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An old political friend of mine – whom I describe after the jump – has written a book on the 1780s, the decade that led from victory in the Revolutionary War to the enactment of the Constitution.  It’s called Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution; I think it’s brilliant.  Given that it’s by an old friend, you shouldn’t take my word for it; consider instead that it was up for a National Book Award last month and is now ranked #6111 at Amazon.

I have rarely seen a more perfect book for Kosters (aka Kossacks), who are among today’s Unruly Americans.  It focuses on the period between victory in the Revolutionary War and ratification of the Constitution.  It argues that what we love about the Constitution – primarily the Bill of Rights – derives not so much from the political philosophy of the great and familiar Framers of the document, but from the common men of the time who refused to bend to them unless their interests were secured.  On reading it, you will recognize the arguments and passions of their day, which echo into ours.

(More below.)

I had hoped to interview Woody for a diary before I left for Asia, but haven’t had time, so I’m posting this review in time for you to order it as a Christmas gift for someone who loves history.  (I get no benefit from this other than bring you and his good work together.)

And, lest I forget, this diary is not affiliated with any candidate or campaign.

1. About the author: a brief personal memoir

In 1994, I headed to Washington D.C. when my former wife had a fellowship at Howard, intent on making myself of use in progressive politics.  It was too late to get involved in most campaigns during what was not yet clearly a terrible year for Democrats.  I somehow met a man named Woody Holton, son and namesake of a former progressive Republican Governor of Virginia, who was running a low-budget ragtag organization in Alexandria, called Clean Up Congress ("CUC").  I had nothing much to for a few months, so I pitched in to volunteer with them.  The group’s target that fall was a name you’ll recognize: Oliver North.

North had been the central figure in the Iran-Contra Affair in 1986-87, first spearheading most of the criminal activities and screw-ups, and later turning the tide in Reagan’s favor with his brazen, moist-voiced televised testimony before a hapless Congressional committee.  The felony convictions for him and Adm. John Poindexter (more recently of Total Information Awareness infame) were ultimately reversed on technicalities.  North had become a rallying point for the wingnuts of the day, and was now running (and favored) against Sen. Chuck Robb; a third candidate, moderate Republican Marshall Coleman, ran as well.  CUC was non-partisan and intent on opposing North, which meant eventually calling for whichever candidate looked to be the spoiler to withdraw.

I wish you could have seen it.  If you could imagine Atrios and Hunter going after someone with grenades filled with ridicule, you’d have some idea. North was getting an unjustified and preposterous free pass from the press; CUC hounded him at his various appearances, finally eliciting the meltdown that woke the press up (a little) to the dangers of his campaign.  Woody’s idea was to produce a deck of playing cards – my guess is that they were the inspiration for the ones used in Iraq – called "Oliver North’s Pack of Lies."  Each card recounted a different documented lie from North.  (Woody reminded me recently that I had come up with several of the nastiest zingers for card headlines.  That was a fun afternoon.)  At the end of the race, we shifted gears and called on Coleman, who was polling at about 10%, to withdraw.  I conceived of a fake Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper front page from the day after the election, entitled "Coleman Hands North Victory" (subheads: "‘My God, What Have We Done?’ Ask Many Coleman Voters" and "North Unveils Presidential Bid") to make the consequences of failing to vote for Robb real to people.  The flyer was the focus of our leafleting in the last days; we also blew it up to poster size and dry-mounted it on foam board to show it on TV.  I’ve had that big board on display wherever I’ve lived ever since.

North, who had been favored, lost that race. As I recall, Robb did better and North worse than expected in the Northern Virginia area where we operated.  I think Woody’s organization had as much to do with Robb’s victory as he did.  People now don’t remember how prominent North was at the time; while this was the year of the Gingrich revolution, the election of North to the Senate would have been the headline of the day: "North leads GOP takeover of Congress."  The charming scoundrel and fascistic nutjob might well, after more than two terms in the Senate, be the leading contender for the Republican nomination this year.  Woody Holton made the difference that year and it echoes to the present day.

So now you know who wrote this book.

Woody is a now an associate professor of History and the University of Richmond (for the benefit anyone who wants to conduct the interview I didn’t.)  His agent got in touch with me a while back, after I had mentioned online my having worked with Woody, and offered to comp me a copy of the book.  I said I’d be happy to read it, but started without expectations of any kind; just because someone is a good political provocateur doesn’t make them a good writer.  What I found was a book that not only gripped me, but that struck me as being a perfect fit for the ethos and spirit of Daily Kos.

2. Framing the Framers

Back when I was a Political Scientist teaching American Government, the formation of the Constitution was an important part of my course.  To me, one of the most interesting things about it was its illegality under the Articles of Confederation; it might be described as a hijack, a coup, or more charitably a second Revolution.  I described the delegate ("do as your constituents want) and trustee ("do as you think best") models of representation; Charles Beard’s criticisms of the Founders – predominantly public creditors – as driven to ensure that their bonds would be repaid, as well as some responses to Beard who argue that they acted out of principle rather than self-interest; the Madisonian arguments in Federalist 10 about district size and cooling of popular sentiments; the Anti-Federalists and development of the Bill of Rights; and a few others.  It was good enough for an introductory class and, besides, pretty much exhausted my relevant knowledge of the period.

This book, by contrast, would serve for the upper division class that would come next.  I found it most interesting in how thoroughly it undoes the fetishization of the documents such as The Federalist, to which lawyers look for guidance about what the Constitution is supposed to mean.  Given my Poli Sci background, I would argue in law school (to puzzled stares) that The Federalist was simply one side of an argument – the elite party against the populist party – that merited no supreme standing in a document that was ultimately forged by compromise, as most evident in the Bill of Rights.  The argument in response was, often, that this was the best documentation we had of the Framers’ intent.  Holton’s book shows how incomplete that sentiment is – despite the fact that it has so taken hold of our legal system that there is no ready way to dislodge it.  Holton shines a clear light on the actual conflicts of the time, and brings to the surface scores of forgotten voices – rendering the history of the time not only clearly, but in Technicolor.

3. The History of the Time

In brief summary, Holton explains that the predominant political issue of the 1780s was the need to pay for the Revolutionary War.  (This is only one of many stark similarities between that decade and ours – and the decade that will follow ours – that I’ll leave for the next section.)  He clearly explains the differences between an economy based on coined precious metal and one based on paper money.  Gold and silver were in short supply – partly due to Britain’s continued measures against the colonies, partly because wealthy Americans were moving it out of the country for protection – and yet those who had loaned money to the colonies for fighting the war wanted to be repaid in that coin, rather than with paper that tended to depreciate.  (Such currency was prone to hyperinflation, largely because it wasn’t backed by much.)  Similarly, military officers and troops who had been granted pensions wanted to be paid with "real" coin.  Creditors both public and private, meanwhile, wanted to avoid being repaid with potentially worthless paper currency.  So everyone wanted gold and silver – and few had it.

The states had payment demands put on them by both the federal government and state bondholders.  How were they to get this money?  Trade tariffs worked for some states, notably New York, but most states were left to resort to ruinous taxation.  Farmers did not have access to precious metal; they wanted to pay their taxes with produce or paper currency.  Farmers were also beset by tax collectors, who faced the choice of either bringing in the tax money due or surrendering their own property, and debt collectors who used the coercive power of civil courts.  Farmers responded demanding paper money, by turning people out of office when they were rebuffed (which the pro-Constitution party came to see as evidence of an excess of democracy), and by forcibly closing the civil courts.  As they revolted – Shays’ Rebellion being only one of countless small revolts against the political system – states were often pushed to capitulate by not collecting taxes, leaving the federal government in the lurch, or by refusing to fully honor the agreements to bondholders.

While the standard history depicts the genesis of the Constitution as deriving from the inability of the state governments to govern, Holton – who is clearly on the populist side of the 1780s debate – sees that so-called inability as deriving from the impossible situation in which the state governments were placed once the federal government pushed for them to repay war debt.  He disagrees with Beard in arguing that the Founders were not motivated primarily by personal avarice, but by the desire to create an economy that could attract investment (largely from Europe) by ensuring that those to whom debts were owed would be repaid.  They were fighting, as he puts it, for the right to lose a suit in court and be forced to pay debts.  It is populist resistance to the Constitution that requires the addition of the Bill of Rights to secure its enactment.

