The Savior of His Country
A piece defending Washington and the Founders generates controversy.


My essay on the Founding Fathers and slavery, which appeared on NRO last week, must have touched a nerve, given the comments and posts that followed. Many of these responses contained unprintable language, but there were also some thoughtful appraisals.

The response of Jacob Levy, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, summed up the accusation which those who disliked the piece voiced most often: that I distorted the work of the professors and caricatured their theories. Professor Levy takes issue in particular with my contention that historians have portrayed the Federalist framers of the Constitution as spoilsports and reactionaries. Certainly such an interpretation, Professor Levy says, finds no support in the work of Gordon S. Wood of Brown. According to Levy, in Wood’s interpretation the “Revolution was not interrupted by a counterrevolutionary aristocratic constitution . . .”

Yet Professor Wood does give us such an interrupted Revolution, a Revolution which culminates in the imposition, by the Federalists, of “their aristocratic system” on the country. On page 562 of the Norton edition of his book, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, Wood writes:

Considering the Federalist desire for a high-toned government filled with better sorts of people, there is something decidedly disingenuous about the democratic radicalism of their arguments, their continual emphasis on the popular character of the Constitution, their manipulation of Whig maxims, their stressing of the representational nature of all parts of the government, including the greatly strengthened executive and Senate. In effect they appropriated and exploited the language that more rightfully belonged to their [Antifederalist] opponents. The result was the beginning of a hiatus in American politics between ideology and motives that was never again closed. By using the most popular and democratic rhetoric available to explain and justify their aristocratic system, the Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which differing ideas of politics would be intimately and genuinely related to differing social interests. In other words, the Federalists in 1787 hastened the destruction of whatever chance there was in America for the growth of an avowedly aristocratic conception of politics [avowedly, because in Professor Wood's view the Federalist Constitution was covertly and disingenuously aristocratic] and thereby contributed to the creation of that encompassing liberal tradition which has mitigated and often obscured the real social antagonisms of American politics. By attempting to confront and retard the thrust of the Revolution with the rhetoric of the Revolution, the Federalists fixed the terms for the future discussion of American politics. They thus brought the ideology of the Revolution to consummation and created a distinctly American political theory but only at the cost of eventually impoverishing later American political thought. [Emphasis added.]

I have great admiration for Professor Wood’s scholarship and, contrary to what Professor Levy supposes, I was pleased with the nice things he said about my book, Jefferson’s Demons, in his notice in The New York Times Book Review of December 14, 2003. But surely it is not news to Professor Levy that a number of professors have seized on the work of Wood and others, and that they have used the rhetoric of the Antifederalists who opposed the Constitution and the classical republican ideal of civic virtue both (a) to portray the framers of the Constitution as reactionaries, counterrevolutionaries, a less than heroic breed of Thermidorien spoilers; and (b) to criticize the classical liberalism–Hayek described it as “Whig liberalism” in The Constitution of Liberty–the Founders bequeathed to their posterity.

In his comments Professor Levy himself observes that a number of political scientists have used the work of Professor Wood and others in this way. So too have a number of historians. The historian Mary Beth Norton revealed the pervasiveness of such thinking in a July 19, 2003 op-ed piece in the New York Times, “The Founders and the Fedayeen.” “The idea that America under the Articles of Confederation (from 1781 to 1788) was a time of strife and ineffectual government,” she writes, “was first put forward in the 18th century by supporters of the Constitution”–by the Federalists, that is. “It was perpetuated by 19th-century historians who wanted to portray the delegates to the Constitutional Convention as disinterested saviors of the nation. Historians initially challenged this dismal view of the 1780’s early in the 20th century, and it has essentially been dead for at least 50 years.”

The Antifederalists, in other words, were right all along; Washington and other Federalist delegates to the Philadelphia convention were not “disinterested saviors of the nation.” That archaic–or as she has it, “dismal”–notion has “essentially been dead for at least 50 years.” The Federalist framers exaggerated the troubles of the 1780s in order to impose a new Constitution on the country, and they did so, not as “disinterested saviors of the nation,” but (so we must infer from her language) as something less noble. Professor Norton presents the Federalists as overzealous and not especially scrupulous figures–just the sort of fellows who would disingenuously impose an “aristocratic system” on the unsuspecting populace.

This view of Washington and his colleagues at Philadelphia has, through many changes in academic fashion, been piously passed down in history departments during the last hundred years. Professor Norton says as much herself. In defending her interpretation of the Constitution, she rightly insists on its continuity with the great bulk of academic scholarship during the last century: her interpretation is one that finds support not only in the work of the Progressive historians (such as Beard) but also in Professor Wood’s Creation of the American Republic.

Others in the academy have transformed the classical republican ideal of virtue into a substitute for a now discredited socialism. The civic ideal of contributing to the common good becomes, in the work of some of these scholars, a justification for yet more taking–”redistribution,” if you prefer the Orwellian term–of private property. There is something of this in the work of Professor Bruce Ackerman, a prominent student of the Constitution and professor of law at Yale. As much as I respect Professor Ackerman, who was my teacher, his vision of a “stakeholder society,” which derives in part from his scholarly work on the classical republican tradition, is wrongheaded, and amounts to a revival of the coercive socialist ideal under another name. True, Professor Ackerman is not a historian; but it is the acknowledged function of law schools to translate bad ideas generated in the rest of the academy into programs of action.

Finally, Professor Levy takes me to task for placing an “inordinate emphasis on the editor-written headline” on the cover of The New York Times Book Review of December 14. “Never Forget,” the headline reads, “They Kept Lots of Slaves.” It is, I think, an inordinately provoking headline. “Never Forget” is a motto that many people, quite rightly, use in connection with the National Socialist party in Germany; and I suppose my temper was, to use Professor Levy’s words, “set aflame” by its application to General Washington and Mr. Jefferson. Whatever their faults, they deserve better than to be branded with the iron that has been used on men like Himmler, Goering, and Heydrich. That’s wrong. But it’s also, I think, revealing–thus the piece I wrote for NRO.

To be perfectly fair, however, I see now, in looking over the essay, that Professor Levy makes one valid point. I should have made it clearer that I was troubled by the Book Review cover and headline, not by Professor Wood’s essay itself, which is fair-minded in a way that cover and headline are not. Had I been clearer about this I might have spared myself complaints from readers who criticized me for “attacking” Wood without noting that he had reviewed my book.

* * *

Virtues modern academic history undoubtedly has; but the bulk of it leaves much to be desired. As a rule the academic historian is an inferior judge of character. One looks in vain for the niceness of discrimination Gibbon employed in his analyses of the virtues and vices of Diocletian and Constantine, Charlemagne and Rienzi. Nor does one find, in the academic annals, adequate justice done to genuine greatness of soul. After every deduction is made for the severe Whiggery of Macaulay’s History of England, after all the exaggerations of Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and Elizabeth and Essex have been taken into account, the books remain a standing reproach to contemporary academic history. Which university has produced as brilliant an account of the American Revolution and its great hero, Washington, as Macaulay gave of the Revolution of 1688 and its hero, William of Orange? Which professor has painted Lincoln’s soul with a finesse approaching that of Strachey in his portraits of Newman and Queen Elizabeth?

It may be mad, hysterical, and “over the top” of the “ranter” in me to say so (I am quoting, not Professor Levy, but some of my other disgruntled readers), but would it not be better for the country if more of its scholars were again to embrace what Professor Norton calls the “dismal” and anachronistic view of a man like Washington– “so ancient,” she says, “it creaks”– the view that he really was the disinterested savior of the nation? That he really was, in spite of his failings, what Byron called him: “the first, the last, the best–the Cincinnatus of the West?” Doubtless it would be an improvement on much of today’s dead-souled history, bless its mealy mouth.

The kind of history I have in mind would require no sacrifice of scholarly integrity. The Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor was not a conservative and quite the reverse of a reactionary. But consider his appraisal of the character of Churchill in his history of modern Britain. It was Taylor’s practice to provide, in notes at the bottom of the page, a brief summary of the lives of the men and women to whom he referred in the text–where the individual was educated, what offices he held, the nature of his family connections. Taylor would also mention a revealing idiosyncrasy or two, for he had to deal with some eccentric figures. The sketches are brief lives, and Taylor composed them with extraordinary wit and irreverence. But when he came to describe Churchill, he was laconic. His tone changed; the mirth vanished; the statement was plain and unadorned. (I quote from memory, not having the book to hand.) “Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, K.G.; the saviour of his country.”

If Professor Levy could show me a professor writing today whose work on the Founders reveals so exquisite, so delicate, and so just a moral sensibility, a professor whose sober judgment is able to pronounce as fitting an epitaph on the Founders’ achievement, I’d be grateful to him.

Michael Knox Beran is the author of Jefferson’s Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind and The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy.