What Would Our Founding Radicals Have Thought About Occupy Wall Street?

Oct 5, 2011William Hogeland

american_colonial_flagOccupy Wall Street isn't just a threat to financial elites -- it's a challenge to lazy historians.

Among other intriguing and possibly problematic features, Occupy Wall Street, now in its third week and spreading, seems to represent an inchoate attempt at reviving an American radicalism that has deep roots in our founding period. The Tea Party has of course made its own highly explicit and politically successful claim on that period. Because OWS, like the Tea Party, focuses on national economic and financial issues, the new movement offers a disquieting, potentially illuminating alternative to the Tea Party's right-wing interpretation of America's founding economic values.

I began writing New Deal 2.0's "Founding Finance" series last winter in hopes of shining light both on the financial elitism of the famous American founders, who we often wrongly cast as pioneers (or at least half-conscious seed-sowers) of equality, and on what I see as historical tendentiousness on the part of the Tea Party, whose claims on the founding period are meant to support a low-tax, small-government, anti-debt agenda. I've tried to show that this agenda, which may or may not have its merits as policy, in no way accords with the avowed purposes of the founders across their own political spectrum from Hamilton to Madison.

In the series, I've also tried to bring to the fore some routinely marginalized yet highly resonant 18th century economic thought, as well as the actions of those who sought to obstruct wealth concentration and make cash and credit more readily available to ordinary Americans. It's an unsettling fact that our founding democratic, economic activism was not against England but against the homegrown American investing and creditor class that was leading the resistance to England.

I've explored that founding economic radicalism in the debtor riots and "regulations" of the late colonial period; in the overthrow of Pennsylvania during the run-up to the Declaration; in the period after victory over England, when foreclosed Massachusetts debtors, the so-called Shays Rebels, marched on the armory at Springfield; and in the early Federal period, when the so-called Whiskey Rebels of trans-Appalachia, criticizing the new U.S. Constitution on bases very different from those of antifederalist elites, went so far as to fly their own flag, hoping to launch a new, more economically egalitarian country in what was then the American West.

Throughout those struggles, the activists' goal was to pressure and in some cases to use government to restrain the power of wealth and promote economic equality through legislation. They wanted to outlaw monopolies, build debt relief into currency, institute easy-term, small-scale government lending, and take banking charters away from crony insiders. Some wanted progressive taxation on income; some wanted what we call Social Security. Much later phenomena like the Square Deal, the New Deal, and the Great Society, which can seem hypermodern (and even, to the Tea Party, unconstitutionally anomalous), actually have deep American roots. However, those roots are not in the thinking of the famous founders -- New Dealers' claims on Jefferson possibly to the contrary -- but in grassroots, 18th century movements that, while little-known today, were of immense importance during our founding.

So important in their day were those now-buried radical movements, in fact, that much of the famous founders' behavior can't be understood without the context of elite dedication at times to collaborating uneasily with the economic radicals, at other times to squelching them and pushing back their political advances. Many historians of the period ignore that context. Hamilton's biographers, for example, do not deem the people's movement important. Hamilton did; he spent his career trying to kill it. We therefore learn almost nothing important about Hamilton's purposes by reading his biographies. Much founder biography, and much mainstream history, operates on just such comfortably foregone, ultimately useless conclusions.

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In place of founding radicalism, historians tend to emphasize the emergence, from the Revolutionary period through the Jackson era, of a rowdy, fluid, non-deferential, competitive America. They place developing ideas of American democracy almost solely in that 19th century context. But Thomas Paine, the best-known of the radical 18th century egalitarians, would surely have been crushed if he'd glimpsed the kind of society that passed for a democratic one in Jacksonian America.

Paine's intensity gives both liberals and radicals a problem. It was a widely held view in the Washington administration -- and it's been widely held in more or less liberal American history ever since -- that Paine's awful experiences in the French Revolution give us cause to celebrate the failure of Paine-ite radicalism in America. Fair enough: Today, as every day, it would be wise to recall not only crimes against humanity committed by bankers but also those committed on behalf of a supposedly collective, supposedly revolutionary "People," from the French Terror to the Stalinist mass murders and well beyond.

Still, the French Terror, which almost killed Paine, has served as a convenient pretext for exercising historical complacency about the suppression of his and others' fervently democratic visions for America in 1776. Without those visions, anathema as they were to the famous founding elitists -- anathema as they were, for that matter, to Jacksonian capitalism and are today to high-finance "neo-liberalism" -- we might never have declared independence at all.

So from a certain historical point of view, I think Occupy Wall Street rebukes, even more sharply than it rebukes rightist Tea Party claims on the founding, a familiar and complacent history of American democracy -- especially that history's failure to confront our long struggle over the relationship between high finance and government. Occupy Wall Street may be going about things all wrong, as some on what remains of the American left have asserted. I find those assertions hard to dispute. I've been critical of what I suspect may turn out to be a cultural premium, part and parcel of objections to elitism, on intellectual sloppiness and incoherence. That mode was never adopted by the activist 18th century working class, whose objections and demands (pace the lazy snobbism of Hamilton's biographers) took the form not only of action but also of crystal-clear, deeply informed, published resolutions. The 18th century activists remind us that resolutions don't have to be handed down from above; they can filter up and be adopted by majority or by consensus.

The very concept of "up" may be anathema to the new movement. We'll see.

But the most honest answer to any and all objections to Occupy Wall Street may be "So what?" Criticism often comes down to no-cost fantasizing about more appealing actions that nobody has actually bothered to take. When American high finance takes over America, "occupy" is what some American people do, and have always done.

William Hogeland is the author of the narrative histories Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion and a collection of essays, Inventing American History. He has spoken on unexpected connections between history and politics at the National Archives, the Kansas City Public Library, and various corporate and organization events. He blogs at http://www.williamhogeland.com.

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