I started reading Gordon Wood’s new book on the history of the early years of the United States of America, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. It’s a dense book but a readable one, and I’m a couple hundred pages into it now.
As an aside to Lucy and Janiece, it is every bit as good as I thought it would be. Wood is one of the pre-eminent scholars of this period and he has done a masterful job of synthesizing not only his own scholarship but the best of what others have done as well. The bibliographic essay at the end alone is worth the price of the book.
It’s astonishing how relevant it all is.
One of the men who figured into the story of the founding of the American republic more than he generally gets credited for these days was Alexander Hamilton. By the time this book opens he has risen above his origins in West Indian poverty and become the new nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, a position far more visible and powerful then than it is today. We forget that the British Prime Minister has its origins in exactly that position in His Majesty’s Government and the Founders assumed that an equivalent process would take place on this side of the Atlantic – not that the Secretary of the Treasury would overshadow or replace the President, necessarily, but that he would become the most important day-to-day official in the government.
Follow the money. That’s where the action is.
If you read even the smallest bit about Hamilton and his program for the early republic you will come to one inescapable conclusion: the security and safety of the new Constitution and the government it created was in large part founded on a clear commitment to honor the nation’s debts. Everything else flowed from that – the stability of the federal government, the prosperity of the national economy, the acceptance by foreign nations of the US as a legitimate country, the survival (as a practical matter) of the republic which the Founders fought so long and hard to achieve – it all comes from the recognition that the federal government must honor its debts.
Hamilton spent the bulk of the early 1790s impressing this fact upon his peers, and their willingness to put aside their often visceral hatred for Hamilton himself in order to accept his argument speaks volumes not only to Hamilton’s wisdom in this matter but also the good sense of the rest of the Founders, who could overlook their own petty private interests for sake of the common good.
Which is why the current posturing among the Teabaggers regarding their poisonously casual attitude toward honoring the nation’s debts is so disturbing. For a group that insists that it reveres the Founders and the Constitution as much and as loudly as they do, they do have a rather perverse way of demonstrating it.
This group of blind ideologues has spent the entire summer threatening to destroy the full faith and credit of the United States in order to advance their extremist agenda, and at this point it may well be too late to avoid the consequences of this, deal or no deal.
And make no mistake – there will be consequences.
At the bare minimum it will add billions to the national debt in interest payments, as credit agencies lower the American rating and force the US to pay more in interest for the same debt. It may even undermine the dollar, which is based solely on that full faith and credit. It’s going to be very hard to run an economy with a currency that has no value. And with that, the Teabaggers may actually destroy the fragile economic recovery from the recession caused by these very same right-wingers, possibly taking down much of the world economy at the same time.
All for what? The chance to prove that Hamilton was right all along? Is their thirst for absolute power so all-consuming that they would rather rule a smoking ruin than live in a prosperous world that isn’t made to their precise partisan specifications? Are they so eager, then, to throw the rest of us under their bus in order to cling to power?
The problem with reading about the early republic is that even with all the problems that this country faced in the 1790s it is still utterly disheartening to realize how low we have fallen since then and how many people who call themselves Americans are actively and proudly trying to dig the hole deeper.