U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historiography: Douglass Adair and the Triumph of Founding Ideas over Founding Action

Today’s guest post is by William Hogeland. Cut from his new book, Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation, this essay was originally published at his personal blog, here. On Twitter, Hogeland wrote that he liked our blog but was critical of intellectual history. I asked him to write something up explaining what he meant. He gave me permission to re-post the following.

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This snippet is is part of a much longer critique of the influential academic history of our time. I may not be talking, really, about intellectual history per se. More about an overreliance on intellectual history by historians who for various reasons prefer discussing ideas to discussing political and economic action.
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So here’s the thing:
I’m not saying intellectual historians harbor some evil desire to distort. Intellectual historians just want history to be intellectual.
In my lifetime, they’ve made it so — or at least made American founding history so. For anyone wondering how we traveled, in about sixty years, from the Beardians’ dominating founding history by promoting their somewhat oddball take on class conflict to Gordon Wood’s and others’ dominating it by promoting “republican synthesis,” I believe we can thank the mighty influence of Douglass Adair. How Adair looked at the founders is how we mostly look at them now, so I think it’s worth a glimpse at how he pulled that off. 
Like Robert Brown and Forrest McDonald, in the 1950?s Douglass Adair took direct aim at Beard. Yet he didn’t employ tendentious economic studies like theirs. Adair made a highly nuanced appeal to the importance of the founders’ reading and thinking, especially about the meaning of virtue.
It’s surprising, given Beard’s obscurity today, to see how powerful Beard’s influence was when Adair began work. In his Ph.D dissertation Adair could only go so far. He basically said, “Yes, of course, it was all about financial self-interest, but I’m just saying the classics might have had something to do with it too.” And he acknowledged what then was supposed to be common knowledge among historians, that the framers acted to restrain democracy because “their pockets were being picked by the backcountry debtors.” The prejudice embedded in that remark, in favor of the creditors, would offend hardly anyone today, since the subject of founding debt and credit has become opaque for many readers. That’s a reflection of Adair’s success. He shifted the larger discussion entirely away from economic matters that he’d been forced to acknowledge, at least, when he started.
Adair curated the postwar development of founding history largely through his role as the editor of The William & Mary Quarterly in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Much of the writing he encouraged there carried forward his project: thinking ever more deeply and arguing ever more closely about liberal, republican, and classical theories of virtue in government — the appropriate way, to Adairites, to read America at its founding. Through that process, economic conflict among classes in founding America came to have relevance only in so far as it inspired Madison to write about faction, say, or John Adams to write about balance.
One of the revealing effects of Adair’s approach to the project of debunking Beard, important for the stories I tell, has to do with how we look at Alexander Hamilton. The pro-business, right-wing Beard debunker Forrest McDonald made Hamilton a hero. That was counterintuitive, given McDonald’s Goldwater connections and Hamilton’s ceaseless activism on behalf of government power. Then again, the New Dealers, whom McDonald opposed, had copped Jefferson for their own founding mascot (even more counterintuitively). McDonald’s admiration for Hamilton may also remind us that the right’s famous affection for liberty often has to do with ensuring that deleterious effects of private enterprise on less advantaged people might never serve as a reason to regulate private enterprise.
In contrast to McDonald’s right-wing style of Beard debunking, Adair’s middle-of-the-road liberalism makes Hamilton a social conservative, living in hysterical fear of a class war that Adair was out to define as chimerical. Adair thus doesn’t have to deny Beard’s contention that Hamilton’s efforts in public finance involved an attack on the less advantaged; [UPDATE: On reflection — and on reading an essay by Pope McCorkle in American Journal of Legal History that I can’t link to — that’s not really a Beard position. In the end, it’s hard for me to say what Beard’s position was, on a number of things, but what I really mean here is something like “Adair thus doesn’t have to deny Beard-influenced contentions that founding finance policies associated with Hamilton and the Federalists involved an attack on the less advantaged”]; he just sees the Hamiltonian extremity of anti-populism as baseless, silly, off the point of founding history (as he’s tautologically defined it). Since balancing fights among Americans is what interests Adair and his liberal-intellectual progeny, and not the fights themselves, both Hamilton and his enemies in the eighteenth-century popular-finance movement exist by definition outside the mainstream of the American founding. The founding populist efforts I discuss, the desire to radically change American society, to make government economically egalitarian, nothing to do with the ideas of Jefferson and Madison — that’s a molehill of which Hamilton foolishly made a mountain, in Adair’s reading.
