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At Least He Got My Name Right

R. B. Bernstein, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Law at New York Law School, is the author of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, 2003, paperback 2005) and The Founding Fathers Reconsidered, which Oxford University Press will publish in April, 2009.  In the article below he responds to Rush Limbaugh’s use of his book, Thomas Jefferson.

On March 18, 2009, Rush Limbaugh used my biography of Thomas Jefferson (which Oxford University Press published in 2003) as a tire-iron to belabor President Barack Obama. Limbaugh wrested from context my discussion of Jefferson’s opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s constitutional views. His aim was to make an analogy between Jefferson’s belief that Hamilton was violating the Constitution and distorting its meaning and his own claim that President Obama is violating the Constitution and distorting its meaning.

Needless to say, that is not what I had in mind when I wrote that passage (and not just because I voted for Obama in 2008). I was trying my best to explain why Jefferson and Hamilton regarded each other with suspicion and mistrust, without seeking to take sides in that dispute. I never dreamed of trying to refight their battle with a changed cast of characters and two totally different sets of fiscal policies in two widely differing historical settings.

Hamilton’s and Obama’s policies are as different as ham and microchips. Further, Hamilton was trying to establish a state-of-the-art financial system for the nineteenth century United States, while Obama is trying to save an established American financial system from imploding due to wild spasms of fraud, incompetent regulation, and bad fiscal judgment. But those differences did not matter to Limbaugh; what did matter to him was a quick and easy debating point having nothing in common with writing history.

When a friend emailed me to alert me to what Limbaugh had done, at first I felt as if I’d been hit by a truck. Then I remembered Abraham Lincoln’s legendary comment about losing an election. “I feel,” Lincoln allegedly said, “like the man who was being ridden out of town on a rail. He said that he was sensible of the honor, but he’d just as soon walk.”

What do you do when your work is distorted to make or support political claims you don’t accept in the service of an agenda that you don’t share? There is nothing you can do, for you can’t exert the kind of control over uses of your work that would prevent people from misrepresenting your scholarship or showing flagrant disregard for the difference between a nuanced historical argument and a political mudfest.

I first learned that lesson at the 1985 convention of the American Society for Legal History. Professor Suzanne Lebsock of Rutgers University, whose first book, The Free Women of Petersburg, won a Bancroft Prize, had discovered to her dismay that her careful and insightful analysis of what she called “women’s legal culture” in antebellum Petersburg, Virginia, was mutating, in the hands of litigators and polemicists, into an allegedly historical argument against “equal pay for equal work.” At the ASLH, Lebsock ruefully pointed out that, no matter how carefully you write and how responsibly and thoroughly you document your work, you run the risk of your work being misused.

Now I know how she felt and what she was going through. Again, there is no remedy for funhouse-mirror distortions of scholarly work. Limbaugh will not enter a scholarly arena, with agreed-upon rules governing the cut-and-thrust of academic debate. And I won’t jump into the pigsty of political mud-throwing, where the rules change from moment to moment at the election of the stymaster.

This is not the first time that my book has been dragged into the political arena. In late 2004, after the presidential election that gave George W. Bush a second term, Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of the defeated Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, announced that she was battling cancer. She was deluged with good wishes and condolences from Democrats, as to both her health and the results of the election. In response, she reported that she was reading my biography of Jefferson and quoted Jefferson’s famous 1798 letter about “the reign of witches” that would attend the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts but eventually would pass away.

Now, what’s the difference between these two uses of the same book? In one case, Elizabeth Edwards drew a plausible historical analogy between two periods in which supporters of a presidential administration were stigmatizing that administration’s opponents as traitors and deserving of prosecution. In the other case, Rush Limbaugh provided only half the story, creating a vertigo-inducing analogy suggesting that Jefferson would oppose Obama’s policies for the same reason that he opposed Hamilton’s policies, and that the one set of policies was as wrong as the other
I tried to write a reply taking Limbaugh’s analogy apart. After all, as James Bryce once wrote, “the chief practical use of history is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies.” After a brief struggle at the keyboard, I realized that my explanation inevitably would be far too complicated to fit into a sound-bite, the political currency in which such polemicists as Rush Limbaugh deal. When attempting to set the record straight will not achieve that goal and will only give a distortion-monger further opportunities to dance his dance, maybe it’s best to say nothing. As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”

Besides, maybe Limbaugh’s citation of my book will plug it to his millions of “dittoheads” (as they call themselves), who will flock to bookstores to buy the book.

At least he got my name right.

Recent Comments

  1. Kevin Hutchison

    Quite an imbroglio to have found yourself in, eh?

    One would think conservatives would naturally identify with Hamilton, not Jefferson. Hamilton being “pro-business” and everything.

    But to take an historian’s interpretation of Jefferson’s criticisms of Hamilton, ignore the merits of the debate, and contextualize them to a modern failure of our regulatory system is amazing. Truly amazing.

    Mr. Limbaugh’s pharmacist is to be congratulated.

