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Unruly Americans

March 30, 2008

Just finished Woody Holton’s Unruly Americans and the Origin of the Constitution.  He’s not the first to point out that the Constitution was established largely to protect the interests of creditors, especially those holding government bonds used to fund the American Rebellion.  Bond speculators benefited, as did all creditors, with the states prohibited from issuing paper money, and a federal court system established. Holton gives relatively little attention to land issues, tho he notes that under the Confederation the cost of using the military to secure western land exceeded the revenue from land sales.

The Constitution provided for significant federal military, which not only protected settlers (and their landlords) from Indians but also could aid in putting down slave rebellions.  Holton notes that, by making debts more enforceable, the Constitution also made credit more available to Americans.  He doesn’t seem to doubt that more debt would be a good thing.  He also seems to think that tariffs were an appropriate source for federal revenue, tho acknowledging that excise taxes, such as on whiskey, could lead to difficulties.  He approvingly notes that higher tariffs allowed the easing of taxes on land.

Henry George, of course, opposed tariffs as a hindrance to trade, and thought government at all levels would best be funded by a tax on the value of land and other natural resources.  And George suggested that a government which does not assist in collection of private debts might discourage excessive lending.

Despite his apparent failure to appreciate such economic fundamentals, Holton’s book is well worth the read for a description of the conditions and methods which brought about the original U S Constitution.  (There is a little discussion of the Bill of Rights, which Holton sees as having been promised as one of the compromises necessary to get an elite-favoring constitution ratified, and even less of the subsequent amendments.)

“No country in the world affords such a field for speculations both in paper and land” as the United States, Noah Webster declared in 1791.  One of the most successful of the speculators was Abigail Adams.   [– page 267]

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