The problem with the Adair narrative — and I think this is emblematic of the preference for looking at ideas, not action — is that it fails to explain much of Hamilton, and much of what actually went on in the founding. For one thing, Hamilton’s manifest economic liberalism: that daring pursuit of financial innovation, which, combined with his hierarchical conservatism, made activist government such a powerfully stabilizing, nation-creating force in the 1790?s. In shifting history away from the class war in which both Hamilton and the popular-finance movement knew themselves to be engaged, the Adair narrative cleanses early American tendencies toward stability and liberalism of the economic regressiveness that (I believe) attended them. Great historians have thus continued to be happy to believe in Adair’s Hamilton the extremist social conservative and upper-class hysteric, important to mention but intellectually marginal to the American project, and because intellectually marginal, ultimately marginal. Biographers and politicians alike perennially insist on Hamilton’s importance. Major academic historians have mainly stuck to giving him his bare due without getting interested in him.
That’s because Hamilton was an actor, not a thinker, in that his thinking — at least as adept, in my view, as anybody else’s of his day — served action, and action occurs in conflict. None of that serves the prime Adair directive of seeing in founding America a synthesis, a resolution of conflict, carried out in the famous elites’ ideas about virtue. The populists of the day, to the extent that they were economic radicals, will always look to Adairites extremist and hysterically misguided, just as their opponent Hamilton does; or, to the extent that populists can be described as not politically radical, just eager for personal advancement, they can be seen as having been unfairly labeled radical by the reactionary Hamilton. Either way, their needs would soon be addressed — supposedly! — by the intellectually attractive Jefferson, and then met — supposedly! — in the age of Jackson, and the franchise was opened in the states throughout the nineteenth century, so why on earth discuss radical thought and action as important to the founding?
Here’s why I do: Hamilton and the radical populists saw one another clearly, and what they saw represents the great political struggle of the period, the struggle that made us, I think, and the struggle we’re still in. To Adairites, that’s all off point. In the Adair reading, Madison is the founder to watch — not Hamilton, not Washington, not really John Adams, certainly not Samuel Adams. Adair’s Madison reacts to the Madison that Beard had pushed on us in 1913 — a Madison not much more than a somewhat pretentious aristo looking out at all costs for his own wallet, his republican theory, supposedly by his own admission, just a tactic for pushing back against the masses. Adair’s 1950?s Madison, by contrast, stays bent over his books. A reader and writer more than anything else, Madison rarely even looks out the library window, so immersed is he in the world of ideas. Madison has thus become the ultimately appealing founder for many readers of founding history. How could he not be? Anyone who loves reading for the sake of knowledge, nuance, exploration — any reader of serious history — will naturally prefer to hang out with the bookish Adair philosopher Madison rather than the hypocritical Beard plutocrat Madison. The Virginian sought to defeat the most pernicious effects of faction, ingeniously, by permitting faction to thrive in a balanced system. Who among us wouldn’t want to sit in a hushed and cozy library with Madison, Adair, and the classical authors? It beats considering grubby matters like paper versus metal, economic interest, and class war. And how especially satisfying is it that those great classical thinkers’ thinking was made law, for the first time, thanks to Madison himself, in the founding of our own government? Madison looks like somebody we’d be pleased to exchange a few ideas with. He looks like a smarter version of somebody, we dare to believe, like us.
The flattering, sentimental attraction of that version of Madison is so great that we no longer remember the Madison who was a politician operating within alliances and under pressures, not always to perfectly consistent ends, and with highly ambiguous effects on our founding history. The Madison we like remains so pure of heart and thought that to conservatives he’s the first conservative, to liberals the first liberal. We don’t really need to care what he meant when he mentioned the disaster of paper money and devaluing of debt in “Federalist Ten,” an essay we cite approvingly on other matters more edifying and therefore nearer to our hearts. We forget that regardless of the degree to which Madison was interested in the subject of his own interest, he had a point of view on society that he may have mistaken, as the rest of us do, for the objective one, in which his conclusions were shaped to fit his social and economic position.
And we forget that Adair came up with all that stuff about Madison in full-on attack on what was then the dominant position in American founding history. Adair was attacking Beard. McDonald, openly scabrous in his disdain, admitted by his tone that the war he was fighting was a political one, but Adair took a cannier tack, and so utter has been his victory over Beard that we no longer know that Adair was engaged in warfare at all, or that the war had political and not only intellectual dimensions. The self-regarding attitude of judicious omniscience employed by Adair, Morgan, Hofstadter, Wood, et al, dims our awareness — by sheer force of the attitude more than by anything else — not only of the importance of financial and economic struggles in the American founding but also of the academic combat in which those historians made their careers. We’re no longer expected to register the degree to which, in the past they’re supposedly merely exposing to us “as it was” (as Wood has actually said about his own work), it is the historians, and not the historical figures they study, who have the most decisive interests.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is an old debate in the field, and it seems the pendulum (or the wheel; pick your metaphor) has begun swinging away from the intellectual historical approach to the Founding. But it seems to me it started swinging in the 1960s. That’s when Staughton Lynd and Jesse Lemisch, to name the most prominent figures, began attacking the “consensus” historiography represented by Morgan and Adair. And the “republican” synthesis emerged around the same time. Coincidence or not, I can’t say.

