Revolution to Constitution: Radical or Conservative

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  • #21367

    Dr. Gutzman,

    What do you make of Merrill Jensen’s argument that the Federalists were conservatives who were bent on restoring elements of the British imperial system in order to protect their aristocratic class from the dangers of what they saw as unmitigated democracy under the Articles of Confederation?

    This seems to be what Anti-Federalists were arguing, but I fail to see how it could be the case.

    Do you think the Federalists generally belonged to a different class or financial interest than those of the Anti-Federalists which would justify the charges of favoring aristocracy?

    Does Jensen’s thesis that the Revolution was radical, but that then the Constitution was a conservative response, have any merit in your opinion?

    Do you think Gordon Wood is closer to the truth when he argues that the increase of popular sovereignty in all branches and the abolition of a distinction between ruler and ruled made the Constitution more democratic and therefore radical, rather than conservative?

    #21368
    gutzmank
    Participant

    Jensen there echoes the old Beardian distinction between country/Antifederalist debtors and court/Federalists creditors that Forrest McDonald exploded decades ago.

    It certainly is true that in Virginia at least there was a marked drop-off in the quality of state-level officials when the Revolution began and prominent Virginians went off to lead the army, sit in Congress, work as diplomats, etc. Many members of the old elite complained about unlettered men dressed in buckskin showing up to sit in the General Assembly, which never would have happened before. You see a bit of push-back against it in Madison’s tenth Federalist essay, where he says that larger districts will produce higher-class representatives.

    #21369

    Thank you for your responses as always.

    So you say that Wood’s account is generally accepted by historians, but what do you personally think?

    Do you agree with Wood when he says that the Constitution was radical because it represented a shift from the Ciceronian/Whig view of the executive and judicial branches representing the upper classes while the legislature represented the people to a more democratic one based on dispersed popular sovereignty, or do you personally agree with Jensen and Sheldon Richman that the Constitution was a conservative reaction to the forces of democracy unleashed by the Revolution and embodied in the Articles?

    To support the claim that the constitution represented a win for conservatives at that time, Jensen talks about how the original draft of the Articles was decidedly pro national in the power balance, but then it was revised to have the prototype of the Tenth Amendment in Article II under the AOC, and that the Federalists’ efforts in Philadelphia to have a congressional veto and to abolish the states prove their conservative and anti-democratic persuasions.

    Was the Constitution radical or conservative, or is this a false dichotomy nitpicked by academia? I’m aware of the fear of democracy that would degenerate into a tyrannical rule of the majority which might deprive the minority of its property, but I have a hard time seeing people like Madison and Hamilton (who whatever his views were on broad construction, risked his life in war for freedom) as being motivated by a desire to rein in democracy.

    Here’s an excerpt of an article from Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, a Mises fellow who also went to U of Texas Austin, who seems to accept the Jensen/Beard theory:

    “The American Revolution, like all great social upheavals, was brought off by a disparate coalition of competing viewpoints and conflicting interests. At one end of the Revolutionary coalition stood the American radicals—men such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson.

    Although by no means in unanimous agreement, the radicals objected to excessive state power in general and not simply to British rule in particular. Spearheading the Revolution’s opening stages, they were responsible for the truly revolutionary alterations in the internal status quo: the abolition of slavery in the northern states, the separation of church and state in the southern states, the rooting out of remaining feudal privileges everywhere, and the adoption of new, republican state constitutions containing written bills of rights that severely hemmed in government power.

    At the other end of the Revolutionary coalition were the American nationalists- an array of mercantile, creditor, and landed interests. The nationalists went along with independence but opposed the Revolution’s libertarian thrust. They sought a strong American state with the hierarchical features of the 18th-century British state, only without the British.”

    Do you have any opinions about the truth of that statement?

    https://www.independent.org/news/article.asp?id=1400

    Likewise, Jensen summed it in a few quotes in his book about the Articles:

    “When it came to the formation of a common government for all the states, the radicals [who wrote the Articles of Confederation] were guided by experience and by certain political ideas. Experience had taught them to dislike the colonial governing classes and to fear the concentration of wealth and political power. Their political philosophy taught that governments exercising power over wide areas were inherently undemocratic in action.”

    and that

    “[The Federalists] engineered a conservative counter-revolution and erected a nationalistic government whose purpose, in part, was to thwart the will of ‘the people’ in whose name they acted. They too could use one name while pursuing a goal that was the opposite in fact. Thus, although the purpose of the conservatives was ‘nationalistic’, they adopted the name ‘Federalist’, for it served to disguise the extent of the changes they desired.”

    Do you have any thoughts on those statements as to whether they are true or not?

    Also, I’m reading Bradley Thompsons’ Adams book-is that the one you are reviewing?

    Thanks again

    #21370
    gutzmank
    Participant

    No, Thompson’s Adams book came out 20 years ago. I reviewed it at the time:

    https://www.independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?id=254

    You ask, “Do you agree with Wood when he says that the Constitution was radical because it represented a shift from the Ciceronian/Whig view of the executive and judicial branches representing the upper classes while the legislature represented the people to a more democratic one based on dispersed popular sovereignty, or do you personally agree with Jensen and Sheldon Richman that the Constitution was a conservative reaction to the forces of democracy unleashed by the Revolution and embodied in the Articles?” That’s a false choice. Both Wood’s claim and the one you attribute to Jensen and Richman are correct.

    #22409
    turnerdavida
    Participant

    Good morning, Dr. Gutzman. In your review of C. Bradley Thompson’s book in the Independent you mention Gordon Wood. Do you hold him in the same esteem as David Hackett Fischer? Which historians other than yourself and Brion McClanahan are worth reading given limited financial and time budgets? Thank you.

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