The American Conservative, 4 May 2009

mrhardingposterI’ve long thought that the last truly acceptable US president was Warren G. Harding.  He was virtually the last president not to have committed American forces to a new war.  On the contrary, President Harding pulled US troops out of Russia, where his predecessor Woodrow Wilson had sent them to fight alongside the anti-Bolshevik forces.  He negotiated a peace with Germany separate from the  Versailles treaty and free from that document’s vengeful anti-German provisions and its dangerously open-ended entanglement with the League of Nations.  He concluded the Washington Naval Convention, an agreement which staved off the kind of arms race at sea that had led to the First World War.  And while most other president’s have treated the other countries in the western hemisphere with barely disguised contempt, a habit which made it possible for Woodrow Wilson actually to say of his 1913 incursions into Mexico that he was going to use the US military to “teach the Latin American republics to elect good men,” Harding showed genuine respect for his countries neighbors.  In a 1920 campaign speech, he denounced Wilson’s intervention in Haiti, saying:

Practically all we know is that thousands of native Haitians have been killed by American Marines, and that many of our own gallant men have sacrificed their lives at the behest of an Executive department in order to establish laws drafted by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. … I will not empower an Assistant Secretary of the Navy to draft a constitution for helpless neighbors in the West Indies and jam it down their throats at the point of bayonets borne by US Marines. 

The Assistant Secretary of the Navy in question was at that time also the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee.  This official had publicly said that “The facts are that I wrote the Haitian Constitution myself, and if I do say it, I think it’s a pretty good constitution.”  The man’s name?  Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  As president, FDR would speak of a “Good Neighbor Policy” toward the other states in the Americas, but as a party to the invasion and occupation of Haiti during the Wilson administration he was rather less entitled to be called a “good neighbor” than was Harding.    

Harding’s peaceful record in foreign policy was matched by his concern for liberty at home.  Unlike most of his successors, Harding did not increase the number of grounds on which Americans could be imprisoned; on the contrary, he released the political prisoners Woodrow Wilson’s administration had locked up during the First World War and the subsequent First Red Scare.  He even invited the most famous of these prisoners, Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, to have Christmas dinner with him at the White House. 

Scholars have argued that virtually every other president looked at the issue of race and saw only the politics surrounding it.  If a civil-rights initiative could help to deliver some swing states in the next election, then the president might offer that initiative.  So Harry Truman would put forward an ambitious civil rights aganda before the 1948 election.  Truman was all too typical of those who have held his office in that once the votes were counted, the issue of civil rights vanished from his list of priorities.  Harding was one of the few presidents who saw more in America’s racial divisions than a tool to gain popularity.   

Early in his administration, President Harding lobbied Congress to support a bill to give the federal government the power to act against lynching.  On 26 October 1921, as this effort was in full swing,  Harding stood in front of a crowd in Birmingham, Alabama and said in no uncertain terms that the law should treat blacks and whites equally.  That took political courage- no one won votes in Alabama in those days by taking that position.  And physical courage, too; even if he’d been surrounded by as many Secret Service bodyguards as his successors have been in the habit of massing around themselves, there would still have been an element of danger. 

Harding is widely condemned for the Teapot Dome scandal.  Albert Fall, whom Harding had appointed Secretary of the Interior, accepted a low price for a lease to operate a federally owned petroleum field in Wyoming, then took a bribe from the operators.  However, Fall did not take his bribe until after President Harding’s death.  It’s hardly fair to label Harding a bad president because of a crime someone else committed after he himself had died. 

How would Harding have reacted had he been alive when Fall committed his crime?  We form an educated guess based on the way Harding reacted to the only federal scandal to come to his attention while he was president.  Money had been embezzled from the Veterans’ Bureau.  Harding was found in the Oval Office,  throttling the director of that bureau and demanding to know “What have you done, you son of a bitch?”  That may not be perfectly dignified presidential behavior, but it’s hardly the mark of a man who is indifferent to the public trust. 

I esteem President Harding as a man of peace, a defender of liberty, a conscientious public servant, and a courageous advocate of human equality.  Thomas E Woods esteems him as an economic policymaker who responded to the economic crisis America faced after the First World War by cutting federal spending and reducing taxes.  In 1920, the last year of Woodrow Wilson’s administration, the federal government spent $6.3 billion.  In 1922, the last (sadly, the only) full year of Harding’s administration, it spent $3.3 billion.  In those same years, tax rates were reduced for every Americans at every income level.  The economy bounced back during this period of government rollbacks.    Woods quotes economists on the contrast between Harding’s conservative approach to the 1921 crisis and the approach the Japanese government took to similar difficulties at about the same time:

In contrast to Japan, which engaged in massive government intervention in 1920 that paralyzed its economy and contributed to a severe banking crisis seven years later, the U.S. allowed its economy to readjust. “In 1920-21,” says economist Benjamin Anderson,

we took our losses, we readjusted our financial structure, we endured our depression, and in August 1921 we started up again. … The rally in business production and employment that started in August 1921 was soundly based on a drastic cleaning up of credit weakness, a drastic reduction in the costs of production, and on the free play of private enterprise. It was not based on governmental policy designed to make business good.

