The main idea of this series of books is to review American history from different angle than it is usually done. Author wrote this book from libertarian point of view in contrast to leftist narrative of “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn and to conservative narrative of “A history of the American people” by Paul Johnson. The key idea of this book is the idea that American history is continuing struggle between Hamiltonian idea of mercantilist state and Jeffersonian idea of libertarian state. The first one is generally idea of big and powerful government that controls everything, interfere everywhere, and assure general wellbeing. The second one is the idea of small government limited to a few specific functions and weak enough not to interfere with Americans’ pursuit of happiness with free market providing for general wellbeing.
DETAILS FOR PART I:
Series Preface: America’s Forgotten History Preface to Part One: Foundations
Part I covers period from earliest colonies through the presidency of James Madison in 1816. It goes through discussion of people who started future United States, culture and traditions they brought in from Europe, and legal arrangements they created after wining the revolutionary war. It also covers first four presidencies until 1816.
CHAPTER ONE: Prelude To America
The revolutions usually fail, but American Revolution was different. It came not from people striving for power they do not have, but from American colonists – people with lots of personal power who were feeling they are loosing this power to the king’s encroachment. In essence it was a conservative revolution to defend status quo.
JAMESTOWN and PLYMOUTH: Two original colonies represented two different strains of Americans. One- started by Virginia Company was formed by profit seeking aristocratic investors and individuals attracted by opportunities in the new land regardless of initial wealth or nobility; another one started by puritans seeking religious salvation in the new land and believing in theocracy and government enforcement of right behavior. Both colonies tried communal arrangements of production and both failed in it miserably moving to private ownership of the land.
PURITANS and CAVALIERS: Newly founded colonies also had huge difference in culture of individuals populated them. The difference came from the British civil wars. In Jamestown it was cavaliers who brought in prevailing cultural attitude and they quickly started develop aristocratic utopian society with slaves at the bottom providing manpower for production. In Plymouth however, it was puritans’ culture and attitudes that prevailed causing development in direction of bourgeois utopian City on the Hill.
ENGLISH ROOTS; ENGLISH CIVIL WAR; THE GLORIOUS REVOLUTION; The Dark Side: Central Banking, Collusion, and War: This is a very short retelling of English history preceding transfer of these people to America.
FIVE MIGRATIONS SEED AMERICA
- Puritans 1630s from urban East Anglia to Massachusetts,
- Cavaliers 1640s from rural western Sussex and Wessex to Virginia,
- Quakers 1675 from Wales, Holland, Ireland, and Germany to Pennsylvania,
- Scotch-Irish and other borders in 1715 to Carolinas and later Appalachian.
- American Indians who actually got there first, long before anybody else and constituted important part of the mix.
Both Cavaliers of South and Puritans of North conducted involuntary migration of African slaves. The final or actually
THREE EMPIRES BATTLE FOR A CONTINENT: The Tiny Spark; Monongahela, The Northern War; William Pitt; The Tide Turns; Pontiac’s War: This is quite detailed narrative of 7 years war as it was conducted in America. The most important thing: Anglo-Americans had significant numeric superiority over Franco-Canadians resulted from French being mainly trade oriented while British were land oriented. Obviously agricultural settlements in moderate climate produce much more people and resources then trade posts in areas with cold climate. Side effect was that British-American agriculturists pushed American Indians out of their areas while French did not consequently causing Pontiac’s war that temporarily pushed frontier back east.
TOWARDS REVOLUTION: From libertarian point of view the causes of all revolutions are similar: government plundering going beyond of what people agree to accept. In case of Colonial America it was the key issues were:
- Fiat Money: America experienced growth and there were shortages of money, but British Tories were not about to promote inflation while Congress would happily do just that. The fiat money issue remained in the center of American political struggle ever since then with Hamiltonians supporting fiat and Jeffersonians objecting.
- Order, Mercantilism, and Taxes: In addition to money other issues start boiling over between colonists and Britain such as: political scramble between royal governors and colonial assemblies, unresolvable contradiction between colonial’s wish for unlimited land grabbing and British wish to accommodate Indians by limiting westward expansion that would require constant military expenses to defend colonials, and unwillingness of colonials to be on receiving side of British mercantilism, that restricted business development in America to promote British manufacturing.
- Taxation Without Representation: Eventually all these tensions exploded under philosophical ideas of ineligibility of taxation without representation. It was definitely a funny reason, but it worked.
CHAPTER TWO: What Kind of Government?
This chapter is about formation of American constitutional order and government that was based on key concept of natural rights. It briefly goes through revolutionary war, key points of constitution and modern views on it. Here are key points: of the narrative:
MYTHS OF MILITIA: Both sides were driven by ideals: Americans by idea of natural rights of British and Hessians by honor. Militia was generally not ineffective, but it was dependent on circumstance of fight: good defending home, not very good away from home. In both cases good military training is precondition for effectiveness anywhere.
REVOLUTION: The Baffle For New York, Turning Point, Saratoga and Alliance With France, The Southern Strategy: A very short restatement of history of revolutionary war with no points made that would be different from traditional narrative.
AMERICA’S FIRST CONSTITUTION: Perpetual Union, Life Under the Articles, Annapolis Convention and Shays Rebellion: This part is somewhat unusual in attention paid to Articles of Confederation that was the first American Constitution approved by Continental Congress in 1778. It become law in 1781 and lasted until 1789. It was based on assumption that only small states can be democratic, therefore the Union should have little central power to avoid despotism. Significant attention assigned to discussion about perpetuity of the union. The point is made that at the time perpetuity of union was a hope not imperative and Civil War to keep the Union would be inconceivable for contemporaries. There is also discussion about Annapolis convention of 1786 that cleared way for Philadelphia Constitutional Convention next year and Shays rebellion that prompted wide believe that new constitution is a necessity.
GATHERING IN PHILADELPHIA: James Madison; Alexander Hamilton; States Rights vs. the Philosophy of Large Systems; Checks and Balances; Slavery;
Religion; Defense; The Executive; The Law of Nations; Commerce; The Bill of Rights: This is review of personalities who played major role in convention and where pushing in two directions: confederation of local democracies with minimal central power vs. benevolent central power embracing local democracies in firm grip. The downgrading of local democracies to provinces was not feasible at the time. An interesting discussion on checks and balances is related to this. It pertains to checks and balances not only vertically between branches of power, but also horizontally when power of federal government was balanced by power of the states as separate and competitive centers of all-important solutions. No important solution should be initiated at the federal level. Everything was supposed to be tested at the state level and then move up to the center when enough states joined the solution. Other parts of constitutional discussion concentrate on how far away practice mode from original ideas in every area discussed.
MODERN THOUGHT (3 types):
The Cynical View: The Constitution is document created by bunch of slave-owners to protect and defend their position in society.
Freedom or Democracy: Constitution was designed to elevate friction between freedom and democracy, which is by definition suppression of freedom for minority. Contemporary development went way too far in promoting democracy while giving too much power to the central state that automatically means decrease in individual freedom.
A Living Constitution: This intellectual idea basically degrades meaning of the Constitution to text open to infinite modification by just interpreting its worlds to whatever meaning an interpreter is looking for. For example modern interpretation of “general welfare” makes enumeration of federal government powers absolutely meaningless because it gives power to do whatever president and Congress want to do without any limitations.
CHAPTER THREE: The First President: George Washington: HAMILTON GETS TO WORK; THE GREAT DEBATE COMMENCES; PARTY POLITICS; WASHINGTON’S MIDDLE WAY; ENGLAND OR FRANCE? THE LAST ACT
The first president presented here as mainly pragmatically inclined man who did not bother himself with politics and ideas too much. Generally his presidency was on the side of Hamiltonians creating Bank of USA, siding with speculators in revolutionary debt issue, and generally supporting active and powerful federal government.
CHAPTER FOUR: The Second President: John Adams: HISTORY RECAPITULATED IN THE MAN; VICE PRESIDENT ADAMS; PRESIDENT ADAMS;
This is description of Adams personality, presidency and its most noticeable events:
THE XYZ AFFAIR: The story of French demanding bribes just for opening door for negotiations about attacks of French navy on American shipping. Instead of bribes Adams start building ships and armed merchants.
THE ALIEN AND SEDITION ACTS: These were 4 laws intended to limit immigration and naturalization especially for French and Irish who were bringing in ideas of French revolution. It also imposed restrictions on freedom of speech in order to prop up government power. Several dozens of authors and publishers were imprisoned.
Jury Nullification: Here authors goes into details of Jury notification he considers very important right that was slowly suppressed. The meaning is that jury makes judgment not only on guilt or innocence, but also on legality of law itself. While it still formally exists as check on judicial power in reality it was neutralized by judge’s instructions.
The Trial of Matthew Lyon: Lyon was a congressman accused for publishing seditious letters. While being in prison he was reelected and used the privilege to continue write letters against power.
Return To Monarchy? This is story of Hamiltonians attempt to move to neo-monarchy by changing constitution to make president serve for life. The secret Rose Bill was intended to do this and also create a standing army. It also included provision for Congress to appoint 13-man commission to review validity of votes giving party in power control over election results. The attempt failed due to exposes published from underground.
State Nullification: Kentucky, and Virginia Resolutions: The first years of republic demonstrated that vertical checks and balances are not working and states start quickly loose power to federal government. In response Kentucky and Virginia asserted states’ nullification rights in resolutions.
PEACE: Adams decided to make peace with France despite opposition from about everybody.
THE ELECTION OF 1800: It was the most difficult, dangerous, and important election ever. It proved to be the test of America’s ability to survive as constitutional republic with regular and peaceful change of powers.
JOHN MARSHALL: He was creator of powerful Supreme Court. According to constitution the power of court was limited to the expression of legal opinion. Marshal managed to convert it into power to overwrite any legislative or executive action by declaring it unconstitutional. Eventually it made Supreme Court into unelected final arbiter of decisions capable to put break on any actions ideologically repugnant to majority of its members.
CHAPTER FIVE: The 3rd President: Thomas Jefferson
THE SUM OF GOOD GOVERNMENT: The main point was reconciliation: need to accept both republican principles and federal government. No need for standing army since people defend their power, no sedition acts: freedom of speech includes freedom of error, government should restrain people from injuring one another, but leave them alone otherwise,
THE BARBARY PIRATES: A Presidential War; Preble’s Boys; To the Shores of Tripoli; What America Accomplished: This narrative of story of this mini war against Barbary pirates is somewhat different then usual. It is not triumphal expedition, but rather story of half-hearted action with extensive use of adventurers and locals who were later betrayed and damped. There was also no victory that would stop attacks and/or payment to barbarians. In 1807 pirates started again attack ship and USA quietly resumed paying tribute to prevent attacks. It lasted until end of Napoleonic war in 1815.
The Louisiana Purchase; The Black Napoleon; Constitutional Concerns: Louisiana was a very nice accomplishment, even if unconstitutional. An interesting event stressed here, which usually not mentioned that much, is revolution on Haiti and its success in repulsion of Napoleon’s army there. This event convinced Napoleon that he does not have enough resources and it better to get money in exchange for formality. It is quite possible that if Napoleonic war ended differently, the Louisiana purchase would be considered a blunder of providing help to aggressor who got stronger as result and then come to take back what he “sold”.
FIRST TERM ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Practically elimination of internal taxes, decrease in size and power of government, enforcement of free speech and rejection of sedition laws.
THE GODS OF FORTUNE: All above gave boost to prosperity, plus Jefferson managed to somewhat successfully avoid entanglement in Europe’s Napoleonic wars.
DESCENT INTO TYRANNY: Threat, Confusion, and Anguish; Embargo; Improving the Nation; SECESSION and NULLIFICATION: However he was not able to stay completely out. The reason was British huge Navy expansion for which they needed sailors and Americans’ impression was a good source. On other hand, widely trading American merchant fleet also needed sailors and guys who escaped British Navy also were a good source. Eventually tensions with Britain grew to the point when British stop respecting neutrality on the sees and Jefferson responded with embargo, which pretty much caused more harm to America and led to a slight push for nullification and even secession in Northern states. It failed, causing practical disappearance of Federalist’s party.
THE ELECTION OF 1808: Jefferson selected Madison to inherit his as a president and election was quite easy
HISTORY OF HISTORIES: At the end author reviews historians’ attitude to Jefferson and concludes that Jefferson usually got negative rap from historians mainly because ideologically they typically are lovers of big centralized government, while Jefferson moved country to decentralized government structure, some would even say he moved it in libertarian direction.
CHAPTER SIX: The 4th President: James Madison
THE FIRMIST BULWARK OF REPUBLICS: Madison came up with 16 core believes for his administration that allowed him to establish goals in all main areas:
- Internationally: no intervention into others’ business and rejection of intervention into ours;
- Relationship with states strictly within constitution with use of enumerated powers, but everything else left to states;
- Strict adherence to individual rights especially first amendment;
- Fiscal responsibility: low taxes and no government debt;
- Military: limited army and preference for militia for defense;
- General wellbeing, roads, science and such: promote within limited powers;
- Indians: help them to move to civilization.
THE NEW CABINET: Except for Gallatin and Monroe, Madison allowed congress to define cabinet leading to internal squabbles.
WEST FLORIDA: In between Napoleon and Spain Florida become ungoverned and declared independence that quickly followed by request to join USA, which Madison obliged without any constitutional authority, same way as it was with Louisiana.
BUILD-UP TO WAR: Taking A Friendly Nap; Assassination; Tecumseh; The New Generation: The tensions with Britain over sailors increased. An interesting fact was that 1/3 of all American sailors actually were British so it is quite understandable that British raided American ship to capture sailors. At this point author stresses his disagreement with traditional interpretation of prewar period. He believes that Madison and Jefferson embargo worked as intended and British merchants put pressure on government to such extent that it explains assassination of prime minister. Also somewhat unusual is attention allocated to Tecumseh war. It presented not as insurrection, but rather as an attempt to create massive coalition of Indian tribes to fight European Americans invasion of their homelands. Eventually it failed due to technological and population advantages of Americans. Another interesting interpretation of events is that America moved to preparation for the war 1812 as aggressor in search of conquest of Canada. Obviously as aggressors American leadership was not that qualified since there were no significant investment into military preparation.
THE WAR OF 1812: Conquering Canada; Michigan and Tecumseh; Redemption at Sea; The War For the Lakes; Andrew Jackson and the Creek War; The Empire Strikes Back; The Battle of New Orleans; The Hartford Convention; The War’s First Lesson: The description of war of 1812 is also not exactly conventional. First of all the credit for saving Canada from American invasion goes to Tecumseh. The naval victories on the lakes presented as key to the following successful defense of American North against British and Indian counter invasion. Especially stressed is disarray and incompetence of American generals. The success came when incompetents were weeded out and substituted by middle level officers. On the South war theater Andrew Jackson successfully destroyed Creek Indians and fortified Mobil and Pensacola making British movement against New Orleans quite complicated. The British success in taking and burning Washington is presents as of little military but huge political and moral consequence. It inflamed American fears of going into prolonged fight against British Empire and even loosing independence therefore greatly increasing willingness to fight. At the same time with not enough forces to take fort Henry and move into Baltimore and farther inland it caused no serious danger. Quite a bit of attention given to the fact that American started to fight for real only when they felt they are under attack from aggressor. From this point of view the American anthem, born then and there, is reflecting American creed of military defense as fight of free militiamen (not conscripts) to protect their land and way of life. The battle of New Orleans presented as important factor making peace treatment to stick and stopping New England noises of secession produced at Hartford Convention. Author challenges traditional interpretation of the war as demonstration of ineffectiveness of American believes in defense by small professional army augmented by militia and need in big standing army. He claims that militia did good when it was well trained and used in defensive situation. Its ineffectiveness in many engagements was caused either aggressive character of war in initial actions against Canada or just poor equipment and training.
FINAL DAYS: The Bank of the United States; Internal Improvements:
The end of Madison presidency presented move away from Jeffersonian ideas with authorization of The Second Bank of United States and significant move of resources into government controlled “improvements” of roads, communications, and canals. This was the last presidency of revolutionary generation leaders: Washington. John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. The next was generation of children of revolution Jeffersonians: Monroe, Jackson, and Calhoun; and Hamiltonians: John Quincy Adams, Webster, and Clay.