Democratic Republicanism in Early America

There was much debate and confusion around various terms, in early America.

The word ‘democracy’ wasn’t used on a regular basis at the time of the American Revolution, even as the ideal of it was very much in the air. Instead, the word ‘republic’ was used by most people back then to refer to democracy. But some of the founding fathers such as Thomas Paine avoided such confusion and made it clear beyond any doubt by speaking directly of ‘democracy’. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the first founding document and 3rd president, formed a political party with both ‘democratic’ and ‘republican’ in the name, demonstrating that no conflict was seen between the two terms.

The reason ‘democracy’ doesn’t come up in founding documents is that the word is too specific, although it gets alluded to when speaking of “the People” since democracy is literally “people power”. Jefferson, in writing the Declaration of Independence, was particularly clever in avoiding most language that evoked meaning that was too ideologically singular and obvious (e.g., he effectively used rhetoric to avoid the divisive debates for and against belief in natural law). That is because the founding documents were meant to unite a diverse group of people with diverse opinions. Such a vague and ambiguous word as ‘republic’ could mean almost anything to anyone and so was an easy way to paper over disagreements and differing visions. If more specific language was used that made absolutely clear what they were actually talking about, it would have led to endless conflict, dooming the American experiment from the start.

Yet it was obvious from pamphlets and letters that many American founders and revolutionaries wanted democracy, in whole or part, to the degree they had any understanding of it. Some preferred a civic democracy with some basic social democratic elements and civil rights, while others (mostly Anti-Federalists) pushed for more directly democratic forms of self-governance. The first American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was clearly a democratic document with self-governance greatly emphasized. Even among those who were wary of democracy and spoke out against it, they nonetheless regularly used democratic rhetoric (invoking democratic ideals, principles, and values) because democracy was a major reason why so many fought the revolution in the first place. If not for democracy, there was little justification for and relevance in starting a new country, beyond a self-serving power grab by a new ruling elite.

Without assuming that large number of those early Americans had democracy in mind, their speaking of a republic makes no sense. And that is a genuine possibility for at least some of them, as they weren’t always clear in their own minds about what they did and didn’t mean. To be technical (according to even the common understanding from the 1700s), a country either is a democratic republic or a non-democratic republic. The variety of non-democratic republics would include what today we’d call theocracy, fascism, communism, etc. It is a bit uncertain exactly what kind of republic various early Americans envisioned, but one thing is certain: There was immense overlap and conflation between democracy and republicanism in the early American mind. This was the battleground of the fight between Federalists and Anti-Federalists (or to be more accurate, between pseudo-Federalists and real Federalists).

As a label, stating something is a republic says nothing at all about what kind of government it is. All that it says is what a government isn’t, that is to say it isn’t a monarchy, although there were even those who argued for republican monarchy with an elective king which is even more confused and so the king theoretically would serve the citizenry that democratically elected him. Even some of the Federalists talked about this possibility of republic with elements of a monarchy, strange as it seems to modern Americans. This is what the Anti-Federalists worried about.

Projecting our modern ideological biases onto the past is the opposite of helpful. The earliest American democrats were, by definition, republicans. And most of the earliest American republicans were heavily influenced by democratic political philosophy, even when they denounced it while co-opting it. There was no way to avoid the democratic promise of the American Revolution and the founding documents. Without that promise, we Americans would still be British. That promise remains, yet unfulfilled. The seed of an ideal is hard to kill once planted.

Still, bright ideals cast dark shadows. And the reactionary authoritarianism of the counter-revolutionaries was a powerful force. It is an enemy we still fight. The revolution never ended.

* * *

Democracy Denied: The Untold Story
by Arthur D. Robbins
Kindle Locations 2862-2929

Fascism has been defined as “an authoritarian political ideology (generally tied to a mass movement) that considers individual and other societal interests inferior to the needs of the state, and seeks to forge a type of national unity, usually based on ethnic, religious, cultural, or racial attributes.”[ 130] If there is a significant difference between fascism thus defined and the society enunciated in Plato’s Republic,[ 131] in which the state is supreme and submission to a warrior class is the highest virtue, I fail to detect it. [132] What is noteworthy is that Plato’s Republic is probably the most widely known and widely read of political texts, certainly in the United States, and that the word “republic” has come to be associated with democracy and a wholesome and free way of life in which individual self-expression is a centerpiece.

To further appreciate the difficulty that exists in trying to attach specific meaning to the word “republic,” one need only consult the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.[ 133] There one will find a long list of republics divided by period and type. As of this writing, there are five listings by period (Antiquity, Middle Ages and Renaissance, Early Modern, 19th Century, and 20th Century and Later), encompassing 90 separate republics covered in Wikipedia. The list of republic types is broken down into eight categories (Unitary Republics, Federal Republics, Confederal Republics, Arab Republics, Islamic Republics, Democratic Republics, Socialist Republics, and People’s Republics), with a total of 226 entries. There is some overlap between the lists, but one is still left with roughly 300 republics— and roughly 300 ideas of what, exactly, constitutes a republic.

One might reasonably wonder what useful meaning the word “republic” can possibly have when applied in such diverse political contexts. The word— from “res publica,” an expression of Roman (i.e., Latin) origin— might indeed apply to the Roman Republic, but how can it have any meaning when applied to ancient Athens, which had a radically different form of government existing in roughly the same time frame, and where res publica would have no meaning whatsoever?

Let us recall what was going on in Rome in the time of the Republic. Defined as the period from the expulsion of the Etruscan kings (509 B.C.) until Julius Caesar’s elevation to dictator for life (44 B.C.),[ 134] the Roman Republic covered a span of close to five hundred years in which Rome was free of despotism. The title rex was forbidden. Anyone taking on kingly airs might be killed on sight. The state of affairs that prevailed during this period reflects the essence of the word “republic”: a condition— freedom from the tyranny of one-man rule— and not a form of government. In fact, The American Heritage College Dictionary offers the following as its first definition for republic: “A political order not headed by a monarch.”

[…] John Adams (1735– 1826), second President of the United States and one of the prime movers behind the U.S. Constitution, wrote a three-volume study of government entitled Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (published in 1787), in which he relies on the writings of Cicero as his guide in applying Roman principles to American government.[ 136] From Cicero he learned the importance of mixed governments,”[ 137] that is, governments formed from a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. According to this line of reasoning, a republic is a non-monarchy in which there are monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements. For me, this is confusing. Why, if one had just shed blood in unburdening oneself of monarchy, with a full understanding of just how pernicious such a form of government can be, would one then think it wise or desirable to voluntarily incorporate some form of monarchy into one’s new “republican” government? If the word “republic” has any meaning at all, it means freedom from monarchy.

The problem with establishing a republic in the United States was that the word had no fixed meaning to the very people who were attempting to apply it. In Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton says, “Sparta, Athens, Rome and Carthage were all republics”( F.P., No. 6, 57). Of the four mentioned, Rome is probably the only one that even partially qualifies according to Madison’s definition from Federalist No. 10 (noted earlier): “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place,” in which government is delegated “to a small number of citizens elected by the rest” (ibid, No. 10, 81-82).

Madison himself acknowledges that there is a “confounding of a republic with a democracy” and that people apply “to the former reasons drawn from the nature of the latter ”( ibid., No. 14, 100). He later points out that were one trying to define “republic” based on existing examples, one would be at a loss to determine the common elements. He then goes on to contrast the governments of Holland, Venice, Poland, and England, all allegedly republics, concluding, “These examples … are nearly as dissimilar to each other as to a genuine republic” and show “the extreme inaccuracy with which the term has been used in political disquisitions.”( ibid., No. 39, 241).

Thomas Paine offers a different viewpoint: “What is now called a republic, is not any particular form of government. It is wholly characteristical [sic] of the purport, matter, or object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed, res-publica, the public affairs or the public good” (Paine, 369) (italics in the original). In other words, as Paine sees it, “res-publica” describes the subject matter of government, not its form.

Given all the confusion about the most basic issues relating to the meaning of “republic,” what is one to do? Perhaps the wisest course would be to abandon the term altogether in discussions of government. Let us grant the word has important historical meaning and some rhetorical appeal. “Vive la Republique!” can certainly mean thank God we are free of the tyranny of one-man, hereditary rule. That surely is the sense the word had in early Rome, in the early days of the United States, and in some if not all of the French and Italian republics. Thus understood, “republic” refers to a condition— freedom from monarchy— not a form of government.

* * *

Roger Williams and American Democracy
US: Republic & Democracy
 (part two and three)
Democracy: Rhetoric & Reality
Pursuit of Happiness and Consent of the Governed
The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation
The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution
Wickedness of Civilization & the Role of Government
Spirit of ’76
A Truly Free People
Nature’s God and American Radicalism
What and who is America?
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
About The American Crisis No. III
Feeding Strays: Hazlitt on Malthus
Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
American Paternalism, Honor and Manhood
Revolutionary Class War: Paine & Washington
Paine, Dickinson and What Was Lost
Betrayal of Democracy by Counterrevolution
Revolutions: American and French (part two)
Failed Revolutions All Around
The Haunted Moral Imagination
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”
“…from every part of Europe.”

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence
A Vast Experiment
America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest
When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

What and who is America?

The plutocrats have always believed they own the country. They think that by birthright or general superiority they deserve wealth and power. And they think that all the inferior Americans who risk their lives for the country and do all the hard work should simply submit.

When things go wrong, the plutocrats blame the public for getting the government they deserve. But when things go right, the plutocrats take all the credit.

Aristocrats like Washington won the American Revolution, really? Bullshit. There would have been no American Revolution, if the dirty masses hadn’t forced the issue and been fighting a class war for decades. The plutocrats only joined in because they wanted to co-opt the revolution that had become inevitable.

You want to know the real American Founders. You won’t hear much about them from mainstream historians nor did you probably learn much about them in public education. The rabble-rousers and revolutionaries were mostly poor working class folk. The lowly small farmers were protesting and fighting injustice long before the plantation owners even knew a revolution had begun.

The only way to know how change might be possible now is to understand what made it possible in the past. The people have to be their own leaders. And the ruling elite have to be forced to accept change once it is already happening and can’t be stopped.

* * *

American Power Under Challenge
By Noam Chomsky, Nation of Change

The rising opposition to the neoliberal assault highlights another crucial aspect of the standard convention: it sets aside the public, which often fails to accept the approved role of “spectators” (rather than “participants”) assigned to it in liberal democratic theory. Such disobedience has always been of concern to the dominant classes. Just keeping to American history, George Washington regarded the common people who formed the militias that he was to command as “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people [evincing] an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people.”

In Violent Politics, his masterful review of insurgencies from “the American insurgency” to contemporary Afghanistan and Iraq, William Polk concludes that General Washington “was so anxious to sideline [the fighters he despised] that he came close to losing the Revolution.” Indeed, he “might have actually done so” had France not massively intervened and “saved the Revolution,” which until then had been won by guerrillas — whom we would now call “terrorists” — while Washington’s British-style army “was defeated time after time and almost lost the war.”

A common feature of successful insurgencies, Polk records, is that once popular support dissolves after victory, the leadership suppresses the “dirty and nasty people” who actually won the war with guerrilla tactics and terror, for fear that they might challenge class privilege. The elites’ contempt for “the lower class of these people” has taken various forms throughout the years. In recent times one expression of this contempt is the call for passivity and obedience (“moderation in democracy”) by liberal internationalists reacting to the dangerous democratizing effects of the popular movements of the 1960s.

Founding Science

“The terms “science,”“technology,” and “scientist,” as we understand them today, were not in use in the Founders’ era. There was no distinction between science and technology, the latter being considered as the more practical, usually mechanical product resulting from scientific inquiry. The title “scientist” did not exist prior to 1833, when British scientist and historian William Whewell coined it. Before then, newspapers, magazines, books, and speeches either referred to a specific field of study by name, such as astronomy, or in the aggregate plural as “the sciences,” a label that encompassed a wide variety of fields including rhetoric and political science. Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1755 identified the “curious of nature” as “inquisitive, attentive, diligent, accurate, careful not to mistake, exact, nice, subtle, artful, rigorous.” Such men (and a few women) expressed their “genius” by engaging in “speculation”— making educated guesses about natural phenomena. “Natural philosophy” and “natural history,” the terms regularly used to denote science in the writings of the Founding Fathers and in the contemporary Philosophical Transactions of the London-based Royal Society, seem to us interchangeable. But natural philosophy then referred to what we might term the hard sciences, the mathematically based disciplines of physics, astronomy , chemistry, optics, and hydraulics. Natural history encompassed the soft sciences of botany, anthropology, anatomy, and , to a lesser extent, biology— what Foucault has called “the science of the characters that articulate the continuity and the tangle of nature.” 7”

Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment

by Tom Shachtman
Kindle Locations 85-97

The Science of Politics

Many have noted the odd relationship American conservatives have to science. It isn’t just anti-intellectualism. Nor is it even necessarily a broad attack against all science. It is highly selective and not consistent whatsoever. It is a reactionary attitude and so must be understood in that light.

I regularly interact with a number of conservatives. It gives me a personal sense of what it might mean.

There is a sense behind it that scientists are mere technocrats, puppets of political power. This mindset doesn’t separate science from politics. There is no appreciation that most scientists probably think little about politics while they are focused on the practical issues of doing research and writing papers. Most scientists aren’t trying to make a political argument or to change anything within or through politics. Scientists just have their small corner of expertise that they obsess over.

There is a paranoia in this mindset, typically unacknowledged. There is a suspicion that scientists somehow are an organized political elite conspiring to force their will on the public. In reality, scientists are constantly arguing and fighting with one another. The main politics most scientists are worried about is most often the politics of academia, nothing so grand as control of the government. Science involves more disagreement than anything else.

Getting all scientists to cooperate on some grand conspiracy isn’t likely to ever happen, especially as scientists work within diverse institutions and organizations, public and private, across many countries. They don’t even share a single funding source. Scientists get funding from various government agencies, from various non-profit organizations, and increasingly from corporations. All these different funding sources have different agendas and create different incentives. For example, a lot of climatology research gets funded by big oil because climatology predictions are important in working with big oil rigs out in the ocean.

There is also another even stranger aspect. I get this feeling that some conservatives consider science to almost be unAmerican. I had a conservative tell me that science should have no influence over politics whatsoever. That politics should be about a competition of ideas. a marketplace of ideas if you will, and may the best idea win or profit, as the case may be. That reality is too complex for scientists too understand and so we shouldn’t try to understand that complexity. So, trying to understand is more dangerous than simply embracing our ignorance.

This goes so far as to create its own vision of history. Many conservatives believe that the founders were a wise elite who simply knew the answers. They may have taken up science as a hobby, but it had absolutely nothing to do with their politics. The founders were smart, unlike today’s intellectual liberal elite and scientific technocrats. The founders understood that science had nothing to offer other than the development of technology for the marketplace. That is the only use science has, as a tool of capitalism.

This is a bizarre mentality. It is also historically ungrounded. The founders didn’t separate their interest in science from their interest in politics. They saw both science and politics as the sphere of ideas and experimentation. They didn’t just take someone’s word for something. If they had a question or a debate, it wasn’t unusual for them to test it out and find what would happen. They were very hands-on people. For many of them, politics was just another scientific experiment. The new American system was a hypothesis to be tested, not simply a belief system to be declared and enforced.

This view of science is widespread. This isn’t just an issue of cynical reactionaries, ignorant right-wingers, and scientifically clueless fundies. This worldview also includes middle and upper class conservatives with college education, some even in academia itself. Many of these people are intelligent and informed. Very few of them are overt conspiracy theorists and denialists. Much of what I’ve said here they would dismiss as an outlandish caricature. They are rational and they know they are rational. Their skepticism of science is perfectly sound and based on valid concerns.

When these people on the right speak of science, they are speaking of it as symbolizing something greater in their worldview. It isn’t just science they are speaking of. They fear something that is represented by science. They fear the change and uncertainty that science offers. They distrust scientists challenging their cherished views of present reality in the same way they distrust academic historians revising established historical myths about America. These intellectual elites are undermining the entire world they grew up in, everything they consider great and worthy about this country.

Conservatives aren’t wrong to fear and distrust. Indeed, their world is being threatened. Change is inevitable and no one has a clue about what the end results might be. But they should stop attacking the messenger. Scientists are simply telling us to face reality, to face the future with our eyes wide open.

* * * *

Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment
by Tom Shachtman

Science and the Founding Fathers:
Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison
by I. Bernard Cohen

The Invention of Air:
A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America
by Steven Johnson



Nature’s God and American Radicalism

The following is an excerpt from a book I’m reading, Nature’s God. I’m not familiar with the author, Matthew Stewart, but maybe I should make myself more familiar with his writings.

The book fills in some holes in my knowledge of the revolutionary era. I know Thomas Paine well. I’m ever so slightly familiar with Ethan Allen. But I do believe Thomas Young is entirely new to me. I don’t recall having come across his name previously.

All three of these, along with some others, are the real founders.

They weren’t born into wealth, privilege, and education. They had to struggle their whole lives and they all put everything on the line, both their lives and their livelihoods, even their hard-earned reputations, all sacrificed for what they believed. They had a lot less to lose and a lot more to gain by challenging the status quo, but it wasn’t just desperate poverty that compelled them to seek something better. They felt genuine conviction for what others thought impossible or dangerous.

They were lovers of freedom and democracy, defenders of the common man and the common good. They were the rabblerousers and instigators, the radicals and revolutionaries. They lit the fire under the asses of the elite and of the contented, of the likes of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington. Without these working class troublemakers, there would have been no American Revolution, no Declaration of Independence, and no new country.

The least we should do is honor their memory. Better yet, we could take seriously the values that motivated them and the ideals that inspired them.

* * * *

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
By Matthew Stewart
pp. 16-23

HOW DO WE DECIDE who deserves a place in history? Generations of devoted American history buffs have spent countless hours reading and writing long books about the American Revolution without ever having come across the name of Dr. Thomas Young. Yet Young was, among other things, one of the people who brought us the original Tea Party. It was he who stood before the assembled people of Boston on November 29, 1773, and first articulated the transparently illegal proposition that the only way to get rid of the East India Company’s loathsome cargo was to throw it into the harbor. 29 It was he who, on the evening of December 16, 1773, kept a crowd of thousands at the Old South Church shouting and clapping with a satirical speech on “the ill effects of tea on the constitution” while his best friends, dressed as Mohawks, quietly set off to turn the Boston harbor into a briny teapot. 30 And it turns out that kicking off the event that many years later came to be called the Boston Tea Party was not the most consequential of Thomas Young’s many unsung contributions to the founding of the American Republic.

If it is true, as John Adams famously observed, that the American Revolution took place “in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775 . . . before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington,” 31 then many of America’s most celebrated founders should properly be counted as consequences rather than causes of the course of events. In his diary Adams himself described the Tea Party on the morning after as “an Epocha in History,” 32 and yet he wrote about it as an enthusiastic bystander, not a participant, much less an instigator. George Washington seems to have had few serious doubts about America’s place in the Empire until the summer of 1774, when the ordeals of the people of Massachusetts forced him to reappraise the intentions of the King and his ministers. 33 Benjamin Franklin tarried in London until 1775, nurturing his dream of retiring to the life of a grand pooh-bah of the British Empire. Thomas Jefferson, born in 1743, “knew more of the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites than he did of what was passing in Boston,” groused the envious Adams in later life. 34 James Madison (b. 1751) and Alexander Hamilton (b. 1755 or 1757) were mere schoolboys when the hard work of changing the American mind began. As America’s busy hagiographers have been keen to observe, the men now exalted as America’s founders and framers, taken on the whole, were revolutionaries by circumstance rather than by disposition. They were ambitious, upstanding citizens, generally happy with their lot in life, who at a singular moment in history were presented with a fateful choice.

