Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mr. Hawthorne's caution

I wonder whether some of us in the paragraph game, finding ourselves abruptly deposited on the street after long tenure with a publication, may suffer from the psychology that Nathaniel Hawthorne describes in the “Custom-House” section of The Scarlet Letter. Here is how Hawthorne describes the fate of the long-tenured officeholder turned out after a change in administration:

He loses, in an extent proportioned to the weakness or force of his original nature, the capability of self-support. If he possesses an unusual share of native energy, or the enervating magic of place do not operate too long upon him, his forfeited powers may be redeemable. The ejected officer [read journalist] — fortunate in the unkindly shove that sends him forth betimes, to struggle amid a struggling world — may return to himself, and become all that he has ever been. But this seldom happens. He usually keeps his ground just long enough for his own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews all unstrung, to totter along the difficult footpath of life as best he may. Conscious of his own infirmity, — that his tempered steel and elasticity are lost, — he for ever afterwards looks wistfully about him in quest of support external to himself. His pervading and continual hope — a hallucination, which, in the face of all discouragement, and making light of impossibilities, haunts him while he lives, and, I fancy, like the convulsive throes of the cholera, torments him for a brief space after death — is, that, finally, and in no long time, by some happy coincidence of circumstances, he shall be restored to office [read employment in journalism]. This faith, more than any thing else, steals the pith and availability out of whatever enterprise he may dream of undertaking.*

You need not be alarmed, gentle reader; for my part, I am far from tottering after my own unkindly shove last April, and I retain possession of a fair quantity of my original tempered steel and elasticity, as any employer who has the wit to engage my services will quickly discern.

*This excerpt constitutes about half of a paragraph. No doubt we can expect to hear some discourse on Hawthorne’s defects as a writer from the anonymous commenter who called me “verbose” and urged me to cut my posts by a third.

The Founders' dilemmas

Name a text — other than the Bible — that is more revered and less understood than the Constitution of the United States.

Can’t? I’m not surprised. But if you were inclined to enlarge your understanding, you could do worse than to turn to Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (Random House, 514 pages, $30). Professor Beeman, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, has produced a highly readable, thoughtful account of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

It is an account that may trouble contemporary liberals and conservatives alike.

Liberals, because the Founders as a group thought that we ought to be governed by educated white male property owners. They were not democratically minded; indeed, they were highly suspicious of the public. The tension that troubled them throughout their deliberations that summer rose from the attitude of the “archetypal old republican — intensely fearful of concentration of power in the hands of just a few but at the same time convinced that ordinary citizens lacked either the intelligence or the virtue to govern themselves.” Thus, for example, they repeated voted down proposals to have the president elected directly by the people and constructed the creaky machinery of the Electoral College.

Conservatives, because Professor Beeman’s account offers no comfort to the legal Originalists who argue that our understanding of the Constitution should be limited to the intentions of those fifty-five men in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, they were unable to come to a common understanding at the time of the convention about some of the basic language of the document, and some delegates strongly attacked its provisions during the debates on ratification. Moreover, James Madison, revered as “Father of the Constitution,” went to Philadelphia advocating a stronger central government and subsequently opposed many of the consequences. Which Madisonian “intent” should prevail?

What is impressive in Professor Beeman’s book is how earnestly these fifty-five men addressed themselves to the issues of self-government, how they struggled amid the summer heat in confined quarters to rise above narrow interests, how they gradually moved to an understanding of separation of powers and checks and balances, how they framed a document with enough flexibility to endure for more than two centuries with comparatively few amendments, and how they provided better than they knew for an expansion of liberty and political autonomy.

The tragic element is their fatal compromise on slavery. It was in part a purely political measure; the delegates had every reason to expect that without some protection of slavery, South Carolina and Georgia would not come into the Union. But in larger part it was a failure of imagination: Even those delegates who saw slavery as a great evil could not comprehend how to untangle the economics of it or conceive how white and black Americans could live together in freedom and equality.

It is refreshing, in a time when ignorant and ahistorical people say that we should disregard Washington and Jefferson and Madison because they were slaveholders, to see Professor Beeman explore how these well-meaning men were limited by the culture and perspective of their times. It might help us to develop a little humility to consider the ways in which we, too, grapple ineffectively with our gravest problems because of our failure to see beyond our cultural blinkers.