January 27, 2013

Review Corner

In last week's Review Corner, I confessed that my lack of knowledge about the events, places, and people in Ancient Rome reduced my ability to appreciate Gibbon's work.

From Rome, I set the WayBack Machine™ to antebellum America. Blog friend TGreer surfaced on Facebook and recommended Harry L. Watson's Liberty and Power. Contra Rome, I know the stories in here chapter and verse -- enough that I found the exposition sections a little dry. Interesting that Watson accepts "The Corrupt Bargain" between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay as factual. The biographers of Adams, Clay and Jackson that I've read tend to think it more of a tin ear for politics well exploited.

If we're to travel well worn roads, what new insights can the author bring? There is one Watson does extremely well and one he does poorly.

The assembly and rise of the Democrat and Whig parties -- indeed the acceptance of a two-party system of governance is covered very well. I will recommend this book to a lot of big-L Libertarian and "No Labels" types. I'm frequently told that a new third party is going to come along and fix everything. "It happens all the time" I am told. Well, it happened three times, in a smaller nation under extreme exigencies.

I always credited Van Buren's vision and wizardry with the creation of a national Democratic Party. Watson shows the importance of Jackson's cult of personality. He perhaps soft pedals the Little Magician's use of spoils and patronage, but an accurate assessment surely requires both.

The foundation of the Whigs and the integration and recruitment of multiple small factions is especially interesting: probably my favorite part of the book. Not having voluminous exit-polling data from the 1836 and 1840 elections, he looks at the counties of Western New York that were growing after completion of the Erie Canal (damned, Whiggish internal improvements!), the factions they attracted and their voting patterns in different years.

Into what crucible can we throw this heterogeneous mass of old national republicans, and revolting Jackson men; Masons and anti-Masons; Abolitionists and pro-Slavery men; Bank men and anti-Bank men with all the lesser fragments that have been, from time to time, thrown off from the great political wheel in its violent revolutions, so as to melt them down into one mass of pure Whigs of undoubted good metal -- Millard Fillmore

Less well done was the book's premise. The title and colophon address the balance of liberty and power. It is often and well discussed but Watson is a history professor at the University of North Carolina. If one loves history one must read academics or chose from a very small pool of material. But the good professor cannot grasp liberty were it to bite him in his professorial ass.

There is a great discussion of the bank war and the nullification crisis. Watson tries to present all sides. No doubt he has forgotten more about the historical than I have known. But he cannot accept that the BUS might be (nay, is sir!) philosophically wrong. The viewpoint of capitalists, agrarians, craftsmen, workers and politicians from both sides are meticulously examined. But in a book that looks to examine liberty and power, the little-l libertarian side of monetary policy is not even considered. The same can be said for internal improvements, arrogation of power to the executive, and to some extent federalism.

A very good book, but I would give it three stars and suggest that most would prefer John Meacham's American Lion or David Heidler's Henry Clay: the Essential American.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at January 27, 2013 9:58 AM

Ah, the perspective from the Ivory Tower, where "fairness" and "objectivity" have come to dictate philosophical relativism.

You write that the author meticulously examines "both sides." (Not "all sides?") You mentioned Libertarians and No Labels. Third parties and Millard Fillmore's "one mass of pure" X "of undoubted good metal." All of this points to a natural dichotomy: good - bad.

I don't mean to suggest that there is or will ever be a "good" party and a "bad" party. Political parties are a means to organization and administration. I mean to explain that in both political parties, as in all human activity, there exist demonstrably good and bad ideas. The trick is to reliably and consistently identify which is which, made harder by the skill with which the proponents of bad ideas can and do cloak them with the sanction of "goodness."

But the first step is to acknowledge the dichotomy. All things are not equal, nor relatively so. One side is right, the other side is wrong, and the middle is evil.

The basic and crucial political issue of our age is: capitalism versus socialism, or freedom versus statism. For decades, this issue has been silenced, suppressed, evaded, and hidden under the foggy, undefined rubber-terms of "conservatism" and "liberalism" which had lost their original meaning and could be stretched to mean all things to all men.

-Ayn Rand in "'Extremism,' or the Art of Smearing," in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal

Posted by: johngalt at January 27, 2013 12:53 PM

Good review!

