William Hogeland: Constitutional Convention Delegates Had Common Goal – Ending Democratic Finance

By William Hogeland, the author of the narrative histories Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion and a collection of essays, Inventing American History who blogs at http://www.williamhogeland.com. Cross posted from New Deal 2.0

Economic struggles played a huge role in the founding of our country, despite some attempts to revise that history.

Edmund Randolph of Virginia kicked off the meeting we now know as the United States constitutional convention by offering his fellow delegates a key inducement to forming a new U.S. government. America lacked “sufficient checks against the democracy,” Randolph said. A new government would provide those checks.

Randolph’s listeners in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787 knew what he meant by “the democracy.” And readers of this series probably will, too. He was talking about the 18th-century American popular finance movement, whose supporters agitated for policies to obstruct concentrated wealth and to give regular folks access to political power and economic equality. Amid depressions and foreclosures, ordinary people had long been rioting — they called it “regulating” — to pressure assemblies to restrain the merchant creditors, whose command of scarce gold and silver let them acquire immense wealth by lending at high, even predatory rates to the needier.

Then, with revolution against England, the popular finance movement turned its attention to changing the economic terms of American society. The 1776 Pennsylvania constitution, based in large part on ideas expressed by Thomas Paine in “Common Sense,” smashed the ancient property qualification for voting and holding office. In Pennsylvania, new political leaders like the preacher Herman Husband, the weaver William Findley, and the farmer Robert Whitehill entered the assembly and began passing laws shutting down elite banking and requiring government to operate, for the first meaningful time anywhere, on behalf of ordinary people.

Democracy in Pennsylvania sent chills through elites of every kind throughout the newly independent country. Rioting for popular finance was bad enough, but rioting was temporary, spasmodic, and traditional. Debtors wielding legitimate political power to equalize economic life — that was tantamount to a new kind of tyranny of the mob, hardly what Whig revolutionaries had fought England to gain. Neither Edmund Randolph nor other delegates of the Philadelphia convention, meeting in secret sessions in the Pennsylvania State House, felt any need for subtlety in seeking to suppress the political and economic equality burgeoning everywhere in America among “the democracy.”

Present at the Philadelphia convention was the fabulously wealthy Pennsylvania financier and speculator Robert Morris, America’s first central banker, no doubt licking his ample chops over the fulfillment, at long last, of his plan to wed nationhood to high finance. Yet it was the planter Randolph, not the financer Morris, who referred to “the plague of paper money,” and he meant just what Morris meant. State legislatures’ currency emissions and legal-tender laws depreciated the merchants’ income from their loans; paper, the people’s medium, built debt relief into money itself. Randolph also rued the country’s difficulty in paying the investing class its interest on federal bonds. With those bonds, Morris had made private creditors into public creditors as well, swelling the domestic U.S. debt to vast proportions in an effort to connect national purpose to high finance.

Hence the need, Randolph said, for a national government with laws acting on all the people throughout the states. It’s no coincidence that he also charged the delegates with repairing the federal government’s military weakness. A debtor uprising in western Massachusetts known as Shays’ Rebellion had marched on the state armory. That wasn’t just a riot. It showed how far ordinary people might go in rejecting regressive taxes and policies giving investors huge paydays with public money. The United States, Randolph said, must be empowered to put down insurrections anywhere in the country.

So Randolph did indeed know what he meant by “the democracy,” and his fellow delegates knew too. Why are historians typically so coy about the constitutional convention’s financial purposes?

The fight over those purposes is almost 100 years old. In 1913, the historian Charles Beard published “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.” There Beard argued that because delegates of the convention came overwhelmingly from the bond-holding class, the government they put into effect represents less a glorious triumph of republican philosophy than a rearguard action of money elites to assure their own payoffs. Beard’s startling contention was that the framers acted at least as much on financial self-interest as on principle.

If that contention remains startling, we can thank an immense effort, carried out over generations, to throw out not only Beard’s particular economic interpretation of the convention, but along with it any suggestion that struggles between elites and ordinary Americans over public and private finance played a role in framing our Constitution. It’s not surprising that many of the popular founding father biographers routinely avoid the issue. But entire careers in academic history — major ones, like Edmund Morgan’s — have been largely dedicated to depicting a founding generation acting with perfect intellectual consistency almost entirely on principle. Wherever self-interest did arise, Morgan suggests (in his popular book “The Birth of the Republic” and elsewhere), the nature of the founding mission was such that it enabled even greed to inspire the founders to good. In that kind of history, everyday political struggles over money between ordinary Americans and American elites just don’t play.

Beard did err. A pro-Jefferson, anti-Hamilton bent led him to associate self-interest mainly with the high-finance elites; he saw the land-based, state-sovereign philosophy of many planters as tending more naturally toward democracy, and he miscast people like Jefferson and Samuel Adams as Paine-like democrats. Randolph’s opening speech at the convention shows a confluence between Virginia planters and Philadelphia financiers on ending democratic finance (men who would never again agree on anything agreed on that!). As the historian Staughton Lynd has wisely suggested, citing Robert Brown in an essay in the anthology “Towards a New Past“, had Beard referred less specifically to bondholding, and more generally to property-owning, he would have been standing on firm ground.

But many take Beard’s errors as ample cause for heaving big sighs of relief, writing off any mention of founding conflicts over money and finance as “economic determinism,” and resting easy in a certainty that, the founders’ own words to the contrary, economic struggles played no important role in making us who we are as a people. “No, that’s Beard,” runs the objection to mentioning founding economic struggles. “Haven’t you heard? Beard’s been debunked.”

Debunking Beard is full of bunk. Beard’s leading critic, the historian and right-wing activist Forrest McDonald (he served, for example, as chairman of the Goldwater for President Committee of Rhode Island), rejected Beard’s economic analysis in favor of uncritical adoration for the founders’ sheer greatness. In his 1958 book “We the People“, McDonald purported to dismantle Beard’s argument with his own supposedly more accurate economic studies, but in a 1986 article in “The Journal of Economic History,” Robert McGuire and Robert Ohsfeldt used what economists call “regression analysis” to show that McDonald set premises and drew conclusions far more tendentious than Beard’s. McGuire’s recent book “To Form a More Perfect Union” strengthens both the critique of McDonald and the adjustment and rehabilitation of Beard.

To men of the constitutional convention, some of our modern economic analyses might seem strangely redundant. If we know how to read them, the founders often tell us, unabashedly and in their own words, what they were trying to do. McDonald claimed that, Beard to the contrary, a multitude of interests prevailed at the convention, not just one. Well, that’s true. What’s striking is that despite their well-known mutual antipathies, on a well-known multitude of fateful issues those northerners and southerners, planters and moneymen, slaveholders and manumissionists, city dwellers and countrymen, nationalists and state sovereigntists meeting in Philadelphia in 1787 shared a desire even stronger than their antipathy for one another: stop the American democratic finance movement once and for all.

The fight wasn’t over. But the men of the constitutional convention were making no bones about trying to win it.