  2. Todd

    You wrote “After a brief struggle at the keyboard, I realized that my explanation inevitably would be far too complicated to fit into a sound-bite, the political currency in which such polemicists as Rush Limbaugh deal.”

    Yet Limbaugh does 3 hours, less commercials & news, 5 days a week. If he got you so wrong, why not explain it?

    You’re an expert. You wrote the book. Your excuse for not providing a pointed rebuttal seems thin – that it won’t fit in a sound byte? Well, an essay isn’t a sound bite. So write the essay!

  3. Robert

    Too bad you spent several paragraphs sneering at Limbaugh and flinging mud of your own rather than making a nuanced historical argument.

    At least you admitted your partisan support for Obama.

  4. R. B. Bernstein

    In response to Todd and Robert, maybe this will help clarify things:

    Limbaugh is taking my account of Jefferson’s critique of Hamilton as *true* and then applying it to Obama.

    However, in my book, which Limbaugh uses as authority for his post, I did NOT posit that Jefferson was right about Hamilton nor that Hamilton was right about Jefferson. Rather, I tried to give the reader a sense of the arguments pitting the two men against each other, while recognizing that each played vital roles in the origins of the new nation.

    In parrticular, contrary to Limbaugh, Hamilton did *not* want “to vastly grow the federal government” — implying an expansion beyond its constitutional limits. Jefferson may have thought that way about Hamilton, but Hamilton only wanted to ensure that the federal government, given its implied powers under Article I, section 8, clause 13, could use those powers to the fullest permissible extent to achieve the objectives defined by the Constitution. To the extent that an analogy is appropriate, Obama also wants to use federal cosntitutional powers to the fullest permissible extent to achieve the objectives defined by the Constitution. Both men were/are responding to major fiscal and financial crises threatening the economy and requiring creative and vigorous use of federal power to respond to those crises and to prevent them from taking the economy down.

    BUT, even as I concede one way that such a historical analogy might be plausible, I must also point out the key ways in which the proposed analogy fails. Hamilton was trying to CREATE a sound federal fiscal system and national economy, and Obama is trying to PRESERVE and RESTORE a sound federal fiscal system and national economy. That’s why I say that the difference between the two policies is like the difference between ham and microchips.

    By contrast, Jefferson MISREAD Hamilton’s intentions, because in the 1790s he did NOT believe in the “implied powers” doctrine (even though he used it skillfully in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, as shown in my book, though not without qualms about what he was doing).

    At least Jefferson was sincere in his misreading of Hamilton’s intentions. By contrast, Limbaugh DELIBERATELY misreads Obama’s intentions, with malice aforethought, especially given Limbaugh’s embrace of the unconstitutional and monarchic “unitary presidency” advanced by former Vice President Cheney, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, and former Justice Department official John Yoo and embraced by former President George W. Bush — something, by the way, that Hamilton would have repudiated with scorn, as shown by his arguments in THE FEDERALIST No. 69. The “unitary presidency” brigade claims that the presidency has inherent executive powers beyond those specified in the Constitution and that the appropriate measure of those powers is the monarchic executive power of the British Crown circa 1787, which supposedly passed to the presidency under the Constitution. In THE FEDERALIST No. 69, Hamilton does a devastating comparison between the powers of the Crown (based on the account of those powers given in the Tory royalist William Blackstone’s commentaries) and the Constitution, showing the great difference between the two institutions.

    In sum, Limbaugh is misrepresenting the arguments of my book and misusing them for present political advantage. My book is a biography the chief strength of which (according to the reviews it has received) is its sensitivity to historical context, which Limbaugh wouldn’t know if it bit him on the nose.

    I did let a note of asperity creep into my comment, and this appendage to that comment, but, gentlemen, consider how you would react if Al Franken set out to misuse something one of you wrote to promote his political agenda. Heck, I’m no fan of Al Franken and never have been.

  5. Benson

    I came across your book on Amazon and across this blog posting while determining whether it was worth the read.

    Now I find you’re not only an announced supporter of Barack Obama, but you call a respected member of my side of the ideological spectrum a “distortion-monger”.

    Now I know I’d be reading a piece of liberal literature and patronizing a liberal author. Thank you for saving me the time of reading this book. I’ll skip.

  6. Benson

    Oh, wow, I just read your comment on April 4, 2009. Were you quoting a Daily Kos entry or something? Now I know to stay away from anything with your name attached in the future.

  7. R. B. Bernstein

    To Benson —

    Why would you deem my attempt to elucidate why I feel that Limbaugh & co. are misreading and misapplying my book some sort of out-take from the Daily Kos? It wasn’t and it isn’t. I’ve never read the Daily Kos and am not likely to do so in future.

    Mr. Limbaugh & co. are distorting my book, and I have the right to say so, and I’ve had backing from colleagues who are Republicans as well as colleagues who are Democrats. That I voted for Obama has little to do with the intellectual dishonesty characterizing the use of my book.

    One last note — I’ve read and enjoyed and learned a great deal from the work of historians who happen to be conservative Republicans, such as John Phillip Reid. I would hope that you might emulate that approach to scholarship and read books by people on the other side of the divide.

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