The Flow of History
 
 

The American Republic: 1760-1870

Overview

by Alec Ewald

Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts May, 2004

We Americans have a peculiar fascination with our beginning.

Citizens and scholars disagree intensely over many aspects of the American "founding," but the great importance of where, when, and how the country began - and particularly why - are taken for granted. We define ourselves in relation to the founding - how it inspires and challenges us, whether current policies are faithful to it, what has stayed the same in us and what has changed. In Fourth of July addresses, classroom debates, and after-dinner speeches everywhere, its puzzles and paradoxes are assumed to reflect our own. The founding's hold on us is unique - yes, Italians have their Romulus and Remus, Germans their Bismarck, the British their Magna Charta. Plenty of places celebrate the day they won independence from their colonial masters. But only Americans fold together so much cultural mythology and political history into one package. And only Americans invest so much in the idea that unlike others, our country did not simply happen - it was created, and in a way that defines all who belong."

But it can be surprisingly difficult to answer a simple question: just when and where was America "founded?" If we're talking about the first Europeans in North America, then we start in the southwest, with Spanish conquistadors and missionary settlements, or maybe with Norse explorers. If we want the first English culture, then America began in Virginia and the Massachusetts Bay, in the first decades of the seventeenth century. That's a more comfortable idea, since the visions of John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards feature prominently in many of our textbooks. And de Tocqueville famously said "I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores." The problem with that answer, of course - besides the Puritans' devotion to any number of social principles antithetical to modern American values - is that the Pilgrims and Puritans believed themselves to be founding not America, but a "new England." Speaking of values, if we identify America as a place built on ideas, maybe the country was not truly "founded" until a few essential principles really took hold: equality, individual religious freedom, and refusal to discriminate against people because of the conditions of their birth, for example. If that is the case, we need to look much later than 1620 - two or three centuries later.

But let's agree to call "the founding" a thing that happened between, say, 1770 and 1800, in the rebellion against English rule and the subsequent creation of the American state. This sharpens a core question, one that textbooks rarely state bluntly: was America founded by a piece of political philosophy, an act of war, or an episode of lawmaking? The first, of course, is the Declaration of Independence; the second, the rebellion itself; and the third, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. (The poor Articles of Confederation always get skipped, but that's a topic for another day.) If our founding is the seed from which the country has grown, this question takes on enormous importance. What was the American seed? Was it war - and a guerilla war, at that? That would have powerful implications for a people's image of themselves, and of war itself as a potential force for good in the world. If the Declaration marked our true origin, though, Americans would believe most deeply in the power of ideas to bring about change. And a people who traced their national roots to the Constitution might have a few different core values: reverence for law and legalism, but also for the importance of political conflict and deliberation itself - and perhaps for compromising on the things that matter most to us.

Americans have a little of each, in part because we draw different lessons from each of these "foundings." Some believe political independence sparked true social transformation, while others believe it replaced one set of business Úlites with another; one person reads the Constitution as a faithful extension of the Revolution, another as a betrayal. These differences are themselves revealing. They suggest that we should not expect to find one dominant meaning in the American founding - indeed, we probably cannot even choose a single event which marks our origin as a people, a nation, and a state.

In trying to identify the ideas behind "the founding," then, it makes sense to examine an era, rather than a narrow set of events. Indeed, blue-chip historians have officially agreed to disagree on when the revolution occurred, let alone the founding. The founders themselves weren't sure: Benjamin Rush wrote in 1787 that "the war is over, but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution," while John Adams argued that "the Revolution was effected before the war commenced." 1 Given so much uncertainty, it would be folly to search for a single concept which defines the intentions of the American founders. But among all the disputes over when, where, and for what purpose the American nation began, there is one essential philosophical conflict, one question, which can help to anchor almost all the others. And given the American belief in the timeless importance of the founding, it is no surprise that this conflict endures today. That question is this: was American democracy founded with the central aim of securing the greatest possible freedom for people as individuals, or the purpose of building a strong political community?