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    1. Dirk77

      …and the Magna Carta was a bunch of feudal barons who got tired of being at the mercy of the whims of a king. What’s your point, dude?

      1. Stelios Thoeharidis

        That isn’t accurate in the least. The main concern related to the original tea party, subsequent movements in the northern colonies was that England was giving favorable terms, basically monopoly rights, to the East India Company. The tea coming from teh EIC was not taxed and they were going to flood the US market and eliminate the traders. This vehement opposition to corporations, particularly public ones, and any privileges that had been traditionally extended to them by the English monarchy, is a big part of US history that has since been shuffled out of our collective history..

        Chapter 4:
        The whole book is free.

  1. ScottB

    Yves, thanks for including these historical essays, they make for very interesting reading.

  2. attempter

    The first stage of the American Revolution, in a nutshell: Americans broke the power of those who were parasitic on them.

    America was capable of economic self-sufficiency, so the empire was nothing but an obstruction and a weight.

    Unfortunately, we only left the job half-finished, and allowed the Revolution to be hijacked in 1787-88.

    Today, what’s the case? America is capable of economic self-sufficiency, and the empire is nothing but an obstruction and a weight.

    (Especially if we actually did renounce consumerism, as contemplated in the other post, and resume human status as citizens. Especially if we finally took adult responsibility for ourselves and embarked upon true democracy.)

    What must be the second stage of the American Revolution, in a nutshell? Americans must break the power of those who are parasitic on us.

  3. Roger bigod

    Minor pedantic point: Edmund was primarily a lawyer, not a planter. His great-grandfather, William Randolph, left huge plantations to 4 sons. Another, John Randolph, studied at the Inns of Court and represented the colony on trips to London. One of his sons, Peyton, was first President of the Continental Congress. Another, John “the Tory” rejected the Revolution and returned to England. Edmund was the son of John the Tory. He may have inherited some land through marial alliances, but he was the third generation to practice law in Williamsburg.

    He did, of course, represent the interest of the planters. I’ve seen him credited (if that is the word) with the “three-fifths rule”.

    The person who addressed the Convention the most times was Gouverneur Morris, of NY. He was the closest to a free spirit there, which is probably why he’s left out of group portraits. One day the delegates got into an agitated discussion about whether and how to restrict the franchise to the well-off. Morris told them that their worries about democracy were a waste of time, because the rich would always find a way to control the outcome of elections.

    1. Phil Perspective

      And what’s funny in that kind of way is that George Mason was one of the original DFH’s(like Paine), yet his name is attached to a University where its economics dept. is home to a bunch of Randian wackadoodles.

  4. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

    While past pieces by Prof Hogeland have sought to bring the “democratic propensity” among some of the Founders to light, ultimately Adams, Hamilton and the Federalists prevailed. And to the extent that this narrative encourages those among us who would argue that the founding was perverted by THEM, that if only we could somehow go back to the intent of the ”democrats”, it is a DISSERVICE and a distortion as today’s piece clearly points out. [I was wondering when Beard’s thesis would surface….]

    We cannot go back. Nor should we pretend that the “founding” was something it was not. By 18th Century standards it was truly a revolutionary departure from the predominant institution of monarchy. That much cannot be denied. But it was not a social revolution inasmuch as it was a national war of liberation with three factions – democrats, republicans, and loyalists – two of which sought independence from the Mother Country. And at the end of the day, the republicans/federalists emerged victorious and went on to wield state power. Doing so required that New England elites and their Southern counterparts work together in forging a nation. The result was the US Constitution. Let’s leave it at that.

    The real question is what we would change if we, the American people, suddenly found ourselves in a position to wield state power. Assuming we’re talking about “democratizing” American society, how would we rewrite the US Constitution or would we start over? For as DownSouth pointed out a week or so ago, Jefferson himself did not feel that the future should bind itself blindly to the past, treating it as if it was sacred and therefore holy writ. Indeed, Jefferson realized that the truly epic “moment” had already been lost! So what would you change if you were at this second “constitutional convention”?

    Given my prejudices/thesis that the US Constitution was little more than a divide and conquer [Federalist #10 – James Madison] strategy with which to prevent the majority [the poorer, less propertied] from impinging on the interests of the propertied, I would be inclined to start over but only after “An American Declaration of INTERDEPENDENCE” had been authored to legitimate this “second founding”. Any takers? But this would constitute a social revolution and a radical break with the past, bringing me to two crucial facets of such change.

    First, inasmuch as political democracy is intimately bound up with economic democracy, how would the democratization of economic power be implemented? And what is the time horizon involved? Would parliamentary democracy facilitate the implementation of the former or not? It cannot be done within the traditional framework of the US Constitution as it was designed to mask or thwart the will of the majority. Moreover, can we blithely assume that Americans favor a more equal distribution of wealth? Opinion polls are one thing, but the “bite” out of your ass to make it happen is another, pointing up the second, perhaps much more important, facet of such a revolutionary change.

    Namely, how much coercion would we be willing to employ to maintain state power? What happens when the former elites opposed to the democratization of American society attempt to thwart the “revolution”? When does counterrevolutionary behavior become treasonous? How do you deal with a Grover Norquist or a Newt Gingrich to name just two? Or would they already be in exile? Note that loyalists were “deported” after the adherents of independence had triumphed at Yorktown. I believe the Treaty of Paris [1783] addressed this issue of repatriation/deportation.

    In any case, how would our coercion differ from that of our predecessors? Let’s not pretend that it would be unnecessary. The American ruling class will not go voluntarily. Nor would significant segments of the American populace. Both are political realities that would have to be dealt with.

    That said, altruism and persuasion will only go so far as well. At the end of the day, someone has to govern in spite of what the libertarian leaning anarchists amongst us might hope for. Especially important would be the economy – how to make it work for all Americans. Making it work at all would be the first challenge. And I doubt if most of us have the stomach for the brutality of a Stalin or a Pinochet – at least not yet.

    Yes I’ve been dreaming… for well over 40 years now and will likely go to my grave with the dream unfulfilled. I suspect that I’m not alone nor much different than many other Americans who have dared to do the same. But to envision something radically different one has to quit believing in the most sacred of American traditions, i.e., the Founding. So long as it remains “sacred” any and/or all talk of revolution is just that.

    1. Toby

      Well said, Mickey.

      I’m a Brit living and working in Germany, married to a German-Philippina who has lived all over the world, so have had plenty of deep exposure to other cultures, US included, both via ‘Hollywood’ and time spent with family members there. My sensibilities on this point are therefore global rather than national, and as someone who sees resource-based economics as the only sustainable way beyond where we are now (We, the Humans), believe a movement to affect genuine or ‘deep enough’ change must be global, at least in vision and self-awareness. I doubt we can change the system deeply enough unless we do so across the planet, not in one go, obviously, but the thought must be explicitly there. One species embedded in the nature of one planet.

