Hamilton. I hope to make a career and sell literally dozens of books by writing about Hamilton and some of the institutions he guided. But once you know anything about Hamilton’s politics, you know that’s why he should not be looked to as a guide to anything you want to describe as centrist or moderating. Hamilton was not representative of majority opinions at the Convention in 1787, and by the time he was through Washington and Adams, he was – with complete sincerity – regarded as a monarchist by many of the Republicans of 1800.

I could spend 2000 words rebutting David Brooks’ claims one-by-one, but I find it utterly perplexing that in an age when you can find many of Hamilton’s papers on Google Books for free, that you would say that Hamilton’s goal wasn’t to make people “rich or equal, that he rejected a politics of “haves” vs. “have-nots,” and that Hamiltonians think of capital and labor as equally-weighted forces in political life.

Let’s be clear.

Banking politics was contentious precisely because it was about winners and losers, the exclusivity of membership in networks of credit, and the privileging of capital over labor. The aggregation of political power within banks was what Hamilton’s opponents understood to be their most powerful argument against the multiplication of banks in general and the existence of the Bank of the United States in particular.

Yes, “nationalists” cared about roads, bridges, and schools. But so did Hamilton’s opponents, who we also have to call “nationalists,” too. And contrary to Brooks’ claim, Hamilton and his successors cared a great deal about jobs, employment, and security – it was why the U.S. had a tariff. In fact, the early American tariff is often cited in modern macroeconomic textbooks as a case where a tariff is justified – you’re protecting infant industries in your domestic economy that would wither under the pressure of competitive disadvantages if left unprotected.

And those long-term infrastructure projects that the “Hamiltonians” loved? At some point, they had to have been the near-term projects that Brooks detests. Glaciers and laser cannons didn’t carve out the Erie Canal – it was a debt-financed state project that paid workers for their hard labor over many years. Wizards didn’t lay train tracks or build bridges and maintain roads. You only get to do long-term projects by engaging in near-term planning, execution, and financing. At some point, the question is called, votes are cast, and the nasty business of politicking begins to become public policy.

I guess what’s surprising about Brooks’ columns – this one and others preceding it – is that the man seems so insistent on dismissing 21st century liberalism as little more than a basket of blind demands for spending and regulation that he has to carve out this absurd definition of Hamilton’s politics. It’s why he can write a column about Hamilton without mentioning the word “bank” (yes, really).

I’m not sure how useful Hamilton is to 21st century political thought. He was only in power for 12 years (unofficially) and killed in 1804. He never saw the Erie Canal. Never saw the steamboat Clermont, or the telegraph, or the steam locomotive, or had time to contemplate the effects of the cotton gin, or Louisiana land, California gold, and the industrial revolution. He never even got to savor Aaron Burr’s downfall, let alone think about the needs of modern powers.

My guess, though, is that Brooks might not be so keen on Hamilton if he knew that he hated speculators, was in favor of highly-regulated banks, state-supported industry, a tariff, and a sweeping definition of the Commerce Clause. The real Hamilton would have laughed someone out of the room who claimed a corporation was entitled to free speech rights as a “person.”

And the real Hamilton, I suspect, would find David Brooks’ “Hamiltonian” politics utterly unrecognizable.

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March 14, 2012

Grounded into Dust

George Inness, "The Lackawanna Valley," 1855, National Gallery of Art

Phillip Longman and Lina Khan have a fascinating article in the Washington Monthly about how airline deregulation has not only made flying miserable for all of us, but is having an absolutely devastating impact on some of America’s inland cities.

The authors find a parallel story in the development of railroads during the nineteenth century.

Dealing with high fixed costs is a challenge common to virtually all networked industries, and in one way or another, America has grappled with the problem throughout the country’s history. The Founders understood that private enterprise could not by itself provide broadly distributed postal service because of the high cost of delivering mail to smaller towns and far-flung cities, and so they wrote into the Constitution that a government monopoly would take on the challenge, providing the necessary cross-subsidization.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, generations of Americans similarly struggled with how to maintain an equitable and efficient railroad network, and for much the same reason. During various railroad bubbles, exuberant investors would build lines to the farthest corners of continent, much like start-up airlines in the 1980s. But over time, the high fixed cost of railroading and the basic economics of any networked industry left all but the core of the emerging system unprofitable before it received the benefits of government regulation.