Scholars have different names for these ideological traditions within democratic thought. The first is often called individualism, "contractual" philosophy, or "classical liberalism;" the second is labeled "communitarian" thought, or "classical republicanism." They share a good deal of ground, but part ways on a crucial question: who should define the good life? Classical liberalism says only individuals can do so, and that the government must stay as neutral as possible when it comes to right and wrong. But classical republicans believe some values and ways of living are better than others, particularly in a democracy, and hold that the community can and must define those virtues.

It is very important not to confuse these ideas with contemporary definitions of "Liberal" and "Republican." Classical liberals - call them "small-l liberals" - emphasize individual rights above all, and believe government's only valid purpose is to enable individuals to be as free as they can be. They are suspicious of arguments about the good of the group, fearing restrictions on their ability to seek the good life as they define it. Today, small-l liberals include the devoted members of both the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. On the political "right," property-rights conservatives claim all taxes are illegal; on the "left," some radical environmentalists argue that trees have rights. All owe great intellectual debts to classical, "small-l" liberalism. If a single word captured liberalism, it would be "rights."

"Small-r" republicans, meanwhile, can also be found all over the American political map. Etymology gets us quickly to republicanism's core: "republic" comes from the Latin phrase res publica, "public thing," and indeed republicans tend to imagine the "body politic" to be a real entity. Citizens form that body together, and our actions make it healthy or sick. Where liberals believe the self-interested, rights-bearing individual going her own way is the democratic ideal, republicans argue that self-government can only work if citizens develop specific civic virtues, and learn to act in a public-spirited way. The idea at the heart of republicanism, then, is "virtue." Modern-day small-r republicans include conservatives like William Bennett and Joseph Lieberman, railing against the dangerous depravity of American popular culture, but also those on the left who want to use zoning rules and tax incentives to build stronger downtowns and stronger communities. On the right, advocates of a greater role for religion in American public life believe spiritual values will make the country strong; on the left, supporters of big increases in education spending believe the public schools can and must build responsible citizens if American democracy is to succeed.

The two philosophies are not mutually exclusive and overlap considerably - part of why both have endured in American thought. Most of us find different elements of each appealing. But if one or the other could lay claim to the heart of the American founding, the consequences would be tremendous and would reach far beyond the classroom - into contemporary debates over free speech, casino gambling, and educational and tax policy, among many others. That is why even historians who now consider the "liberal or republican?" question a bit overdrawn and shop-worn acknowledge that the debate remains an essential "chapter in the American search for a usable past," as Jack N. Rakove puts it. 2

In the vast literature of the American founding - the pamphlets, letters, state conventions, debates and ratification proceedings - there is of course evidence for each side. For small-l liberals, the list begins the Declaration, which holds that government exists to guarantee people "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." And in fact, the document contains very powerful traces of the influence of English political philosopher John Locke, the godfather of small-l liberalism. Locke wrote repeatedly that government's purpose was to secure "life, liberty, and property;" Jefferson may have merely coined a more expansive, poetic liberal phrase to close the list. As for the right to rebellion, see if you recognize this explanation of when people have the right to throw off their government: "if a long train of Abuses...all tending the same way, make the design visible to the People." That's from Locke's Second Treatise of Government, published in 1690. Here's Jefferson: "when a long train of abuses & usurpations...pursued invariably the same object, evinces a design to subject them to arbitrary power." This is only the most striking of many similarities between Locke's treatise and Jefferson's. 3

Years later, Jefferson wrote that "Locke's little book on government, is perfect as far as it goes." Jefferson denied that he had Locke at his elbow as he wrote, and said that the Declaration merely articulated the common sense of the times. If so, Locke's liberal assumptions must truly have penetrated deeply into the revolutionary mind.

Or consider the most famous revolutionary pamphlet, Paine's Common Sense. Paine must have hated Locke: their class sympathies were entirely different. But Common Sense is also a liberal call to arms, as it articulates an intensely individualist, anti-government political philosophy. Government, Paine argues, has been "rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world." This is not the story a small-r republican would tell.

