Mike Lee’s bad history: Utah senator's book is an ignorant hodgepodge concocted to justify the modern GOP

Sen. Mike Lee's terrible book tries to reboot some of America's founding fathers as modern-day Republicans

Published June 17, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)

Mike Lee (AP/Molly Riley/Penguin Random House)
Mike Lee (AP/Molly Riley/Penguin Random House)

As the year 2017 opened, we wrote in Salon of the dangerous disconnect between ideals and reality when Americans cast themselves as a moral community. Every nation struggles to do the same. The question is how people react and what people do with the messages they receive. You’re only screwed, we concluded, if you allow lies about our history to stand. Like taking the GOP at its word when it says it has always represented “fiscal conservatism” and will act honorably to curb “government overreach.” It has done neither.

Lies linger. Or, to put it another way, they don’t bother enough people who vote. We submit that today’s Republican Party is vainly searching for something to believe in, because its backers honestly do not know what it stands for, other than Wall Street and the super-rich. Smug indifference to human suffering and injustice has been the calling card of the “family values” party for far too long. Right now, the GOP is waking up to the possibility that the con can’t go on forever. It’s looking for a viable direction, and, as usual, it’s looking backward.

[salon_video id="14782562"]

In steps Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, an unapologetic Ted Cruz supporter during the 2016 Republican primary campaign (and something of a Donald Trump skeptic). He is circulating a new book that professes to deconstruct historians’ work on the relationship between the vision of America's founders and modern ways of governance. It is a bad book, ideologically driven, as one expects, but also historically flawed. It deserves to be exposed for what it is.

In "Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government," a derivative book of vignettes, Lee asserts that the dissent from centralized power was strong at the time of the republic's founding. Well, it was. This may all be new to the senator, but historians have been dissecting federalist vs. antifederalist strains of thought for generations; for the context he lacks, Lee would do well to start with Fordham professor Saul Cornell’s captivating study of the subject, "The Other Founders" (1999). Cornell presents “the dissenting tradition,” as it’s termed, in a way that shows readers that antifederalism is not the exclusive province of modern Republicans -- not even close. Lee ignores this book. Indeed, he ignores the best work of professional historians (with a few exceptions) and looks to a disconnected hodgepodge from which to construct his America.

First, Lee professes to be “channeling voices from the past,” which, to our minds, is another way of saying “making shit up.” In a feat of sophistry and contortion, he connects a piece of legislation he sponsored in 2015 to the heroic tradition of Massachusetts revolutionary James Otis, circa 1775. Pretty silly. Wherever he turns, Lee heralds those whom he imagines “understood the importance of keeping the government out of Americans’ private and commercial lives.”  

Justifying a book about these so-called forgotten dissenters, the senator complains that “if your story is inconvenient to the notion that we all benefit from a strong central government in which every aspect of human existence can be regulated by bureaucratic experts in Washington -- then you run the risk of being written out of history.” He writes that the same “unaccountable federal bureaucrats” only act to “help the wealthy and connected … at the expense of … America’s poor and middle class.”  

His premises are absurd, and speak exclusively to the lemming-like ideologues who imagine the GOP as the true party of the people. Mike Lee-style conservatives construe an abstract “small government” that would work just as well for a 300 million-plus population as it did for a 3 million-or-less population, circa 1789, when most communications moved at speeds below five miles per hour.           

In a promotional piece for the book, published last week in Politico, Lee took note of the “Hamilton” musical as he took to task a thing he calls the “Hamilton effect.” Interpreting the plot of the Broadway sensation as a lavish celebration of all the good that big government does, Lee sneered at Hillary Clinton for loving the show. That was enough to ruin it for the senator.  

In a public setting, liberal-thinking Justice Stephen Breyer cooed that the musical’s storyline “communicated the values, from all I’ve read, the framers really had.” Well, that’s absurd, too. Lee is right that author, composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda gave Alexander Hamilton a liberal makeover, because the historical Hamilton, like Lee’s party today, promoted government of, by and for rich people. But Lee is completely wrong when he claims that it’s today’s progressives alone who are “twisting history to suit one’s ends,” and “willfully ignoring and ultimately erasing it when it stands in your way.”  

Twisting historical truth is precisely what Mike Lee has done in his reading of the founding generation. For those of us who study this period and lament “founder chic,” it’s become a tired TV game show: Now it’s time to play "Who’s Your Favorite Founder?" How many of George Washington’s virtues can you name in less than a minute? The male half of this writing duo has explored the problem to which Lee and so many others have succumbed, in "Democracy’s Muse" (2015), showing how Thomas Jefferson has variously been embraced, across political generations, as a confirmed New Dealer (FDR helped to conceive and later dedicated his Tidal Basin memorial), a Kennedy liberal, a small-government Reaganite and a Tea Party fanatic. For nearly two centuries, the dead Jefferson has been a political shapeshifter par excellence. The same can now be said of his opposite number, Hamilton.

Lee’s weak examination of Aaron Burr is every bit as misleading, and his refusal to engage with serious scholarship -- and in particular, if we may be permitted to say so, with the Burr biography "Fallen Founder" (2007), authored by the female half of this writing duo. That work undercut the inherited prejudice of both Hamilton and Jefferson lovers who routinely dismiss Burr as a man without ideas, a theme prevalent in Miranda’s musical as well. Miranda gives Hamilton a liberal gloss by making his immigrant protagonist into a self-made man, an abolitionist and a populist democrat (when he pals around with a radical member of the Sons of Liberty). The exaggerations are gaping. Mike Lee thinks he can understand Burr by relying exclusively on the work of a journalist (and non-historian) whose libertarian tendencies are apparently to the senator’s liking. The result is closer to caricature.  