The authors then quote Charles Francis Adams’s Railroads: Their Origin and Problems (1878), in which he observed that Americans came to the conclusion that railroads weren’t like other industries, and government regulation was necessary to smooth out price discrimination and “local inequalities.”  The authors continue,

The response was the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887—a move that most Americans viewed as essential to preserving free enterprise and their way of life. The ICC took on the task of moderating the price discrimination that railroads practiced, evening out the burden among different regions and classes of passengers and shippers in a way that allowed railroads to earn enough money to cover their fixed costs, improve their infrastructure, and give their investors a fair reward. In effect, the profits railroads earned on some highly trafficked long-haul routes came to be rechanneled by government policy to cover the cost of providing balanced and affordable service throughout the country. Railroads were regulated much as telephones and power companies came to be—as natural monopolies that would be allowed to remain in private hands and earn a profit, but not at the cost of skewing the overall efficiency, balance, and fairness of American economy.

Longman and Khan argue that Americans may have to search for similar solutions when it comes to the airline industry.  Anyway, read the whole thing.

 

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May 6, 2009

Still an Open Question after 600,000 Deaths

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Civil War Era,Conservatives,Constitution,Jacksonian Era — Benjamin Carp @ 10:37 am

Via Matthew Yglesias (who ponders Confederate place names), Ed Kilgore discusses the “sovereignty resolutions” that have suddenly become popular, particularly (though not exclusively) in southern legislatures.  Atrios kicks in the snark.

Go read the posts, come back, discuss.

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April 10, 2009

Clio Takes a Look at 2009 Tea Parties

Reader BMC insists that I post on this clip from the Rachel Maddow show.  (If you want to know what all the snickering is about, I’d suggest consulting an online slang dictionary, and I’m not responsible for what you find.)

I think the easiest thing to do would be to start picking out all the bad historical analogies and use it as an excuse to guffaw at the “Tea Party” movement that’s scheduled to demonstrate on April 15, 2009 (tax filing day).  But I’m not going to do that–instead I’m going to try and be even-handed about this, and see if there’s anything to this grassroots conservative invocation of the Boston Tea Party.

Unfortunately, the ideology behind all of this seems rather vague.  For instance, here’s what the website TaxDayTeaParty.com says on its front page:

The Tea Party effort is just a small piece of a much larger movement aimed at restoring the basic free-market principles our country was built on. The Constitution, for the most part, is being ignored by our current government and we intend on working together to correct the problem.

The Tea Party effort is a grassroots, collaborative volunteer organization made up of every day American citizens from across the country. We take pride in the fact that we’ve built a 50 state network of leaders and activists using nothing more than the internet, a few websites and a burning desire to restore freedom.

There’s not much there: the protesters are in favor of “basic free-market principles” and “freedom.”  (Well, me too!)  The site doesn’t say how the government is ignoring the Constitution, exactly–and if you dig a little further, it all goes back to Rick Santelli’s displeasure with the stimulus plan and the budget.

To the extent that the 2009 tax protests are part of a grass-roots movement, I think it’s fine to invoke the Boston Tea Party as your inspiration–although many suspect that corporate lobbyists and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News have a lot to do with organizing and promoting this protest, and even Santelli himself apears to have been the frontman for a rightwing foundation.  Still, if people are responding to the movement and even organizing local “tea parties” on their own, then that does accord with the local tea protests that sprang up in 1773-1774 in the wake of (and even immediately before) the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773.

One historical analogy that fails, however, is the idea that the Bostonians aboard the tea ships in 1773 were protesting higher taxes under the Tea Act.  This is just wrong.

  • First, the British Parliament first passed the tax on tea in 1767, and Bostonians had in fact purchased plenty of tea bearing the threepenny-per-pound duty during the intervening years.  New Yorkers and Philadelphians, who smuggled almost all of their tea from Holland and elsewhere, were in fact outraged at how little the New Englanders were able to stick to their “anti-tax” principles.  In this respect, the Boston Tea Party was almost an apology.
  • Second, the Tea Act would in fact have lowered the price of tea for Americans–so the idea of invoking the “Tea Party” every time you think your taxes are too high is incorrect.  Instead, the Tea Party protesters were energized by a series of principles: the government was propping up a monopoly company (the East India Company), the government was perpetuating an unjust tax (the 1767 tax on tea which had been confirmed in 1770), and the government was using the revenue from that tax to pay the salaries of judges and executive officials, thus rendering them independent of local legislatures.
  • Third, and most importantly: I’ve been extremely dismayed at how many of the protesters say, “Taxation WITH representation ain’t so hot either.“  (I’m not just cherry-picking a random blog comment here–this phrase is everywhere.)

