How Do You Work

October 16, 2003

How Do You Work This?

Today I got more experience at teaching class while running on not enough sleep. All things considered, it went pretty well. I did better in the morning than in the afternoon class, mostly because I was exhausted by second class and lost my trains of thought several times. It is midterm week and we had a midterm on Tuesday. Not surprisingly, the turnout was low today.

The outline was:
First Congress
Hamilton and Funding
Madison, Jefferson and the opposition
Women and society

I think I need to find some more recent cultural references. I got the name for this section from the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime." I checked, and only one of the sixty-odd kids in class today had seen the movie Stop Making Sense. Another half dozen or so knew the song and a few more got it when I started reciting lyrics. "You may find yourself at the wheel of a large automobile, ... you may find yourself living in a beautiful house ... and you may ask yourself, self, how did I get here? ... and you may ask yourself, how do I work this?" In the movie of their live concert, David Byrne looks at his hand and wiggles it as he says the words.

My mind makes strange connections, and ever since I started working in the Early American Republic I have connected that early 1980s pop song with the period in which the founders were trying to figure out how to make a republican government work properly. I organize the first class in the three-class sequence that runs from the First Congress through the War of 1812 around the notion that the guys were figuring it out as they went along, were very conscious that they were setting precedents, and were very nervous that their fellows were going to make a mistake or become corrupt and so doom the whole endeavor by setting the wrong precedent.

So, what did we do in class?

After introductory remarks focused on the Talking Heads song I went back to ratification. I spent about half an hour working them through ratification and the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate. I framed the difference between the two in terms of democracy v republicanism, with the anti's believing in direct representation where each delegate represented a small homogenous district, every delegate was bound to comply with the policy wishes of his constituents, and constituents could, at any time, hold a public meeting and send binding instructions to their representative. He could then either vote as his constituents desired, or resign. There was no other honorable course for a direct representative. The Federalists, by contrast, believed in indirect representation. They were closer to the old New England assumption that it was the voters' duty to choose a proper magistrate and then accept whatever decisions the magistrate decided were in the best interests of the whole community. I proved this by pointing out the indirect nature of representation under the Constitution, whether the large districts for the House, the indirect nature of the electoral college, the effectively indirect method of having the state legislatures pick Senators, or the mediated election of the ratification conventions.

At around this time I did a brief discussion of the Federalists. I laid out their role as talking points for Federalist delegates, first written for the NY convention but then used elsewhere. I checked, about a third of the morning section had read Fed 10, a quarter had read Fed 51. In the afternoon only one or two had read them before. Note: three Federalists is about right - they were glad we read them but were glad not to have read more. Also, I am not fond of 72 - find a different Hamilton document. Both sections had someone who could re-cap Federalist 10, afternoon section had someone confuse it with 51 but we got there eventually. I worked them through the Montaigne argument pretty quickly and tied Madison v Montaigne to the ideal type of the democratic representative and the republican magistrate. I then reminded them that the US Const was not Sam Adams's Christian Sparta - there was no reliance on morality to create a perfect citizenry who could run a republic. Instead they assumed that people were imperfect and selfish and tried to build a structure that would contain and control human weakness. It was secular social engineering. I think I said more on it, but I was mazy at that point in the afternoon and I am adding this paragraph later at night, and I do not remember.

From there I made sure, in both sections, that I made the popular sovereignty point about the ratification conventions - the constitution was ratified by the people in convention assembled, not by state legislatures. The guys in Philadelphia (I blamed it on Madison, not sure if it was he or not) wanted to be clear that the basis for the new union was the people themselves, not the sovereign state legislatures. And, while this was largely forgotten in the Early Republic itself, it would be re-stated by Jackson during nullification and Jackson's notion of the union would then later be fully enunciated by Lincoln in the Gettysburg address and elsewhere. I even drew the little diagram on the board, with "the people" at the top and two arrows pointing down at an angle, one to each side. At the end of one bottom arrow I wrote "states" and at the other I wrote "national" to give them a visual reminder that the Constitution put the people in the sovereign location that had earlier been held by Parliament.

At this point we finally talked about whether the Constitution was a continuation or a repudiation of Revolutionary ideals. It was a short discussion, but I got some talk from them. I will talk more about that in tomorrow's blog.

Finally, I pointed out that the conventions ratified with amendments. I explained that the guys in Philadelphia had expressly chosen not to include a bill of rights because, as Gouvernor Morris and others argued, to enumerate rights is to limit them to the rights that happen to be on the list. Because no one can write down every right, it is better to have a system that is inherently structured around the notion of inalienable human rights. The guys in Philadelphia bought that argument; the anti-Federalists did not. They had had enough experience with rights developed from precedent and reason under the unwritten British Constitution and they did not trust a new written constitution with an internal structure based on unwritten rights. They wanted it in ink, and they insisted. While some of the proposed amendments were intended as Constitution-killers, in the end most states ratified conditionally and the conditions included rights.

That ended ratification and I was ready for the First Congress.

I was tired and goofed - I had intended to give them Madison's race against Patrick Henry for the US House in which Madison only won because he promised to write a Bill of Rights into the Constitution as amendments. And, after he got to New York, he pushed and prodded the other guys into doing a Bill of Rights so he could fulfill his campaign promise. But, I left that out. I won't be back. And so it goes.

Instead I jumped right into the metropolis problem. I asked what was the largest city in Pennsylvania? What was the capital of Pennsylvania? And Why they thought the founders had packed government off to a small town in the boondocks when colonial government had been located in Philadelphia? I then said a few words about metropoles, using London, Paris, and Boston as the example, and suggesting that while a metropolis that combines wealth, society, politics and culture can produce a rich and wonderful society, the founders feared that the confluence of wealth, society, and power would lead to corruption of the delegates. So, they packed the legislatures off to the boondocks and, not surprisingly, only Boston had a rich cultural life in the nineteenth century.

I did much better with First Congress in the morning section. I got there earlier, I was less tired, I had moved more smoothly through the material to that point. For second section, it took me several minutes to put a train of thought together, articulate it, and then remember it so that I could move on. It was not a good performance.

I did finally get going. I emphasized the problem of precedent, using the examples of Washington and treaties and of the Judicial system to point out just how vague and general the US Constitution really is. That is the genius of the document, it leaves the mechanics to Congress and the political system, unlike State constitution that tend to spell everything out much more clearly and have been amended and re-written almost constantly since 1776. Having set up the problem of precedent and, better in the morning than the afternoon, used MaClay and his diary to set the tone of constant suspicion about the meanings and purposes of precedent, I moved on to Hamilton and Madison.

In the morning I put my pocket Bio of Hamilton here. The afternoon got him closer to the end. I did my usual - bastard, orphan, Nevis, patron-client send him to college, King's College, Imperial Crisis, Army, Washington's staff, marriage, break with GW, colonel of a regiment, back to being lawyer, nationalist, at Philadelphia, the monarchy speech, in cabinet, active and energetic, wrote a lot. We will do more with him on Tuesday as well.

I limited myself to funding. I had not reviewed but rather did it from memory - one of the afternoon students caught me and asked about the bits I was leaving out. I explained that I was focusing on the parts that got Madison nervous, and she accepted that.

I started with assumption, arguing that Hamilton wanted to replace most of the old US debt and most of the state debt with new debt certificates, bonds, paying 4%. These new bonds would be supported by the government while the old ones had not been paid, so it looked like a good deal. (I simplified, there were several tiers of debt and Ham had subtle differences in how he handled foreign and domestic debt. She called me on that, and I did correctly explain that he wanted to pay off the foreign debt with a sinking fund (like a mortgage) while keeping the domestic debt going as part of his system.)

Then, to get these bonds back in place, he set up a bank and said that the bank would accept these debt certificates as capital - you could trade a piece of US debt for a share in the bank. (I simplified here, had to give one quarter cash, three quarters debt.)

The bank then issued currency. I forgot to mention this part in morning section until someone was confused by the whole money circle and, when reviewing it, I realized my goof. They got it the second time after I did a little visual exercise using the students in the front row as members in the monetary chain. This currency was backed by the bank assets, which mostly consisted of those debt certificates. The money circulated, fixed the former shortage of specie by giving new money, and could even be used to pay taxes.

Finally, Hamilton set up an extensive system of taxes. I focused on the import taxes - forgot to say anything about excises. Excises were irrelevant for the political point I was making today, but they will be very important on Tuesday. These taxes could be paid in bank currency or in specie, and the revenues went to pay the interest on the domestic debt and the sinking fund on the foreign debt, thus maintaining the value of the debt, which maintained the capital of the bank, which maintained the value of the currency, which was used to pay the taxes. It was a perfect cycle and very clever indeed.

But, Madison hated it. I set up his hatred in Elkis & McKitrick style by focusing on Madison's dislike of Britain. Madison wanted to favor France, the ally, but France could not generate enough trade to make money through the tariffs, so pragmatic Ham wanted to trade with Britain regardless of any wrongs they had previously done. Ham and Mad began to distrust each other. I then made brief mention of the deal that sent the capital South in exchange for debt assumption and moved on.

That previous section ran me through two whole chunks of my outline without a clear break or demarcation. I think I need a better outline. (Oh, for the record I brought into the classroom a sheet and a half of 14 point type with my key points on it. I only goofed once, in second section, as I was elaborating the very bare talking points.)

At that point, in both sections, I had about 12 minutes left. In the morning I gave them the long version of Martha Ballard, in the afternoon I talked about Ham and then gave the short version. In both I introduced Martha, explained why she was in Maine, talked a little about her work as a midwife, recap'd Laural Ulrich's story about the doctor with the forceps and the laudanum, and then worked them through a brief life trajectory. I did more detail in the morning, including her husband's work as a surveyor, the white Indians who trashed the survey party, his tax collection failure and jailing, her struggle with her son for possession of the house, and her husband's return and the resumption of patriarchal authority. In the afternoon I just kept it to Martha and the doctor. In both, I finished by looking at Martha and subordinate women. In the 1780s she had two daughters and some servant women living in her house, working at weaving on a loom, and selling the cloth. In the middle of the story she was alone. In old age they once again had a servant, and by this time the servant would not mind, looking in a mirror rather than doing what she had been told and then railing at Martha when Martha tried to correct her.

Finally, in the last two minutes, I gave them a precis of the Jefferson letters we are reading for Tuesday. I am looking forward to the Jefferson class. I am going to revise my usual outline for it, I have decided to work the emotional and family story in line with the political story and give them TJ in straight chronological fashion. That means I need to make sure that I have both families and ALL the kids in his time line. It should be fun.

I am glad I got some women in; I have been slacking at women's history. I need to remember to talk about Dolly Madison and the social role of women in a political system where crucial decisions were made over dinner tables. This is a very long writeup. And, even though I stopped to bathe the baby, I need to get back to either housework or grading.

Edit - added paragraph about reviewing Federalists and wanting to change Fed 72 for another.

Posted by Red Ted at October 16, 2003 09:13 AM | TrackBack