That is not supposed to happen, or at least not nearly so quickly, in the absence of fiscal or monetary stimulus. But who are you going to believe, Paul Krugman or your own eyes?

Naturally, some modern economists who have looked into the matter have been stumped as to how economic recovery could have occurred in the absence of their cherished proposals. Robert Gordon, a Keynesian, admits, “government policy to moderate the depression and speed recovery was minimal. The Federal Reserve authorities were largely passive. … Despite the absence of a stimulative government policy, however, recovery was not long delayed.” Kenneth Weiher, an economic historian, notes, “despite the severity of the contraction, the Fed did not move to use its powers to turn the money supply around and fight the contraction.” He then briskly concedes that “the economy rebounded quickly from the 1920-1921 depression and entered a period of quite vigorous growth,” but (as with most such historians) he chooses not to dwell on this development or learn anything from it.

I don’t share Woods’ libertarian economic views.  I think that unfettered markets tend to concentrate economic power and to intensify social inequality.  We need a strong government to balance those concentrations of power and a generous welfare state to keep people on an equal footing.  Where I do agree with the libertarians is in their endorsement of occasional recessions as a necessary part of a capitalist system.  

Harding’s treasury secretary, banker Andrew Mellon, often urged policymakers to “let recession do its work.”  And John Maynard Keynes himself said that “The recession will catch what the auditors miss.”  In good times, investors can stick to familiar habits even if they serve no one’s interest, while times of trouble force them to think again.  For government to prevent a recession while leaving in place the malinvestments that are liquidated during a recession is as severe a case of malpractice as it would be for a doctor to treat infected patients by disabling their immune systems while the germ gains strength.  So, while I’m not convinced that Harding’s approach would be a wise one to imitate today, it is hardly a case of capitalistic politics at its worst and my differences with his policy in that area do not reduce my admiration for him.

Elsewhere in the issue, John Buffalo Mailer, son of the late novelist Norman Mailer, remembers his father’s 1969 campaign for mayor of New York City.  Norman Mailer wanted the city to secede from the rest of New York and to enter the Union as the 51st state.  He hoped that this new state would have a radically decentralized political structure, and that the character of individual neighborhoods would show itself strongly:

He foresaw the city, its independence secured, splintering into townships and neighborhoods, with their own school systems, police departments, housing programs, and governing philosophies. In some areas, church attendance might be obligatory, in others free love mandatory. “People in New York would begin to discover neighborhoods of the left, the right, and the spectrum of the center which reflected some of their own passions and desires and programs for local government,” he wrote. One way or another, the city would come apart.

These neighborhoods would address their own problems in their own ways.  So throughout the city drugs would be decriminalized and addicts would be treated, but treated by their neighbors, not by impersonal bureaucracies.  Police would still curb crime, but the policemen would be neighbors of those they arrested and the people they claimed to be protecting would be in a position to hold them to account.  Mailer’s “Left Conservatism” has some appeal to me, though his specific proposal about New York City, like his personal life, of course contained much that was dubious. 

An article by Richard Gamble, author of the terrific book The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation, argues that conservatives should not much admire Ronald Reagan, whose practice as president did not in fact accord with the best traditions of conservatism.  Gamble traces Reagan’s failings to his religious upbringing “shaped by a ‘Jesus-only’ populist Christianity that emphasized the conversion experience and an activist faith suspicious of creeds, rituals, ecclesiastical bodies, and denominational boundaries.”  While many of these suspicions might be easy to share, Christianity without any of those binding forces may not do much to incline its believers to cast a skeptical eye on worldly power.  “Reagan’s optimistic Christianity seemed ready made for an America disinclined to hear talk of limits to power and wealth.  The historic Christian message can seem downright unAmerican.”   

A short piece celebrates the life and thought of Isabel Paterson, an “Old Right” writer best remembered today as one of Ayn Rand’s mentors.  Recommended are Paterson’s novel Golden Vanity and her tract The God of the Machine

An article starting with questions about what Edmund Burke would think of America if he could see its politics today turns into an analysis of the conservative tradition in terms of religious divisions in the history of English-speaking Christians.  Burke stands at the head of a “High Church” strand that emphasizes tradition, authority, and community.  This strand is well-represented among contributors to The American Conservative, but is vanishingly rare among American conservatives.  Most who accept that label seem to follow a “Low Church” approach.  Gamble’s description of the “populist, ‘Jesus-only'” Christianity in which Ronald Reagan was raised seems to match the idea of “Low Church” expounded in this article.  The “Low Church” strand comes with a distrust of educated elites that pushes conservative intellectuals to the sidelines, and the intellectualism of the “High Church” strand repels the adherents of the “Low Church.”  Most conservatives who are not “Low Church” take a “No Church” approach, with no roots in any religious tradition or much of anything else.  They make it up as they go, and in the end serve only the interests of those who finance them. 