Well, no, no one LIKES paying taxes, but most people recognize that you need some form of taxation in order to pay firemen and astronauts, defend the country’s borders, try to ensure that our food isn’t poisoned, etc.  The point of protest against the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and Tea Act in 1765-1774 was that “taxation WITHOUT representation” would lead to slavery–in other words, the colonists believed that the British ministry was arbitrarily levying taxes on Americans when those Americans had no say in electing members of Parliament.  In a democratic republican government, if you don’t like the level of your taxes or you don’t like how your tax money is spent, you have the power to peaceably “throw the bums out.”  And you certainly have the First Amendment right to protest and rail against the stimulus and bailout.  But the point is, the people of the Revolutionary Era had to fight for those rights to get rid of a constitutional monarchy–it’s hardly the case that paying taxes from a colony to a (partially hereditary) government that you don’t elect is the same as paying taxes to a government consisting of representatives and an executive that you DO have the power to elect.

On the other hand, to the extent that the tax protesters believe that their government doesn’t adequately represent them anymore, they’re arguing something more interesting.  If we stipulate that the current execution of the United States Constitution has failed, and that reform of the Constitution is needed (which many on both the left and the right have argued), then legislation and executive policy under George W. Bush or Barack Obama (or whoever) really is the product of a flawed system, and therefore (perhaps) as unjust as anything passed by King George III and the British Parliament. Still, before making this argument, I’d recommend picking up (for instance) Edmund Morgan’s Inventing the People, on how Americans came to believe that a representative government DID have the legitimate right to make laws in a way that a king did not.

By all means, let’s have a civil debate about Obama’s policies in the midst of the economic crisis.  And by all means, if we think that the problems we’re facing are due to underlying constitutional problems rather than the current legislative/executive solutions, then let’s talk about constitutional reform.  But (although I realize it’s too late now) please don’t abuse the analogy to the Boston Tea Party, even if such abuse (again, from both the right and left) is almost as much of an American tradition as the Tea Party itself.

P.S.  Also?  Why even mention tea bags?  In 1773 they were dumping loose tea into the harbor–the tea bag wasn’t invented until later–and you can still buy loose tea.

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January 12, 2009

Our Intoxicated Republic

Filed under: Constitution,Presidency — Benjamin Carp @ 8:45 pm

Via Matthew Yglesias, here’s a sharply worded article by University of Baltimore law professor Garrett Epps in The Atlantic, entitled, “The Founders’ Great Mistake.”  Well, that’s just catnip for us here at Publick Occurrences.  Epps argues that the Constitution, in its current form, gives presidents appalling license to do the country harm.

One quote that struck me:

Intoxicated by the image of the hero-president, unencumbered by any direct political check, stubborn presidents . . . have no incentive to change course.

This gets at Jeff’s media criticism in the post below.  It’s not just presidents who believe their own hype, but a media and public that feeds an almost monarchical conception of the presidency in all its majesty.  Now, somewhere Brendan McConville is probably saying, “I told you so,” although that’s a gross simplification of his thesis.

Epps has a few suggestions for reforming the presidency.  First, we should get rid of the electoral college, and shorten the “interregnum” period between the election and the inauguration.  Secondly, the powers of the presidency ought to be specifically enumerated.  Third (and here things get a little weird), if a president’s party loses seats in Congress, he should be forced to shuffle his Cabinet.  Finally, the executive should be split—perhaps by separately electing an independent attorney general during the midterm elections.

Epps isn’t the first person to suggest a radical overhaul to the Constitution—there have been a number of books with that thesis in recent years.  But heck, Epps’s article is shorter.  Let’s have at it.

Which provisions of the Constitution would you change, and what features would you add?