Lee lauds the underappreciated founder Aaron Burr. But so did leftist intellectual Gore Vidal, who wrote a bestselling fictional account of Burr amid the Watergate scandal, deftly using his keen-eyed New Yorker to expose a modern president’s underhandedness and hypocrisy. Many today still consider Vidal’s novel a biography. (It’s a little weird that the maiden name of Sen. Lee’s wife is Burr.) It’s gotten hard to know what’s history and what’s entertainment.

These are not merely our personal peeves. When historical truth is compromised, all of us suffer. There are plenty of good books and journal articles from discriminating scholars to which the senator could have turned. Our problem with Mike Lee is that he’s yet another politician manipulating history to serve partisan ends.  This has been going on ever since Chief Justice John Marshall wrote his glowing multivolume history of Washington that promoted Federalist ideology.

Lee’s “exposé” does nothing to expose “original intent.” His utterly dishonest, cherry-picking and hubristic treatment is a defective cover for unwillingness to engage in the necessary research. He actually admits that the reason he wrote the book is to give conservatives ammunition “to know how to fight back against the progressive agenda.” This isn’t history as truth-telling, only as storytelling that serves the interests of the modern Republican Party.  

In his didactic anthology, Lee celebrates one aspect of each in a series of antifederalists who agitated against, or refused to sign, the U.S. Constitution. Luther Martin of Maryland, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and George Mason of Virginia are particular favorites. None of these historical actors has been overlooked by academic historians. Perhaps the reason Saul Cornell’s work is ignored by Lee is because Cornell has also written one of the best studies on the Second Amendment, which proves how wrongheaded and ahistorical Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion on gun rights was in the landmark 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller. (Lee once clerked for ultra-conservative Justice Samuel Alito.)  

The “anti” champions that Lee loves best were all “Elite Antifederalists,” in Cornell’s analysis. Cornell deals with plenty of antifederalists who might be described as populist and whose roots were truly modest; Lee seems unaware of the distinction. Indeed, if the senator were honest and thorough, he would have mentioned that the issue preoccupying antifederalists during the newspaper debates over ratification of the Constitution was the danger of the standing army -- a permanent military establishment, which, to them, was more suggestive of consolidated power than perhaps any other element in late 18th-century political life. The fact is, none of Lee’s newfound founders can possibly be twisted so as to identify with defense industry-loving Republicans of today -- our forebears detested the British-style military-industrial complex. Once again, the senator is no different than the liberal popularizers he criticizes: He tries to erase the past to suit a political agenda.

Among political conservatives, there are exceptions. Lynne Cheney wrote a serviceable biography of James Madison, as well as a children’s book about the founders. But founder worship in any form is a dangerous civil religion, and Lee is no different than any other devotee of a sainted generation in claiming that his favorite founders were better, truer, more virtuous and more omniscient than others -- in this case, able to offer “the most prescient warnings” against “Big Government.”

Absurdly, Lee diminishes Hamilton’s “big government” stands, and strains to pick out only exacting views from the Federalist Papers that work for him. Hamilton’s views in 1788 do not encompass the man, something that few lawyers, even now, appreciate. The Federalist Papers were not infallible truths; they served as political propaganda. Their key target was George Mason, whom Lee adopts as a special hero. He wants to have it both ways, again and again, in this obstinately perverse book.  

Lee ignores what professional historians take seriously: Ideas only exist in historical context. Over time, Hamilton, Madison and Mason all changed their views. The truth cannot be recovered in some purer form by quoting a favorite founder out of context. The founders were politicians, first and foremost, whose writings were not set in stone like the Ten Commandments.

We wouldn’t put Mike Lee in the Trump camp. He’s no dummy by any means. But we are left to wonder from his book: What human value does the Republican Party stand for? If it’s actually opposed to the cravenness practiced by our artless, reckless, obscenely self-promoting president, then what is it going to get behind that would lift up more people? The rest of the civilized world looks on in horror while privately embarrassed members of the ruling party continue to enable Trumpism for reasons of pure political self-interest. To justify themselves, they fall back, as Sen. Lee does, on the idea that they are the true inheritors of the founders’ vision. They forget one of the founding era’s most desirable qualities, oft-touted in its political literature: “magnanimity.”

A democratically inspired republic is animated by reason and compassion, both of which are missing from the Republicans’ approach in our times. They are like Trump to the extent that they do not stand for the good of the many, and cozy up to moneyed interests as required-- or because they honestly believe that private markets succeed better than a wise federal government with regulatory powers that protect citizens from market-driven abuses. That said, as simple political animals, Republicans will only come to a justification that it’s time to abandon their degenerate figurehead when enough voters turn on them. But not before. They do not lead. They do not inspire.

The issues before the United States today are not about the artificial choice between principles of big or small government, no matter what congressman’s views you hear next. The issue is whether this nation stands for moral enrichment through social programs that serve an unprecedentedly complex economy too long skewed toward the interests of those at the top. Or whether, as Mike Lee would have it, it stands only for individuals who are equipped to make it on their own. In the Utah senator’s case, that would mean being born into a politically connected family, to a father who served as solicitor general under Ronald Reagan.  



By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

MORE FROM Andrew Burstein

By Nancy Isenberg

MORE FROM Nancy Isenberg