Paul Gottfried attacks Columbia University historian Eric Foner‘s work on the Reconstruction of the South after the American Civil War.  Along the way, Gottfried makes it clear that the old Marxist historiography that Foner rejects has far more in common with conservative views of history than does Foner’s appeal to the “politics of indignation.”  While Foner sees in the postbellum South evidence that white Americans generally are a bunch of hideous racists who cannot be punished enough for their history of crimes against people of color, the Marxists at least paid attention to what was economically possible and intellectually conceivable to the people of the era.  For taking those historiographical pains, marxísant historians like W. A. Dunning lived to hear themselves pilloried as apologists for white supremacy. 

Mary Wakefield praises Ahmed Rashid‘s Descent into Chaos: The US and the Disaster in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia for showing, among other things, how the last seven years of US policy in Afghanistan has functioned to recreate the conditions that existed in that country when the Taliban came into power in 1996.  Putting it that way, it really isn’t surprising that the Taliban seems capable of repeating its successes. 

Philosopher Donald Livingston reviews a new book about David Hume’s relationship with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  The book doesn’t sound too good, but Livingston has lots of interesting things to say about Hume.  “The Enlightenment,” says Livingston, “was an attempt to supplant religion with philosophy,” a time when philosophy was not “something done by academic bureaucrats,” but a matter of vital importance to thoughtful people generally.  In Europe during the eighteenth century, as in Classical Antiquity, “the public began to look again to philosophers as guides.”  Hume reacted against this veneration of philosophy:

A culture dominated by a false philosophy could be worse than one dominated by religion.  As Hume’s career developed, his youthful claim- that the errors of religion were dangerous; those of philosophy merely ridiculous- began to change.  The Rousseau affair shocked him into recognizing an emerging mass philosophical consciousness, more inclined to false philosophy than to true. 

Hume’s greatest achievement, for Livingston, is to have “worked out the first systematic critique of modern ideologies.”  The parts of that critique that are aimed at religious ideologies have made Hume a sort of mascot to atheists for centuries now.  The parts aimed at the radical movements of his day have made him a hero to a particular sort of rightist, and have earned a Hume scholar like Professor Livingston an honored place among contributors to The American Conservative.  Livingston calls for us to see Hume’s critique whole, and not merely to pick and choose the parts that confirm our favorite prejudices.


  1. cymast

     /  May 4, 2009

    “white Americans generally are a bunch of hideous racists who cannot be punished enough for their history of crimes against people of color”

    This is but one of the falsehoods taught in schools that perpetuates racism.

  2. acilius

     /  May 4, 2009

    I think that’s a fair summary of what Gottfried accuses Foner of saying, though I am not convinced that it’s a fair summary of what Foner actually says. From what I’ve seen of Foner’s writings, he seems to take a much more complex view than Gottfried acknowledges.

  3. cymast

     /  May 4, 2009

    It would have to be more complex to the point of complete unrelatedness for me to entertain any part of Foner’s racist writings.

  4. acilius

     /  May 4, 2009

    A fairer summary of Foner’s view might be that race was a more powerful predictor of political allegiances in the post bellum south than was economic class. So that poor whites allied themselves with rich whites against poor blacks regardless of their economic interests.

    While an economic determinist like Dunning might have used economic class to predict that white wage laborers (for example) would consistently favor policies that would increase the overall level of wages whether or not those policies benefited blacks, Foner & co. show that in fact white southern wage laborers tended to support policies that depressed the overall level of wages when those policies were presented as a way of defending white supremacy.

    I do think Foner and the school of which he is a part tend to understate the importance of economic factors in the development of Reconstruction, and I think Gottfried is onto something when he says that this understatement gives their work a tendency to devolve into a display of “White Guilt.” Perhaps the best approach to the subject would be to read the scholars who argue that race was the main thing in conjunction with scholars who argue that class was the main thing, so that you can see what each side is responding to and reacting against.

  5. cymast

     /  May 4, 2009

    I suspect “white guilt” is a very specific form of schizophrenia.

  6. acilius

     /  May 4, 2009

    I don’t know what it is, but it certainly isn’t very useful in getting us out of the racial rut our country has been stuck in for so long. Scholars who have critized the economic determinist view of Reconstruction have claimed that its focus on class pushes blacks into the background and obscures their importance in that phase of American history. One might fault the hegemonist view on similar grounds. Though it enables historians to talk about African Americans at length, taken to an extreme it ends up telling a story that is very much about whites. “White Guilt” versions of American history may feature many African Americans, but they present those African Americans as passive figures, peripheral to the main story of the misdeeds whites have done.

    That’s one of the reasons why I think we need to keep a balanced perspective. Another is the sheer fact that the South did have an economy that changed dramatically in the years 1865-1877, and that continued to change therafter. So however important race may have been to southerners in those years, obviously a substantial portion of their behavior must have been directed to economic concerns.

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