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January 10, 2009

The Electoral College is a Joke

Filed under: 2008 elections,Congress,Constitution,Media,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:35 pm

Literally. Or at least, jokes are all that the media can seem to find to write about the official counting of the electoral vote:

The Republican highlight of the afternoon: a lonely Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) clapping when it was announced that John McCain and Sarah Palin won the electoral votes from her home state.

But perhaps the funniest moment of the session: Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, sticking his fingers in his ears when the results were announced from his home state of South Carolina. McCain pulled that one out despite Clyburn’s efforts to get one more Southern state in Obama’s column.

It is hard to blame reporters or participants for taking this attitude, given the manifest pointlessness and vestigiality of the Electoral College as an institution. The automatic reverence for the Constitution that suffuses our culture has induced a considerable number of pundits and political scientists to defend the EC over the years, but most defenders and detractors seem to conflate the institution itself with the state-based apportionment mechanism embedded within it.

It seems to me that the weighting of the votes for president is a separate question from the operations of the institution. The thing the institutional EC was intended to do, act as one of the filters between local popular majorities (and parties) and the choice of the presidency, it never did properly even once. One of the things I have learned from my current research on the election of 1796 is that even back in the very earliest days of presidential electioneering, when presidential electors actually ran (or stood) under their own names, the primary matter discussed was not “Which local big-shot (elector candidate) do we trust to choose a president for us?” but “Which well-known national candidate will he support?” I have an example of an elector candidate in Maryland writing to the newspapers to deny a candidate affiliation that was already circulating in his neighborhood. In other words, no one ever gave a rodent’s behind about the electors or their non-existent college even when there was nothing else to vote for, presidentially speaking.

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October 3, 2008

The Politics Issue Cometh

Filed under: Common-Place,Constitution — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:00 am

Things have not been as active as they might have been around here because we are busy are completing what I think has turned out to be one of the biggest projects in the history of Common-Place, the special Politics Issue. Some server problems have delayed the full release until early next week, so I thought I would offer a preview here on the blog, because the blog is going to be heavily involved. That’s right: in addition to a very full slate of regular Common-Place articles, there will be ongoing, between-issue content, provided in many cases by writers other than myself. And there will be comment pages here for each article. Change you will believe in!

As to the aforementioned preview: you should see some links at the top of the sidebar on the right. These include a beta release (as we say here in the world of retro-high tech) of my introduction and the full edition of a special bonus article by University of New Mexico legal historian Christian G. Fritz, “America’s Unknown Constitutional World.” You should also see the comment page and an early snippet of Ray Raphael’s “Instructions: The People’s Voice in Revolutionary America.” Together these two pieces form a mini-package on a topic I find myself increasingly absorbed by, popular constitutionalism.

Look for the rest of the Politics Issue very soon.

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June 22, 2008

Popular Constitutionalism Illustrated

Readers of my book, The Tyranny of Printers: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic, may be interested in a much more lavishly illustrated rendition of some of the book’s points that has been just been published in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s magazine Pennsylvania Legacies. The article, “Popular Constitutionalism in Philadelphia: How Freedom of Expression Was Secured by Two Fearless Newspaper Editors,” is part of a special issue on “Defining Civil Liberties in Pennsylvania.” Naturally, the two editors are Benjamin Franklin Bache and William Duane of the Philadelphia Aurora. It looks like you have to join HSP to actually read the whole thing, but there is a preview available here.

(I love the cartoon of a lightning-swathed printing press that the HSP has posted with the preview, which I am borrowing for this post. It looks like it should be the chest emblem of a printing-themed superhero, if there ever were to be such a thing.)

As usual with small assignments covering old ground, I tortured myself to put something new into this piece, only to have most of the extra material not make it into the final version. In this case, I tried to go a little further than the book did with the idea of popular constitutionalism — constitutional interpretation as worked out and enforced in the arena of popular politics rather than the courts — as the driving force behind what Americans came to see their constitutional rights. In the case at hand, the expansive American version of press freedom was worked out in the political battle of 1798-1801. Constitutional law and elite political thought only caught up many decades later. At any rate, I have posted a “director’s cut” of the article here. (Having an outlet for my long versions was a good chunk for my motivation for starting a website in the first place.) It is still unfootnoted and pitched to a relatively popular audience, like the Pennsylvania Legacies version, but it will be a starting point for an argument I hope to be making at greater length and with more scholarly rigor in the future.

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