The section on the rise of the Democratic Party was my favorite; it taught me a lot I did not know. Before reading it I did not realize just how much the creation of the party (and the party system that sprang from it) was dependent on the efforts of just two men (Mr. Jackson and Van Buren), or how the very existence of mass party politics was one of the central issues during those early elections. I also learned from Watson's description of the two leading characters. Historians tend to typify President Jackson as either an Indian-killing authoritarian or the blessed expression of true democracy; Martin Van Buren, however, is almost universally condemned as a slimy, wily, Machiavellian politico. It was refreshing to see him cast in something of a good light.

Says JK:

"But in a book that looks to examine liberty and power, the little-l libertarian side of monetary policy is not even considered."

But was small-l monetary policy really much in consideration back then? Today's libertarianism finds its roots in the classical liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, and I used to think that this classical liberalism was the main mode of thought back in those days. However, it had a competitor in classical republicanism (which, I am afraid, is even less persuasive today than classical liberalism, for it really does not have any modern political descendents). I thought Watson's chapter on the subject captured republican thought brilliantly. My amazon review summarizes:

The drama came about, Watson contends, because of the lens Jacksonian statesmen used to understand political realities of their world: republicanism. As with their revolutionary fathers, men of the antebellum looked upon liberty as the highest aim of state, and understood it to be "the power of self control in self governing communities" (44). The purpose of the statesmen, therefore, was to facilitate those conditions in which liberty could thrive and tyrannical power could not take root. They saw the issue in (for the average 21st century American) a very moral way. Only a 'virtuous' and 'moral' people would appreciate freedom, and only they would have the strength and independence to ward off corruption and tyranny. Thus anything that sapped the independence or reduced the virtue of the citizenry should be opposed, and anything that strengthened the citizenry's free exercise of their rights was to be championed.

Now in practice early Americans tended to synthesize the individual-rights classical liberal view of liberty with the "self control in self governing communities" type of liberty championed by republican thought, but it seems that the second type was the more dominant of the two.* In that age both parties were united in this view.

If what republicanism was the main filter through which antebellum politicians of all political stripes saw their world, I can understand why Watson may gloss over little-l views on the Bank. If it was not central to the days' debate, why spend time writing about it?

I am open to shattering my accord with Watson, however. His case makes sense, but it would make less so if contemporary arguments/politicians/thinkers were advancing little-l liberalism instead of little-r republicanism on these economic questions. Do you know of any books, articles, ect. that might so inform me?

JK said:

"I suggest that most would prefer John Meacham's American Lion or David Heidler's Henry Clay: the Essential American."

Agreed. Watson's work is a historical monograph. He does not write with a popular audience in mind, so almost any biography will be more readable. But it is a good example of its genre and I recommend it to those who want to understand what motivated politicians of our early Republic.

*I have been on something of an antebellum binge recently, and have only had this idea confirmed. I was surprised to learn, for example, that the month before James Madison vetoed internal improvements he gave a speech in favor of national improvement projects. He did not protest against improvements on principle; he actually thought a vigorous program of federally funded improvement was vital part of protecting the Union against external foes. Thus his speech was a call to amend the constitution and make internal improvement legal! What scared him was not the eclipse of free enterprise by the federal government, but the erosion of the constitution itself. He worried more about civic virtue than authoritarian economics. (Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: A History of America, 1815-1845, pp. 88-89)

Posted by: T. Greer at January 28, 2013 1:14 PM

I could be guilty of projection, but I have always seen Taney's and Jackson's opposition to Biddle and the BUS as being pretty compatible with today's Ron Paul supporter's view of Chairman Bernanke an the Federal Reserve.

Lord Acton and John C. Calhoun promoted a libertarian mindset that is pretty recognizable today and championed by folks like Tom Woods. Woods and Co. are a little too ready to say "things were really swell except for that slavery thing" for my taste. But every libertarian I know has had to confront the discomfort of realizing that Calhoun, Davis, and Alexander Stephens perhaps had a truer understanding of the Constitution than the victors.

Things change but the expression of liberty from John Locke to Rand Paul seems to have a large common cord. None of which is likely to be addressed by a book from an academic press.

On this topic, academic guy whom I've just insulted, can you tell me how to get my hands on Taney's Bank War manuscript? It's in the Library of Congress and I almost made a special trip to DC to see it a few years ago but that was scuttled -- is that the only way to read it?

Posted by: jk at January 28, 2013 1:38 PM

...and I always admired Madison more for accepting Constitutional restrictions on something he supported.

Posted by: jk at January 28, 2013 1:46 PM | What do you think? [4]