      That said, I can’t ignore the reality of people’s nationalism and patriotic pride, nor the complicated logistics of globally coordinated efforts. Patriotism won’t be going anywhere in a hurry, that’s for sure. Nevertheless, the paradigm we have to let go of–the MoneyWealth-inspired pursuit of happiness for me and mine–will grip our desire until it collapses into chaos, nationally and internationally. Thereafter, any willing participation in building an active democracy requires, as a precondition, understanding why pursuing such a direction is preferable to rebuilding what we had before. This understanding can only reached by us, together, beneath the ‘elite’ yet within the current paradigm. Until we are there, we will never be ready for democracy, nationally or globally. And I don’t think that richness of understanding can be reached prior to collapse. Until collapse, McMansions, BMWs and I-Want-My-MTV will seem to be The One True Way, will be too attractive.

      I think there’s an unassailable logic to the necessity of initiating this paradigm change from the ground up. Establishing a truly open democracy requires a totally different mindset to today’s. By definition no people can be led by an elite into a pen marked “Democracy”, or even “Democracy 2”. It makes no sense. Institutionalized elites are rendered redundant by the process; what’s in it for them? I think that is the greatest challenge here, since transitioning from “Follow Thy Leader” to “Each is headman over himself” is about as hard as it gets. And then coordinating the latter is almost a contradiction in terms, untried in human history!

      Interesting times; what’s necessary seems impossible.

  5. dsmlsciprof

    Mickey, I’d be interested in your views as to how those in Ohio can be duped to consistently vote against their economic self interest…..the most glaring example….the current house majority leader

    1. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio


      Now that’s the riddle in need of an answer, not only in OHIO but elsewhere as well.

      In the first place, I’m not so sure it’s a question of being duped as it is in actually believing in the ideology that legitimizes inequality. “False consciousness” is a convenient excuse for Marxists inclined to explain why there is so little class-consciousness among many “working-class” Americans. Certainly, historical factors have to be considered. Abundant land coupled with a relative shortage of labor made upward social mobility attainable for those individuals willing to pursue it. There is a certain element of truth in this rooted in American historical experience. That each successive wave of immigrants enjoyed a certain upward mobility not available to them in their native countries cannot be denied. The last 30 years would suggest that this paradigm has been irrevocably broken.

      Most Americans want to be rich. Hence, going out and getting it has been internalized by most Americans and they do not envy those who do. Why they want to be rich brings us back to societal institutions – religion, education, entertainment/media, nationalism/patriotism – that drum out the message, drowning out any viable alternatives. And most Americans certainly do not want to be poor… Poverty is a sin in this country – to be punished! It’s your own fault. The latter is deep-rooted amongst the working classes in this country. And those one paycheck or two away from poverty tend to be “conservative” in this country – not radical.

      In Ohio, one has to distinguish between the Northeast, based on a line from Youngstown to Toledo, the Southeast, the Southwest, and that huge expanse north of Dayton west and south of the line demarcating the Northeast. Then the urban-rural, agricultural-industrial divisions have to factored into this equation as well. Cutting across these are RELIGION and RACE. Many an ethnic white, Catholic, blue-collar, unionized worker who once voted Democratic now votes Republican influenced by both of the latter. Initially “progressive”, many of these “Reagan Democrats” have defected … consistent with the conservative reactionary drift of the country in general over the course of the past 40 years. Hard times tend to concentrate people’s minds on what they have and how to “conserve” it. Pie and the sky and more of the same promises have alienated many a working class stiff from traditional political loyalties. Until there is a viable alternative to the reigning economic orthodoxy, working class voters will likely vote “conservative” in an attempt to conserve what they have. The “moral economy of the peasant” described by James Scott in Indonesia is not that much different from the “moral economy of the technopeasantry” in Ohio and elsewhere.

      Finally, ETHNICITY may have more explanatory power in American politics than CLASS. If the white, largely suburban middle classes have hitched their wagon to corporate America because they have nowhere else to go, their extinction may be a prerequisite for class formation. The mosaic that characterizes the “melting pot” called America works against the homogeneity suggested by the construct of CLASS. Even though more than 90% of the labor force qualify as proletarians who sell their labor power to someone else to earn a living, the gradients and distinctions among and within these proletarians divides them more than it unites them. That’s the all important difference.

      In this respect, it remains to be seen whether the past 40 years of class warfare from above will result in the “Making of the American Working Class” or not. Understanding class formation may be more important to answering the riddle posed by why workers seemingly vote against their own self-interests not only in Ohio but in this country at large. Equally important are the forces in this country that exacerbate the divisions/differences that work against any significant class formation and class-consciousness among the working class.

      I hope I’ve answered the question posed – at least in part. But it’s much too complex to answer definitively here.

      My father was a skilled union carpenter [Local #639] who wanted his son to get an “education”. So I was pro-union without reservation growing up with sons and daughters of rubberoworkers. Did a bit of organizing in my younger days and still have a number of friends in the building trades and elsewhere with whom I discuss the very question posed here. Why some of them vote the way they do, if they vote at all, has resulted in some interesting conversations. Sometimes we see eye to eye and sometimes I take it in the eye! But I still love them – WE SHALL BE ALL!

      1. dsmlsciprof

        Hi Mickey,
        A short diversion to the “why they vote as they do”
        Also the son of a laborer (foundry worker) who wanted me to get an education. I went as far as I could and wound up teaching the Dismal Science for 35 years.
        Foundation principle: (still taught to HS and undergraduate students) :
        ….Adam Smith…. IF…..Individuals pursuing their own self interest (the butcher, baker, candlestickmaker) (in competitive markets) will be guided by an “invisible hand” that leads to the unintended consequence of the greater good for all society…THEN… the role of Government defaults to ”Laissez Faire”
        Strongest supporter with the most horsepower….Milton Friedman….
        Free market capitalism is the ONLY way to insure individual freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Government is the problem…..it is the power ITSELF that resides therein…..unless JC himself ( or– lets stir the pot…Mohammed) is the beneficent ruler, the existence of such POWER will attract others not so inclined to beneficence…

        Adam Smith was right ( because he was living in a society where 90% of the economy was in the agriculture sector) and IF most are toiling in small fields producing identical “Red Winter Wheat”, then yes, Free market capitalism will lead to great outcomes.
        The fly in the ointment….NOTHING in our agricultural sector even remotely resembles this….let alone the fact that agriculture is now only 5% of our economy and its extreme concentration pales in comparison with other sectors….ESPECIALLY the financial sector…

        Friedman was right, only he could not see that his ideas were the roadmap for escaping the perils and ‘’creative destruction”” of free market capitalism. The solution to “competition” is to concentrate your industry and become as large as possible……
        Simon Johnson (Baseline Scenario)…and ..(13 Bankers) lays out this evolution to a society ruled by “”Oligarchs”” . What better way to usurp the power of markets than to concentrate power in a government controlled by these economic behemoths. Money and lobbying and most important… “the revolving door”… are responsible for our current state of affairs.
        Sooooo….why do they vote against their economic interest??? IT DOESN’T MATTER
        The problem is systemic…..their economic interest does not coincide with the Oligarchs.
        I voted for Teddy Roosevelt and I didn’t even get Elinor!!! The “dark force” will bring most who we send to Washington into the orbit of the “Oligarchs”


        PS As R. Frost said, I’m moving to Vermont…
        Now….at least ….they have Bernie

        PPS…three advanced Economic degrees I wish had not been bestowed:
        Kenneth Arrow….gave legitimacy to math… leading to Quants taking over Wall Street
        Phil Grahm…..prostituted Friedman’s ideas and took the cops off Wall Street
        Alan Greenspan….couldn’t see the distortion of Ms. Ryand’s ideas in the service of the Oligarchs

        1. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio


          If that’s what you taught your students it’s easy to see why they vote against their economic interests – IT DOESN’T MATTER!

