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A Brief History of Opinion-Writing Practices from Hale and Blackstone to the 20th Century

In American History, Britain, History, Law, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on August 9, 2017 at 6:45 am

This post is adapted from a law review article that may be downloaded here (citations available in the original).  

Sir Matthew Hale and Sir William Blackstone explained that judicial opinions in England traditionally were a source of unwritten law, or lex non scripta, derived from custom and read from the bench but not transcribed in official reports or indexed in a formal corpus.  Judicial opinions began as an oral medium, not a written record.  They were considered evidence of what the law was, but not the law itself.

From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, opinions were often written down, in French, and compiled in Year Books.  Lawyers began citing opinions—some written, some unwritten—in their arguments before the courts, although there was no systematized mode of citation.  As early as the fifteenth century, lawyers produced abridgements, or digests, to review the state of the law across England.  These sketchy compilations summarized and classified opinions and could be referenced in the courtroom as authority for particular propositions.  During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a comprehensive scheme of methodical and widespread adherence to written precedent emerged gradually by slow degrees.  However, not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did judges and litigants treat opinions as authoritative and binding in a manner that resembled the modern sense of precedent.  The publication of Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England over the course of nearly two decades during the early seventeenth century provided direction for both jurists and attorneys who wished to substantiate their arguments with concrete holdings.  Still there were no certified court reporters or verbatim transcriptions; the enterprise of publishing reports or digests was often personal and selective, insofar as reporters often chose to record only cases they liked and to disregard cases they disliked.

From approximately 1600 to 1800, the British House of Lords enjoyed supreme appellate jurisdiction over cases in common-law and equity courts.  During that time, the House of Lords did not publish reports of its decisions, seriatim or otherwise.  Most cases were ultimately determined by intermediate appellate courts, including the Exchequer Chamber, the Court of Common Pleas, and the King’s Bench, which regularly issued seriatim opinions that were transcribed by reporters.  Prior to American independence from Great Britain, appeals from colonial courts went before the Privy Council in England.  The Privy Council reached decisions by majority vote but issued those decisions as unified pronouncements, regardless of dissenting views.  Because all decisions of the Privy Council were subject to the King’s review, and the King, the site and symbol of the law or body politic, could not articulate simultaneous, contradictory positions, the appearance of unanimity within the Privy Council was paramount.

In its early years, after the adoption of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the United States Supreme Court (“the Court”), following the practice of English common-law courts—specifically the King’s Bench—typically rendered decisions in the form of per curiam and seriatim opinions.  The near obligatory practice of rendering written opinions was an American innovation and a departure from the English custom of residual orality.  The fact that the United States Constitution was written perhaps necessitated the textual documentation of judicial opinions in books, digests, and reports.

During the tenure of Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth (1796–1800), the third Chief Justice of the Court, seriatim opinions became less common and were abandoned during the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall (1801–1835), who orchestrated consolidated opinions among the justices, much to the chagrin of Thomas Jefferson.  Justices who concurred with the prevailing rationale no longer authored a separate opinion to express their agreement.  Justice William Johnson, a Jeffersonian Republican, was the notable exception, authoring nearly half of the dissents that were produced by members of the Court during his tenure on the bench.  Chief Justice Marshall, for his part, authored most of the Court’s majority opinions, which were issued with the phrase “opinion of the Court” to lend the impression that the justices spoke with one voice.  Collegiality and consensus-building must have been a high priority because, after work hours, the justices resided and dined together in a small boardinghouse on Capitol Hill, away from their families, where court conflicts could have incited personal quarrels.  Abandoning the seriatim mode and dissenting opinions also quickened the publication process; over a quarter of the cases decided by opinion between 1815 and 1835 were published in no more than five days.

The period late in Chief Justice Marshall’s tenure to approximately 1905 involved the rise of dissenting justices.  Chief Justice Marshall himself began to author dissents as the Court increasingly decided cases through majority rather than unanimous opinions.  Dissents proliferated during the mid-nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.  Justice John McLean and Justice Benjamin Curtis authored memorable dissents in Dred Scott v. Sandford.  Forty-eight years later, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s three-paragraph dissent in Lochner v. New York became one of the most influential legal writings in American history.  Blackstone’s conviction that opinions were evidence of law but not actually law continued to some extent throughout the nineteenth century, yet it had been diminishing since the mid-eighteenth century.  The notion of “caselaw,” or the idea that judicial opinions constituted law, did not gain currency until the twentieth century.  Today it is mostly accepted without question or qualification.

The twentieth century ushered in the era of the “Great Dissenter,” a label that has been conferred on Justice Holmes and Justice John Marshall Harlan.  By the 1940s, most cases involved separate opinions.  Dissents and separate writings are now common.  A jurist’s reasoning and argument typically enjoy precedential effect, but historically, under the English tradition of the common law, the judgment of the opinion was authoritative, and later courts could disregard the analysis from which that judgment followed.  The results of an opinion, in other words, took priority over its reasoning.

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Varieties of Emersonian Pragmatism: Synthesis in Justice Holmes

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship on April 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

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There is a long tradition of scholarship regarding Emerson’s pragmatism. Among those who have written about Emerson’s pragmatism are Russell B. Goodman, Giles Gunn, Poirier, Cornel West, Joan Richardson, Levin, and James M. Albrecht. Even earlier Kenneth Burke noted that “we can see the incipient pragmatism in Emerson’s idealism” and that “Emerson’s brand of transcendentalism was but a short step ahead of an out-and-out pragmatism.”

Goodman analyzed Emerson as “America’s first Romantic philosopher,” the counterpart to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle whose idealism would influence William James and later John Dewey and Stanley Cavell.

Gunn examined while contributing to the critical renaissance of American pragmatism in the 1990s; he suggested that Emerson cast a long shadow “at the commencement of the pragmatist tradition in America” and that Emerson belonged to a family of writers that included Henry James, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, Frank Lentricchia, and others.

To reach this conclusion Gunn adopted a more diffuse definition of pragmatism that went beyond the philosophical tradition of Peirce, Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Sidney Hook, Morton White, Richard Bernstein, John McDermott, and Richard Rorty. He attended to aesthetically charged political texts presented not only by Emerson but also by W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Flannery O’ Connor, Elizabeth Hardwick, Poirier, Cornel West, Clifford Geertz, and Stanley Fish. Gunn left behind James’s “somewhat restricted focus on the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth” and turned instead to literary and cultural works that affected social issues.

Gunn’s focus on the social indicates a debt to Dewey, and his valuation of Emerson must be considered in a Deweyian context. That Emerson is a pragmatist is somewhat implied or tacit in Gunn’s account; his discussion is not about what elements of Emersonian thought evidence pragmatism but about how Emerson influenced Henry James Sr. and his sons William and Henry, who in turn influenced a host of other writers; how Emerson spearheaded an American tradition of strong poets and transmitted optimism to subsequent writers; and how Emerson cultivated aesthetic rhetoric and anticipated progressive sociopolitical thought.

If Gunn is a bridge between classical philosophical pragmatism and neopragmatism of the aesthetic variety, Poirier was neither classical philosophical nor neopragmatist, eschewing as he did the logics and empiricism of Pierce and James as well as the political agitating of some of Gunn’s subjects. Poirier concentrated above all on the literary and cultural aspects of pragmatism: not that these aspects are divorced from politics, only that their primary objective is aesthetic or philosophical rather than partisan or activist.

Poirier sought to “revitalize a tradition linking Emerson to, among others, Stein, and to claim that new directions can thereby be opened up for contemporary criticism.” He, like Gunn, was frank about his attempt to expand the pragmatist canon that purportedly began with Emerson. “As Emerson would have it,” he explained, “every text is a reconstruction of some previous texts of work, work that itself is always, again, work-in-progress.”

This constant, competitive process of aesthetic revision gives rise to a community of authors whose mimetic activities gradually form and reform a canon that resembles and functions like the constantly reformulating legal principles in a common-law system: “The same work gets repeated throughout history in different texts, each being a revision of past texts to meet present needs, needs which are perceived differently by each new generation.” Within this revisionary paradigm, Poirier heralded Emerson as the writer who “wants us […] to discover traces of productive energy that pass through a text or a composition or an author, pointing always beyond any one of them.”

Cornel West explored the radical implications of pragmatism to democracy in the works of Emerson, Peirce, William James, Dewey, Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, W.E.B. DuBois, Reinhold Niebuhur, Lionel Trilling, Roberto Unger, and Michel Foucault. Unlike the interpreters of pragmatism discussed above, West extended the pragmatist canon from America to the European continent and professed a radical preoccupation with knowledge, power, control, discourse, and politics. Like the previous interpreters, however, he acknowledged the family resemblances among disparate pragmatist thinkers and their ideas and so, in Nietzschean or Foucaultian fashion, undertook a “genealogy” of their traditions.

Recent work by Colin Koopman has run with the historicist compatibilities between genealogy and pragmatism to articulate novel approaches to cultural studies. Although the topic exceeds the scope of this short post, genealogical pragmatism might serve as a promising methodology for future studies of the common-law system.

“My emphasis on the political and moral side of pragmatism,” West explained, “permits me to make the case for the familiar, but rarely argued, claim that Emerson is the appropriate starting point for the pragmatist tradition.” West’s emphasis on pragmatism as a “new and novel form of indigenous American oppositional thought” has an interesting valence with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s new and novel form of dissenting from the majority and plurality opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Holmes’s jurisprudence was oppositional, in other words, although not radical in the sense that West means.

West credited Emerson with enacting “an intellectual style of cultural criticism that permits and encourages American pragmatists to swerve from mainstream European philosophy,” and Holmes’s dissents likewise moved American jurisprudence away from its British origins—especially from Blackstonian paradigms of the common law—and towards an oppositional paradigm modeled off theories of Darwinian struggle.

Richardson borrows a phrase from Darwin, “frontier instances,” which he borrowed from Francis Bacon, to trace the continuity of pragmatism in American life and thought. Her argument “proceeds by amplification, a gesture mimetic of Pragmatism itself, each essay illustrating what happened over time to a form of thinking brought over by the Puritans to the New World.” She treats pragmatism as a uniquely American philosophy and more impressively as an organism that develops through natural selection: “The signal, if implicit, motive of Pragmatism is the realization of thinking as a life form, subject to the same processes of growth and change as all other life forms.” Her diverse subjects signal the definitive expositors of pragmatism for their respective eras: Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, William and Henry James, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein.

Richardson’s Emerson is a visionary who retained a ministerial or spiritual philosophy but who repackaged it in less conventionally Christian terms than his Puritan, evangelical predecessors. She explains that Emerson imperfectly replicated the work of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles to make it apprehensible in the rapidly changing American context. Her latest book, Pragmatism and American Experience, endeavors to untangle the knot of pragmatism and transcendentalism, searching Cavell for illumination regarding the perceived mismatch between these two prominent schools of American philosophy.

Albrecht interrogates the term “individualism” and describes its currency within a pragmatic tradition that runs from Emerson, William James, and Dewey to Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. Unlike the aforementioned scholars of Emerson, who “do not resolve the question of how far, and to what purpose, one can claim the ‘pragmatic’ character of Emerson’s thought,” Albrecht comes close to a practical answer that is made more insightful and understandable in light of Holmes’s judicial writings that appear in media (opinions and dissents) that control rather than merely influence social patterns.

Albrecht strikes a balance between radical and conservative characterizations of pragmatism, “which gets accused of […] contradictory sins: it optimistically overestimates the possibilities for reform, or it succumbs to a conservative gradualism; it is too committed to a mere, contentless method of inquiry that undermines the stability of traditional meanings, or its emphasis on existing means places too much weight on the need to accommodate existing customs, truths, and institutions.” The same could be said of the common-law tradition that Holmes adored and about which he authored his only book, The Common Law, in 1881.

Albrecht never mentions the common law, but there is a mutual radiance between his analysis of Emerson and the longstanding notion of the common law as the gradual implementation and description of rules by courts, aggregated into a canon by way of innumerable cases and in response to changing social norms. Nor does Albrecht mention Holmes, whose Emersonian contributions to pragmatism only affirm Albrecht’s contention that “there are important benefits to be gained not by calling Emerson a pragmatist, […] but by reading Emerson pragmatically—by applying the fundamental methods and attitudes of pragmatism in order to highlight the ways in which similar attitudes are already present in, and central to, Emerson.”

One such benefit involves the sober realization that Holmes’s Emersonian pragmatism cannot be or ought not to be distorted to mean an equivalence with contemporary and coordinate signifiers such as “Left” and “Right,” “Liberal” and “Conservative,” for there are as many self-proclaimed “Conservative pragmatists,” to borrow a term from the jurist Robert H. Bork, as there are Cornel Wests: thinkers “concern[ed] with particularity—respect for difference, circumstance, tradition, history and the irreducible complexity of human beings and human societies—[which] does not qualify as a universal principle, but competes with and holds absurd the idea of a utopia achievable in this world” (Bork’s words).

Due to the long line of scholars celebrating and studying Emersonian pragmatism, Albrecht is able to remark, “The notion that Emerson is a seminal figure or precursor for American pragmatism is no longer new or controversial.” He extends and affirms a scholarly tradition by depicting “an Emerson whose vision of the limited yet sufficient opportunities for human agency and power prefigures the philosophy of American pragmatism.”

More important than Albrecht’s being the latest link in a chain is the clarifying focus he provides for examining an Emersonian Holmes by attending to two ideas that comport with common-law theory: first, that Emerson prefigured James by walking a line between monism and pluralism and by emphasizing the contingency and complexity of natural phenomena; and second, that Emerson considered ideas as derived from past experience but open to creative revision in keeping with present circumstances.

Regarding the first, Albrecht seeks to undermine a prevailing assumption that Emerson was some kind of absolute idealist, as even William James suggested. Albrecht’s argument is based on the position that Emerson rejected essentialisms and envisioned a cosmos consisting of competing forms and ideas that grow and evolve because of their competition.

Regarding the second, Albrecht seeks to show that although Emerson imagined himself as breaking from past forms and ideas, he also regarded the past as indispensable to our understanding of the present and as necessary for generating and cultivating creative dynamism; the past is inescapable and must be utilized to shape the present, in other words. “All attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain,” Emerson preached in this vein in his Divinity School address, adding that all “attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason[.] […] Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing.”

Albrecht promises an Emerson who recounts the mimetic and derivative nature of creativity and genius; yet his portrait of Emerson is incomplete without Poirier, who describes an Emersonian stream of pragmatism flowing with idiomatic, resonate, sonorous, and figurative language. Poirier’s notion of superfluity is central to understanding Holmes’s Emersonian role within a common-law system where “[e]very several result is threatened and judged by that which follows” (Emerson, “Circles”). In the common-law system according to Holmes, a “rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts” as they are permutated in case precedents (Emerson, “Divinity School Address).

Poirier’s notion of Emersonian superfluity involves a thinker’s “continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height,” and to push the syntactical and intellectual boundaries so as to avoid having “the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow” (Emerson, “Circles”). Superfluity is an attempt to realize in language the restive impulse to drive forward and reenergize, to prophesy and transcend. It characterizes language that is designed to “stir the feelings of a generation” (Holmes, “Law in Science and Science in Law”), or less grandiosely to compensate rhetorically for the inability of the written word to realize the extraordinary power of an idea or emotion.

 

Paul H. Fry on “African-American Literary Criticism”

In Academia, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on February 10, 2016 at 8:45 am

Below is the next installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry. The previous lectures are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Harold Bloom’s American Sublime

In Academia, America, American Literature, Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on August 12, 2015 at 8:45 am

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This review originally appeared here in the American Conservative.

What can be said about Harold Bloom that hasn’t been said already? The Yale professor is a controversial visionary, a polarizing seer who has been recycling and reformulating parallel theories of creativity and influence, with slightly different foci and inflections, for his entire career, never seeming tiresome or repetitive. He demonstrates what is manifestly true about the best literary critics: they are as much artists as the subjects they undertake.

Bloom’s criticism is characterized by sonorous, cadenced, almost haunting prose, by an exacting judgment and expansive imagination, and by a painful, sagacious sensitivity to the complexities of human behavior and psychology. He is a discerning Romantic in an age of banality and distraction, in a culture of proud illiteracy and historical unawareness. Bloom reminds us that to be faithful to tradition is to rework it, to keep it alive, and that tradition and innovation are yoked pairs, necessarily dependent on one another.

Bloom has been cultivating the image and reputation of a prophet or mystic for decades. His stalwart defense of the Western canon is well known but widely misunderstood. His descriptive account is that the canon is fluid, not fixed—open, not closed. It might be stable, but it’s not unchangeable. The literary canon is the product of evolution, a collection of the fittest works that have been selectively retained, surviving the onslaught of relentless competition.

Bloom’s prescriptive position is that, because human agency is a controllable factor in this agnostic filtering process, serious readers can and should ensure that masterpieces, those stirring products of original, even genius minds, are retained, and that the latest works are held to the highest aesthetic standards, which are themselves established and proven by revisionary struggle. The merit of a work is not found in the identity of its author—his or her race, gender, or sexuality—but in the text proper, in the forms and qualities of the work itself.

Bloom’s latest book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, examines ambitious and representative American authors, its chapters organized by curious pairings: Whitman with Melville (the “Giant Forms” of American literature), Emerson with Dickinson (the Sage of Concord is Dickinson’s “closest imaginative father”), Hawthorne with Henry James (a relation “of direct influence”), Twain with Frost (“our only great masters with popular audiences”), Stevens with Eliot (“an intricate interlocking” developed through antithetical competition), and Faulkner with Crane (“each forces the American language to its limits”). This mostly male cast, a dozen progenitors of the American sublime, is not meant to constitute a national canon. For that, Bloom avers in his introduction, he envisions alternative selections, including more women: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Marianne Moore, and Flannery O’Connor. Bloom’s chosen 12 represent, instead, “our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” These writers have in common a “receptivity to daemonic influx.” “What lies beyond the human for nearly all of these writers,” Bloom explains, “is the daemon.”

