America’s First Dr. No
Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (Lives of the Founders), Bill Kauffman, ISI Books, $25, 225 pages
By: Dylan Hales
My first encounter with the work of Bill Kauffman took place in a small public library in suburban New Jersey. While poring over a back catalogue of “current events” titles that were neither current nor eventful, I stumbled upon a book entitled America First!: Its History, Culture, and Politics. Drawn to the volume by its defiantly Buchananite title and the promise of an interesting forward (Gore Vidal rarely disappoints), by book’s end I had been transformed from a fire-breathing leftist into a decentralist “Americanist.” I had my taste of the forbidden fruit, and I was hooked.
For a political junkie, the collected works of Bill Kauffman are the gateway drug to all things off limits. Emphasizing the “character “ in “character sketch, “ the typical offering from Kauffman is filled with witticisms and quirks of history ignored or discarded by “consensus historians.” Kauffman’s books focus on a variety of causes lost to time, historical memory, or executive privilege. From the anti-internationalism of J. Bracken Lee to the eco-anarchism of Edward Abbey and every point in-between, nary an obscurity or eccentricity of our political (or cultural) landscape has been overlooked by the self-professed “placeist” Kauffman, patriot son of Batavia, New York.
In his latest work, Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet, Kauffman stays true to form while tackling his biggest beast yet. Though this is ostensibly a biography of the firebrand, alcohol-fueled Anti-Federalist extraordinaire Luther Martin, the “forgotten” of the title has as much to do with the causes of states’ rights and individual liberty as with the virtually unknown man whose portrait adorns the cover.
Kauffman, by way of Martin, argues the unthinkable: our Constitution is not a perfect document, drawn up by selfless representatives of the people’s will. Quite the contrary, according to Kauffman: its writing and ratification were a “coup” promoted by centralizing nationalists dedicated to the principle that what’s bigger is inherently better. Or to sum it up rather neatly, the slow death march of the republic began almost a hundred years before Mr. Lincoln’s War and over two hundred years before the age of Bush.
Though this argument is not unknown to longtime libertarians, it has never before been told in a fashion quite like this, and Luther Martin proves the perfect vehicle for its dissemination.
Largely ignored by historians of all stripes, Martin is a figure deserving of a full-length biography. Born in 1748, Martin had a distinguished and somewhat bizarre career that included being the longest-serving attorney general in Maryland history as well as the lead defense attorney for the disgraced former vice president Aaron Burr in his trial for treason. He also dutifully represented his state in the famous McCullough v. Maryland Supreme Court case and was the first delegate to the Constitutional Convention to voice opposition to slavery during the proceedings. Most importantly of all, Martin was the Anti-Federalist scourge of the “West Indian Bastard” and arch-centralist Alexander Hamilton and his primary accomplice—James Madison?
Here is another Kauffman calling card, historical revision per excellence. This time the man who in America First! debunked the myth that 20th-century Progressives were an outgrowth of the 19th-century Populists points out that Madison, author of the Kentucky Resolution though he may have been, was at the most pivotal moment no fan of nullification. Truth be told, Madison was no fan of states’ rights at all.
In fact, Kauffman points out, Madison was the “most ardent advocate” of a “national negative,” which would in Madison’s own words have allowed the newly minted national government to “have a negative, in all cases whatsoever, on the legislative acts of the states, as the king of Great Britain heretofore had. This I conceive to be essential ... . Let this national supremacy be extended also the judiciary department.”
King of Great Britain? National supremacy? Say it ain’t so, James, say it ain’t so!
Madison may disappoint, but not so Luther Martin. For while we have our fourth president to thank for the needless War of 1812, we have Luther Martin to thank for his stubborn defense of decentralism.
