Saturday, May 30, 2015

Barack Obama’s Yalta

Barack Obama’s Yalta

Getting American History Right: Lance Banning’s Legacy by Library of Law and Liberty

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, makes 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 theexplanation 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.

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