What is this daemon, you ask. As always, Bloom is short on definition, embracing the constructive obscurity—the aesthetic vagueness—that Richard Poirier celebrated in Emerson and William James and Robert Frost, Bloom’s predecessors. Bloom implies that calling the “daemon” an idea is too limiting; the word defies ready explanation or summation.

The daemon, as I read it, is an amorphous and spiritual source of quasi-divine inspiration and influence, the spark of transitional creative powers; it’s akin to shamanism, and endeavors to transcend, move beyond, and surpass. Its opposite is stasis, repose. “Daemons divide up divine power and are in perpetual movement from their supernal heights to us,” Bloom remarks in one of his more superlative moments. “They bring down messages,” he intones, “each day’s news of the metamorphic meanings of the division between our mundane shell and the upper world.”

What, you might ask in follow up, is the American sublime that it should stand in marked contrast to the European tradition, rupturing the great chain of influence, revealing troublesome textual discontinuities and making gaps of influence that even two poets can pass abreast? “Simplistically,” Bloom submits, “the sublime in literature has been associated with peak experiences that render a secular version of a theophany: a sense of something interfused that transforms a natural moment, landscape, action, or countenance.” This isn’t quite Edmund Burke’s definition, but it does evoke the numinous, what Bloom calls, following Burke, “an excursion into the psychological origins of aesthetic magnificence.”

The Daemon Knows is part memoir, a recounting of a lifetime spent with books. There are accounts of Robert Penn Warren, Leslie Fiedler, and Cleanth Brooks. Bloom’s former students and mentors also make brief appearances: Kenneth Burke, for instance, and Camille Paglia. And Bloom doesn’t just analyze, say, Moby Dick—he narrates about his first encounter with that book back in the summer of 1940. He later asserts, “I began reading Hart Crane in the library on my tenth birthday.” That he remembers these experiences at all speaks volumes to Melville’s and Crane’s bewitching facility and to Bloom’s remarkable receptivity.

Bloom has not shied away from his signature and grandiose ahistorical pronouncements, perhaps because they’re right. Melville, for instance, is “the most Shakespearean of our authors,” an “American High Romantic, a Shelleyan divided between head and heart, who held against Emerson the sage’s supposed deficiency in the region of the heart.” Or, “Emersonian idealism was rejected by Whitman in favor of Lucretian materialism, itself not compatible with Indian speculations.” Or, “Stevens received from Whitman the Emersonian conviction that poetry imparts wisdom as well as pleasure.” These generalizations would seem to service hagiography, but even if they’re overstatement, are they wrong?

My professors in graduate school, many of them anyway, chastised Bloom and dubbed him variously a reactionary, a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, or a simpleton; they discouraged his presence in my essays and papers, laughing him out of classroom conversation and dismissing his theories out-of-hand. Or else, stubbornly refusing to assess his theories on their own terms, they judged the theories in the light of their results: the theories were bad because certain authors, the allegedly privileged ones, came out on top, as they always have. This left little room for newcomers, for egalitarian fads and fashions, and discredited (or at least undermined) the supposedly noble project of literary affirmative action.

They will be forgotten, these dismissive pedants of the academy, having contributed nothing of lasting value to the economy of letters, while Bloom will live on, continuing to shock and upset his readers, forcing them to second-guess their judgments and tastes, their criteria for aesthetic value, challenging their received assumptions and thumping them over the head with inconvenient facts and radical common sense. The school of resentment and amateurish cultural studies, appropriate targets of Bloom’s learned animus, will die an inglorious death, as dogmatic political hermeneutics cannot withstand the test of time.

Bloom, on the other hand, like his subjects, taps his inner daemon, invokes it and rides it where it travels, struggles against the anxiety of influence and displays all of the rhetorical power and play of the strong poets he worships. Dr. Samuel Johnson and Northrop Frye reverberate throughout his capacious tome, and for that matter his entire oeuvre. Bloom’s psychic brooding becomes our own, if we read him pensively, and we are better off for it.

Those who view literary study as a profession requiring specialized and technical training, who chase tenure and peer approval, publishing in academic journals and gaining no wider audience than groveling colleagues, do not possess the originality, the foresight, or the brute imagination necessary to achieve enduring appeal. Reading, done right, is a profoundly personal activity, an exercise in solitary contemplation and possible revelation; writing, done right, is transference: the redirection of complex states of consciousness and knowing from one person to another. A few sentences of Bloom’s contemplative questioning, such as the following, are worth the weight of whole academic articles: “At eighty-four I wonder why poems in particular obsessed me from childhood onward. Because I had an overemotional sensibility, I tended to need more affection from my parents and sisters than even they could sustain. From the age of ten on, I sought from Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Hart Crane, from Shakespeare and Shelley, the strong affect I seemed to need from answering voices.” Here Bloom invites Freudian investigation of himself, summoning the psychoanalytic models he uses on others.

Bloom is now 85. He claims to have another book left in him, making this one his penultimate. His awesome and dedicated engagement with the best that has been thought and known in the world appears to have left him unafraid of the finish, of what comes next, as though literary intimacy and understanding have prepared him, equipped him, for the ultimate. It seems fitting, then, to quote him on this score and to end with a musing on the end: “We are at least bequeathed to an earthly shore and seek memorial inscriptions, fragments heaped against our ruins: an interval and then we are gone. High literature endeavors to augment that span: My twelve authors center, for me, that proliferation of consciousness by which we go on living and finding our own sense of being.”

Review of “A Late Encounter With the Civil War,” by Michael Kreyling

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, The South on July 1, 2015 at 8:45 am

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This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Now that it’s 2015, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War has come to a close. Those who don’t follow such anniversaries may not have noticed it was ever here, but it was, although without the fanfare or nostalgia that marked the commemorations at the semi-centennial and the centennial.

Michael Kreyling, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University with an endowed chair and several books to his credit, brings a literary touch to his brief history of the Civil War—not of its battles and heroes and victims and villains but of the manner in which Americans have recalled those things over time. A history about history, conceived as a series of lectures, A Late Encounter With the Civil War bears a title that seems to apply as aptly to Kreyling (he’s had a long and distinguished career in literature but hasn’t worked extensively in the field of Civil War studies) as it does to the current era’s strained connection with the bloodiest conflict the nation has ever experienced.

Kreyling focuses on “collective memory,” a concept he purports to borrow from Maurice Halbwachs and Emile Durkheim and the premise of which is “that humans assemble or construct memory in the context of social life: we remember what our social groups require us to remember in order to maintain historical continuity over time and to claim our membership in them.” Collective memory is participatory rather than commanded, evolutionary rather than fixed, fluctuating rather than static; it emerges out of the conversations people within a given territory have regarding a particular event.

Kreyling is, of course, concerned with our collective memory of the Civil War. It is unclear which individuals enforce or control the regime of collective memory according to his paradigm, but presumably he means to suggest that all members of the community are at least partially complicit in the narrative perpetuation that becomes collective memory.

From the premise of collective memory Kreyling sets out to establish the constructedness of Southern narratives about the war and thereby to refute the assumption of Pierre Nova, who once claimed that “[d]ifferent versions of the Revolution or the Civil War do not threaten the American tradition because, in some sense, no such thing exists—or, if it does, it is not primarily a historical construction.” Kreyling submits, contra Nova, that historical memory is constructed because it involves both gradual initiation and exclusion: those who understand and promote the validated, official account are admitted into the group, members of which celebrate a shared past, whereas those who challenge the authorized narratives are marginalized or altogether excluded from the group. What the approved story of the Civil War is at the moment of the sesquicentennial remains unknown because, he says, only years after such a landmark can we objectively evaluate its cultural reception and narrative production.

Collective memory is not the same thing as personal memory. It is a “kind of complicated puppet theater” inasmuch as “we are the puller of strings” as well as “the figures pulled.” We not only “set dates for ceremonies of public memory and fill the ceremonies with choreographed activities” but also allow ourselves to be dragged along with such ceremonies; we resort to ritualistic commemoration to project the past onto our present, he explains, and to attempt to define ourselves both by and against our past.

Kreyling argues in his opening chapter that “the United States that formally remembered the Civil War at the semicentennial was different from the America of the centennial and sesquicentennial by one very powerful theme we can identify in retrospect: blood.” The subject of blood leads Kreyling into meandering discussions of The Great Gatsby and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This chapter becomes less about the memory of the Civil War and more about early 20th-century eugenicist fascinations with blood, an element of romanticized fiction that is “latent symbolic” or “cultural” because it “invades or pollutes the endangered citadel of whiteness.”

Theodore Roosevelt used the term “race suicide” to express a widely shared fear of racial degeneration, which was linked, Kreyling alleges, to a perceived collapse of civilization. Kreyling ties Roosevelt’s term to both the creation of and reaction to popular works by D. W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon Jr. He even implicates Woodrow Wilson in the rapid proliferation of racism—and not just by recalling Wilson’s oft-discussed response to the screening of The Birth of a Nation in the White House.

The second chapter maps the shift from memorialization to mass anxiety as race-relations in America forced the nation to reconsider the meaning and purpose of the Civil War. Here Kreyling considers an array of figures, from Bruce Catton and Robert Penn Warren to Edmund Wilson and Flannery O’Connor, to substantiate the proposition that public interest in the Civil War was on the wane and overshadowed by the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. All of this is very interesting, but we shouldn’t be surprised that most of the population at that time was more interested in its present moment than in a war that had occurred a century earlier.

The third and final chapter speculates about those “negotiations” that we have “between what did happen” during the Civil War and “what we would prefer to remember.” I say “speculates” because Kreyling is careful not to seem rash or conclusory about our own moment. Rather than giving an answer, for instance, he says that “we need to ask” the question “[w]here is the South now?” That we may ask that question at all shows how much different our generation is from those which came before, as Kreyling demonstrates by surveying recent literary scholarship on the matter.

Wherever the South is now, it seems to have traveled far from “pure ancestor worship.” That doesn’t mean our memory has become unproblematic. Kreyling sees in the historical fiction of Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen, for example, a disturbing turn to a counterfactual mode of ritual that distorts our understanding of past events. Kreyling rounds out his discussion of Gingrich and Forstchen (among other people and texts) with an upsetting observation: “we commemorate past wars with new ones.” Such a strong and ambiguous claim demands clarification, yet Kreyling doesn’t elaborate, perhaps because long explication would detract from the lasting force and profundity of the closing remark.

As smoothly as this book reads, one wonders what its chief contribution will be. It’s certainly unique and innovative to, as Kreyling does, compare vampire fiction with the racist notion of thoroughbred whiteness that was in circulation at the semicentennial. On the other hand, there might be a good reason why this approach hasn’t been tried, and it’s not because no one has thought of it.

When a book doesn’t move professional historiography in a direction that unearths obscure details, that adds to the sum of knowledge on a precise topic, or that sheds light on events by examining them from the unexplored perspective of cultural outsiders, it can rely too heavily on style and creativity and entertainment value. Kreyling’s book isn’t devoid of scholarship, but it does push the bounds of that genre. Perhaps its greatest achievement is its capacity to raise provocative questions about our present relationship to a conflict that in some ways seems so distant, but in others so familiar.

 

Es buena la Decimocuarta Enmienda?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, The Supreme Court on February 18, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

El artículo original se encuentra aquí. Traducido del inglés por Mariano Bas Uribe.

Pocas cosas dividen a los libertarios como la Decimocuarta Enmienda de la Constitución de Estados Unidos. Gene Healy ha observado que “Liberales clásicos de buena fe se han encontrado en ambos lados de la discusión”.

Por un lado están los que alaban la enmienda por evitar el poder de los estados para prejuzgar, dirigir, regular o usar fuerza de cualquier tipo para imponer leyes discriminatorias sobre sus ciudadanos. Por el otro están los que, aunque reconozcan la naturaleza problemática de las malas conductas y los actos inmorales del estado, no están dispuestos a consentir la transferencia de poder de los estados al gobierno federal, y en particular al poder judicial federal.

La división se reduce a las visiones del federalismo, es decir, al equilibrio o separación de los gobiernos estatales y nacional.

Las secciones primera y quinta de la Decimocuarta Enmienda son las más polémicas. La Sección Uno incluya la Cláusula de Ciudadanía, la Cláusula de Privilegios o Inmunidades, la Cláusula de Proceso Debido y la Cláusula de Igual Protección y la Sección Cinco otorga al Congreso la autoridad para aplicar legislativamente la enmienda. Estas disposiciones han dado mayores poderes al gobierno nacional, permitiendo a los tribunales federales a hacer que los estados cumplan las leyes federales con respecto a ciertos derechos (o supuestos derechos) individuales.

El Tribunal Supremo de Estados Unidos, en Barron v. Baltimore (1833), sostuvo que la Declaración de Derechos (las primeras diez enmiendas a la Constitución de EEUU) obligaban solo al gobierno federal y no a los gobiernos estatales. Mediante la Decimocuarta Enmienda, que fue ratificada oficialmente en 1868, el Tribunal Supremo de Estados Unidos y los tribunales federales inferiores han “incorporado” gradualmente la mayoría de las disposiciones de la Declaración de Derechos para aplicarlas contra los estados. Así que el gobierno federal se ha empoderado para hacer que los gobiernos estatales cumplan disposiciones que originalmente solo pretendían restringir los abusos federales.

Si el gobierno federal fuera el único o el mejor mecanismo para reducir el tipo de discriminación y violaciones de derechos prohibidos por la Decimocuarta Enmienda, esta sería bienvenida y aceptada. Pero no es el único correctivo concebible y, aparte, ¿no es contraintuitivo para los libertarios aplaudir y defender un aumento tanto en el ámbito como en el grado del poder federal, incluso si ese poder, en algunas ocasiones, haya producidos resultados admirables?

En contextos no relacionados con la Decimocuarta Enmienda, casi nunca resulta polémico para los libertarios promover remedios no gubernamentales, locales o descentralizados, para leyes y prácticas injustas y discriminatorias. A menudo se alega que la industria y el comercio y la simple economía son mejores mecanismos para reducir el comportamiento discriminatorio, ya se base en raza, clase, sexo, género o lo que sea, que la fuerza del gobierno. Aun así, frecuentemente esos libertarios que hacen sonar las alarmas acerca de las aproximaciones gubernamental, federal y centralizada de la Decimocuarta Enmienda a las leyes y prácticas discriminatorias son tratados de forma poco sincera, en lugar de con argumentos, como defensores de aquellas leyes y prácticas, en lugar de como oponentes por principio de las reparaciones federales centralizadas para daños sociales.

Cualquier debate sobre la Decimocuarta Enmienda debe ocuparse de la validez de esta aprobación. Durante la Reconstrucción, la ratificación de la Decimocuarta Enmienda se convirtió en una condición previa para la readmisión en la Unión de los antiguos estados confederados. Healy ha llamado a esto “ratificación a punta de bayoneta”, porque, dice, “para acabar con el gobierno militar, se obligó a los estados sureños a ratificar la Decimocuarta Enmienda”. La condición natural de esta reunificación contradice la afirmación de que la Decimocuarta Enmienda fue ratificada por un pacto mutuo entre los estados.

Los jueces federales consideran irrelevante el propósito de la enmienda

En 1873, el juez Samuel F. Miller, junto con otros cuatro jueces, sostuvo que la Decimocuarta Enmienda protegía los privilegios e inmunidades de la ciudadanía nacional, no la estatal. El caso afectaba a regulaciones estatales de mataderos para ocuparse de las emergencias sanitarias que derivaban de sangre animal que se filtraba en el suministro de agua. El juez Miller opinaba que la Decimocuarta Enmienda estaba pensada para ocuparse de la discriminación racial contra los antiguos esclavos en lugar de para la regulación de los carniceros:

Al acabar la guerra [de Secesión], los que habían conseguido restablecer la autoridad del gobierno federal no se contentaron con permitir que esta gran ley de emancipación se basara en los resultados reales de la contienda o la proclamación del ejecutivo [la Declaración de Emancipación], ya que ambos podían ser cuestionados en tiempos posteriores, y determinaron poner estos resultado principal y más valioso en la Constitución de la unión restaurada como uno de sus artículos fundamentales.

Lo que dice el juez Miller es que el significado y propósito de la Decimocuarta Enmienda (proteger y preservar los derechos de los esclavos liberados) se desacredita cuando se usa para justificar la intervención federal en los asuntos económicos cotidianos de un sector estatal concreto. La regulación estatal de los mataderos de animales no es una opresión del mismo tipo o grado que la esclavitud de gente basada en su raza. Argumentar otra cosa es minimizar la gravedad de la ideología racista.

El juez Miller reconocía que la regulación estatal en cuestión era “denunciada no solo por crear un monopolio y conferir privilegios odiosos y exclusivos a un pequeño número de personas a costa de una buena parte de la comunidad de Nueva Orleáns”, la ciudad afectada por los mataderos en cuestión, sino asimismo como una privación del derechos de los carniceros a ejercitar su profesión. Sin embargo, el juez Miller no creía que el gobierno federal tuviera derecho bajo la Constitución a interferir con una autoridad que siempre se había concedido a gobiernos estatales y locales.

Habiendo establecido al alcance limitado de la cláusula de privilegios o inmunidades en los Casos de los mataderos, el Tribunal Supremo acudió posteriormente a la Cláusula de Igual Protección y la Cláusula del Proceso Debido para echar abajo leyes bajo la Decimocuarta Enmienda. Pero el Tribunal Supremo no se ha detenido ante las leyes estatales: ha usado la Cláusula de Igual Protección y la Cláusula del Proceso Debido como pretexto para regular a ciudadanos y empresas privadas. La Decimocuarta Enmienda, que pretendía reducir la discriminación, se ha usado, paradójicamente, para defender programas de acción afirmativa que discriminan a ciertas clases de personas.

Ceder el poder a los jueces federales no les predispone a la libertad. Como la Sección Cinco de la Decimocuarta Enmienda permite al Congreso aprobar enmiendas o leyes que traten de infracciones estatales a la libertad individual, no es necesario ni constitucionalmente sensato que el poder judicial federal asuma ese papel. Los miembros del Congreso, al contrario que los jueces federales que disfrutan del cargo vitaliciamente, son responsables ante los votantes en sus estados y por tanto es más probable que sufran por su infidelidad a la Constitución.

A nivel conceptual, además, parece extraño que los libertarios defiendan internamente lo que condenan en relaciones exteriores, a saber, la doctrina paternalista de que un gobierno central más poderoso tendría que usar su músculo para obligar a cumplir a unidades políticas más pequeñas.

El legado de la enmienda

¿Ha generado resultados constructivos la Decimocuarta Enmienda? En muchas áreas, sí. ¿Son deplorables algunas de las ideologías contra las que se ha dirigido? En muchos casos, sí. ¿Eran malas las normas contra el mestizaje, las normas de segregación escolar y las normas prohibiendo a los afro-americanos actuar como jurados? Sí, por supuesto. Sin embargo no se deduce que solo porque algunos casos bajo la Decimocuarta Enmienda hayan invalidado estas malas leyes, esta sea necesaria o incondicionalmente buena, especialmente a la vista de la pendiente resbaladiza de precedentes que con el tiempo distancian a las normas de su aplicación pretendida. “Si los tribunales empiezan a usar la Decimocuarta Enmienda para aplicar derechos naturales libertarios”, advierte Jacob Huebert en Libertarianism Today, “no sería más que un pequeño paso para que empezaran a usarla para aplicar derechos positivos no libertarios”.

Intelectuales de la izquierda como Erwin Chemerinsky, Charles Black, Peter Edelman y Frank Michelman han defendido la protección y aplicación de “derechos de subsistencia” bajo la Decimocuarta Enmienda. Estos incluirían los derechos a comida, atención sanitaria y salario mínimo proporcionados por el gobierno. Las leyes estatales que evitaran estos derechos (que no proporcionaran estas prestaciones sociales) se considerarían inconstitucionales; el ejecutivo federal aseguraría así que todo ciudadano de los estados transgresores reciba atención sanitaria, alimentos y una renta básica, todo subvencionado por los contribuyentes.

Estoy dispuesto a admitir no solo que en la práctica yo litigaría bajo las disposiciones de la Decimocuarta Enmienda para representar competente y éticamente a mi cliente (imaginar un sistema en el que el poder federal no esté tan atrincherado es inútil para litigantes en un sistema real en que el poder federal está profundamente arraigado), pero también que, en un mundo más ideal, podría haber otras formas menos deletéreas de luchar contra discriminación y violaciones de derechos que la Decimocuarta Enmienda. El taller de la actividad diaria no atiende abstracciones esperanzadas. No se puede deshacer un sistema de la noche a la mañana: los abogados deben actuar con las leyes que tienen disponibles y no pueden inventar otras nuevas para sus casos o agarrarse a una mera política. No si quieren tener éxito.

En ausencia de la Decimocuarta Enmienda, muchas personas y empresas con quejas válidas podrían no tener soluciones constitucionales. Sin embargo eso no significa que los términos y efectos de la Decimocuarta Enmienda sean incuestionablemente deseables o categóricamente buenos. Se pueden celebrar las victorias logradas mediante la Decimocuarta Enmienda mientras se reconoce que debe haber un modo mejor.

La Decimocuarta Enmienda no es en sí misma un bien positivo sino un animal peligroso a manejar con cuidado. Los libertarios como clase tienen una devoción manifiesta impropia a su funcionamiento. Necesitamos en su lugar un debate, abierto, honrado y colegiado acerca de los méritos y la función de esta enmienda, no sea que otras criaturas similares miren al futuro y a costa de nuestras amadas libertades.

 

“Winston Churchill and the American Civil War,” by Miles Smith IV

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, Conservatism, Economics, Essays, History, Humanities, Libertarianism, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery, Southern History, The South on February 4, 2015 at 8:45 am

Miles Smith

Miles Smith IV is a visiting assistant professor at Hillsdale College and a historian of the Old South and Atlantic World. He took his B.A. from the College of Charleston and holds a Ph.D. in History from Texas Christian University. He is a native of Salisbury, North Carolina.

Last week saw the alignment of a peculiar set of anniversaries: The Fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s death, the seventieth of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Army, and the 208th birthday anniversary of Robert E. Lee. Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill died in 1965. One century earlier General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to his Federal counterpart U.S. Grant. Churchill and Lee enjoyed widespread acclaim for their conduct—Lee in the late nineteenth and both he and Churchill in the latter half of the twentieth century. In recent years deconstructing both men enjoyed being the vogue of both academic and popular commentators. Both Churchill and Lee lived their lives as traditionalists. Neither embraced the social or moral innovation of their own eras. Modern commentators degrade both for their seemingly reactionary ideals. Unsurprisingly, Churchill adored Lee (and Abraham Lincoln as well). A recent historian opined that Lee’s “tragic flaw” was that he upheld the genteel values of eighteenth century Virginia “in a society that left older ideals of nobility and privilege behind.” One might grant that Lee’s aristocratic and heavy-handed slaveholding would understandably guarantee him a fair share of detractors in the early twentieth century, but this commentator offered as his reason for deconstructing Lee a calamitous rationale:

In the long run, Lee’s decision to follow Virginia out of the Union and resign his commission from the US Army further reveals his eighteenth century sensibilities which emphasize state over country and a parochial interest in defending home and family rather than one’s nation. In choosing loyalty to his state over loyalty to his country, Lee ensured that his destiny would be tainted by defeat and the specter of treason.

The disturbing notion that one’s parochial interest in defending his home and family constitutes a “fatal flaw” ultimately saw its hellish culmination in the totalitarian nationalist regimes of the twentieth century. It was Lee’s very cultured localism, tragically tinged as it was with slaveholding, that endeared him to Winston Churchill.[1]

Before Winston Churchill assumed the premiership of the United Kingdom and before he battled the nationalist brutes ruling Germany and Italy, he wrote history. In History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Great Democracies, the fourth volume of his history of the Anglosphere, his view of American history reflected a patrician education and disposition. Never comfortable in the twentieth century, Churchill kept the values of a bygone Victorian Era well into the middle of the twentieth century. In Lee he found a similarly anachronistic gentleman of the eighteenth century living in the nineteenth. Churchill wrote that Lee’s “noble presence and gentle, kindly manner were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character.” He “weighed carefully, while commanding a regiment of cavalry on the Texan border, the course which duty and honour would require from him.” Churchill overstated Lee’s antipathy towards slavery but nonetheless seized on the Virginian’s conservative Whiggish politics. Lee knew secession to be dangerous and ill-advised “but he had been taught from childhood that his first allegiance was to the state of Virginia.” Churchill found Lee’s Old South an admirable but flawed reflection of British gentry. “There was,” said Churchill, “a grace and ease about the life of the white men in the South that was lacking in the bustling North. It was certainly not their fault that these unnatural conditions had arisen.” Churchill’s denotation of white men underscores his innate humanity. White men, he knew, built their civilization on the backs of enslaved people held in human bondage. “The institution of negro slavery,” Churchill knew, “had long reigned almost unquestioned.” Upon the basis of slavery “the whole life of the Southern states had been erected.” Churchill saw a “strange, fierce, old-fashioned life. An aristocracy of planters, living in rural magnificence and almost feudal state, and a multitude of smallholders, grew cotton for the world by slave-labour.” Churchill’s empathy for the planter class stemmed from his willingness to conceive them as a class that “ruled the politics of the South as effectively as the medieval baronage had ruled England.” Southerners who by varying degrees colluded with the capitalist system became feudal agrarians and misplaced Englishmen in Churchill’s romantic imagination. [2]

Southerners engaged in the capitalist system in the antebellum era. Not all southerners were equally capitalist, however, and the Whig planters of Mississippi and Louisiana embraced the economic, expansionistic, and modernizing nationalism of the United States in a way that horrified old planters in Virginia and Carolina. Nonetheless, the Old aristocratic Anglo-American planter communities provided Churchill with set pieces as he wrote his histories. Of Lee, Churchill somberly wrote that he “wrestled earnestly with his duty” during the secession crisis. “By Lincoln’s authority he was offered the chief command of the great Union army now being raised. He declined at once…” The immediacy of Lee’s refusal supplied Churchill with a heroically long-suffering but duty-bound Anglophone hero. Churchill made much of how Lee resigned, “and in the deepest sorrow rode across the Potomac bridge for Richmond. Here he was immediately offered the chief command of all the military and naval forces of Virginia.” Lee’s decision, thought Churchill, seemed beautiful and tragic. “Some of those who saw him in these tragic weeks, when sometimes his eyes filled with tears, emotion which he never showed after the gain or loss of great battles, have written about his inward struggle. But there was no struggle; he never hesitated.” Lee’s choice, declared Churchill, “was for the state of Virginia. He deplored that choice [and] foresaw its consequences with bitter grief; but for himself he had no doubts at the time, nor ever after regret or remorse.” Writing in 1858, Lee appeared as a forerunner of Churchill himself: warning of the disaster befalling England, but fighting determinedly when the conflict came. [3]

Sensitive to the political differences between Imperial Britain and the United States, Churchill nonetheless tried to make sense of the American Civil War and its aftermath. Churchill saw that “Radical vindictiveness” in Republican ranks “sprang from various causes. The most creditable was a humanitarian concern for the welfare of the negro.” Belief in the God-given humanity of African Americans was “shared only by a minority.” Churchill believed that “more ignoble motives were present in the breasts of such Radical leaders as Zachariah Chandler and Thaddeus Stevens.” Because they loved “the negro less than they hated his master, these ill-principled men wanted to humiliate the proud Southern aristocracy, whom they had always disliked, and at whose door they laid the sole blame for the Civil War.” But Churchill argued that “there was another and nearer point.”

