Thursday, October 27, 2011

What Would James Madison Do (WWJMD)? Would the Framers Support the Occupy Wall Street Movement?

Populist movements are exciting; they are quintessentially "American" moments that validate our national mythos. This sentiment appears on both sides of the ideological divide.

Although they are an AstroTurf organization funded by the Koch brothers, the Tea Party believes that they are "of the people," and in turn represent the authentic voice of a disaffected silent majority.

Occupy Wall Street, a spontaneous, unfocused, sit-in movement, speaks for an aggrieved and upset public who are disgusted by robber baron gangster capitalism, and an ineffective government that has abandoned the Common Good to the interests of the American kleptocracy.

The Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street, are united in a belief that their respective struggles are in keeping with the best traditions of American democracy and citizen activism. In all, they imagine themselves to be fulfilling the cornerstone values of American civil religion; moreover, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are (in their own eyes, and however problematic the assumption) ideal-typical examples of American exceptionalism in action.

While the former is more explicit in this regard (with their fetish-like worship of the Constitution and love of period regalia), both have embraced freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government for the redress of grievance, as values which are central to their respective "movement cultures." Implicit here, is a belief that the framers of the Constitution would support their efforts and goals.

As it often does, and once more, history complicates matters.

The Constitution, while extremely radical for its era, is in many ways an anti-democratic document that is designed to subvert and prevent mass democracy. The framers represented a particular set of regional, economic, class, and racial interests. The Constitution was a compromise document that reflected those realities. For example:

1. The Constitution is an explicitly pro-slavery document which protected the interests of the Southern planters and those of the landed classes;

2. The Senate, founded as an American version of the House of Lords, was a representative body explicitly designed as a check on the House of Representatives. Senators would finally be subject to direct popular vote, as opposed to nomination, in 1913;

3. In order to exercise the franchise to vote, citizens had to be white, male, and own property, a requirement that would not be changed until the era of Jacksonian democracy. The practical effect of these rules was that a significant part of the American public were ineligible to vote from the time of the founding through to the first decades of the 19th century (with white women being granted the right to vote in 1920);

4. James Madison and others expressed a deep anxiety about factions, the passions of a mass democratic public, and how infectious differences over property and wealth could usurp American democracy--and therefore ought to be protected against by the Constitution.

In total, the long arc of the American experience has been a broadening of rights, liberties, and freedoms, as well as the enfranchisement of whole categories of citizens originally left out of the Constitution's vision of democracy. Ultimately, mass democracy has meant working against the elite democracy imagined by the framers.

While certainly not possessed of a lockstep unity of belief on matters of public and social policy (this flattening of history and mythologizing of "the founding fathers" was a product of the 1950s and the Cold War), the framers were, in many ways, the "1 percent" of their era.

Of course, one needs to be cautious in reading back to a specific moment more than two hundred years ago and importing the framer's sensibilities to the present (What would they say about globalization? Would they be aghast that Corporations are now legal persons? How would they respond to an America that is extremely diverse and a global power?).

But, as Occupy Wall Street works in the best tradition of citizen-activism to reclaim the power of transformative, radical democratic action, it behooves us to ask just who the "1 percent" were in the past, and how their interests may (or may not) echo into the present.

Thus the question: What would James Madison, one of the most "elitist" of his peers, think about the 99 percent? What of the framers more generally? How would they respond to Occupy Wall Street?


Chris Sharp said...

Wow great post CD, and I just happened to recently finish two books on the Constituitional convention so it was quite timely.

The answer to your first question is easy: Madison and most of the other delegates (except maybe those from Pennsylvania) would have been absolutely horrified at the OWS movement and probably the TPers as well. As I recall, one of the motivating factors for the Convention was Shay's Rebellion in Massachusets, where a bunch of poor farmers took up arms against the state government and were quickly put down with military force. Given the threat of popular rebellion, the central government had to be stregthened so that Shay's Rebellion would never happen again, let alone a slave rebelion in the South.

You are spot on in describing the Framers as the 1%ers of their day. Virtually all of them were rich landowners or merchants and a significant portion, including some of the Northeners, owned slaves. George Washington even brought a few of his with him to Philadelhia because he was apparently incapable of even dressing himself without their assistance.

If you read some of the acounts of the convention, one of the toughest issues they faced was whether the common non-land owning masses would have any voice in the new government. Most if not all of the delegates were firmly opposed to a pure representative democracy and they were pretty shameless in some of their descriptions of the parade of horrors that would result from giving all citizens the right to vote. They were far more interested in preserving their wealth and their positions at the top of society. In other words, rigging the game for the future. Sound familiar?

And don't even get me started on how South Carolina and Georgia held the entire Convention hostage on the issue of slavery and how quickly the other states capitulated to their outrageous demands to preserve the slave trade. Oh, that's right, they "compromised" and allowed it to continue for only 20 more years. Imagine how different our country might look today if they had simply told those assholes to leave and completed their work without them.

So how would the Framers deal with OWS? They would call out the militia and crush them, just like they did with Shay's Rebellion and later, the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania. During the Whiskey Rebellion, it was old George himself who put on his military uniform and became the only sitting President to lead a military force in the field. I guess he felt pretty strongly that the commoners (substitute OWS or TP here) had less rights than he did.

Okay, my history lesson for the day is over. Looking forward to the other comments to your post.

chaunceydevega said...


I agree. I am surprised that more folks haven't brought this up. Jefferson was more "democratic" but they would have crushed ows by now. I guess those interpretations are unpopular and impractical at the moment.

Anonymous said...

@CD: Thanks for the post. While the ows movement is quite large and therefore has even attracted neo nazis (as exploited by the right wing media to bash the movement), has the ows been explicit about a harkening back to the constitution, etc?

My following of the protests seem to indicate that ows is very adamantly avoid such associations (along with there general lack of definition).

As for your question, I think the framers of the constitution would be just a bit disgusted with the whole movement (so many poor people and minorities in one place, ugh -- not my words, those of the framers).

Once more to your point though, the occupiers have been targeting primarily financial institutions and not the government which again departs from any impression of constitutional fetishizing. A question for you. Do you think that such efforts will matter at all? Is it possible for a relatively small group of people to even dent these financial institutions from bending to there grievances?

Just tripping over a few poor people on the way to work every morning seems hardly out of the ordinary for any financier -- what is the motivation for any of them to think twice about the movement?

Batocchio said...

Thoughtful stuff. As you, Beard and Chris point out, the framers were an aristocratic lot, and many of the elements of the Constitution (particularly setting up the Senate) reflect that. They might have agreed to "the right of the people peaceably to assemble" in theory, but weren't necessarily supportive of it in practice. That doesn't mean we need to do the same, though.

Plus, the founding fathers were a contentious and contradictory lot. Jefferson was certainly an aristocrat, and his attitudes toward slavery were a mess of contradictions, but he wrote passionately about liberty and was a fierce advocate for public education. His consulted or collaborated with Madison on many of his projects, including the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. So I wonder where their individual founders and framers would fall (Hamilton was probably the most anti-democratic), although Chris makes a good case.

All that said, OWS is invoking ideals more than the framers themselves (as you note) and there's a long tradition of that, most notably and powerfully by MLK ("we have come to cash this check"). You're absolutely right that the founders/framers shouldn't be put on a pedestal. Still, given the tea party's dogged ignorance of the document they claim to revere, a little pushback is nice, and surely there's room for both better history and better honoring of those ideals.