          1. dsmlsciprof

            True, but no Prof of Geology would suggest that man could move Mt Everest with any of his endeavors……. and thus to try WOULD NOT MATTER……but it would be irresponsible to suggest that it has NOT moved……… just as the tectonic plates have
            It is an understanding of forces required that is lacking ……. And to alter the power of the Oligarchs would require forces much greater than the ballot box….
            Just some possibilities: Global warming and the resulting world drought,
            The decline of “peak oil” and the end of abundant cheap energy,
            Nuclear proliferation and technology advances to produce suitcase nukes

            Alas, my cynicism or your optimism may neither serve us well

  6. Nathanael

    The anti-Federalists, on the other hand, wrote the Bill of Rights.

    And it was a great victory.

    1. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio


      But the first TEN AMENDMENTS to the US Constitution was the only way to secure ratification. That these amendments were NOT included from the outset should suggest something about the “democratic” propensities of the founders…

  7. DownSouth

    William Hogeland said:

    Wherever self-interest did arise, Morgan suggests (in his popular book “The Birth of the Republic” and elsewhere), the nature of the founding mission was such that it enabled even greed to inspire the founders to good. In that kind of history, everyday political struggles over money between ordinary Americans and American elites just don’t play.

    With the inclusion of Adam Smith’s “the invisible hand,” the supernatural was to play a pivotal role in the formation of a set of shared beliefs fundamental to the development of a new “secular” national faith.

    Michael Allen Gillespie talks about how the new American civil religion came about:

    What actually occurs in the course of modernity is thus not simply the erasure or disappearance of God but the transference of his attributes, essential powers, and capacities to other entities or realms of being. The so-called processes of disenchantment is thus also a process of reenchantment in and through which both man and nature are infused with a number of attributes or powers previously ascribed to God. To put the matter more starkly, in the face of the long drawn out death of God, science can provide a coherent account of the whole only by making man or nature or both in some sense divine.


    What this meant for those who took their inspiration from Descartes was that man thereby replaced God. Trying to determine what was distinctive about the human will, Rousseau looked beneath the finite will to self-aggrandizement and found a general will that could never err, a will that Patrick Riley has shown is a direct descendent of God’s will that all men be saved. Others saw this divine element not so much in man and his will but in the rationality of the world. Following Hobbes’s identification of mechanical causality and divine will, Spinoza developed a pantheistic account that identified God and substance. Locke believed that one could find moral imperatives sufficient to guide human life within the divinely created natural world. Newton saw time and space as the forms of divine being… Divine or at least quasi-divine powers reemerge although always in disguise. Nature is an embodied rational will; the social world is governed by an “invisible hand” that almost miraculously produces a rational distribution of goods and services…

    So what heretofore was the unassailable “will of God” is transformed into the unassailable “will of nature.”
    And assuming the victims of capitalism can be persuaded en masse to accept this new “one true faith” as sure truth, Morgan is indeed correct: “everyday political struggles over money between ordinary Americans and American elites just don’t play.”

    Or as Gillespie goes on to put it:

    Moreover, while this transference [of formerly divine powers to nature] does serve to moderate and ultimately eliminate the expressly theological debate that had been so contentious and violent, it also conceals the theological nature of the claims made by the contending parties. They thus cease to be disputable theological assertions and become unquestionable scientific or moral givens.

    Stephen Toulmin is blunter:

    The function of cosmopolitical arguments is to show members of the lower orders that their dreams of democracy are against nature; or conversely to reassure the upper class that they are superior citizens by nature. (emphasis Toulmin’s)

    Robert H. Nelson also doesn’t mince words:

    The greatest significance of Adam Smith to the economic history of the world was not in any power of economic explanation but in offering a “scientific” doctrine by which the many losers from all this radical change could be persuaded to accept their fate without active revolt—-an act of rebellion against the market that in many cases might have been to their individual advantage.

    1. DownSouth

      Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged goups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.
      ▬Reinhold Niebuhr

      Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.
      ▬John Adams

    2. Steve

      DownSouth – you are incredibly smart and I’m continuously in awe of your knowledge, so you must recognize this Gillespie argument as sophistry.

      Adam Smith discussed the value of information conveyed through prices and through commercial activity (supply and demand) as the primary organizing principle of a modern economy. Gillispie uses Monty Python logic (“she’s a witch…) to transform Smith’s insight into some Divine imperative. His argument holds no water and begs the premise.

      In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith makes clear that he dosesn’t think people are capable of making proper moral judgments about anything beyond their immediate and narrow self-interests. How Gillespie goes from this clear point from Smith to the tortured logical path he follows above is beyond my ken.

      I’m sure you will enlighten me. Capitalism is exhausting, so you may convert me yet.

      1. Toby

        Adam Smith discussed the value of information conveyed through prices and through commercial activity (supply and demand) as the primary organizing principle of a modern economy.

        But he epically fails to nail value down. He struggles with it manfully but ties himself in terrible knots. In the end though Smith could only fail; the information conveyed by price will always be misleading, because value cannot be measured. It is subjective and relative, like beauty.

        Furthermore, the market itself can never be–while it tries to measure value with something valuable (money)–a true reflection of Supply and Demand intersections. Price is not set by their intersection as economic theory would have it. Chapters 2 and 3 of Steve Keen’s “Debunking Economics” lays this bare, but so does considering advertising and public relations generally (see “The Hidden Persuaders” by Vance Packard or watch “The Century of the Self” on YouTube), and the power of cartels, oligopolies, etc. And, since the only way to prevent market ‘distortions’ is with the impossible Camelot or Utopia of Perfect Competition, supply and demand intersections will never determine price as the theory ‘predicts.’ A quick quote from Steve Keen on a real-world reaction to how economics says firms determine supply levels:

        “when this theory was put to those who do know how factories are designed and managed, they rejected it as “the product of the itching imaginations of uninformed and inexperienced arm-chair theorizers” (Lee 1998, citing Tucker).”

        None of us is homo economicus. After we have accepted this fact, we can start to see how orthodox economics is propaganda of money value in support of the ‘elite.’

      2. DownSouth

        A good offence is always the best defense when factual reality is so thoroughly arrayed against one. But this does nothing to alter the underlying facts, it only alters the rhetoric.

        Adam Smith is pure, unadulterated, 24 ct. Platonic rationalism. His theories fail the test of empiricism and human experience. The only reason that his supernatural rationalizations are proselytized so aggressively is because they serve the interests of powerful people:

        But in Smith’s panegyric of a free and unfettered market the rising industrialists found the theoretical justification they needed to block the first government attempts to remedy the scandalous conditions of the times. For Smith’s theory does unquestionably lead to a doctrine of laissez-faire. To Adam Smith the least government is certainly the best: governments are spendthrift, irresponsible, and unproductive.
        ▬Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers

        Why do you suppose Smith and his sectaries are always so hostile to having their theories subjected to verification by the scientific method? The capitalists have arrayed themselves against the scientific method since day one. Jacques Barzun provides some key insight:

        But he [Jean Simonde de Sismondi] also urged factual observation in what he was the first to call “the social sciences”; and when the “Encyclopedia Britannica” asked him for an article on political economy, further thought and documentation led him to question the validity of liberal economics. He thus became the first, and for a long time the only, heretic among Smith’s disciples…

        Sismondi had visited England and had been struck by the misery resulting from industrial progress. Why did the seemingly beneficial production of goods by machinery bring on “poverty in the midst of plenty”? The answer was: free competition keeps wages low, free enterprise makes for overproduction, which leads to recurrent “crises”—-shutdowns or failures entailing unemployment and starvation.

        His detailed criticism of the new society includes the observation that it splits labor from capital and makes them enemies, with the power all on one side. The idea of their “bargaining” over wages is absurd. Tyrant and victim describes the relation, yet without cruel intent of the one or knowledge by the other of who his oppressor is. Again, with overproduction the capitalist must seek foreign markets and precipitate national wars, while at home a class struggle goes on without end: “the poor could say that the employer’s life is their death, and therefore his death would be their life.”

        1. Steve

          If I could be sure a Philosopher King like you were available to command the world-wide economy, I might believe all this stuff. Are you busy next year? Unfortunately, we’re probably going to have a hard time getting you elected Philosopher King.

          Meanwhile, if you guys have a better system for allocating resources and conveying information than the price system, please let me know.

          1. DownSouth


            Again you fall back on pure rhetoric, devoid of substance. There’s a name for that. It’s called Platonic rationalism.

            And I’m not the one playing Philospher King here, you are; with Adam Smith being the quintessential Philosopher King.

            Now while I’m not at all opposed to philosophy, I nevertheless think it should have some connection to human experience, that is to factual reality or empiricism.

            Or as the old saw goes: “The proof is in the pudding.”

            Or to put it in biblical terms:

            You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
            ▬Matthew 7:16

            If we take a close look at the fruits borne by capitalism, it’s been a very mixed blessing, to say the least.

            As to your admonition that “if you guys have a better system for allocating resources and conveying information than the price system, please let me know.”

            Well yes I do have a better system. It’s called democracy. Of course I don’t have the same utopian delusions about democracy that you do about capitalism. It’s a sloppy and imperfect process, filled with conflict and strife. That’s a long way from, as Heilbroner put it, “The Wonderful World of Adam Smith.” And of course it is impossible for democracy—-the real thing—-to compete with capitalism, the utopian dream.

        2. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio


          I still find what Adam Smith had to say about the adverse consequences of the “Division of Labor” true. And this is one dirty little secret that is rarely pointed out by his adherents. Or it is lamented as the “price of progress” if it creeps into the discussion.

          Inasmuch as you have drawn a distinction between your training as a mechanical engineer and your “education” I know you will understand my point.


          1. DownSouth

            Mickey and alex (below),

            The works of great philosophers are almost always nuanced and marked with ambiguity.

            It is with their disciples that the nuance and ambiguity gets bowdlerized.

            But I’m not so much arguing about the minutia of what Smith said or didn’t say, or what his followers said or didn’t say in his name. What I am advocating is that all these claims, regardless of who made them, be evaluated against human experience and observation. If they cannot withstand that test, then they are invalid, regardless of who made them, or how verisimilar, plausible or brilliant they sound.

            I do not believe that’s too much to ask for. And yet, it seems almost impossible for American society to hold capitalism to that standard.

        3. alex

          DownSouth: “Adam Smith[‘s] … theories fail the test of empiricism and human experience.”

          Which theories? The problem here is that “Adam Smith” is used as a label for every justification for capitalism ever uttered. Unfortunately Smith didn’t say a lot of those things, and conveniently overlooked is that he was also aware of many potential problems with markets. Hence he advocated such things as progressive (luxury) taxes, anti-trust, and publicly funded education.

          To a large extent Smith was railing against things like royal monopolies and mercantilism, neither of which was ever noted for helping the less wealthy. Today royal monopolies have been replaced by slightly more subtle government granted privileges like TBTF, and in a truly Orwellian twist, mercantilism is called “free trade”. We could use some more of Mr. Smith’s free markets – it would scare the hell out of much of the finance community.

  8. Goin' South

    The Beard hypothesis lives! My old American history teacher would be glad to hear it.

    And it’s great to see Staughton Lynd’s contributions remembered. In addition to being fine if under-appreciated scholar, that guy, along with his spouse Alice, is living a life that should inspire us all.

  9. grandiosity

    The Constitution carries the Contract Clause, which essentially means that States cannot affect the terms of a bond contract and makes bankruptcy a Federal concern. They were obviously concerned about placing this power into a single body that can be better controlled.

  10. Maju

    While the French Revolution is universally considered one such revolution, the “American Revolution” is often (for example in Spanish history books) described as war of independence, comparable to that Spain had against Napoleon or Latin American colonies had against Spain soon after.

    Without masses of workers burning things around one cannot really talk of a revolution. That’s more proper of the Haitian Revolution, maybe even of the Bolivar-led aspect (supported by Haitian revolutionaries) of the South American independence wars. But in North America we do not see that revolutionary aspect of things: there are no angry masses setting fire to the old order, just creole wannabe “sirs” and “lords” by another name.

    Oddly enough, the USA did not stagnate into a mere plantation-style “banana republic”. But that is what many of those “revolutionaries” wanted to achieve in fact.

    1. alex

      “the ‘American Revolution’ is often (for example in Spanish history books) described as war of independence”

      AFAIK the British also use the term “American War of Independence”. While I think that’s a more precise term, and hence preferable, to “American Revolution”, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a revolution.

      “Without masses of workers burning things around one cannot really talk of a revolution.”

      Nonsense. Just because it may not be your idea of what a revolution should be, doesn’t mean it’s not a revolution. One of the definitions for “revolution” from Merriam-Webster: the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed

  11. Jim Haygood

    ‘Paper, the people’s medium, built debt relief into money itself.’

    HA HA HA — this is utterly laughable. Paper money inflation destroys ‘the people,’ those who don’t have family offices or hedge funds to extract real absolute returns from unstable, speculative financial markets.

    A case can be made (as it was in the late 19th century) for silver as a ‘people’s currency.’ Bimetallism can be somewhat inflationary, but the inflationary potential is at least capped by the quantity of silver mined. An enforced silver standard would not allow a swindler like Bernanke to buy $600 billion of Treasury debt with ‘thin air’ phony money.

    Ironically, the rather poorly-drafted gold clauses in the constitution were de facto nullified by the advent of the Federal Reserve in 1913, followed by Franklin Democrat Roosevelt’s 1933 gold seizure under emergency legislation (the only US government default in history, according to Rogoff and Reinhart, when the US Treasury failed to redeem gold bonds in gold as promised).

    Do you want to claim that the Federal Reserve, created in secrecy and owned by the elite banking descendants of Robert Morris, is a ‘people’s bank’? Good luck straightening out that logical pretzel!

    Paper money is a naked swindle on the people, and always will be. But it’s also a doomsday machine for musclebound military empires. So that aspect we can celebrate, as Pax Americana (better called Bellum Americana) chokes on its own fiat currency vomit.

    1. Steve

      You nailed it! There are two sides to every trade. All the “people’s money” geniuses on this thread think that suckers will continue to provide credit in the face of a consistent attempt to debauch the currency.

      The point of money and credit is to provide a store of value, a unit of account, to reduce the cost of financial intermediation for an economy, to allow capital formation and to facilitate for inter-temporal preferences in consumption.

      How much capital formation would have occurred in post-Colonial days with “people’s money”? Precious little.

        1. Steve

          It stores the work product of labor and capital.

          And Smith doesn’t address value well, I agree. Mill and Say do quite nicely, though that came later. But Smith doesn’t need to have a perfect theory of value/utility for his observations about prices and supply/demand to be valid and useful.

          Prices do a better job of approximating our collective sense of value better than any subjective moral system you are likely to come up with today. If you like Heineken I guess I will have to give up Stella, right?

          1. Toby

            “It stores the work product of labor and capital” is the same thing as saying, “It stores value.” So that’s not really an answer. Smith’s theories were useful, obviously, but that does not make them scientifically valid. They have been useful in constructing the Myth of the Market.

            I think better systems are possible–actually they are both necessary and inevitable, since change is the only constant and we’re consuming ourselves to extinction. As an example, for some years now I’ve found the ideas behind resource-based economics very worthy of exploration.

          2. DownSouth


            Again you fall back on pure rhetoric, devoid of substance. There’s a name for that. It’s called Platonic rationalism.

            And I’m not the one playing Philospher King here, you are; with Adam Smith being the quintessential Philosopher King.

            Now while I’m not at all opposed to philosophy, I nevertheless think it should have some connection to human experience, that is to factual reality or empiricism.

            Or as the old saw goes: “The proof is in the pudding.”

            Or to put it in biblical terms:

            You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
            ▬Matthew 7:16

            If we take a close look at the fruits borne by capitalism, it’s been a very mixed blessing, to say the least.

            As to your admonition that “if you guys have a better system for allocating resources and conveying information than the price system, please let me know.”

            Well yes I do have a better system. It’s called democracy. Of course I don’t have the same utopian delusions about democracy that you do about capitalism. It’s a sloppy and imperfect process, filled with conflict and strife. That’s a long way from, as Heilbroner put it, “The Wonderful World of Adam Smith.” And of course it is impossible for democracy, the real thing, to compete with capitalism, the utopian dream.

          3. alex

            “[Money] stores the work product of labor and capital.”

            Money don’t store nothing – it’s just a unit of accounting. Getting overly philosophical about what money is is a mistake. It’s simple enough for a small child to understand. My seven-year-old saves a few bucks and she knows she can use it to buy, for example, candy.

            If something happens to the currency and she can’t buy candy with her savings she’ll be upset. If the price of candy doubles she’ll understand inflation, and as a net creditor be unhappy about it. As a creditor she’d be thrilled with deflation.

            Not complicated.

          4. alex

            DownSouth: “I do have a better system. It’s called democracy.”

            Capitalism and democracy are not entirely contradictory, but it is necessary to be clear about which one takes precedence.

          5. DownSouth


            Well I think you’re saying the same thing Hannah Arendt is saying here:

            All our experiences—-as distinguished from theories and ideologies—-tell us that the process of expropriation, which started with the rise of capitalism, does not stop with the expropriation of the means of production; only legal and political institutions that are independent of the economic forces and their automatism can control and check the inherently monstrous potentialities of this process. Such political controls seem to function best in the so-called “welfare states” whether they call themselves “socilist” or “capitalist.” What protects freedom is the division between governmental and economic power…

            What protects us in the so-called “capitalist” countries of the West is not capitalism, but a legal system that prevents the daydreams of big-business management of trespassing into the private sphere of its employees from coming true.

          6. DownSouth


            Or as Arendt explains it elsewhere, you can have democratic socialism or democratic capitalism, or you can have state (authoritarian) socialism or state (authoritarian) capitalism. It matters little whether you have capitalism or socialism. What matters is whether you have democracy or autoritarianism.

            This simple fact gets lost on both the true believers in socialism and the true believers in capitalism.

          7. Toby


            Almost correct. Money is a very poor unit of account, as evidenced by inflation and deflation. Other units of measurement don’t inflate and deflate, like inches and ounces for example.

            And money is not yet as simple as you suggest, though, with luck, we are headed in that direction. Right now money is a commodity with multiple personality disorder; it is a failed store of value, a failed unit of account, and a pretty good medium of exchange. However, as per Soddy’s definition, “Money is the nothing we get for something before we can get anything”, money is increasingly under ‘pressure’ to transition from commodity to information. If you read German, Professor Franz Hoermann is (one of) the people to read on this idea.

      1. dave

        “You nailed it! There are two sides to every trade. All the “people’s money” geniuses on this thread think that suckers will continue to provide credit in the face of a consistent attempt to debauch the currency.”


        It’s amazing how peoples vision of the “people’s money” means constant negative interest rates that everyone just kind of puts up with and does nothing about.

        No matter what finance system you come up with people are going to want a positive real return in order to forgo consumption. If you don’t provide a positive real return nobody who saves is going to want to use the people’s money.

        1. Steve

          Dude – Give up!

          What these guys call “people’s money”, you and I call confiscation by inflation. Who would hold such money?

          What they call “democracy” we would call “getting their friends together to vote for the confiscation” of other people’s property. Of course, in such a “democratic” system, nobody would work or save. They would just read Heilbroner and Hannah Arendt all day.

          1. dictateursanguinaire

            To quote DownSouth himself:


            Again you fall back on pure rhetoric, devoid of substance. “

          2. William Hogeland

            Well put. Robert Morris too called paper confiscation by inflation and democracy getting together to vote for taking others’ property. To him, central banking, a large public debt, qualifying the franchise by property ownership, and yoking the military to public credit were solutions to that problem, and his point of view, which Hamilton developed to a highly refined degree, was entirely cogent.

    2. alex

      Jim Haygood: “Paper money inflation destroys ‘the people,’ those who don’t have family offices or hedge funds to extract real absolute returns from unstable, speculative financial markets.”

      Whether “paper money” helps or hurts “the people” depends on whether a particular person is a net creditor or a net debtor. It’s very simple: debtors like inflation and creditors don’t.

      “A case can be made (as it was in the late 19th century) for silver as a ‘people’s currency.’ Bimetallism can be somewhat inflationary”

      Or deflationary, depending on how the economy and the silver and gold mines are doing. What the hell is so magical about gold? The 19th century populists railed against the gold standard because it was deflationary and “the people” (on average) were debtors. Have “the people” suddenly become net creditors? That certainly doesn’t jibe with what I’ve heard lately.

      1. dave

        “The people” are both creditors and debtors, and a stable relationship between them is necessary for a functioning economy.

        1. alex

          Of course a stable relationship is necessary for a functioning economy, although “the people” (as that term is generally used) are typically net debtors. Retirees tend to be an exception.

          But gold bugs don’t want a stable currency, they want deflation courtesy of government fixing the price of a specific (and not terribly useful) commodity called “gold”. How this has managed to acquire a populist spin is beyond me. Clearly 19th century populists had a better understanding of economics than many of the current crop.

          BTW, as for stability in debtor/creditor relations, inflation/deflation is not the only criteria. There’s also the Minsky concern that excessive debt levels, regardless of whether they net out, are unstable. Recent history has vindicated him.

  12. JTFaraday

    “Beard did err. A pro-Jefferson, anti-Hamilton bent led him to associate self-interest mainly with the high-finance elites; he saw the land-based, state-sovereign philosophy of many planters as tending more naturally toward democracy, and he miscast people like Jefferson and Samuel Adams as Paine-like democrats.”

    But Beard barely mentions Sam Adams throughout all of two volumes. Perhaps you mean Madison.

    I also don’t think Beard was that naive. Maybe one needs to read his second book, on the First Congress and the consolidation of the Jeffersonian Republican Party in order to see this, but it seems pretty clear to me that his point is that the landed interests realized that the Hamiltonian financial interests were constructed at their expense in the form of property taxes collected to service the war/national debt–and, critically, that the premium paid on debt speculation amongst the financial interests was going to come at their expense, which rubbed them the wrong way.

    They then became the primary conveyors of the small-r democratic “republican” ideology of the revolutionary period in the antebellum period, starting with Jefferson’s election vs. Adams, in an attempt to align themselves with small farming and laboring classes. Madison also talks about the need to shape “public opinion.” Ultimately this popular alignment contributes to the demise of the Federalists.

    Beard knows they’re not entirely sincere, and that their primary concern is the “tax on land.” Least of all their concerns is the fate of northern labor, but they were clever enough not to exclude them from their general demagoguery.

    1. JTFaraday

      I suppose it is true that Beard sees the financial interests as a *very* narrow interest. I’m not sure that’s really a flaw.

    2. William Hogeland

      On the one hand: No, I really wouldn’t have been thinking of James Madison when referring to Samuel Adams.

      On the other: Yes, in that brief blog post, I may have written too sweepingly when trying to characterize Beard’s tendencies, and I certainly did draw on his other works in sketching them. It’s more like Beard gives himself and us a problem — not one that made him necessarily naive — in ganging together men he refers to in “Framing the Constitution,” say, as “radicals” (putting S. Adams — more than once — Patrick Henry, and Jefferson in one weird boat) and throughout his work blurring a small-government founding philosophy with a democratic one, and opposing that to the authoritarian Hamilton-Washington, high Federalist approach.

      “… an attempt to align themselves with small farming and laboring classes. Madison also talks about the need to shape ‘public opinion.'” Agree: it was an attempt, and I’m sure Beard got that (although even what part of the white male public Madison meant by “public opinion” is worth examining). Still, I do think in “Economic Interpretation,” Beard left his arguments open to being supposedly shot down by the likes of Forrest McDonald because he oversimplified the “financial interest” as holders of public securities and romanticized the libertarian types as more democratic than the financial types. As I tried to suggest in the post, a multitude of interests came together at the convention, including even some from the small-government, state-sovereignty, libertarian-agrarian side, specifically to defeat democratic finance.

  13. ep3

    I have been tossing this idea around my head for the last month or so. I wondered whether the grand story of the founders building this great country for free and equal persons was actually another cover for the oligarchy/elites. Maybe they founded this country to benefit themselves and people like them, not people like me.

    1. alex

      Or maybe history doesn’t fit into any nice neat little narrative. It’s messy. Individuals, let alone entire countries or movements, often have mixed feelings and contradictory impulses and actions.

    2. DownSouth

      And since the state and federal governments, the proudest results of revolution, through sheer weight of their proper business were bound to overshadow in political importance the townships and their meeting halls—-until what Emerson still considered to be ‘the unit of the Republic’ and ‘the school of the people’ in political matters had withered away—-one might even come to the conclusion that there was less opportunity for the exercise of public freedom and the enjoyment of public happiness in the republic of the United States than there had existed in the colonies of British America. Lewis Mumford recently pointed out how the political importance of the township was never grasped by the founders, and that the failure to incorporate it into either the federal or the state constitutions was ‘one of the tragic oversights of post-revolutionary political development’. Only Jefferson among the founders had a clear premonition of this tragedy, for his greatest fear was indeed lest ‘the abstract political system of democracy lacked concrete organs’.
      ▬Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

    3. ScottS

      A lot of the founding fathers were principled, enlightened (or Enlightenment) philosophers. And, a lot were vested property owners, merchants, financiers, etc. And the two overlap.

      It’s naive to assume it’s all one or the other, or that some enlightenment philosophy isn’t based on practical considerations.

      The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals, and a strong belief in rationality and science. Thus, there was still a considerable degree of similarity between competing philosophies.


  14. Paul Tioxon

    Robert Morris has come back into the newspapers in Philadelphia recently. His role in politics is absolutely critical for the founding of the US government. But his house became the first Presidential Office and Residence as Philadelphia served as the Capital while Washington DC was under construction. Washington and Adams resided there and now, thanks to recent history research and archeological discovery, you can visit the site and see the foundation for what appears to be the original Oval Office of the now familiar White House in DC. The current controversy has resulted in an unearthing of the additions to the house used for quartering indentured servants and an even greater number of slaves to suit the needs of George Washington. Aside from the well founded remembering of the economic foundations for the motivations of the framers of the Constitution, I would like to add to Mr Hogeland’s vital


    Indentured servitude was the status of the vast majority of the population of the British Colonies in America. Ben Franklin left Boston for Philadelphia running away from his indentured fate. For most, it was an entire life in bondage as most died before they redeemed themselves from debt via wage free work. Eventually, indentured labor was racialized separating African laborers from European and Native American. Pennsylvania in writing the most liberal state constitution of the new Republic, outlawing slavery and opening the voting franchise to propertyless men, could not shield the average worker from the actual brutal practices of wealthier businessmen who have deliberately suppressed awareness of criminal acts of early America. Just as the slave quarters of Washington were being unearthed and now on display, the first few bodies of what has been rumored to be the mass grave of 57 murdered Irish laborers came under the light of forensic archeology. The railroads going from East to West were built in large part by the dispossessed Irish men, even before the famine drove them by millions into death and diaspora. Debt provided the pretext for indentured labor status, which never became much more than out right slavery, physical violence and murder to dispense with the out of line undesirables. Today, financial liens are again the ruination of tens of millions in bankruptcy, foreclosure, and diminished lives.


  15. craazyman

    Another fascinating post by Mr. Hogeland.

    It’s tempting to frame and judge the intellectual stream of ideas in the late 1700s by our current sensibilities. And since we’re human and our natures haven’t changed, there are absolutes in terms of instincts for power and domination. But there are also strong intellectual evolutions that have occurred since then, too.

    History is quite peculiar, in that it tries to divine motivations and states of pyschology that animate actions and decisions.

    And yet, even in contemporary life, even in our own lives, it’s often hard to know why we do the things we do. And it’s often hard to see how the cultural assumptions we’ve inherited, forged from the thought-streams and actions of those who’ve come before, how that affects what we do and say and think.

    History is a set of actions — group decisions, individual decisions, acts of bravery, abnegation. These are easy to measure. The “why” of it all is far more difficult.

  16. Roger Bigod

    It’s inevitable that we project present concerns onto the past, and that may be happening here. A more common notion is that the Founders’ main priority was producing a government with a strong enough executive to fight a war against the British if they ever decided to reclaim the colonies. The colonists had won because of the French alliance and the fact that the Brits were tied up elsewhere.

    And they were constrained by the need to produce a document that would be ratified. This explains some of the vagueness and hand-waving. Even if they had anticipated Marx in their political philosophy, the institutions they created would have to appeal to men of property, because of the composition of state legislatures.

    There’s also a fallacy of attribution. Because the document is considered a great success, we assume that every word was was thoughtfully considered by men of intelligence and foresight. Actually their output was a jumbled stack of paper contributed by different members. It was shoved at a drafting commitee. On the committee was Gouverneur Morris, who had the one of the best attendence records and had the only set of detailed notes. Morris put together the working draft, faithfully following the clear conclusions of the Convention, but to an unknown extent improvising his own riffs and cadenzas where there was no clear guidance. Madison, who was on the drafting committee, said that the final document was largely identical with Morris’ product. The result is that we will never know if a specific provision, such as the treatment of bankruptcy, was discussed at length or the product of Morris’s intuition.

    Along the way, he attached a new name. The original drafts had started “We the people of Connecticut, Delaware …” He changed that, and wrote the rest of the first sentence, for whose sonorities I can almost forgive him the Electoral College.

    1. alex

      “Actually their output was a jumbled stack of paper contributed by different members”

      Not to mention that it was a long hot summer in Philly, and there was a blue bottle fly infestation that was driving everybody nuts.

      So distasteful was the thought of another convention that NY’s threat to call one unless a Bill of Rights was adopted caused Madison to see the wisdom of it (originally he was opposed to a Bill of Rights).

      “I can almost forgive him the Electoral College”

      Was that Gouverneur Morris’ idea? Surprising, since it gives more weight to the less populous states.

      1. Roger Bigod

        I’ve read that the Electoral College can be attributed to Morris, but I don’t know the details. I don’t believe he took sides in the large state/small state debates so he probably didn’t care deeply about that issue.

        He did take sides on slavery, delivering a scathing denunciation and suggesting they abolish it, even if it meant a special tax to buy out the owners. The background was that slavery was a dying institution because no one could make money growing tobacco. (The cotton gin was still a couple of years in the future.) So he got away with it. Another reason was that the main argument was aesthetic, not moralistic. He said that if one traveled from a non-slave area to one with many slaves, the whole atmosphere became depressing — the behavior of the people, the upkeep of houses and land, etc. Fifty years later, they would have challenged him to duels.

        1. alex

          “I’ve read that the Electoral College can be attributed to Morris”

          I believe that’s wrong – Morris favored direct popular election. Here are a couple of sources:



          1. Roger Bigod

            Thanks for correcting me. I hadn’t seen that Morris quote.

            I love the passing comment that of course the legislatures will be dominated by the rich. No wonder he’s passed over in American History courses in favor Founders who are more amenable to the plaster saint treatment.

      2. Roger Bigod

        I’ve read that the Electoral College was Morris’s idea, but I don’t know the details. I don’t recall that he took sides in the large state/small state controversy.

  17. Jim

    A PostModern Populism Built on a Foundation of Uncertainty

    Is there an antecedent choice involved in order to situate an historical problem to begin with?

    If there is such a choice then doesn’t it seem to be the case that we are most likely not describing a situation that exists independently of our formulations?

    Reality thus seems to remain elusive on an ongoing basis.

    Is it possible to build a poliitcal system on such anti-foundational foundations?

    One reason I’m pushing this line of analysis now is that the magnitude of the crisis we are facing (i.e. that the old order is indeed really breaking down) is creating an emotional/psychological climate conducive to non-metaphoric solutions (i.e. Mickey Marzick already raising the issue of “how much coercion would we be willing to employ to maintain state power”–Robespierre couldn’t have said it better!)

    Our collective intoxication with certainty may only grow when faced with the greater and greater uncertainty of this ongoing collapse–unless “not knowing for sure” can be seen as collectively beneficial.

  18. Roger Bigod

    In colonial Virginia, the standard indenture was for 7 years. It was typically entered into to pay for passage. In the 18th Cent, apprentices in England were indentured as the price of their training, and some served out the indenture in the colonies.

    Around 1675, Governor Berkeley (wonderful man) estimated that the population of VA was 40,000, with 4,000 indentured servants and 2,000 slaves. Later in the 17th Cent, the supply of indentured servants declined and the colonists turned to slaves for labor in the tobacco fields.

    Indentured servants had a written contract and could in theory sue if the master didn’t fulfill his duties. It was still a brutal institution. The mortality of servants in the last year was very high, suggested that they were deliberately starved and worked to death. And in colonial times, no former indentured servant was elected to public office, suggesting a social stigma.

  19. Max424

    What a boring thread.

    Just kidding. That’s why I come here, to get new perspectives, and to reinforce old ones, like, the Founding Slaveholders deserve to be torn a new one.

  20. tz

    There are a few people at banks and other financial instutions I and a large number of people owe. Democracy – as in the mob – says the debtors should always be able to simply vote to cancel their debts to their creditors as long as they outnumber them by even one person.

    I do believe in bankruptcy instead of debtor’s prisons, since you can’t violate more fundamental rights enforcing lesser ones.

    The founding fathers weren’t seeking to lock in the rich oppressing the poor. They were trying to insure that neither a small number of rich nor a large number of poor could oppress each other.

    Even the poor have the ability to choose. And to choose wrongly or imprudently. If they do they ought not be able to form a mob to negate their imprudence or error. They might seek forgiveness, or protection. But that is a different thing.

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