Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Cooling Hot Tea

There's a famous exchange between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson where our first president asks our third about the constitutional purpose of the Senate.  Jefferson replied that it was to cool the hot tea of the House.

As a well-intentioned stab at cooling the boiling brew that is the Tea Party uprising, Ron Chernow, author of the very well-received Alexander Hamilton biography of a few years ago, as well as a forthcoming new one on Washington, wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about the current movement's tendency, along with many other popular insurgencies throughout our history, to wrap itself in the mantle of the founders.  Chernow warns against such an inclination.
But any movement that regularly summons the ghosts of the founders as a like-minded group of theorists ends up promoting an uncomfortably one-sided reading of history.

The truth is that the disputatious founders — who were revolutionaries, not choir boys — seldom agreed about anything. Never has the country produced a more brilliantly argumentative, individualistic or opinionated group of politicians. Far from being a soft-spoken epoch of genteel sages, the founding period was noisy and clamorous, rife with vitriolic polemics and partisan backbiting. Instead of bequeathing to posterity a set of universally shared opinions, engraved in marble, the founders shaped a series of fiercely fought debates that reverberate down to the present day. Right along with the rest of America, the Tea Party has inherited these open-ended feuds, which are profoundly embedded in our political culture.
Fair enough.  But surely Mr. Chernow does not mean to imply that because the feuds were open-ended that the founders meant to establish an "open-ended society", a society that at once stood for both everything and nothing.  That their intention was to birth a nation, if such a one could exist, that would honor liberty in one generation and dishonor it in the next. 

As Chernow reports, the debates between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians, as well as those that recur between their intellectual heirs, while heated, remained largely intramural, were contested chiefly within the constitutional framework.  Contemporary liberalism, by contrast, informed as it is by a long progressive pedigree, sees the Constitution instead as either a meaningless guide toward, or an outright impediment to its as-yet-unfulfilled dream of statist utopia.

Whatever else Hamilton and Jefferson disagreed about, no honest scholar would claim that either of them could look at our current Leviathan and be anything other than shocked.  And from what I gather, Ron Chernow is an honest scholar.


  1. Nicely done. No question about it, Hamilton and Jefferson had their disagreements, but there was nothing about an "open ended society" in any of it. Hamilton takes a bum rap when he's accused of being the father of big government - - he wanted the Feds to focus on "commerce, finance, negotiation, and war" (Federalist #17).

  2. I agree. As I see it, Hamilton, along with Washington, manuevered very purposefully within constitutional constraints and American political culture to establish a stable, strong, and lasting nation, a nation where liberty was secure and where its blessings could be enjoyed for generations.