The Radicals saw that if the negro was given the vote they could break the power of the Southern planter and preserve the ascendancy over the Federal Government that Northern business interests had won since 1861. To allow the Southern states, in alliance with Northern Democrats, to recover their former voice in national affairs would, the Radicals believed, be incongruous and absurd. It would also jeopardise the mass of legislation on tariffs, banking, and public land which Northern capitalists had secured for themselves during the war. To safeguard these laws the Radicals took up the cry of the negro vote, meaning to use it to keep their own party in power.

Churchill conceived of the Civil War from a perspective of a Briton deeply suspicious of the effects of modernizing industrial nationalism. His best known Liberal biographer, Lord Jenkins, painted him as a champion of Free-trade economic libertarianism and of workers as well. William Manchester, a far more conservative biographical voice, likewise understood Churchill as essentially a Free-trader whose conservatism remained confined to foreign policy. Free-trade economic views never allowed Churchill to entirely embrace the relationship between corporation and nation that characterized post-Civil War American politics. [4]

Capitalism accompanied Free-trade in Churchill’s mind, and he affirmed capitalism in his ideals about society. But he likewise displayed antipathy for the wedding of corporation and nation that followed the American Civil War. Of the captains of industry he wrote that “Carnegie and Rockefeller, indeed, together with Morgan in finance and Vanderbilt and Harriman in railroads, became the representative figures of the age,” when compared to the “colourless actors upon the political scene.” “Though the morality” of the captains of industry “has often been questioned, these men made industrial order out of chaos. They brought the benefits of large-scale production to the humblest home.” Still, Churchill saw the Gilded Age American Union as racked “by severe growing pains” and unrest. “There was much poverty in the big cities, especially among recent immigrants. There were sharp, sudden financial panics, causing loss and ruin, and there were many strikes, which sometimes broke into violence.” Most disturbing to Churchill the free trader, “Labour began to organize itself in Trade Unions and to confront the industrialists with a stiff bargaining power. These developments were to lead to a period of protest and reform in the early twentieth century.” Churchill’s deep ambivalence about the wedding of capitalism and nationalism led him the recognize “gains conferred by large-scale industry” but also to lament that “the wrongs that had accompanied their making were only gradually righted.”[5]

Churchill’s British perspective offered a nuanced perspective that stood outside the intemperate screeds of Lost Cause southerners, and the more numerous and far more influential hyper-nationalist hagiography devoted to the white northern liberators. Churchill understood that slavery constituted the great systemic evil of the nineteenth century United States and caused the Civil War. His libertarian proclivities left him unconvinced of the necessity of 800,000 dead. In this he prefigured agrarian Wendell Berry who noted in his essay “American Imagination and the Civil War” that a botched emancipation was far batter than no imagination. But Berry also noted that history demands that a botched emancipation be criticized for what was botched. David Goldfield, former president of the Southern Historical Association, declared in his America Aflame that his work was “neither pro-southern nor pro-northern. It is anti-war, particularly the Civil War.”[6]

To his credit, Abraham Lincoln regretted the Civil War’s violence in 1865 and subsequently proposed an expeditious readmission criterion for the seceded states, only to have it scuttled by Radical Republicans after his assassination. Unbeknownst to Lincoln, who genuinely seemed interested in restoring the status quo ante bellum, the war unleashed the ideological monstrosity of modern industrial nationalism on the American polity. Harry Stout recognized that industrial nationalism tarnished the war’s consequence of liberating African Americans from chattel slavery. Elliott West’s history of the Nez Perce War of 1877 posited the idea of a greater Reconstruction, whereby the Republican Party remade the entirety of the continental American polity in the image of white capitalistic, militaristic, Evangelistic Protestant nationalism. Native Americans stood in the way of the American nation, and the U.S. Army ruthlessly destroyed the last free Indian societies in the Far West. Societal transmutation on that scale necessitated violence in the name of the nation. Jackson Lears pointed out in his Rebirth of a Nation that racism on a societal scale (southern and northern) fed this nationalism driven by a political organization formally committed to black liberty. By 1900, four decades of almost uninterrupted Republican government turned the United States into an imperialistic nation-state. Though to a small degree mitigated institutionally in the United States by a lingering federalism, nationalism with its muscular industrial core eventually threw Europe into the nightmare of two world wars.[7]

Few American historians have offered an anti-nationalist vision of the Civil War. The camps seemed too rigidly defined for works such as Churchill’s to remain valid. Churchill’s vision of the American Civil War Era is at once not southern enough for Lost Cause partisans, nor is it sufficiently pro-northern for Neo-Abolitionists. Churchill saw the conflict as a tragedy. Nationalist historians and political philosophers generally counted the war a blessing; to think it a tragedy negated the benefits of union and emancipation. British Marxist Robin Blackburn exasperatedly asked why “a willingness on the part of the United States to admit the possibility that the war was not the best response” to secession or slavery was seen as condoning either.[8]

Conservative historians understandably co-opted Churchill into the pantheon of Anglo-American heroes committed to the maintenance of the Western World and to its transcendent expression of human liberty. Much of the resilience involved in Churchill revolves around the image of a nationalist military chieftain committed to Britain’s place in the world. That image is true—Churchill biographer Carlo d’Este argued that his subject was one of the humans truly born for war—but not complete. John Keegan once described Churchill as a true libertarian, and this seems an appropriate corrective given the multitude of remembrances published on this fiftieth anniversary of his passing.[9]

[1] Glenn W. LaFantasie, “Broken Promise,” Civil War Monitor 13 (Fall, 2014): 37

[2] Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Vol. 4: The Great Democracies.

[3] Churchill, Great Democracies.

[4] Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2001), 398-401; William Manchester, Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory (New York: Little & Brown, 1989), 361.

[5] Churchill, The Great Democracies.

[6] Wendell Berry, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” in Imagination in Place (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), 27; David Goldfield, America aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).

[7] Elliott West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).

[8] Robin Blackburn, “Why the Muted Anniversary? An Erie Silence,” CounterPunch (18th April 2011):

[9] Carlo d’Este, Warlord: A Life Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945 (HarperCollins, 2008); John Keegan, Winston Churchill: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2002), 27.

The Classical Liberalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Books, Economics, Emerson, Essays, Ethics, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Property, Western Philosophy on January 7, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

“The less government we have, the better.”[1] So declared Ralph Waldo Emerson, a man not usually treated as a classical liberal. Yet this man—the Sage of Concord—held views that cannot be described as anything but classical liberal or libertarian. His is a pastoral libertarianism that glorifies nature as a source of insight and inspiration for those with a poetical sense and a prophetic vision.

None other than Cornel West, no friend of the free market, has said that “Emerson is neither a liberal nor a conservative and certainly not a socialist or even a civic republican. Rather he is a petit bourgeois libertarian, with at times anarchist tendencies and limited yet genuine democratic sentiments.”[2] “Throughout his career,” Neal Dolan adds, “Emerson remained fully committed to the Scottish-inflected Lockean-libertarian liberalism whose influence we have traced to his earliest notebooks.”[3] An abundance of evidence supports this view. Dolan himself has written an entire book on the subject: Emerson’s Liberalism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009). Emerson extolled the “infinitude of the private man”[4] and projected a “strong libertarian-liberal emphasis”[5] in his essays and speeches. He was not an anarchist: he believed that “[p]ersonal rights, universally the same, demand a government framed on the ratio of the census” because “property demands a government framed on the ratio of owners and of owning.”[6] Nevertheless, he opined that “[e]very actual State is corrupt”[7] and that, if the people in a given territory were wise, no government would be necessary: “[W]ith the appearance of the wise man, the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary.”[8] One need only look to one of Emerson’s most famous essays, “Self Reliance,” for proof of his libertarianism.

