Founding Fathers, Founding Villains

Hogeland_37.5_hamiltonWilliam Hogeland in Boston Review:

Liberals have become originalists too. Recent books by progressive thinkers as varied as the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, journalist Roger Hodge, and political commentator Rachel Maddow decry a national failure to live up to the founders’ purposes in creating the Constitution. Maddow means by her title, Drift, an unfortunate movement away from founding-era anti-militarism into the modern military-industrial complex. In Lessig’s Republic, Lost, the loss has come about thanks to a money influence in politics that Lessig says the founders condemned as corrupt. Hodge, in The Mendacity of Hope, frames a criticism of President Obama in terms of the founding political battle over finance between Hamilton and Madison.

All of the liberal originalists’ books run into political and historical trouble over some unedifying realities of our founding period. Similar difficulties plague a new right-wing constitutional history, Tea Party leader Michael P. Leahy’s Covenant of Liberty, which takes the betrayal of founding values as its theme, too. Leahy’s book represents classic originalism, the right-wing kind. It therefore serves as a mirror of the new liberal originalism: American-history fantasies of the left stand sharply in relation to those of the right.

One of Leahy’s strengths is that unlike so many others in the Tea Party movement—and unlike some of the liberal originalists—he doesn’t rope all the founders into one group and set them rolling in their graves over today’s America. Leahy admires particular founders and knows they had enemies in other founders. To him, a disastrous betrayal of the Constitution occurred in its first moments of operation. The betrayal was carried out by Hamilton.