    At any rate, the historians William Hogeland names haven’t been cutting edge for years. His portrait makes it seem as though the field of Revolutionary history has been frozen in amber since Adair, Morgan, Wood, McDonald et al. (curiously there’s no mention of Bailyn or Pocock) overthrew Beard. Now, we’ll leave aside the notion that perhaps Beard ought to have been overthrown. My point is that it’s been a long time since that happened. The republicanism vs. liberalism dispute had exhausted itself by the end of the last century.

    Maybe Hogeland means that the popular conception of the Founding is dominated by the “Adairian” synthesis. But his subject does seem to be academic historians and the way they think about the Founding. But do they? “Younger” scholars like Joanne Freeman and Saul Cornell who still study the high politics of the era seem to be exceptional in that in itself, let alone that they do so from a intellectual history prism (e.g., Cornell’s adoption of the concept of the public sphere in his book on the Antifederalists). For the most part, though, academic historians don’t study the Founding at all, at least not until they’re established; there’s no getting through grad school or getting hired on it. My alma mater recently conducted a search for someone whose job description included teaching a course about George Washington. Not one of the finalists studied the Revolution in anything like the conventional sense of war, politics, ideas, and great men.

    I do not deny that the interpretation Adair helped establish has been profoundly influential. What I am dubious about is that it remains the “hegemonic discourse” it is presented as here, especially since it has been so long since it became the king of the hill. At any rate, I would like to see more evidence that that historians today still think of the Founding in those terms; and McDonald et al. are not historians of today. The state of affairs Hogeland describes may exist somewhere, but it’s not among contemporary historians* of the Revolutionary era.

    *NB: I say “historians” advisedly, since the intellectual approach is still popular with political theorists, as might be expected. The hagiographical popular press is also an exception, but that’s a subject of its own.

  2. Really nice. A few questions/comments:

    1) Academic historians ignoring Hamilton is generally true, but there are some significant exceptions. Joanne Freeman at Yale has long researched Hamilton, but she hasn’t produced any full-scale books on him yet. I wonder what her take on your argument about his current representation would be.

    2) I once attended a talk by Jack Rakove wherein he “confessed” (it was hardly done with any real shame) that Madison is his secret alter-ego. So I think you are on to something here.