“Self‑Reliance” is perhaps the most exhilarating expression of individualism ever written, premised as it is on the idea that each of us possesses a degree of genius that can be realized through confidence, intuition, and nonconformity. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,” Emerson proclaims, “that is genius.”[9]

Genius, then, is a belief in the awesome power of the human mind and in its ability to divine truths that, although comprehended differently by each individual, are common to everyone. Not all genius, on this view, is necessarily or universally right, since genius is, by definition, a belief only, not a definite reality. Yet it is a belief that leads individuals to “trust thyself”[10] and thereby to realize their fullest potential and to energize their most creative faculties. Such self‑realization has a spiritual component insofar as “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”[11] and “no law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.”[12]

According to Emerson, genius precedes society and the State, which corrupt rather than clarify reasoning and which thwart rather than generate productivity. “Wild liberty develops iron conscience” whereas a “[w]ant of liberty […] stupefies conscience.”[13] History shows that great minds have challenged the conventions and authority of society and the State and that “great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good‑humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”[14] Accordingly, we ought to refuse to “capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.”[15] We ought, that is, to be deliberate, nonconformist pursuers of truth rather than of mere apprehensions of truth prescribed for us by others. “Whoso would be a man,” Emerson says, “must be a noncomformist.”[16]

Self‑Interest and Conviction

For Emerson as for Ayn Rand, rational agents act morally by pursuing their self‑interests, including self‑interests in the well‑being of family, friends, and neighbors, who are known and tangible companions rather than abstract political concepts. In Emerson’s words, “The only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”[17] Or: “Few and mean as my gifts may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of my fellows any secondary testimony.”[18] It is in everyone’s best interest that each individual resides in his own truth without selling off his liberty.[19] “It is,” in other words, “easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men.”[20]

It is not that self‑assurance equates with rightness or that stubbornness is a virtue; it is that confidence in what one knows and believes is a condition precedent to achieving one’s goals. Failures are inevitable, as are setbacks; only by exerting one’s will may one overcome the failures and setbacks that are needed to achieve success. Because “man’s nature is a sufficient advertisement to him of the character of his fellows,”[21] self-reliance enables cooperative enterprise: “Whilst I do what is fit for me, and abstain from what is unfit, my neighbor and I shall often agree in our means, and work together for a time to one end.”[22] Counterintuitively, only in total isolation and autonomy does “all mean egotism vanish.”[23]

If, as Emerson suggests, a “man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he,”[24] how should he treat the poor? Emerson supplies this answer:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to‑day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting‑houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.[25]

These lines require qualification. Emerson is not damning philanthropy or charity categorically or unconditionally; after all, he will, he says, go to prison for certain individuals with whom he shares a special relationship. “I shall endeavor to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife,” he elaborates.[26] Emerson is, instead, pointing out, with much exhibition, that one does not act morally simply by giving away money without conviction or to subsidize irresponsible, unsustainable, or exploitative business activities.

It is not moral to give away a little money that you do not care to part with or to fund an abstract cause when you lack knowledge of, and have no stake in, its outcome. Only when you give money to people or causes with which you are familiar,[27] and with whom or which you have something at stake, is your gift meaningful; and it is never moral to give for show or merely to please society. To give morally, you must mean to give morally—and have something to lose. The best thing one can do for the poor is to help them to empower themselves to achieve their own ends and to utilize their own skills—to put “them once more in communication with their own reason.”[28] “A man is fed,” Emerson says, not that he may be fed, but that he may work.”[29] Emerson’s work ethic does not demean the poor; it builds up the poor. It is good and right to enable a poor man to overcome his conditions and to elevate his station in life, but there is no point in trying to establish absolute equality among people, for only the “foolish […] suppose every man is as every other man.”[30] The wise man, by contrast, “shows his wisdom in separation, in gradation, and his scale of creatures and of merits as wide as nature.”[31] Such separation and gradation are elements of the beautiful variety and complexity of the natural, phenomenal world in which man pursues his aims and accomplishes what he wills.

Dissent

Emerson famously remarks that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”[32] Much ink has been spilled to explain (or explain away) these lines. I take them to mean, in context, that although servile flattery and showy sycophancy may gain a person recognition and popularity, they will not make that person moral or great but, instead, weak and dependent. There is no goodness or greatness in a consistency imposed from the outside and against one’s better judgment; many ideas and practices have been consistently bad and made worse by their very consistency. “With consistency,” therefore, as Emerson warns, “a great soul has simply nothing to do.”[33]

Ludwig von Mises seems to have adopted the animating, affirming individualism of Emerson, and even, perhaps, Emerson’s dictum of nonconformity. Troping Emerson, Mises remarks that “literature is not conformism, but dissent.”[34] “Those authors,” he adds, “who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter, the harbinger of things unheard of, the man who rejects the traditional standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones.”[35] This man does not mindlessly stand for society and the State and their compulsive institutions; he is “by necessity anti‑authoritarian and anti‑governmental, irreconcilably opposed to the immense majority of his contemporaries. He is precisely the author whose books the greater part of the public does not buy.”[36] He is, in short, an Emersonian, as Mises himself was.

The Marketplace of Ideas

To be truly Emersonian you may not accept the endorsements and propositions here as unconditional truth, but must, instead, read Emerson and Mises and Rand for yourself to see whether their individualism is alike in its affirmation of human agency resulting from inspirational nonconformity. If you do so with an inquiring seriousness, while trusting the integrity of your own impressions, you will, I suspect, arrive at the same conclusion I have reached.

There is an understandable and powerful tendency among libertarians to consider themselves part of a unit, a movement, a party, or a coalition, and of course it is fine and necessary to celebrate the ways in which economic freedom facilitates cooperation and harmony among groups or communities; nevertheless, there is also a danger in shutting down debate and in eliminating competition among different ideas, which is to say, a danger in groupthink or compromise, in treating the market as an undifferentiated mass divorced from the innumerable transactions of voluntarily acting agents. There is, too, the tendency to become what Emerson called a “retained attorney”[37] who is able to recite talking points and to argue the predictable “airs of the bench”[38] without engaging the opposition in a meaningful debate.

Emerson teaches not only to follow your convictions but to engage and interact with others lest your convictions be kept to yourself and deprived of any utility. It is the free play of competing ideas that filters the good from the bad; your ideas aren’t worth a lick until you’ve submitted them to the test of the marketplace.

“It is easy in the world,” Emerson reminds us, “to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”[39] We can stand together only by first standing alone. Thus, “[w]e must go alone.”[40] You must “[i]nsist on yourself”[41] and “[s]peak the truth.”[42] You must channel your knowledge and originality to enable others to empower themselves. All collectives are made up of constituent parts; the unit benefits from the aggregate constructive action of motivated individuals. Emerson teaches us that if we all, each one of us, endeavor to excel at our favorite preoccupations and to expand the reach of our talent and industry, we will better the lives of those around us and pass along our prosperity to our posterity.

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Politics,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 567.

[2] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 40.

[3] Neal Dolan, “Property in Being,” in A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Alan M. Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk (The University Press of Kentucky, 2011), p. 371.

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, correspondence in The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1982). This quote comes from Vol. 7, p. 342.

[5] Neal Dolan, Emerson’s Liberalism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), p. 182.

[6] Emerson, “Politics,” at 560.

[7] Emerson, “Politics,” at 563.

[8] Emerson, “Politics,” at 568.

[9] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 259.

[10] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 260.

[11] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 261.

[12] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[13] Emerson, “Politics” at 565-566.

[14] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 259.

[15] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[16] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 261.

[17] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[18] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 263.

[19] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 274.

[20] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 275.

[21] Emerson, “Politics,” at 566.

[22] Emerson, “Politics,” at 567.

[23] Emerson, “Nature,” in Emerson: Essays and Poems, p. 10. The original reads “all mean egotism vanishes” rather than “vanish.”

[24] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262.

[25] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 262-63.

[26] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 273.

[27] “Consider whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother, cousin, neighbor, town, cat, and dog,” Emerson says. Emerson, “Self Reliance,” at 274.

[28] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 276.

[29] Emerson, “Nature,” at 13.

[30] Emerson, “Nature,” at 27.

[31] Emerson, “Nature,” at 27.

[32] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 265.

[33] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 265.

[34] Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (Auburn: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008), p. 51.

[35] Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, at 51.

[36] Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, at 51.

[37] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 264.

[38] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 264.

[39] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 263.

[40] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 272.

[41] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” at 278.

[42] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Divinity School Address,” in Emerson: Essays & Poems (The Library of America, 1996), p. 77.

Interview with Robert J. Ernst, author of “The Inside War”

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, The Novel, The South, Writing on December 4, 2014 at 8:45 am

This interview originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Robert Ernst

Robert Ernst

APM: Thanks for taking the time to sit down for this interview, Bob. Your novel The Inside War is about an Appalachian mountain family during the Civil War. How long have you been interested in the Civil War?

RJE: I have had an interest in the Civil War for many years. Specifically, the effect of the war on Appalachia became an interest as I researched family history, now more than a decade ago. I realized that not much had been written, outside of academic treatises, on this aspect of the war. Bushwhacking ambushes, bands of roving deserters, intensely opposed partisan factions, and a breakdown in civil society befell western North Carolina. Of course, much study had been given to the poverty of the area during the twentieth century, but not much, save bluegrass music, about its culture. What I discovered was a vibrant pre-war society thoroughly rent by the war. And, the area did not recover.