Martin’s principles were remarkably consistent by the standards of any time. Right out of the gate, Martin registered his contempt for the “foul spirit” guiding the secrecy of the Philadelphia gathering. Within days of his arrival, Martin had distinguished himself as an opponent of loyalty oaths, standing armies, and the big-state bonanza known as the Virginia Plan. As Kauffman writes:
Time and again, Luther Martin stood alone, or nearly so, in attempting to infuse the new Constitution with something of the spirit of ’76. He was a libertarian in a body of men convinced that America needed a more vigorous government; he spoke of decentralism to men with centripetal convictions. He might not be seconded; oft he was rebuffed, rebutted, reproached. But he kept on coming.
So he did. On issue after issue, this lawyer by trade, New Jerseyite by birth and Marylander of the heart, desperately warned against the impending doom that was our fate if America should become a consolidated state.
At this point the reader might be tempted to regard both Martin and his biographer as career contrarians playing the role of dissident merely because someone must. This would be a misreading of both men. For even as Martin and Kauffman oppose much, they defend more.
As Kauffman is quick to note, “The Anti-Federalists stood for decentralism, local democracy, antimilitarism, and a deep suspicion of central governments. And they stood on what they stood for. Local attachments. Local knowledge.” Not coincidentally, Kauffman himself stands for all of the above in a world much farther gone than anything Luther Martin could have envisioned.
Was Martin a paragon of virtue? No. Though memory serves him little, bartenders served him often. His dress was notoriously unkempt and his manners nonexistent. He held fierce grudges against sons-in-law and political enemies (Martin may have been the only anti-Jeffersonian Jefferson.) Worst of all, late in his life he became a peddler of the sort of anti-black legislation that he had earlier advised against in Philadelphia.
Though accounts of his rambling tirades as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention are widely exaggerated, evidence abounds that the esteemed lawyer was as addicted to the sound of his own voice as he was to the bottle. Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney regarded Martin as a “profound lawyer” in spite of his tendency to dwell “so long on unimportant points, that the attention was apt to be fatigued and withdrawn.” Other colleagues levied similar charges, and even the sympathetic Kauffman admits that the evidence of Martin’s “tediousness is impressive.”
But if the worst crimes attributed to Luther Martin are a penchant for long-windedness and an all-too-typical inconsistency regarding the “peculiar institution,” his sins pale in comparison to those of the Hamiltonians and their nationalist heirs. In foreseeing “a national state that, equipped for aggressive war, would wage aggressive war,” Martin accurately predicted the road down which centralized power led. Drunken or not, he was a prophet on that score.
Kauffman has given us a multidimensional treatment of a man whose previous reputation—to the extent he had one—was that of “the town drunk, the class bore, the motormouth.” Though the book is a polemic of sorts, it does not lack the academic support one would expect from a serious book covering an important, if obscure, figure in American history. Best of all, this biography is as much a testament to the lifelong passions of its author as it is a chronicle of its subject.
In the introduction, Kauffman humorously notes that much like Luther Martin he too is a “rural debtor.” This is not the only similarity between these men. For Kauffman’s fight has always been for decentralized power, community control, and individual liberty, the causes for which Luther Martin stood at the head of the Anti-Federalist vanguard. An eccentric of sorts himself, who is more likely to quote former Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra than he is to cite the legal opinions of Robert Bork, Kauffman is the latest in a long line of forgotten patriots, planters, farmers, and Founders represented so impressively in the person of Luther Martin.
Martin and the Anti-Federalists lost more fights than they won. But because of them we have—or had—the Bill of Rights. And in truth, Martin’s legacy extends beyond the ten amendments that are largely ignored by our aging and corrupt political class. As young Americans rally in droves to a Constitution that is certainly better than any political system we have seen in our lifetimes, men like Martin—and Kauffman—point to a revolutionary tradition well worth remembering, preserving, and fighting for.
Back to the future! Toward the states, not the state!
Dylan Hales [firstname.lastname@example.org] is a freelance writer from Charleston, South Carolina. His blog, The Left Conservative, can be found at www.leftconservativeblog.blogspot.com.