Getting American History Right: Lance Banning's Legacy

In the forward to Founding Visions: The Ideas, Individuals, and Intersections that Created America, Gordon Wood writes that Lance Banning (1942-2006) was “no ordinary historian.” The essays compiled in this volume by Todd Estes, one of Banning’s most able students, make Wood’s remark abundantly clear. Known for his graciousness and kindness to students and colleagues alike, and for an unassuming and affable nature, Banning epitomized the idea of the gentleman scholar. These essays will remind readers of Banning’s continuing importance to our understanding of the Founding. For undergraduate and graduate students, they are testaments to how the historian’s craft should be practiced.

Banning’s primary interest was in the intellectual world of the American Founders during the 1780s and 1790s. Yet, as these essays illustrate, he was not interested in exploring ideas in a philosophical vacuum. He wanted to know and explain the Founders’ understandings of republicanism, liberalism, and federalism, but also how they applied their understandings. To Banning, context mattered and that context was complicated.

As Estes explains, Banning “provides a model for how to dig deeply into a historical problem, how to find the richness of a past that does not reduce to ready-made categories or glib scholarly construction.” Banning’s model of scholarship came at an opportune time. Since the late 1960s, and starting with the works of Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood, scholars increasingly advocated the dominance of republican thinking during the Founding.

The Jeffersonian Persuasion: The Evolution of a Party Ideology (1978), Banning’s first book, contributed to this “republican hypothesis,” as he called it. He demonstrated in this award-winning book how “Country Opposition” thought persisted long after the Revolution and the writing of the Constitution, and how it shaped the political events of the 1790s.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, however, the republican synthesis took on a life of its own. By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, scholars began using Republicanism (now with a capital “R”) as the explanation for all early American political, economic, and social thought. When scholars such as Joyce Appleby counter-argued that liberalism was the foundation of the Founders’ political thought, it was Banning who assumed the middle ground.

By the mid-1980s, as Estes explains, Banning had become increasingly worried that too many scholars were not reading carefully enough the sources and scholars they evaluated. This led to sloppy and false understandings of those sources. When he applied the hallmarks of his scholarship—an overriding concern for understanding the nuanced relationship between ideas and events and a careful reading of sources—Banning was able to bridge the gap between the two interpretations.

His essays “Jeffersonian Ideology Revisited,” “Some Second Thoughts on Virtue and the Course of Revolutionary Thinking,” and “The Republican Interpretation: Retrospect and Prospect” were the first scholarly writings to advocate a blending by the Founding generation, and the Jeffersonians in particular, of republican concern for virtue as the basis of self-government (influenced by the ancient philosophers) with the individual rights orientation of liberalism. These powerful essays described how a coherent, if tension-filled, political ideology was formed.

And they essentially ended the historiographical debate. Because scholars of the Founding now take this blending of republican and liberal ideology for granted, it is easy to forget just how path-breaking Banning’s contribution truly was.

Nowhere was his concern with ideas and context more apparent than in his work on James Madison. For two generations, Irving Brant’s six volume biography of Madison had dominated scholars’ understanding of this leading Founder. Brant’s thesis: Whereas in the 1780s, Madison was a committed nationalist in the fashion of Alexander Hamilton and had attempted to implement this vision of powerful centralized government by means of the 1787 Constitution, during the 1790s, Madison abandoned his nationalism in favor of states’ rights.

Banning disagreed strongly with this interpretation. In a series of essays, “James Madison and the Nationalists, 1780–1783,” “The Madisonian Hamilton,” “The Practicable Sphere of a Republic,” and “1787 and 1776: Patrick Henry, James Madison, the Constitution, and the Declaration”—all published throughout the 1980s and reprinted in this volume—and culminating in The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic, his 1995 magnum opus, Banning dismantled and replaced Brant’s reading of Madison.

With an appreciation not previously shown for the relationship between events and the intricacies of Madison’s ideas, Banning demonstrated that Madison’s constitutional and political thought remained consistent throughout his career. His Madison was not a Hamiltonian nationalist; rather, he was as a “Virginian continentalist.” Madison always advocated shoring up the stability and function of the union, said Banning, but never at the expense of threatening Virginia’s republican experiment in self-government. As a result, Madison only reluctantly allied with the Nationalists. As Banning pointed out, throughout the years leading up to the Constitution’s ratification, Madison rejected any attempt to expand the power of the Confederation Congress through the use of implied powers, as can be seen in his voting against the establishment of the Bank of North America. The reforms Madison actually sought corresponded with a strict interpretation of the Articles of Confederation.

What Banning shows is that Madison’s lifelong adherence to republican self-government led him to view the events of the 1780s, particularly the state governments’ encroachments on what were clear areas of Congress’ authority, as a direct threat to those beliefs. Only through a constitutional revision that allowed the national government to fulfill adequately the purposes of union while defending itself against state encroachments could republican self-government survive.

The necessity for protection against the states, Banning argued, explained Madison’s famous proposal for a congressional veto over state laws. Whereas Brant, and practically all other historians, had viewed this power as an offensive tool designed to strengthen the national government, Banning flipped that argument. He demonstrated that Madison actually believed that power was not a weapon but a shield to protect the national government from the states. If both the federal and state governments respected their constitutional divisions of power, the veto would be available but would rarely be used. The veto, as we know, failed to pass in the Convention; its failure made Madison fear for the survival of the general government.

By the 1790s, however, Madison believed the threat to self-government had reemerged, this time from the consolidationist tendencies of Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s fiscal program. Thus, his supposed swing to states’ rights in the 1790s was no swing at all. Madison had never advocated the destruction of the states nor a consolidated national government; he had instead sought a middle ground rooted in federalism and constitutional limitations on power.

Thus, Madison’s efforts in the late 1790s with the Virginia Resolution and the Report of 1800 were in keeping with a political philosophy he had always expressed, but scholars had overlooked.

Banning also challenged the attention scholars paid to Madison’s Federalist 10. Too often, he argued, they treated that essay as the culmination of Madison’s political thought. He showed instead that, during the Constitutional Convention, Madison had learned to appreciate how an extended national republic operating directly upon the people could be maintained. He applied that learning in his most famous contribution as Publius. Instead of being the apex of Madisonian thought, Federalist 10, then, was another attempt to apply his previous thinking on the necessity of union along with the lessons learned during the Convention.

Estes’ inclusion of Banning’s most important essays on Madison, several of which had been published in obscure places, is the highlight of the book. It provides readers an opportunity to look on in appreciation as a historian realizes he has something new and important to say, and works out his thoughts in a careful and deliberate manner. So important is Banning’s achievement on Madison that, for the foreseeable future, his interpretation will be the primary one for scholars to consult, consider, and challenge if they wish to understand the great Virginian.

Estes has organized the essays in four simple but convenient themes: “The Enduring Issues of the Revolution,” “Republicanism, Liberalism, and the Great Transition,” “The Constitution,” and “James Madison.”

Each set is introduced by Estes with a short essay explaining its historiographical significance, and conveying Banning’s particular thoughts on a given essay. Estes also offers a glimpse into Banning himself, revealing the deep and sincere modesty Banning had to overcome to even consider a collection of his essays. For those lucky enough to have known him, these vignettes reaffirm the man they knew. They also demonstrate how, despite his preeminence, he never acted the part. As Estes points out, the cumulative effect is to remind readers that this historian made his mark on his field with an uncommonly graceful writing style, and a deep respect for the work of others—including those he disagreed with.

One other thing this volume achieves, perhaps unintentionally, is its reminder to scholars of the importance of the essay. While book-length works serve the field by permitting authors to expand their interpretation into the greater context of the profession, they can sometimes dilute the significance of a particular interpretation. The essay, by its very nature, forces the reader to consider the importance and impact of the singular issue it reviews.

As Banning’s essays illustrate, had he never published The Jeffersonian Persuasion or Sacred Fire of Liberty he still would have made a sizable and lasting historiographical contribution to how we understand Madison and the Founding. Finally, this collection—and Banning’s entire corpus, really – serves as a potent and timely antidote against an increasingly trivial profession that forces the past to fit modern theoretical constructs. Understanding the intellectual and political world of the Founders, especially as they themselves comprehended it, remains vital to our own appreciation of who we are today. For that reason alone, this volume should be required reading.