[Marxism] Fw: left-progressive historians under attack

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Feb 10 06:49:07 MST 2013

On 2/9/13 10:58 PM, Ralph Johansen wrote:
> Jesse Lemisch wrote
> My "Anti-Impeachment Historians and the Politics of History," Chronicle
> of Higher Education, December 4, 1998 is a critique of the role of
> Wilentz, Schlesinger et al. Unfortunately, I can't locate a URL for it.
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> http://chronicle.com/article/Anti-Impeachment-Historians/3939/
> But blocked, for subscribers only.

December 4, 1998
Anti-Impeachment Historians and the Politics of History


Four days before the November elections, more than 400 scholars took out 
a full-page advertisement in The New York Times (cost: $75,978), 
presenting themselves as "Historians in Defense of the Constitution" and 
opposing the impeachment of President Clinton.

Keen mavens of such ads have noticed among the signers -- in addition to 
the predominance of liberals and a few conservatives -- at least two 
dozen feminists, five senior members of the editorial collective of a 
journal that continues to call itself the Radical History Review while 
rethinking the radical critique of liberals that gave it birth, and at 
least a dozen other well-known academics on the left. (Full disclosure: 
I am a left historian, but would not have signed the ad had I been on 
those folks' e-mail list.)

Readers should know that the interpretation of American constitutional 
history presented in the scholars' ad is rooted in an abiding fear of 
democracy and a one-sided reading of constitutional history. Other 
historians see things differently, though. The 400 scholars who 
advertised in the Times clearly let their political convictions 
interfere with their scholarly judgment.

They were led by that lifelong Democratic Party flack, the historian 
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (Christopher Hitchens noted in The Nation 
that a few days after the ad ran, Schlesinger showed up at the White 
House to receive the National Humanities Medal "in full fig.") The other 
two organizers have been moving rightward: C. Vann Woodward, the 
historian whose famous liberalism withered in his angry response to the 
'60s, and Sean Wilentz, a talented former historian on the left who 
writes frequently in the rightward-surging New Republic.

The columnist David S. Broder, commenting in The Washington Post, said 
that the press conference at which scholars presented their statement 
"began on a relatively calm note and built to a tantrum." Schlesinger, 
Broder wrote, "wound up sounding at times like James Carville in cap and 
gown." According to Broder, Wilentz and Schlesinger drafted the 
statement. But why did so many who should have known better sign on to 
the pro-Democratic but deeply anti-democratic screed?

In a telling phrase, the ad worried about the "caprices of ... 
Congress." Those haughty words echoed the worst of the aristocratic 
expression of the 1780s. The framers of the Constitution feared 
democracy. Under pressure from "the people out of doors," the elites who 
drafted the Constitution accommodated popular radicalism by setting 
broad and inclusive criteria for the right to vote. And they wrote a 
democratic component into the government's structure: the House of 
Representatives, whose members could be younger than Presidents and 
Senators, and who would be elected for shorter terms and, thus, be more 
directly accountable to the people. (The fact that the House, today, is 
the captive of conservative interests offers no more rationale to turn 
our backs on its democratic reason for being than bad jury decisions 
should influence us to turn against jury trials.)

The Presidency, on the other hand, was intended by the framers to be a 
barrier against democracy: They gave the President extraordinary powers, 
and provided that he be elected not by the people, but rather by the 
Electoral College, and that he be older than Senators and 
Representatives. Hamilton wanted an "elective monarch." John Adams and 
others wanted the President to be addressed as "Your Highness," "Your 
Majesty," or "Your Excellency." No wonder many ordinary people worried 
at the time about the creation of an office that seemed to imitate the 
British monarchy.

The strong Presidency was not the only model available at the time. In 
Common Sense, Thomas Paine called for a weak executive, single-house 
legislature, and frequent elections. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 
1776 provided for a weak, 12-person executive council, one-third of 
whose members were to be elected each year, "to provide a barrier 
against establishing an inconvenient aristocracy." Those democratic 
notions were overthrown in 1790 in Pennsylvania by the same tide that 
produced the U.S. Constitution.

Over time, with the growth of the Imperial Presidency (which Schlesinger 
has criticized when Republicans are in the White House), the early fears 
of the powers of the executive branch have been more than fulfilled. In 
the second half of the 20th century, most Presidents (including Clinton) 
have indeed committed impeachable offenses, far more serious than those 
with which Kenneth Starr has accused Clinton. For starters, think of 
Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Iran-Contra, and continuing attempts to 
assassinate foreign leaders.

What the scholars who signed the ad in the Times failed to note is that 
impeachment is one of the bulwarks against a bloated Presidency. To 
paraphrase Jefferson (speaking of the 1786 Shays' Rebellion), a little 
impeachment now and then might be a good thing, refreshing the tree of 
liberty. But the scholars feared that our Imperial Presidency would be 
"diminished," "crippled," even "permanently disfigured."

The fact is, the history of the Constitution has included the expansion 
of democratic provisions, with women's suffrage and the end of slavery. 
The scholars who signed the ad know that, and yet they stated that 
impeachment would upset our entire "constitutional order," "undermining 
our Constitution." Their somewhat Borkian reading assumes that the 
Constitution is sacred and unchanging, a completed document. It is 
reminiscent of an older strand of historiography that saw in the writing 
of the Constitution, in George Bancroft's phrase, "the movement of the 
divine power."

A comparison between, on the one hand, impeachment efforts, and, on the 
other, Newt Gingrich's resignation, helps us to see the one-sided and 
unprincipled quality of much current liberal thinking. Acknowledging the 
great differences between the Presidency and the House Speakership, and 
between Clinton's and Gingrich's woes -- Gingrich resigned, while 
Clinton risks being forced out -- we can still object to liberal 
inconsistencies. Liberal commentators have delighted (as I do) in 
popular forces from below bringing Gingrich down in an episode that has 
the distinct flavor of a parliamentary "no-confidence" vote ("Newtered," 
said The Nation's editorial on November 30, obtuse to its sexist 
terminology), while seeing the possible impeachment of the President as 
a threat to the Constitution. It's hard not to conclude that the 
discrepancy represents a case of liberals worrying about Grand Issues 
only when it's their guy who is in trouble.

I do not support the present attempts to impeach Clinton, which would, 
among other things, produce a wave of puritanism and sexual hypocrisy 
worse than that of the 1950s. (Feminist signers seem to have decided on 
a popular-front strategy, giving up on the kind of independent critique 
that came from earlier radical feminists, and instead silencing 
themselves by subordinating their politics to Schlesinger, Clinton, et 
al. There is certainly no mention in the ad of abortion, sexual 
harassment, child care, or any other feminist issue.)

I fear sexual McCarthyism, anti-abortion activism, and the rest of the 
right-wing package. But I do not fear impeachment per se. The very 
ambiguity of the constitutional criteria for impeachment -- nobody, 
whether a constitutional expert or the 400 scholars who advertised in 
the Times (and who were mostly not constitutional specialists), can 
speak with certainty about that -- opens the door to a more democratic 
system. Such a system would see political disagreement and lack of 
popular confidence as a reasonable basis for removing a President from 
office. Most governments in societies such as ours provide for 
recallable executives, as part of a democracy. Our system is the 
anomaly. Let our Constitution become more democratic.

So why the widespread terror of impeachment among scholars? Why so much 
fear and trembling about bringing down bad leaders? I think that many of 
the signers of the ad in the Times looked toward the election, started 
with support of Clinton and the Democrats, and got their constitutional 
reading from that.

Jesse Lemisch is a professor of history at the John Jay College of 
Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.

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