APM: The story of Will Roberts, your novel’s protagonist, is similar to that of many actual soldiers who fought for the Confederacy. How much historical research went into this book? It seems as if there are a number of events in your story—Sammy Palmer’s shooting of the sheriff, for instance—that track historical occurrences.

RJE: Much of the story is based on historical events. In fact, Will Roberts was a real person, as was his brother, Edwin. I traced their wartime adventures, researched the battles and conditions of their captivity and wove a fictional story around them. Likewise their wives, as portrayed in the story, were based on real people, although their story is more fictionalized. The novel does incorporate many historical characters and events that occurred in the vicinity of Marshall, North Carolina, by which I attempt to portray a picture of the character of the area and the severe impact of the war on it.

APM: There are some themes in the book that cover an aspect of the Civil War that is not often covered. Tell us about those.

RJE: The tactic of bushwhacking, or ambushing mountain patrols, is one. Guerrilla warfare as a matter of accepted tactics was new and was a terrifying degradation of the morality of warfare. There was a real cultural divide among the citizens of western North Carolina between those who supported the North, the “tories,” and those who supported the Confederacy. These divisions played out in many ways, most notably in atrocities like the Shelton Laurel massacre, but more subtly in familial and neighbor relationships. I doubt many women suffered as did those in Appalachia, from the depredations, theft and physical threat of the men who populated the mountains during the war. I was surprised to learn of the inhumane prison conditions at Ft. Delaware. Everyone knows of Andersonville, but not many are aware of Ft. Delaware. We know of the great Civil War battles, but there were scores of skirmishes every week that terrified the contestants and shaped their perceptions. Certainly, Roberts’s family suffered greatly, even though their war happened in the background to better known events.

APM: You seem careful not to glorify war but to present it as the complex tragedy that it is. The book’s epigraph states, “For those who have suffered war.” I wonder if the process of writing this book taught you anything about war itself. What do you think?

Allen Mendenhall

Allen Mendenhall

RJE: The grand histories of the conflicts, eulogizing the fallen and celebrating the victorious are all necessary parts of our remembrance of a terrible, national conflict. What I found in researching this story was intense personal suffering, unnoted except at the basic unit of society, the family, and rippling out to the church, neighborhood and town. Why would a woman abandon her children? What would drive a member of the home guard to massacre captives – mere boys? How could people, so crushed, hope? And, of course, the main theme of The Inside War is hope; hope after, and despite the loss and suffering. As we deal with the veterans of the conflict with radical Islamists we need to surround them with a culture of hope.

APM: From one attorney to another, do you think being a lawyer affects your writing in any way—from the preparation to the organization to the style?

RJE: That’s interesting. Certainly the actual practice of law involves clear writing. I have a hard time reading novels written in stream of consciousness or in rambling, shuffling styles. So, hopefully this book will be understandable and clear to the reader. I like the process of legal research and enjoyed the process of researching this book. However, the characters, though based on historical figures, came about from my imagination, which is why the book is a novel and not a history.

APM: It’s been said that the Revolutionary War produced political philosophy in America whereas the Civil War produced literature. Do you agree with this, and if so, why?

RJE: Perhaps the truth in that statement devolves from the Revolutionary War defining the creation of a nation, the Civil War defining its character. The revolution tested the theories of individual liberty and melded them, free of sovereign control, imperfectly into a new nation. The Civil War represents a gigantic challenge to the notion that a nation of citizens can be free. Millions were intimately involved in the latter conflict and the upheaval and changes were intensely felt and recorded in innumerable books. But the fundamental story of both wars is ongoing, in my view, and that is America must re-experience, “a new birth of freedom,” with regularity if America is to retain her vibrancy and hope.

APM: Thanks, Bob, for taking the time. I appreciate it, and I know our readers do, too.

The Lawyers’ Guild

In America, American History, History, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Nineteenth-Century America on August 27, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This piece originally appeared here as a Mises Emerging Scholar article for the Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.

Last month, thousands of recent law school graduates sat for a bar examination in their chosen state of practice. They were not undertaking a harmless rite of passage but overcoming a malicious obstacle: an artificial barrier to entry in the form of occupational licensure.

Barriers to entry are restrictions on access to, or participation in, markets or vocations. Occupational licensure is a type of barrier to entry that regulates professions by requiring certification and licensing in the manner of medieval guilds. Medicine and law are perhaps the most recognizable professions to require their practitioners to obtain and maintain licenses.

The purpose of occupational licensure is to reduce competition by using government power to restrict membership eligibility in a profession. The criteria for membership are often prohibitively expensive for low-income earners. To be admitted to the law in nearly every state in the United States, you must not only pass a bar examination but also earn a law degree from an accredited law school, admission to which requires a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university.

The average student-loan debt for graduates of American colleges is around $29,400. The average student-loan debt for graduates of American law schools is between $75,700 and $125,000, depending on whether the school is public or private. The American Bar Association imposes heavy burdens on law schools such as accreditation standards that are inefficient and that drive up costs so that over time the high price of legal education is passed on to the public in the form of attorneys’ fees and costs. Having already saddled themselves with student-loan debts, recent law-school graduates pay thousands of dollars for bar-preparation courses to study for an examination that, if passed, will open the door to a job market that is the worst in recent memory. Nobody struggling financially should attempt to leap over each of these expensive hurdles.

Before the rise of bar examinations and professional licensure during the Progressive Era in the United States, aspiring attorneys simply “read law” as apprentices for practicing attorneys or as clerks for local law firms. Once they achieved a certain level of competence, apprentices were released from their tutelage and eligible to accept clients. Those jurisdictions that did require examinations allowed judges to conduct informal interviews with candidates to determine the candidates’ moral and intellectual fitness for practice. Such examinations were typically mere formalities: few candidates failed; few careers were at stake as the interview took place. Newly admitted attorneys had to demonstrate their excellence in order to gain clients. They launched their careers by charging low fees that even the poorest in society could pay. Attorneys who did not prove fit for practice never gained enough clients to sustain their business and were forced to embark on other professions.

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, energetic and entrepreneurial members of the middle to lower classes in cities such as New York and Chicago began to threaten the legal establishment that had previously been comprised of a mostly wealthy and elite fraternity. This fraternity simply could not compete with low-cost providers of legal services because, for example, the most elite attorneys considered it unseemly and degrading to advertise for services or to offer contingency fees. Bar associations that were once voluntary organizations of upper class professionals therefore began to use their political clout and government connections to obtain powers conferred by legislatures. They wanted to keep the lower classes out of their profession and to preserve a highbrow reputation for lawyers. They began to exercise a monopolistic control over the practice of law within their respective jurisdictions. Today they constitute authorized arms of the State.

In most jurisdictions’ bar associations determine who may be admitted as members and who must be excluded, whether and to what extent lawyers may advertise their services, what constitutes the “authorized” practice of law, whether a law firm must have a physical office with a non-residential mailing address, and under what conditions contingency fees are permissible. These anti-competitive practices hit communities most in need the hardest by increasing the costs of legal services beyond the ordinary person’s ability to pay.

The bar examination is the most hyped precondition for membership in a state bar association. Like hazing, it is more ritual than training; it does not help one learn to be an attorney or indicate any requisite skills for practice. It tests how well someone can memorize arcane and esoteric rules and their trivial exceptions, many of which have no bearing on actual practice. Few if any lawyers spend their days memorizing rules for courts or clients, and no one who intends to practice, say, corporate law in a big city needs to memorize obscure criminal law rules that were long ago superseded by statute.

Despite reciprocity among some states, the bar examination restricts the free flow of qualified attorneys across state lines, forcing even the best attorneys to limit their services to certain jurisdictions. The bar examination also creates racial disparities among practicing attorneys as minority passage rates tend to be lower, a fact that flies in the face of nearly every bar association’s purported commitment to diversity.

Keeping the number of lawyers low ensures that lawyers may charge higher fees. Keeping the barriers to entry high ensures that the number of lawyers remains low. It’s a popular fallacy to complain that there are too many lawyers. We don’t need fewer lawyers; we need more, so long as we gain them through competitive forces on a free market.

We need to unleash capitalism in the legal system for the benefit of everyone. We could start by eliminating the bar examination. Doing so would have no marked effect on the quality of lawyers. It would drive down the high costs of legal services by injecting the legal system with some much-needed competition. It would make practitioners out of the able and intelligent people who wanted to attend law school but were simply too prudent to waste three years of their lives and to take on tens-of-thousands of dollars of student-loan debt while entry-level legal jobs were scarce and entry-level legal salaries were low. Justifications for the bar examination are invariably predicated on paternalistic assumptions about the ability of ordinary people to choose qualified attorneys; such arguments ignore the number of ordinary people who, today, cannot afford qualified attorneys at all under the current anticompetitive system.

Abolishing the bar examination would benefit the very community it is supposed to protect: the lay public.

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