I’m giving the story of the book short shrift above, and failing to note the many areas in which is sheds new light on the era, because I want to note a few (by no means most) of the points in the book that I found to be real eye-openers.

4. Some eye-openers

A continual thought while reading the book – and I expect that Holton knew that readers would have this reaction, though he doesn’t belabor it – is the strong similarity and sometimes startling between the politics and culture of the 1780s and our own.  I offer just a sampler, in hopes of whetting your appetite for the full meal.

- Poor people of the time were reduced to selling their body parts – then live teeth instead of kidneys

- The fight over whether and how much to curtail legal process available to creditors mirrors the present fights over bankruptcy law and foreclosures.

- Populists did not much resent bond payments to the original holders of bonds, but highly resented – and fought to curtail the rights of – those who purchased the bonds (often at a steep discount) from those who had lend money or toil to the Revolutionary cause.  (Among the bond speculators discussed in detail: Abigail Adams!)

- People were concerned about a "casino economy," where the easy money to be made from speculation – the "day trading" of the day – soaked up both capital and productive effort that might otherwise go into work.  (Among the critics: John Adams!)

- The "anti-extravagance movement" – now a subculture, perhaps to grow in time – opposed high fashion and conspicuous consumption, both blaming the poor for buying too many fripperies and trying to help the wealthy conserve coin by consuming less, but also brought forth defenses of a woman's right to adornments.

- The tendency to foist blame for financial hardship on women, and the proto-feminist reactions.

- Media control by well-heeled creditors and "anti-malcontents."

- Demands by conservatives for a less responsive government.

- Arguments over the role of sense and sensibility (empathy) in determining policy.  (One choice statement: "Few can reason, but all can feel."  Holton confronts the notion that reason was all on the side of the elites, of course.)

- The supply-side/trickle-down economic theory of Robert Morris, who argued for the concentration of capital saying that money should go to people who could manage it rather than to the indolent.

And so on.

5. Conclusion

Not everyone enjoys reading American history, much less Revolutionary-era American history.  If you’re one of those who do, and you have a little extra to spend this year, you should find this a very satisfying book; ditto for anyone on your gift list.  You may also have the reaction I did, of finding kindred spirits among the writers Holton dredges up from history.  Populism has at least three political meanings: a sort of "nanny-state" anti-libertarianism, nativism, and opposition to economic elites.  Holton shows us the last and best of these forms of populism – one that fits quite well with the ethos of the progressive blogosphere.  Reading this book will leave you feeling closer to those who were involved in the creation of our nation. Having overextended our economy on war spending once again, and facing a credit crunch that may gives us a taste of the 1780s, it may also give you some insight into our present moment, as well as what may be waiting for us in the 2010s.

Originally posted to Major Danby on Fri Dec 07, 2007 at 07:36 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks, Major Danby (8+ / 0-)

    and long time no see.

    Sound like a wonderful book.

  •  I remember him from Iran-Contra, but (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ek hornbeck, Major Danby

    also from him TV show he hosted, although I could not watch it with him as host.  It looked like they were some good war stories, but I just couldn't tolerate him.

    Hope your friend's book does well.

    I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

    by beemerr90s on Fri Dec 07, 2007 at 07:42:45 PM PST

  •  At some point... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Major Danby, NearlyNormal

    You might consider a cross post.

    •  To where? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ek hornbeck, wiscmass

      Were reports of your demise greatly exaggerated?  ;7)

      If somebody writes a book and doesn't care for [its] survival, he's an imbecile. U. Eco. (P.S.: my opinions are mine, not my employer's.)

      by Major Danby on Fri Dec 07, 2007 at 07:55:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Huh? (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Major Danby, Temmoku

        At the end of the story I'm feverishly looking for a typewriter to hammer out a story on Henry Drummond, the believing agnostic.

