The Jan. Sixth Committee and the Legacy of Alexander Hamilton
defending democracy by appealing to our most anti-democratic founder
The notion that an attack on the Capitol intended to halt the constitutionally mandated process for electing the president not only enjoys constitutional protection but actively carries out the Constitution’s elemental purposes has become part and parcel of Trumpist rightism, which like the Tea Party Movement before it, rests on certain dimly understood values of the revolutionary American founders: their promotion of liberty, their supposed opposition to government. “We are 1776,” as the current rightist slogan has it.
Jamie Raskin, a House member from Maryland, has been out to demolish that notion. On July 12, in the January Sixth Committee, Raskin too invoked the American founders, in his ongoing effort to combat the persistent fantasy that insurrection against the federal government is among the rights protected by the Constitution. He pursued the same effort on July 20, in the Judiciary Committee, when he assailed the idea that the Second Amendment exists to enable armed rebellion against government tyranny.
Intellectually, that’s a bit like demolishing fish in a barrel. Raskin knows it: he called the right-wing position a “constitutional joke.” The idea that any constitution can build into itself a right to take down the government it establishes is absurd on its face. As I think Garry Wills once put it: there may be a right to rebel against government, under certain circumstances. If so, it can’t be enumerated in that government’s constitution. The U.S. Constitution is no exception to the rule.
Emotionally, though, the false ideas that Raskin is shooting down have long, wide resonance, going back to the founding and even before.
The Jan. 6 insurrectionists’ theories of government and history frame 1776 as the national founding year, so they associate certain elements of the Declaration of Independence, adopted that year, with establishing a national law, even though national law wasn’t really established until 1788, with ratification of the Constitution. Such jumbled associations get them caught up in the great effort by the Continental Congress of ’76 to make the secession of a group of British colonies seem an inevitable expression of the elemental purposes of the British Constitution.
The founders’ position in the Declaration wasn’t any more constitutionally logical or historically accurate than the Trumpists’. But it got the job done.
So if you did an eye-roll where I said “the Jan. 6 insurrectionists’ theories of government and history”—as if they could have anything like a theory!—I’d suggest that once we get into the question of the Declaration as intellectual justification for the American Revolution, “we are 1776” becomes a problem not just for the Jan. 6 insurrectionists but for the rest of us too. Many who excoriate the Jan. 6 attack, for all of the obvious and good reasons, share the fantasy that constitutionalist justifications for breaking away from Britain, as expressed in the Declaration, were sound—and that those justifications underlie the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Still, Raskin was manifestly correct—there’s no need, that is, for evidence or argument—when he said in the Judiciary Committee on July 20:
My friend from Texas, Mr. Roy, advances the so-called insurrectionist view of the second amendment, that the second amendment's purpose is to give the people the right to overthrow or fight our government or fight the police or threaten armed resistance if the government is somehow being unfair or unjust. This reading is totally and absolutely absurd and flies in the face of the plain text of the Constitution.
And in the Jan. 6 committee, on July 12:
You might imagine our founders would have been shocked to learn that an American President would one day come to embrace and excuse political violence against our own institutions, or knowingly send an armed mob to attack the Capitol to usurp the will of the people. But, you know, Mr. Chairman, the founders were pretty wise about certain things.
The problem is that Raskin did then go on to provide evidence and make an argument.
From a scripting point-of-view, that was absolutely necessary. The guy has to sound like he knows what he’s talking about and make an articulate case that there’s no constitutional basis for the “we are 1776” position, regarding not just the Jan. 6 insurrection but also any other rebellion against the federal government. Between the writing and the delivery, the Jan. 6 committee and Raskin himself have done a beautiful job of that.
But as with so many other efforts to restrain Trump and Trumpism, going back to the impeachment hearings of 2019, Raskin’s invocation of the founders, and especially the founders’ creating constitutional safeguards against precisely the Trump type, has unwittingly perpetuated—at the very moment of defending democracy from Trumpist attack—the anti-democratic positions that the founders vigilantly held.
And that contradiction, engaged in by well-educated liberal anti-Trumpists, is related to the ”we are 1776” contradiction.
My point isn’t that there are dumb people on both sides. The contradiction for liberalism, in citing the founders’ theorizing, has dovetailed in an absolutely bizarre manner with the success of “Hamilton: an American Musical” to make the most openly antidemocratic founder of them all—a low bar, I admit—the new go-to guy for quotes on defeating right-wing demagoguery. Appealing to Hamilton, of all people, in defending democracy came up in the impeachment hearings, when Adam Schiff, the House manager, repeated a Hamilton quote that had been gobsmacking the Internet ever since Trump’s election because it seemed to predict Trump himself. On July 12, Raskin went to a similar place, stating correctly:
In the very first Federalist Paper, Alexander Hamilton observed that history teaches that opportunistic politicians who desire to rule at all costs will begin first as demagogues, pandering to the angry and malignant passions of the crowd, but then end up as tyrants, trampling the freedoms and the rights of the people.
It’s true that history—which, when it teaches lessons, means a highly partial reading of the past—did teach Hamilton and a lot of the other founders a lesson that led them to the convenient conclusion that any policy demanded by the mass of ordinary people for bringing about easier access to power and greater equality of opportunity must lead inevitably, first, to a tyranny of the majority and then a takeover by a demagogue. It’s really best, then, to create constitutional structures for keeping a few people in power, at the expense of all others. The people, too, will be happier this way in the end, even if they don’t know it. It's what history shows us, so.
The founders feared majorities. That’s what the quote that Raskin cited bluntly means.
It’s weird to defend a democracy that way, because, for one thing, the quote is anti-democratic, and for another, Trump doesn’t have the majority appeal that the founders took pains to safeguard against. He won in 2016 only thanks to another of their genius ideas for keeping people like Trump out of power: electors’ choosing the president, instead of the people.
Thanks, fellas. Worked out great.
The Jan. 6 insurrectionists, too, are a tiny minority, representing a concerted effort to keep the presidency in the hands of the candidate with, for the second time running, fewer votes than his opponent. The entire Trumpist effort is anti-majority. Since Hamilton and the other founders were anti-majority too, and the success of Trump and Trumpism is a product of their systems for defeating democracy, they have very little to offer democracy in a defense against Trumpism.
I remain keenly aware that my point here isn’t going to change anything about the way liberalism, the Democratic Party, Jamie Raskin, and the January Sixth Committee do things. The target audience digs that kind of thing the most, and the committee is doing an astonishingly good job of telling its story and sticking to it.
But I do think American liberalism’s refusal to acknowledge these contradictions, regarding our distance from and even opposition to the founders, has contributed quite actively to American liberalism’s manifest crisis. And that just might matter. According to Raskin:
The crucial thing is the next step. What this committee — what all of us — will do to fortify our democracy against coups, political violence and campaigns to steal elections away from the people. ...
Yet he’s citing sources who were dedicated to keep the people, as we currently understand the term, away from elections.
Or maybe it’s just that I get enough juice from these contradictions, and from believing they matter to current politics, to allow me to tell my offbeat stories about the founding period.
Either way! I don’t know . . .
In any event, that’s all until September, as I’m putting BAD HISTORY on pause for August: if you’re month-by-month, you won’t be billed for that month; if you’re an annual subscriber, you’ll still get two posts-per-twelve-months. Thanks for supporting this thing with your dollars—it means a lot to me—and please pass the word along to anyone who might want to receive the emails, either free or—like you, the few, the proud—as paying subscribers.
Chip Roy (R. TX) perfectly articulates the fantastical rightist view of the Second Amendment: