On Reading Adam Smith, Thomas Paine and The Constitution

Conservatives don’t know much about history.  We’ve seen hilarity ensue when Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann attempt to tell stories about the history of America.  But what’s more subtle is that they don’t know about the process of knowledge in the context of history.  That’s hardly surprising to a political movement that’s dedicated to obfuscation and bite-sized rhetoric.  Unfortunately, there’s more to knowledge than that.

Our knowledge of the Constitution and the historical milieu, the context, which fostered it’s creation are, at best, a vague shadowy echo of the reality of the day.  We hear conservatives opine about jurisprudence and how we must follow the Constitution “as it was written.”  They smear and deride “activist judges” who seek to “interpret” the Constitution.  But the failure of their thinking lies in the very originalism they seek to uphold.

I’m currently reading Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment by Emma Rothschild.  It’s a book that attempts to address the challenge of reading Adam Smith in the 21st century, long after his revolutionary message was co-opted by Edmund Burke and converted into the conservative/libertarian philosophy we encounter today.

She describes the difficulty inherent in the interpretation of historical documents as they relate to the politics of the turbulent 1780s.  She writes

Our sense of the familiarity of eighteenth-century thought is an illusion, above all, because of our own unequal knowledge.  This asymmetry of information is one of the most troublesome difficulties of the political and intellectual historian: that he or she knows how the story ends, or the outcome of the events in which her subjects are engaged, and to which they look forward in fear of hope or indifference.  The difficulty is particularly intense in relation to a period, such as the half century before and after 1800, which was, aand which seemd at the time to be, one of intense and violent change.  Is the historian to read Louix XVI’s words of 1776 and to say to herself that she knows nothing of his subsequent destiny?

Smith and Hume, Turgot and Condorcet did not know, disconcertingly, what would happen to their principles.  They were used enough to editorial obstruction in their lifetime, and to the oddness of the public.

As someone trained in anthropology, archaeology and history, I know the challenge of understanding “the other,” even when that cultural “other” is standing right in front of me.  If I can’t figure out what it really means to be an Iraqi, how can I possibly figure out what it means to be an eighteenth-century British-American?  How can I orient myself to that way of thinking?  Even immersion in the historical texts of the day only gets me so far (closer than 99.9% of all the Tea Party, to be sure).  All we have is what they wrote and that is subject to modern cultural bias.

So believing we can simply “read the consitiution” without consideration for the time and place in which it was created, the real revolutionary nature of the document, we cannot possibly comprehend the constitution in the way the “originalists” tell us we should.  If we could, I expect they wouldn’t care for the results.

Revolution is scary.


Related Articles

11 thoughts on “On Reading Adam Smith, Thomas Paine and The Constitution

  1. It’s sorta like going to an art show of Impressionist paintings and have to maneuver around huge crowds today when this work was oft derided when originally exhibited…or like Saturday night, hearing the MSO play Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring which elicited a standing ovation but caused a riot on it’s first performance because if it’s ‘dissonance’…

  2. You are over-complicating things. We don’t need to know exactly what they were thinking. We just need to understand the circumstances that brought the “originalists” to act in the manner that they did back then. When the constitution is read with the very basic knowledge of the events that lead up to it’s writing, it all makes sense.

  3. You are right, scrap the constitution and allow the Supreme Court of the United States re-write it, right now.

  4. Typical, call me an idiot for actually proposing a solution. What then is your academically superior solution? or do we just allow individual lower level judges interpret and reinterpret the constitution to their liking. If we cannot possibly discern the intentions of its writers, why not have it re-written in our language and for these times?
    Sorry, I am an idiot, i forgot the liberal mantra: “complain about everything, never propose a solution, then claim to be an agent of change”

    1. That’s what judges do. Since Marbury v Madison, judges exist to interpret the Constitution. The only court that has the final say on interpretation is the SCOTUS. “Lower level” judges can be appealed and overruled by higher-level judges. It’s how the system was designed to work.

      How is that part of our government broken? Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots broken, but the judiciary is, for the most part, functional (when the Senate isn’t blocking the appointment of Federal judges, that is…)

    2. By the way, the phrase “private property” appears nowhere in the Constitution. I always find it amusing to point that out to “originalists.” I ask them if that means that there is no private property in America.

      FWIW, the only reference to the word “property” in the constitution is in Article IV:

      The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

      Funny, the only reference to “property” in the entire document is in reference to public property. Private Property is referenced in the fifth amendment.

  5. Phil,
    The premise of the entire article is that we cannot possibly decipher what the writer’s intentions were because of the changing times. But, you in your infinite wisdom, think that any judge should be allowed to interpret it as they see fit. What if all of the judges, like the majority of the Supreme Court justices, were “originalists”? What tune would you be singing then? You are only against interpretations that you do not agree with. Small and narrow minded thinking.

    1. Sorry, I wasn’t clear in the post. My main point is that “originalism” as construed by conservative judicial theorists is a myth. It’s nearly impossible to get into the mind of an 18th century revolutionary to understand “what they meant.” So saying “read the constitution” as if that’s a solution to the problem of textual interpretation is naive.

      I’m against interpretations that claim superiority through a false sense of “originality” or “authenticity.” They’re as interpretive and subjective as the Warren court was when they ruled on Brown v. Board of Education.

  6. You are talking in circles, any interpretation is going to be subjective, regardless of whether you say you are biased by the past, present or future. Your objective is to dispute the interpretations you don’t politically agree with and then to silence them.

Comments are closed.