    3) On the same point, I was assigned Federalist 10 quite literately about 7 times during four years of undergrad, but always for the sake of the political theory and thought, not for understanding the very real political conflict Madison was engaged in. I have no reason to believe my experience exceptional.

    4) One work of intellectual history which does linger on Hamilton a lot, and appears to take him quite seriously, is Drew McCoy’s The Elusive Republic. What do you think of his treatment there?

  3. I’m out of my field regarding any discussion of Hamilton, but I’m just stopping by to say that in my opinion, history-loving people will be best served this season by two thoughtful movies: Lincoln and Promised Land.

  4. On the centennial of the publication of Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, perhaps the debate is “frozen in amber.” The debate is over how democratic the constitution was, the political structure it created, and the stories told by historians of various persuasions. This debate is relatively unchanged since Beard’s day. Almost everyone accepts some version of the argument that the purpose of the constitution was to restrict the popular democratic movements of the lower classes.

    What if Beard and his neo-Progressive followers are wrong? What if Max Edling in his book entitled A Revolution in Favor of Government is right and the Federalists of 1787 were concerned more with erecting a military-fiscal state able to defend American interests.

    I am in agreement with Mr. Hogeland on his point about intellectual historians wanting their history to be intellectual. Social historians want their history to be social, etc. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and everyone has their stories they wish to tell.

    When I read a piece by Woody Holton on Revolutionary securities, I know how it is going to end. When I read Richard Sylla, Doug Irwin, or Howard Bodenhorn, their pieces have different emphases and interpretations. I take something from each and everyone of them, just like I have from McDonald, Lemisch, Bailyn, and anyone else I have been fortunate to read.

    I enjoyed the 18th century content, and I wish that Mr. Hogeland will compose something for us in the future. Perhaps someone will write on the “Culture Wars of the 1790s.”

    In 1987, I attended a conference with Jack Rakove in which he announced that Madison was his alter ego and intellectual template.

    As for Drew McCoy, I wish he were more prolific. Only two books in the 1980s. He has been working on a monograph on Jefferson, Lincoln, and the classics.

    I have fond memories of reading Adair’s 1943 dissertation on microfilm. The idiosyncrasies of the old type appeal to me much more than the commercially produced monograph of the last decade.

  5. Varad wrote: “At any rate, I would like to see more evidence that that historians today still think of the Founding in those terms; and McDonald et al. are not historians of today. The state of affairs Hogeland describes may exist somewhere, but it’s not among contemporary historians* of the Revolutionary era.”

    I think the problem that the ideological interpretation still holds ground fifty years on is largely by default. That is, nothing has replaced it. The generation(s) following that of the “republican synthesists” had no interest in developing an overarching interpretation of the Revolution itself. Social historians and cultural historians are, by definition, not concerned with this matter, at least not on the large scale that the intellectual historians were (note: I use these terms broadly and advisedly). The neo-progressives failed to build a comprehensive interpretation like the original Progressives did, instead focusing on economics and class conflict for their own sake. Historians and graduate students have spent the last 30 years heavily criticizing Bailyn, Wood, Appleby, etc…. But, as John Adams wrote of Thomas Paine, they have had a ““a better hand at pulling down than building.”

    As for contemporary historians, one need only look at recent hostile reviews of the work of Gordon Wood by John Brooke (WMQ) and Nancy Isenberg (JER) to see that these historians are not only unconcerned with large topics and ideas but actively denigrate (if not despise) them. I am not defending Wood’s work, as many of the criticisms they make are fair, but their tone is unusually harsh. Is it any wonder that a graduate student who would otherwise be interested in studying high politics, chooses a “safer” historical pursuit? That said, as a contributor to The Junto, a group blog on early American history, I can say that there are a number of us at the blog (including two of us who are students of Joanne Freeman) who are interested in or have worked on elites and/or high political culture and are also interested in thinking about the Revolution with an eye toward larger questions. Our generation does not carry the cultural and historical baggage of the social and cultural historians of decades past and, therefore, do not necessarily see the study of high politics and elites as something to be dismissed out of hand or, even worse, despised.

    • Michael,

      Can you please explain which passages of the Brooke and Isenberg reviews have an “unusually harsh” tone? I don’t perceive them the same as you.

  6. Kata Bartoloni-Tuazon wrote the following on the link to this post on the S-USIH Facebook page:

    Michael wrote: “nothing has replaced it (the republicanism/ideological synthesis).” In my cultural/political hybrid work on both popular & elite attitudes toward the early presidency (based on a historical event, not just in the abstract), I’ve found it somewhat liberating to reside in a post-ideological & ante-the next big thing world. Granted I’ve had to cast a wide net–from Ketcham, Morgan, Freeman, Cornell, to religious and social historians, to political science folks like Land &, Milkis, to etc. But it’s allowed me to find a sense of the 18C that floats free of the ties of an overarching, comprehensive interpretation. If I may get a bit poetic–the unsettledness of the founding period emerges in all its messy wonder.

    On Hogeland’s point about JM & TJ being the catnip of academics, entertainingly no matter what side one is on: Hogeland comes to the defense of Hamilton; I feel the same way about Washington. JM is the 18C’s intellectual go-to guy & TJ in particular is so often painted as the flawed but brilliant Renaissance man, but really Washington and Hamilton were so much more the well-rounded, fully experienced Renaissance men, with active minds and wide ranging acquaintances and interests.

    Like Brian, I appreciate the 18C content and the opportunity to contribute.

  7. Michael’s comments about the disdain social and cultural historians have for “large topics and ideas” tracks with what I said about those things, and high politics and the like, not being a growth industry in history departments. I did mention Joanne Freeman as an exception, and we can only hope that The Junto blog represents a return to interest in treating a big subject in a big way; as Michael indicates it is intended to be. The failure or unwillingness of social and cultural historians to do broad synthetic narrative, and the decline of narrative generally in academic history, are oft-discussed subjects which I won’t recapitulate here. In my own field (the Enlightenment, roughly speaking) it’s only in the last ten years that the three-decade reign (or tyranny) of social and cultural history was broken and historians began treating the Enlightenment as an intellectual historical phenomenon again. So the American Revolution is hardly unique in that respect. Rather, it is beset by the same trends that have affected academic history generally.

    If there is to be a return to synthesis and intellectual history in the study of the Revolution, it may well come from other, newer historiographical trends. For example, transnationalism and the not quite so newfangled imperial/Atlantic/British history, whatever you want to call it. There you see works like Craig Yirush’s Settlers, Liberty, and Empire: The Roots of Early American Political Theory, 1675-1775 (2011) and Eliga Gould’s Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire (2012). Narrative and synthesis aren’t dead – certainly not with a classic vintage like the Revolution. But I reckon they’ll need new bottles.

    Otherwise, whatever passes for intellectual history in the period will be more cultural history and have little to do with the Revolution itself. To cite two examples from the Omohundro Institute catalog: Susan Parrish’s American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (2006); and Martin Bruckner’s two books about cartography.

    Perhaps the easiest corroboration of Michael’s (and my) point would come by browsing through the programs for the last few SHEAR conferences. There’s hardly anything that fits the description “high politics and elites.” And I can attest, given my difficulty getting a panel treating such subjects in a traditionally intellectual historical manner accepted, that the powers that be in early American history still regard such matters as “something to be dismissed out of hand or, even worse, despised.”

  8. Wondering what our eighteenth-century crowd thinks of a couple of fairly recent books that do seem to work against the fragmentation of the intellectual history of this period: Eric Slauter’s The State as a Work of Art: The Cultural Origins of the Constitution; and Sarah Knott’s Sensibility and the American Revolution. Both of these strike me as very ambitious works in intellectual/cultural history, although probably not aspiring to the status of the old Republican synthesis.

  9. Pingback: Where Have You Gone, Gordon Wood? | s-usih.dev

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