erik lundegaard

Why The Tea Party Hates George Washington

Here's the long view, courtesy of Joseph J. Ellis' Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Founding Brothers,” published in 2000:

There are two long-established ways to tell the story [of the founding of the republic in 1787]...

Mercy Otis Warren's History of the American Revolution (1805) defined the “pure republicanism” interpretation, which was also the version embraced by the Republican party and therefore later called “the Jeffersonian interpretation.” It depicts the American Revolution as a liberation movement, a clean break not just from English domination but also from the historic corruptions of European monarchy and aristocracy. The ascendance of the Federalists to power in the 1790s thus becomes a hostile takeover of the Revolution by corrupt courtiers and moneymen (Hamilton is the chief culprit), which is eventually defeated and the true spirit of the Revolution recovered by the triumph of the Republicans in the elections of 1800. The core revolutionary principle according to this interpretive tradition is individual liberty. It has radical and, in modern terms, libertarian implications, because it regards any accommodation of personal freedom to governmental discipline as dangerous. In its more extreme forms it is a recipe for anarchy, and its attitude toward any energetic expression of centralized political power can assume paranoid proportions.

The alternative interpretation was first given its fullest articulation by John Marshall in his massive five-volume The Life of George Washington (1804-18O7). It sees the American Revolution as an incipient national movement with deep, if latent, origins in the colonial era. The constitutional settlement of 1787-1788 thus becomes the natural fulfillment of the Revolution and the leaders of the Federalist party in the 1790s—Adams, Hamilton, and, most significantly, Washington—as the true heirs of the revolutionary legacy. (Jefferson is the chief culprit.) The core revolutionary principle in this view is collectivistic rather than individualistic, for it sees the true spirit of '76 as the virtuous surrender of personal, state, and sectional interests to the larger purpose: of American nationhood, first embodied in the Continental Army and later in the newly established federal government. It has conservative but also protosocialistic implications, because it does not regard the individual as the sovereign unit in the political equation and is more comfortable with governmental discipline as a focusing and channeling device for national development. In its more extreme forms it relegates personal rights and liberties to the higher authority of the state, which is “us” and not “them,” and it therefore has both communal and despotic implications.

It is truly humbling, perhaps even dispiriting, to realize that the historical debate over the revolutionary era and the early republic merely recapitulates the ideological debate conducted at the time, that historians have essentially been fighting the same battles, over and over again, that the members of the revolutionary generation fought originally among themselves.

When looked at through this prism, we get a sense of how fucked-up the current generation is.

The Jeffersonians in this equation are obviously the tea partiers, who are in the midst of an extreme, and paranoid, period. They view Pres. Obama, for example, who talks the language of cooperation, as a despot.

But the original Jeffersonians fought moneyed interests while the current Jeffersonians, the tea partiers, are bankrolled by those interests: The Koch brothers, the Citizens United decision, etc.

Moreover, if, in the 1790s, the debate was individual liberties (Jefferson) vs. American nationhood (Washington), the rhetoric on the right now equates individual liberties with American nationhood. At the least, the current Washingtonians, the Democrats, don't use the rhetoric of “America” as well as the current Jeffersonians, the Republicans. They haven't for some time. 

Thus we have imbalance. The rhetoric and the money have gone over to the Republican side. It's a wonder the Democrats ever win at all. Or to quote a cinematic version of FDR:

“I often think of something Woodrow Wilson said to me. 'It is only once in a generation that people can be lifted above material things. That is why conservative government is in the saddle for two-thirds of the time.'”


Posted at 09:29 AM on Wed. Nov 03, 2010 in category Politics  
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