Sumner Time Blues

William Graham Sumner said lots of things I like. (See, for example, his “Conquest of the United States by Spain.”) The following (which I apparently transcribed a couple of decades ago and just came across today) isn’t one of them:

[H]ow are we to appreciate the work of the Constitution-makers? How can we understand what their task was, what difficulties they had to overcome, what the grounds were of the opposition which they had to meet? Everyone knows nowadays that the people by no means leaped forward to grasp this Constitution, which is now so much admired and loved, as the blessing which they had been praying for. Why did they not? To put it in the briefest compass, the reason why not was this: that Constitution was an immense advance in the political organization at a single step. It made a real union; it reduced the independent (I avoid the word “sovereign”) states to a status of some limitation; it created a competent executive – one who could govern, not influence or persuade; it created a treasury which could reach the property of the citizen by taxes, not by begging; it created a power which could enforce treaties. Considering the anarchical condition of things and the waywardness and irritation of the public temper, it is amazing that such a step could have been accomplished.

William Graham Sumner

Its opponents declared that the new Union was simply taking the place which Great Britain had occupied; that its dominion was as intolerable as hers had been; that they had only changed masters by the War. … Therefore, to sum it up, the doctrines of the radical Whigs were now the doctrines of the radical Antifederalists. The latter claimed with truth that they were consistent, that they had all the same reason to oppose and dread the Union which they had had to oppose Great Britain, and that the Union had inherited and was perpetuating the position of Great Britain. It became a current expression of discontent with the federal system, of which you hear occasional echoes even now, that it was an imitation of the English system invented and fastened on the country by Alexander Hamilton – and this was rather a distortion of the true facts than an utter falsehood.

What, then, shall we infer from all these facts? Plainly this: that the Revolutionary doctrines were anarchistic, and inconsistent with peace and civil order; that they were riotous and extravagant; and that there could be no success and prosperity here until a constitutional civil government existed which could put down the lawless and turbulent spirit and discipline the people to liberty under law. This is the position which was taken by the Federal party; this is why New England, although it had been intensely Whig, became intensely Federal. The people knew the difference between war measures and peace measures and they realized the necessity of tightening again the bonds of social order. This is also why the Federal party was so unpopular; it was doing a most useful and essential work, but it is never popular to insist upon self-control, discipline, and healthful regulation. … (“Advancing Social and Political Organization in the United States,” 1896 or 1897.)

(For Sumner in a more anarchist-friendly mood, see here.)

But Sumner is crucially right even in the midst of being wrong: the doctrines of the Revolution were anarchistic, and the Constitutional order that was subsequently established represented the betrayal rather than the fulfillment of the principles of ’76 – as, for that matter, did the Articles of Confederation. The whole idea that the legitimacy of governmental institutions depends on the “consent of the governed” immediately invalidates all state institutions everywhere.

Something to think about this Independence Day.


3 Responses to Sumner Time Blues

  1. Anon73 July 4, 2010 at 1:14 pm #

    What always amuses me is how hymns to the Founding Fathers are sung adjacent to praise of the “sacrifices of our troops”, apparently in total obliviousness to the fact that Madison, Jefferson, et al opposed standing armies (and presumably domestic police as we know them today).

  2. WorBlux July 5, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

    It seems that the more internecine aspects of the war are lost in many of the accounts of the same.


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