Another difference between classical liberals and republicans is that while liberals place great emphasis on the importance of property, republicans tend to be wary of the selfishness excess commercialism can breed. In that context, look at the famous sequence all the textbooks show: American colonists get successively angrier as paper, sugar, and tea are taxed. Maybe the revolution was simply history's first great tax revolt - a profoundly liberal attempt to get government out of our wallets. As Edmund S. Morgan has summarized this interpretation, "what [the colonists] wanted was to avoid being taxed, and they had improvised one set of high-sounding principles after another to block the efforts of the British Parliament to make them pay." 4

Finally, the Constitution itself struck a powerful blow for small-l liberalism. Madison's Federalist #51 is famous for its explanation of the separation of powers, but it is important to understand that the new separation of powers was designed to place personal ambition for power, not public-minded virtuous conduct, at the heart of American government. The "constant aim," Madison explained, "is that the private interest of every individual may be a centinel over the public rights." Meanwhile, it is to the opponents of ratification that we owe the American liberal's true bible, the Bill of Rights, which was added to placate those who would not support the Constitution without one. All this led Louis Hartz to conclude in his extremely influential 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America that Americans have always had an "absolute and irrational" devotion to a "fixed, dogmatic liberalism." 5

On the other side of the ledger, however, stand the conclusions of some of our most eminent historians. Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood are among those who have tried to show that quintessentially republican principles, rather than small-l liberalism, dominated the American founding. In The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), Bailyn demonstrates that the founders were intensely concerned with public virtue and corruption, and regarded American self-government as a fragile and delicate thing indeed. Bailyn concluded of the founders that what truly "gripped their minds" were stories of self-government from antiquity - stories in which the fate of republics depended utterly on virtues such as "simplicity, patriotism, integrity, a love of justice and of liberty" among the citizenry.6

It is a mistake to assume that Locke ghost-wrote the American founding, despite his clear influence. Citations to Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch, Livy, Cicero, Tacitus, Sallust, Pufendorf, Rousseau, and dozens of other Greek, Roman, and continental philosophers rendered many letters and speeches of the period "almost submerged in annotation." 7 And Bailyn found that it was the French republican philosopher Montesquieu - not Locke - who was cited far more than any other authority in the pamphlets and debates of the founding era. Revolutionary leaders took to heart Montesquieu's argument that democracy required more virtuous citizenry than did monarchy, because under popular government, "the person intrusted with the execution of the laws is sensible of his being subject to their direction." 8

Revolutionary Americans believed the amount of virtue possessed by the people - and particularly their leaders - would determine the country's future. As Wood notes, George Washington was anxious to receive no salary as President, in order to make clear that he had no material self-interest in the position. Indeed, Wood shows that revolutionary leaders ultimately sought to "open up government to those who were not only talented but virtuous" - those willing "to sacrifice private interests for the sake of the public good." 9 Madison also appears to have learned from Montesquieu: "To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea," wrote Madison. Madison and Washington were optimistic that sufficient virtue existed - at least among the wealthy and well-educated leadership class. But John Adams, writing in a religiously-inflected republican spirit, was worried. In 1776, Adams doubted "whether there is public virtue enough to support a republic." "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion," Adams wrote. "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other."

Adams' words - "a moral and religious people" - are sometimes quoted today by advocates of a greater role for churches in public policy. If you believe America was founded by John Winthrop - or by small-r republicans two hundred years later - you might be inclined to agree. But if you see the United States as the land of individual rights - and freedom from government - you probably not only disagree, but find Adams' argument frightening. It is just one example of the enduring power of our age-old disagreement over who founded America, and what they were trying to create by doing so.

Resources

1 Quoted in Edmund S. Morgan, "A New Kind of War," New York Review of Books, May 27, 2004, p. 29. Morgan himself writes, "whatever the Revolution was, the war figured in it only incidentally, if at all...." Id.

2 Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996), p. 22. In a footnote, Rakove refers to the "increasingly sterile debate over the respective weight of the republican and liberal strains of American political ideology." Id., 373 n.29.

3 A comprehensive list of these parallels is in Garrett Sheldon, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, at 46-48.

4 See Edmund S. Morgan, The Challenge of the American Revolution (1976), p. 3-4. Morgan himself does not endorse this interpretation.

5 Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America, (Harcourt Brace, 1991) (1955), p. 6, 9.

6 Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), at 23.

7 Bailyn, id.

8 See Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), at 344-345.

9 Wood, "Democracy and the American Revolution," in John Dunn, ed., Democracy: The Unfinished Journey (1992).

Printer Friendly Page

© 2013 Flow of History. All rights reserved.