Great Antidote Extras: Darren Staloff on the American Founding

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Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks

When you get rid of a monarchy, what can take its place? Darren Staloff answers with the U.S. Constitution and the ideas in it. Host Juliette Sellgren wants to know more. 
What’s special about the U.S. Constitution? It’s an imperfect document attempting to guide a large group of diverse, imperfect people. Great Antidote host Juliette Sellgren invites Darren Staloff to explain why people fought for it when it was created and what it still offers to people in the U.S. today. 

Some of the big questions Staloff and Sellgren discuss are: 

  • When you get rid of the monarchy what stands above politics to keep the county together? 
  • What were the successes and the failures of the Articles of Confederation? 
  • How are the concerns of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists the same and different? 
  • How much of a genius was Thomas Jefferson (Sellgren, as a UVA student, owns her bias on this one quite humbly)?
  • How Covid-19 and responses to Covid-19 were the same and different from other national emergencies (like a war)?

As always, Sellgren begins by asking her guest: What does Staloff want young people to know? 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
One thing I would suggest is just how difficult and rare it is to achieve both freedom and prosperity and how incredibly fragile those things are. I think we’ve had so much of it for so long that we assume that’s just a constant in the background, but it’s actually fairly rare in the human experience, and it’s fairly easy to lose either or both of those…

We’re unique in the sense that we're the largest, federated republic the world has ever seen. We're actually the first country to have a full blown written constitution to guide us. All those things all gave us huge edges. But we've faced major challenges to both our freedom and our prosperity before but we haven't in a little while and I think that's made us kind of complacent. I think your generation, more than any, because you all grew up after the Cold War. For previous generations, they knew of two World wars, Korean War, Vietnam War, Great Depression, the great stagflation of the 1970s, and a lot of European countries fell into chaos. So, it's easy for the younger generation that isn't schooled in history as much to not know that even not that long ago, things went kind of sideways. 
Staloff talks about how the founders envisioned a limited federal government but one that had the power to achieve its limited objectives: interstate commerce, foreign affairs, defense. But, of course, they also understood that national crises and emergencies would arise. Sellgren and Staloff talk about how Covid-19 and responses to Covid-19 were the same and different from a national emergency like a war. (For more Great Antidote episodes related to Covid-19 and responses to Covid-19 see Jay Bhattacharya on the US Response to COVID-19 and David Henderson on Liberation from Lockdown Now).

Staloff also shares an insight from Alexis DeTocqueville that a great threat to American democracy will not come from fascistic militarists but from the “nurses” who want to keep Americans safe from others but also from themselves. 

Starting around 10:50 they discussed what the government in America looked like before the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and about the diversity that has always existed in America. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
Something people don't realize about early America is we think of ourselves as a country that has become very diverse. Well, we are very diverse, but we didn't become diverse. We were diverse from day one. Ethnically, racially, religiously, but also regionally and culturally and even within, not just between states and regions, but within states. 
There's a very funny story when a New England minister by the name of Cotton Mather, I believe it was, went up to I think it was Marblehead, Massachusetts, and gave a traditional Jeremiad about how, you know, you guys just aren't living up to the way your parents lived and said, you know, you are all pursuing wealth but we came here for God and someone in the audience yells, “No, you're thinking down the base, sir. We came here for the fish.” And the funny thing is, that's literally true. The people who settled Marble Hall in Gloucester weren't actually Puritans. They came for the fishing. And even in a place like Puritan Massachusetts, not everyone was gonna be a puritan and they would've had different goals and agendas. 

Sellgren and Staloff also talk about what an achievement it was for Americans to move beyond a monarchical culture but also that monarchs can and do often help to keep counties stable. They talk about examples like France and Spain both in the far past and more recently. There’s also discussion of James Madison’s Vices of the Political System of the United States, April 1787, The Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan

Key Quote on James Madison (lightly edited) 
The people are also capable of being selfish and passionate. And all the themes we read about in Federalist 51 are there in Vices of the Political System of the United States. [Madison] has already seen it, that there is a danger of popular government becoming majoritarian democracy. He thought that opened up the really real problem of a tyranny of the majority. You know? And as the old joke goes, what's democracy? Well, it's two wolves sitting down with a sheep to discuss what's for dinner. 
Those who enjoy history (and fans of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton) will also find much to enjoy in this episode, especially starting around 39:18.  Staloff reminds listeners that even though many of founders like Jefferson and Hamilton had long and vitriolic disagreements, they also acknowledged their opponent’s sincere love of their country and virtues like honesty and integrity. 

Key Quote (lightly edited)
Right now, I think part of the reason we're so intense in our differences is we haven't [militarily] served together in a long time, done anything together. And so there's a real breakdown of trust. Because serving together, even with your differences that are very, very real, profoundly real… there are certain core things that you agree on and that's what you're fighting for. We still have those core things we agree on, but we haven't had to fight together as a group for it. And so we don't even think about those anymore. All we think about are things we disagree about. 
Finally, what has Staloff changed his mind about? Staloff admits that he had always thought that “the craziness” that happens on campuses would stay on campuses (like in the Las Vegas slogan). But he’s learned that he was very wrong about that. Even though it used to feel true, it doesn’t any more. Edgy, contrarian, critical views that were common on campus and in academic writing tended to be isolated from the general culture. But the rise of popular, non-academic historians has changed a lot of that. 

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