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The Founders Were Better than Trump and Clinton

Alan Taylor, a historian from the University of Virginia, has written an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that Americans wrongly disparage Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in comparison to the Founders. Instead of recognizing their similarities to this year’s candidates, Taylor says that we treat the Founders as mythical giants. But, according to Taylor, they were as divided and divisive as  these nominees. And the Founders tolerated a society with less sound norms than our own. Moreover, we should just accept that Founders did not resolve the “core principles of our government,” leaving it up to us to fight about them.

This op-ed is misleading and flawed in many respects. It exaggerates the differences in principle as opposed to politics among the Founders. It does not give credit to the Founders’ principles for being a primary cause of the improvement in social norms in America. And its claim that the Constitutional text does not settle core governing principles is a conventional and undefended cliche of the academic Left.

First, while the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists had strong political differences, their respective appointees to the Supreme Court were united on  the constitutional principles of creating a strong but limited federal government whose focus was creating a commercial society. That justices of different parties agreed on so much after deliberation is strong evidence that there was substantial, even if not unanimous agreement, on core principles.

For instance, Chief Justice John Marshall and Justice Joseph Story hardly ever diverged on the resolution of constitutional cases, despite being appointed by  John Adams and Thomas Jefferson respectively. Most important cases on the Court were decided unanimously, even when Justices appointed by Democratic Republicans were in a majority. And everyone agreed that the original meaning of the Constitution should be followed. That is huge difference from today, where Supreme Court justices differ on the basic methodology of constitutional interpretation, largely depending on what party appoints them.

And while it is true that the Founders’ society had some very bad norms, it was the Founders’ principles that helped end them. I have argued previously that the commercial society of limited government isolated slavery.  It is also well known (the doux commerce thesis) that a commercial society brings with it self-restraint and a reduction in violence, militating against dueling—a practice at the time of the Founding emphasized by Taylor—that is characteristic of an aristocratic society. It is hard to think of any principles that Clinton and Trump are trying to introduce that will have as remotely a good effect as those in the Founders’ Constitution. Both want massively to interfere with commerce, Trump most notably with trade and Clinton with labor markets. And both are running campaigns to widen the fault lines of a multicultural society.

And Clinton wants to continue the progressive agenda of creating a different Constitution from the Founders without bothering to amend it. One thing one can say in favor of the old Progressives: They were much more honest than the new ones. They openly rejected the Founders’ principles rather than claiming that that their design was so unclear as to be compatible with the contemporary ideals of the left, whatever these happen to be.

Reader Discussion

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on October 19, 2016 at 05:35:21 am

There is also one completely unsupported falsehood in the piece which I challenged Alan Taylor on by email after I read the piece over the last few days. He stated: "In the founders’ era, a husband could beat his wife provided the stick was no thicker than his thumb." As far as I can tell this is entirely a myth, so I asked Alan what his source for this was.

He first stated: "I relied on reading Blackstone's 18th century commentary on the common law." While it is true that Blackstone talked about, "The husband also, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction." But I pointed out that Blackstone also said this power was limited and that "the husband was prohibited from using any violence to his wife." And that even this non-violent power of a husband over his wife was repudiated by the time of Blackstone. I also cited these state Supreme Court cases:

"Whatever the old books may say upon the subject, there never was, in my opinion, in the relation between husband and wife, when rightly understood, any thing that gave to a husband the right to reduce a refractory wife to obedience by blows. And at this day the moral sense of the community revolts at the idea that a husband may inflict personal chastisement upon his wife, even for the most outrageous conduct. The blow given by the husband in this case deserves the severest censure. All must condemn it." Poor v. Poor, 8 N.H. 307, 313 (N.H. 1836)

"We know of no law that will authorize a husband to strike his pregnant wife a blow with his fist, such as has been inflicted on this woman." State v. Buckley, 2 Del. 552 (Del. 1838)

"Beating a wife is held to be unlawful in New York. There is no authority in its favor in this Commonwealth." Commonwealth v. McAfee, 108 Mass. 458, 461 (Mass. 1871)

"The cases in the American courts are uniform against the right of the husband to use any chastisement, moderate or otherwise, toward the wife, for any purpose." Commonwealth v. Barry, 115 Mass. 146 (Mass. 1874).

At this point, Alan claimed:

I have no doubt that by the time of the cases you cite (1838, 1871, and 1874) that wife beating was illegal in the northeast. Having looked at all the court cases in one New York and 3 Maine counties for the period 1790-1820 with populations of several thousand and hundreds of criminal cases I can say that no one in them was ever prosecuted for beating his wife (while many men were prosecuted for striking other men). That no one ever beat his wife in 30 years in 4 counties in 2 states seems hard to believe, particularly as there is much anecdotal evidence from that period (especially in memoirs) of wife abuse.

But I pointed out that the failure to file cases doesn't support the very specific legal rule, in which it was legal for a man to beat his wife with “a stick no thicker than his thumb.” (It most certainly wasn’t true in Mass. which had a specific law against it starting in 1641.) Secondly, it doesn't even prove any legal rule. "Even today only half of domestic violence cases are actually reported. Back then it wasn’t even a crime (merely civil liability for battery). How many wives are actually going to file a lawsuit to recover a small amount of money (because battery only pays damages) against their current husband? Much more likely to file legal action against a stranger."

He hasnt written back to me after that, I'm thinking about asking the NYT's for a correction.

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Devin Watkins
on October 19, 2016 at 09:08:56 am

Devin, thanks for this correction of the long-promoted "rule of thumb," whose dubiousness you elegantly expose. Based on my reading of Taylor's other writings, I find distorting his disproportionate focus on Indians and slaves. Gordon Wood reviewed his book in the NY Times recently and suggested the same.

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ken masugi
on October 19, 2016 at 10:03:32 am

Both want massively to interfere with commerce, Trump most notably with trade and Clinton with labor markets. And both are running campaigns to widen the fault lines of a multicultural society.

What interference in the labor market is Clinton proposing that would remotely compare to slavery?

What widening of the fault lines of a multicultural society are either candidates engaged in that would remotely compare to slavery?

Sure, find fault with the candidates--but let's keep some perspective here.

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nobody.really
on October 19, 2016 at 10:25:36 am

Nice work! But seriously:

“The cases in the American courts are uniform against the right of the husband to use any chastisement, moderate or otherwise, toward the wife, for any purpose.” Commonwealth v. Barry, 115 Mass. 146 (Mass. 1874).

ANY chastisement? "Honey, the coffee's cold again"? Wow, those were some progressive courts.

Hey, if someone wanted to add some of this juicy scholarship to the Wikipedia article on chastisement, you'd receive my approval. (Courts are still ok with that, right?)

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nobody.really
on October 19, 2016 at 11:11:46 am

As one whose constant assertions of a *racist* society has permeated these pages, I would think that you would be quick to cast as "discerning" an eye on the potential resurgence of this peculiar American institution (albeit, one imposed from european shores) as on the one that you so frequently trump (ha!)

You are, of course, right! Presenting false analogues to slavery is as disreputable as those analogizing racism.

On a more serious note:

DRAT!!!!!! those damn dodgers!!!!!!!

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gabe
on October 19, 2016 at 11:40:49 am

Trump's argument is that globalism has increased income divides in our country and that the burdens have fallen on less educated whites and blacks. Fairer trade might bring back manufacturing jobs, which would open up opportunities for these groups of people plus others who face global competition. This is the opposite of fostering racial division.

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ken masugi
on October 19, 2016 at 12:36:13 pm

Trump's policy on trade is true to the Founders and their constitution. The Founders were protectionists, to various degrees. Free trade is a pillar of the _Confederate_ constitution.

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mikedelsol
on October 19, 2016 at 16:23:16 pm

Yep, "fairer" trade may provide some relief and open opportunities. The stories I could tell on this - but I won't; I will caution however, that much of this neglect of manufacturing capabilities AND capacities was (and continues to be) self-inflicted). It may be attributed to self-serving interests of industrial management, effects of "stakeholder" demands on and for revenue and stock price, a prevailing *lemming* mentality that adopted the mantra of "outsourcing" even in the face of growing concerns for theft of intellectual property and, Yes, nobody.really wants to be reminded rather excessive regulatory burdens. Action on all these fronts will be required to reinvigorate the industrial sector.

As for this:

"This is the opposite of fostering racial division." Only to those who do not have a vested interest in perpetuating their globalist fantasy - and after all, "Why should we be concerned with those deplorables" - both black and white and believed by both Dem and GOP governing elite.

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gabe
on October 19, 2016 at 16:32:01 pm

Gabe, thanks, yes. It's not just the trade deals. We may both be old enough now to recall high school classmates who decided to work, marry, and become adults, forsaking college. That won't be the case today.

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ken masugi
on October 19, 2016 at 17:35:59 pm

Ken:

Yep - but i have found a surprising number of younger folks who have decided to forego the alleged benefits of a university education and instead are pursuing a career as tradesmen and women. Their argument (quite correct, I would add) is that they have no desire to incur substantial debt, earnings begin immediately and may grow to a level sufficient to sustain a healthy middle class lifestyle, they can start their own little business AND they do not have to put up with the usual corporate or academic BS.
Lastly, there will always be a need for skilled tradesmen as the snowflake SJW's are typically unable to determine which end of a hammer is to be employed when driving a nail.

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gabe
on October 19, 2016 at 17:51:48 pm

Fairer trade might bring back manufacturing jobs....

Not sure what "fairer trade" means. And not sure why we would think it would "bring back" manufacturing jobs.

The Fed publishes the Industrial Production Index dating back to 1920. This reflects the net output of domestic "manufacturing, mining, and electric, and gas utilities (excluding those in U.S. territories)." As you can see, we're pretty much at an all-time high. In short, the US is not suffering for a lack of industrial output. We may be suffering from a lack of industrial jobs. But that's due to the growth of automation, not the decline of production.

Yes, every Ford that is manufactured abroad is one less Ford that might have been manufactured here and shipped abroad. But by the same token, every Honda that is manufactured in the US is one less Honda that would have been manufactured abroad and shipped here. If globalization has killed US production, why is the US setting records in domestic car production?

True, we could throw up protectionist barriers against importing goods from abroad. And then foreign nations would throw up barriers against importing US goods. Economists tell us that the net effect would be to KILL jobs. (Imagine we repealed the Commerce Clause and let every state put up protectionist barriers against every other state; what do you think the result would be?) And, of course, none of this would alter a business's propensity to automate job functions.

In sum, we should not confuse a loss of manufacturing jobs with the effects of globalization. Yes, the have occurred at the same time. But correlation is not causation.

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nobody.really
on October 19, 2016 at 19:32:02 pm

Thanks for these enlightening comments. Obviously, one would not want to increase manufacturing jobs by decreasing productivity, the productivity that is of American workers. Ultimately, all economics is political economy, so the proper measures can't be only those you cite, as important as they are.

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ken masugi
on October 19, 2016 at 19:55:11 pm

The [problem is not that we would put up protectionist barriers but that we would continue to allow those same barriers to be deployed against us ( as was done in one of the industries that I worked in.

Also, definitions of groups leaves something to be desired / questioned:

" (aggregates of final products) and materials (inputs used in the manufacture of products).

Are we counting the total value of a Ford, for which substantial component items were produced overseas. consider the total value of a 787 Dreamliner. How much of the value added mfg was performed overseas - a substantial amount - indeed the majority of the work other than final assembly is performed overseas.

Also, when considering total mfg output for say a company such as Apple, to what extent is the value of Apple "apps" included. I mean there is manufacturing and then there is "fluff" such as I-tunes, etc.
Not clear from graph what is included.

Funny story:

some years back at a meeting between Boeing and the President of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the Mistubishi President remarked to the assembled Boeing team:

(Paraphrase here) "So I don't understand what you are doing. first you give us stabilizers, then entire rear assembly, now fuselage and control surfaces. Why will we need you at all in the future."
To which the Boeing team replied: "We intend to be the design / integrator."
Response from Pres of Mitsu: "What is to say that we will need you to do that for US once we have built all these major components?"

One should examine why US executives believed in the benefits of outsourcing; what factors lead them to this conclusion? - along with a number of other questions.

But it is more involved than simple free or fairer trade, no doubt.

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gabe

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