        Hadn't seen you for a while over there and I still like you and it's the kind of material we dig.

        •  Done -- I hope they enjoy it (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          ek hornbeck, Temmoku

          I like you too, ek, as well as buhdy.  I even like the person whose brooding omnipresence keeps me away from the site, which I do because I prefer to exist in my own narrative rather that someone else's.  It's a pity, given how many people there whose company I enjoy, but there are worse tragedies.

          I had thought that someone who was "all over" was you; if not, sorry.

          If somebody writes a book and doesn't care for [its] survival, he's an imbecile. U. Eco. (P.S.: my opinions are mine, not my employer's.)

          by Major Danby on Fri Dec 07, 2007 at 08:48:02 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Well... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Major Danby

            If it's who I think it is, he's on vacation at the moment.  And he doesn't dislike you so much as disagree with you for the most part I think.

            Me?  I like you and disagree with you.  This particular topic though, a book recommendation, what could go wrong?

            And if you mean by all over here there and everywhere, I guess so.  I'm a bad penny like Tom Joad.

            •  Not the point (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              ek hornbeck

              I like plenty of people with whom I disagree, and sometimes vice versa.  What I don't like is entering what is in effect a cult meeting.  The charismatic leader (by which I don't mean buhdy) can rally his acolytes against all who would question him, thundering profanely and irrationally against apostacy, presenting bogus arguments and evidence -- and, as with most cults, because there are so many people in the virtual room they lose sight of what a tiny proportion they, the select few, are of the populace overall, and how few people are listening in the broader public debate.

              The dynamic is really sick when you get some distance from it, as I have, and I'm sorry that it's taken over (in its emotional impact) what would have been a promising site for me, and what still is for many who would not have to spend all of their time there trying to counter calmly someone whose shtick requires snuffing out rational criticism.  My non-participation isn't a protest; I don't go there for the same reason I don't go to LaRouche meetings to debate LaRouchies.  I could debate them in neutral territory if I wanted to give them the oxygen, but in some venues it's just pointless.

              That goes for this situation: one can't argue with someone charistmatic who eschews civility, screeches when he faces the slightest criticism, and claims to have proven the truth of all manner of assertions when he hasn't.  As with many cult leaders, I think his game is about self-aggrandizement -- being able to say that whatever bad happens in the world took place only because people didn't follow his advice.  He's welcome to that game, and his followers are welcome to follow him, but I have better things to do.

              Someone may well port this comment there to serve as an esprit-building pinata, and that's OK; at least some people will hear the truth, and someday it may sink in.

              I hope not to say more here unless some acolytes show up, as is likely.

              If somebody writes a book and doesn't care for [its] survival, he's an imbecile. U. Eco. (P.S.: my opinions are mine, not my employer's.)

              by Major Danby on Sat Dec 08, 2007 at 12:00:31 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  You left off the poll North's time in Mena (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ek hornbeck, Major Danby

    Arkansas. And his diary. His very interesting diary.

    Until we break the corporate virtual monopoly on what we hear and see, we keep losing, don't matter what we do.

    by Jim P on Fri Dec 07, 2007 at 08:11:25 PM PST

  •  Woody deserves the Medal of Freedom (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Major Danby, Temmoku, milkbone

    for monkey-wrenching North's political aspirations.
    I remember those times very well, having watched most of the Iran-Contra hearings. North was a scary and dangerous guy.  
    I enjoy all of the stuff that you write.

    best regards

  •  It sounds like a great book...and on a (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Major Danby

    subject of growing interest to many getting into politics (like myself).

    Democrats demand change--not experience. Now let's turn this mother around.

    by PeckingOrder on Fri Dec 07, 2007 at 08:24:50 PM PST

  •  The book is on my shelf (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Major Danby, Temmoku

    And I'm looking forward to getting into it. Anyone who's interested in the period Holton covers will also want to look at Terry Bouton's Taming Democracy, which came out this past summer. It shows how some of the Founding generation turned into what they opposed, having once denounced colonial governments for limiting the money supply and enforcing hard money payments to favor creditors over debtors, only to do the same things themselves when they served the interest of a new ruling class. I strongly recommend it.

    Smash the two-party system!

    by Samuel Wilson on Fri Dec 07, 2007 at 08:25:28 PM PST

    •  Well, when you do read it (0+ / 0-)

      Come back and report your reaction here for posterity!  I expect that Woody will see it at some point, if that's any inducement.

      If somebody writes a book and doesn't care for [its] survival, he's an imbecile. U. Eco. (P.S.: my opinions are mine, not my employer's.)

      by Major Danby on Fri Dec 07, 2007 at 08:48:54 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Yup, thanks Danby (0+ / 0-)

    the fascinating and vast histories of greed and it's many devises; an endless saga...

    don't always believe what you think...

    by claude on Fri Dec 07, 2007 at 09:24:53 PM PST

  •  Woody has a current political connection you omit (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Major Danby

    his sister Anne is a Virginia's current First Lady, married as she is to Governor Tim Kaine.  

    Those who can, do. Those who can do more, TEACH! If impeachment is off the table, so is democracy

    by teacherken on Sat Dec 08, 2007 at 02:25:56 AM PST

  •  one other note about Federalist - (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Major Danby, Temmoku

    most HS government courses require covering a number of the papers, of course always including Madison on 'faction' -  a proper balance would include a number of the documents on the other side, which can be read in the collection known as The Anti-Federalist Papers, which includes among other things some of Patrick Henry's speeches.  The largest collection, by Morton Bordon, has 85 exemplars to match the number of the Federalist papers.  THis site also includes a speech by James Wilson who supported ratification because his speech actually got wider notice than the essays by the triumverate in NY, and many of the anit's responded to him, so it is necessary for context.

    Those who can, do. Those who can do more, TEACH! If impeachment is off the table, so is democracy

    by teacherken on Sat Dec 08, 2007 at 02:33:22 AM PST

    •  I hope that you read (or have read) this book (0+ / 0-)

      You, occams hatchet, and Unitary Moonbat were the ones here who I thought would especially appreciate it.  Woody's take on the Anti-Federalists is interesting; he's not so hot on the ones who usually get formally labeled as such, whose motivations were largely not populist.  He's more of a fan of people I'd never heard of before this.

      If somebody writes a book and doesn't care for [its] survival, he's an imbecile. U. Eco. (P.S.: my opinions are mine, not my employer's.)

      by Major Danby on Sat Dec 08, 2007 at 12:04:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  North should have been tried for Treason... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Major Danby, Abra Crabcakeya

    if it was good enough for Aaron Burr, it should have been good enough for North, and for Bush and for Cheney......the whole lot of them!

    I ordered your recommended book for Christmas! Thanks for the review...it looks like something I will enjoy.

    All I want for Christmas is...IMPEACHMENT!

    by Temmoku on Sat Dec 08, 2007 at 06:40:50 AM PST

  •  Somewhere in the chaos (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gogol, Major Danby

    that is my office, I still have two bumper stickers from the North vs. Robb campaign. The first says something along the lines of North To Alaska, Not To Congress, and the second says I Don't Vote For Felons. I treasure them. My husband & I had moved from California to Alexandria, VA, earlier that year, and North's loss of the election reassured me that maybe the people I was living among weren't total nutcases.

    Great book review, btw. It's now on my Amazon wishlist.

    Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Those who study history are doomed to know it's repeating. - JWhitlock

    by Alice Venturi on Sat Dec 08, 2007 at 09:45:43 PM PST

    •  I hope that you enjoy it! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Alice Venturi

      I think that "I Don't Vote For Felons" may have been the work of Clean Up Congress.  What I remember best are the t-shirts (because I still have one or two) parodying the state's tourism slogan in reading: "Virginia is for Lover, not Liars."  Sweet!

      If somebody writes a book and doesn't care for [its] survival, he's an imbecile. U. Eco. (P.S.: my opinions are mine, not my employer's.)

      by Major Danby on Sat Dec 08, 2007 at 11:23:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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