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Tuesday, 20 October 2009

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Anyone who takes Mr Jefferson's propaganda literally is a political simpleton.

I must read up more on the Founding Fathers, 'DM', my ignorance is a persoanl disgrace. It was, when you think about it, an amazing exercise for those men to sit down with a more or less clean slate and design the governance of a new nation. By and large I think they did a good job. It could be said, I suppose, (and Rand would and did say it) that it has been the activities ever since of people who did not take the Constitution literally which has gradually whittled it away.

A slate that resulted in their adopting an approximation to King, Lords and Commons, and incorporating great chunks of the English Bill of Rights into their Constitution, was hardly "clean", David. Anyway, the problem is that people who accept that all politicians have, at best, mixed motives, often behave badly, and deal out large chunks of falsehood, are indoctrinated with the belief that the Founding Fathers are the sole historical exception to this rule. A bit of critical scrutiny, and attention to the facts insofar as they can be established, would do a power of good, but it wouldn't sell in the States, and no other market would be much interested, I imagine. Personally, I have One Big Question: what on earth was the War of Independence about? For example, sometimes American schoolchildren are told that it was about taxation, but the North American colonies were the most lightly taxed civilisation in history. (And the Boston Tea Party was a protest by smugglers aginst the reduction of the import duty on tea.) Other answers - it was about intolerable despotism, for example - also don't work, because they prove too much. That is to say, if they were true, the population would have rebelled on a vast scale, and the British government would have had to settle immediately. But opinions were divided, the rebels were few, and what was partly a civil war broke out. Even Ben Franklin's son thought the rebels quite wrong. I suspect that my One Big Question doesn't have One Big Answer, but it's hard to get very far discussing it on the web, because so many Americans just bridle and resort to name-calling and uncritically repeating the stuff they were taught at elementary school. You have to remember that Americans seem to believe their equivalents of the tales we learnt at school about, say, Alfred burning the cakes, Canute sitting on the beach, or Bruce learning persistence from the spider in the cave. But they don't put childish things behind them when they grow up, and really cling to their yarns. All very odd. They don't even seem to distinguish much between the impressive fellows, such as Washington, and the twerps, such as Jefferson. Hey ho.

Can you recommend an even-handed book on all of this, 'DM'?

Wish I could - I have learnt largely from fragments. The most interesting thing I've read lately is "Rebels and Redcoats: The American Revolutionary War" by Hugh Bicheno. The problem is that the war was a big deal, obviously, in US history, but no big deal in anyone else's (unless you count the fact that it cost the French enough to ruin their state finances and thus, eventually, bring on their revolution). So you get a lot of pious lies intended for an American readership that ... well, you get the point.

As for the Constitution (and the debates that led up to it) I am a great admirer, but can't help but notice that it's ignored if ever the issue is deemed important enough by the Powers That Be. That, I suppose, means it's a failure, albeit a noble failure. So I take the view that the USA has a constitution, in which parts of The Constitution figure. Ah well, if the US is set on its own destruction, I don't suppose it matters much.

I'm actually blushing, 'DM', which in a retired second-hand car trader is a very, very rare sight!

My interested raised I went over to my history book shelves and there I found "The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution" by Robert Middlekauff - and it is signed by the author! Oh God! How could I have forgotten? And now I remember the occasion. The Rothermere family (of Daily Mail fame) sponsor an American historian for a year at Oxford. I used to supply the motor - 'know wot I mean, John?' - and these visitors used to give an annual lecture which I attended on one occasion with a second-hand paperback copy of the man's book. I failed to remember the occasion and failed to remember the book, so I suppose that confirms me as a failure!

However, I quite like his first lines in the preface:

The title that I have given this book may be understood in this day - when all is suspect - as irony. I do not intend that it should be. The Americans, the "common people", as well as soldiers and great leaders,who made the Revolution against Britain believed that their cause was glorious - and so do I. But their cause, however glorious, had its inglorious sides, and the Americans' manner of advancing it was sometimes false to the great principles they espoused.

That promises well, I'll let you know.

Hitchens has a little book on Jefferson, if you want the opposite of what DM has been saying. Also, The Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis is quite good, as are most of the books that Ellis wrote.

Thanks, Dom, I'll look out for Ellis - when I have worked my way through Middlekauff's hefty volume!

Indulge an old man and let him give a couple of random thoughts on this one:

1. I've always been led to believe that the Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by Montesquieu's "On the Spirit of the Laws" (1748) which stated M's belief that the separation of powers was fundamental to the success of democracy. He cited England as the prime - if not perfect - example of this. Accordingly, after the success of the AWoI, M's misreadings of how the English Constitution actually worked were translated into the US Constitution. Of course, the strict application of the separation of powers as envisaged by the writers of the US Constitution has never worked eg the "supreme" power in the state is the Supreme Court. The Court was accorded a passive role by the Constitution: - an "activist" judiciary would have been viewed with horror.

2. Revolutions - particularly successful ones - are led by those from the (for want of a better word) middle, or fairly prosperous, classes who are excluded from power (Mao, Lenin, Castro, Robespierre etc). The American Revolution is no different. However, as luck would have it, the revolutionaries in America were steeped in the traditions of the Common Law and of the Rule of Law. Accordingly, although they felt excluded from real power (despite elected assemblies in all (?) the colonies), they had a genuine attachment to the forms and disciplines which they believed the "real" English Constitution would reflect. The US was lucky in that it had a template in the existing English Constitution on which to craft an improvement. France, Russia andd China had autocracy; the Cubans had thugocracy.

Always a pleasure to indulge you, 'Bongers'.

Until I finish Mr. Middlekauff's book there's not much I can usefully add to your comments. The apparent fact that they misunderstood the English settlement when they designed their constitution never occurred to me before. The recent activism by the Supreme Court is ferociously attacked by implication in Rand's book as she lays into the post-enlightenment philosophers who have, of course, been such a huge influence on those she calls, dismissively, 'modern intellectuals' of whom the legal profession has more than its share.

As to your second point, yes, it always provides me with a sly smile when I read 'Leftie' blogs where they never stop banging on about 'the workers' whilst remaining, themselves, impeccably middle-class.

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