The FTN guys posted a special podcast on the American Revolution and the process that resulted in the Constitution. Instead of reciting the standard mythology about the Founders and their alleged love of liberty, they get into the economic motivations of the men who met in Philadelphia to restructure post-colonial America. They also talk about the men who were excluded, as well as the interests they represented. It’s a well done episode that gets into the forgotten parts of the founding story, as well as the economic motivations.
The basis of their analysis is the historian Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Beard argued that the structure of the Constitution and the process that produced it, was the result of the personal financial interests of the Founders. For example, George Washington had provided significant financing for the revolution, so the Constitutional guarantee that the newly formed nation would pay its debts, worked out pretty well for people like Washington and the other bond holders.
Beard built on earlier Progressive interpretations of American history and can probably be described as a proto-Marxist historian. His analysis of the Founding is that it was first a revolt against the monarchy and then a counter revolution against democracy by the mercantile class located in the cities. It was not just the issue of repaying war debts. The financial class also saw the Articles of Confederation as a hindrance to trade, because there was no central authority to strike trade agreements with foreign governments.
Beard is an interesting guy, who was very popular with the Left into the Cold War, but then fell out of favor in the 1960’s. This seems like an odd thing, given that his reading of American history is based in class conflict. The New Left historians, however, rejected that interpretation in favor of racial and sexual conflict, which meant abandoning facts and standards in favor of emotion and vengeance. Neo-conservative historians rejected all of that in favor of selling the narrative of Americanism as a vehicle for present policy.
One of Beard’s insights was that the people located in cities not only have a different set of economic interests, but they also have a different relationship with government. In the 19th century, that meant the city dweller was much more receptive to socialism than the citizens in the country. The main reason was that the city dweller gets used to bumping up against government on a daily basis. It feels natural to them. Citizens in the country, particularly in the 19th century, had little contact with the state, so it seemed alien to them.
This suggests something about the nature of socialism, as throughout history urban populations have supported authoritarians, while rural populations have not. In the ancient world, a savvy tyrant like Peisistratus could appeal to the masses of urban poor, to challenge the power of the aristocrats. On the other hand, authoritarian appeals work much better in high density environments. Still, daily familiarity with the power of the state makes people more trusting and comfortable with it. Socialism relies on that trust.
Of course, the defect of class-conflict historiography is that it tries to jam all facts into a model of society. Instead of the theory explaining history, history is used to explain the theory. There’s no question that the men who met in Philadelphia had direct financial interest in the outcome. They were also motivated by all the usual stuff like patriotism, regional loyalty and petty stupidity. That stuff is every bit as interesting as the economics and just as important. In other words, history is both particles and waves.
More important and related to the podcast, is the fact that the people who drive history have personal interests. The men who revolted against the king, did so because they saw an advantage in it. Once they gained control of the country, they were not about to give it away or arrange things to their disadvantage. After all, the whole point of the revolution was to get a better deal. The Articles of Confederation were simply an interregnum, while the new elite figured how they were going to lock in their position after evicting the old elite.
That was the point of the Constitution and the point of all subsequent changes to it, including the Civil War. Similarly, the mythology of the founding, as well as the “second founding” as neoconservative historians call the Civil War, is part of locking in that position via the miracle of propaganda. All of the soupy romanticism of American history is intended to convince the rest of us that the current arrangements are the result of Providence. Political arrangements are not about ideals. they are about power.
This is an important lesson for anyone in dissident politics. The first goal, that which everything bends toward, is to gain power. This is why the New Left has rolled through the culture. They first seized power and then cooked up timeless principles to justify their position. It’s also why the legacy Right’s appeal to principle must be rejected. Limiting your options by self-imposed rules and inviolable principles is a recipe for failure. The truth of life is that politics is about power. First you seize power and then vae victis.