Making Haste Slowly (Festina Lente)
Bill Long 10/11/07
On the Moral Obligation of a Person with a Strong Intellect
I don't read very many books "cover to cover" anymore. The reason I don't read much fiction, for example, is that there is enough drama in my life, intended and unintended, so that I don't really need to read someone else's development of characters with their flaws and joys. They are all around (and in) me. I don't read much non-fiction because I usually can't go more than a few chapters before I stop and say, "This author has left out or poorly explained a whole bunch of important stuff that is necessary to making his/her case well." I often also find mistakes, poor statement of arguments, unclarity of points, etc. Thus, instead of getting to the phenomena themselves, which was the reason I pick up a book, I find myself having to focus on the inadequacies of the author as scholar/author. I am really interested in the things in themselves; I don't particularly derive much joy out of exposing the scholar's shortcomings. Well, I do have to confess to one thing. I guess I do derive a rather perverse pleasure when I point out the verbal infelicities, mental lapses and logical gaps in books by "prominently-placed" professors or publishers that take themselves really seriously. Seems that they should do a better job.
Instead of reading books, then, I try to do targeted studies, with laser-like intensity, on particular problems, people, or events that are either interesting to me or help illumine a particular time. I then put these studies in "mini-essays," believing that bite-sized doses of good intellectual fare are far more useful for the way that Generations X and Y learn than 400-page tomes. My method of proceeding has led me to think about what the duty or obligation of a writer/scholar ought to be in our age.
I believe the moral obligation of the scholar, who has been privileged in a number of ways through a good mind, lots of free time, a stellar education and an avenue to get his/her thoughts to the public, is to "make haste slowly" or, in other words, to maintain one's enthusiasm and rapier-intellect but to go slowly enough so that those who plod along can easily follow what is being said. This means that the (sometimes impatient) scholar needs to take care to construct an argument where point follows upon point, without huge gaps in the construction. It is like making an building and being sure that the windows you order are meant to fit the size of the window opening you made.
Ackerman's The Failure of the Founding Fathers
I say this by way of introduction because it perfectly applies to a book I am now trying to work through---Bruce Ackerman's (Yale Law School/University) The Failure of the Founding Fathers (2005). I picked up this book at the recommendation of my friend Henry, an accomplished lawyer and widely-read historian, whose catholic historical interests and practical mind make him a skeptical, but invaluable, thinking companion. I was also inclined to pick it up, despite my stricture against reading books, because I had been trying to sort through several issues in American history from 1800-1805 in my mind (centering on Aaron Burr), and Ackerman's book addresses that period.
There can be no doubt of it--Ackerman's book is lively, thought-provoking, exceedingly well-researched and well-expressed. He tries very hard to be an iconoclast, and I think the "subtext" in nearly every chapter is, "Look how radical I am as a historian." I think it takes a very confident person to express one's arguments, no matter how radical, with rather minimal fanfare.
Though I am still working through the first part, the lineaments of his argument are reasonably clear: (1) The "Founding Fathers" wrote a constitution in Philadelphia that assumed a form of government without parties; (2) The rise of "parties" (a sort of evolution from interests of great families to the beasts we have today) showed how obsolete or inadequate the Constitution was in a number of particulars, especially relating to the election of the President; (3) The Election of 1800 was the one where the values and rather slapdash construction of the Founders in 1787 faced its first huge test; (4) It failed its test in a number of ways; and (5) The Founders whom we speak of in hushed and reverent terms today, such as Thomas Jefferson and Chief Justice John Marshall, have all kinds of grime on their hands as a result of the Election of 1800. Because he writes with a sort of "gee whiz, I am radical" tone, Ackerman makes it sound not only as if almost everything he says is new (or only being re-explored after 100 or more years) but that the fledgling country was in those years on the brink of downfall and becoming similar to what Latin American regimes became in the 19th and 20th centuries. This statement is certainly one of his most infelicitous characterizations.
Back to My Theme
My point in dishing this out to Ackerman is to say that he has not discharged faithfully the duty of a really smart person, which is to make sure that in his haste he has gone slowly enough to explain what he is talking about. Though the gaps he leaps over are not as wide as the Grand Canyon, they are fissures in the walk that will lead most to stumble, many to put down the book, and many just to skim the top of his argument. The remainder of this essay will show how he could have dropped in some clarity in order to make his book more readable and enjoyable.
Since the first 110 pages or so focus on the Presidential Election of 1800 and its immediate aftermath (especially from Jan-Mar. 1801), we need to know a lot about our system of electing the President in order to appreciate some of the subtleties of his argument. But he tells us hardly any "background information" of importance. My experience has been that with every audience I try to communicate, I need to try hard to make sure that I have made a connection at the beginning. You make a connection by making sure that if this is the first time that a person has heard you, s/he would still be able to understand nearly all of what you say. The obligation on an author, when you don't know exactly who your audience is, is even stronger.
Thus, Ackerman wants to discuss the Election of 1800. But here are a few things that he doesn't explain. How were Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr nominated? How did voting take place in those days? Why could it have been done in state legislatures over a several month period when the Constitution, at the time, says that "The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States" (Art. 2, sec. 1, cl. 4)? How did the states choose electors? Give an example of one such practice so that we will see it "at work." Why did they wait until Feb. 11, 1801 to "open the ballots?" Why couldn't states "split" their electoral votes, or could they? Was there an accepted form in which the states transmitted their electoral votes to the President of the Senate? (he goes into this a little). How many electors were there from which state at which time?
That is, if I were discussing the Election of 1800, I think the first sentence I would write would be: "There were 16 states in the Union at the time of the Election of 1800." Yep. Start really basic, because in fact if you don't, you lose readers. Then, you build from there. Eventually you can get to your sophisticated points and interesting arguments (whether John Marshall indeed was "Horatius" in a sophisticated early 1801 document arguing for how to break a potential "deadlock" in the House).
I may write more on Ackerman because he has given us a very valuable book, and his "rereading" not only of the election of 1800 but of Marbury v. Madison (1803) and some of the events after the election of 1800, is bound to make me think for several hours. But one would have wished that he had made his haste more slowly.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long