Thomas Young, on the other hand, was no accidental revolutionary. He was present at the creation of the movement, and he never left. He was unhappy, brilliant, resentful, and heroically optimistic. He was a plotter, a conspirer, an ideologue, and a provocateur. He did not disguise his belief that in order to make a revolution you have to break some eggs. He vowed always— in his own words—“ to fight the good fight.” 35 Above all, he was a man with a message, so convinced of the merit of the ideas in his head that keeping his mouth shut would have seemed like a crime against humanity.

“He published his first screed championing the natural rights of Englishmen against the injustices of imperial rule in 1764, when he was thirty-three. In the following year, he found himself at the head of a mob on the streets of Albany, leading the protests against the Stamp Act. He rose to the leadership of the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty and soon made contact with like-minded activists across the colonies. In 1766, he moved to Boston to join with the radical faction gathering around James Otis and Samuel Adams. As Boston struggled with occupation, he rapidly established himself as the most militant voice in the local newspapers and the go-to man whenever a rabble stood in need of rousing. Governor Thomas Hutchinson regularly named him as one of the four most dangerous men in town. In 1772, together with his fellow radicals, he founded the Boston Committee of Correspondence— a momentous breakthrough in propaganda technology that served to spread both rebellious sentiments and democratic practices throughout Massachusetts and the rest of the colonies. 36

“What an engine!” John Adams exclaimed in 1815. “The history of the United States can never be written” until one had inquired into the activities of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, he said. “France imitated it, and produced a revolution. England and Scotland were upon the point of imitating it, in order to produce another revolution . . . The history of the past thirty years is a sufficient commentary upon it.” 37 And Young’s handwriting was all over the project—quite literally. In the files now held in the archives of the New York Public Library, his distinctive script appears on dozens of unsigned pages of Committee papers— more than any other Committee member— including on parts of a draft of the 1772 declaration of the “rights of the colonists” that John Adams later suggested was one of the models for the Declaration of Independence. 38

“In 1775, Young tumbled into Philadelphia, the scene of his greatest contributions to the revolutionary cause, and instantly fell in with Thomas Paine. In his political polemics, Young anticipated many of the ideas and even some of the language that figured in the pamphlet that changed the world: Paine’s Common Sense of January 1776. 39 At the time, the government of Pennsylvania was mostly under the control of conservatives who favored reconciliation with Great Britain. In the decisive month of May 1776, Young, Paine, and a handful of their fellow radicals engineered a Bolshevik-style coup d’état that replaced the legitimately elected government of the province with a pro-independence faction. The new government of the colony in turn tilted the balance of the Continental Congress in favor of permanent separation from Britain, and within six weeks the Congress declared independence.

“In the summer and fall of 1776, Young and his comrades organized a convention and produced a constitution for the newly independent state of Pennsylvania. It was “the most radically democratic organic law in the world at the time of its creation,” one historian has observed. 40 It vested almost all power in a popularly elected legislature, stipulated a variety of measures to ensure that their representatives would remain answerable to the people, and included a declaration of rights along the lines of those that are familiar to us now from the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Franklin handed out copies in Paris, and the people of the salons assumed that such a revolutionary document could only have been the great scientist’s work. “In truth,” John Adams sniffed, it was Young, Paine, and a pair of their radical friends “who were the authors of it.” 41 And when Young finished with the job in Philadelphia, he sent a copy along with an open letter to the people of Vermont— a state whose name Young himself coined from the French for “Green Mountain” 42 —where, with some further modification, it served as the basis for the first state constitution to ban slavery.

“It is the unapologetically democratic character of Young’s revolution that makes him seem such a striking figure today. By birth, by reputation, and by conviction, Young was a man of the people. In Boston he saved his highest praise for the “common tradesmen” who at town meetings displayed “the wisdom and eloquence of Athenian Senators.” 43 As a member of the Boston Committee, he demanded the overthrow of all the governments that put “the most powerful men in every county and every town” over “the common people.” 44 In Philadelphia he invited the hatred of the ruling classes with his bold proposal that all men should be entitled to vote without regard to their property qualifications. As early as 1770, he had predicted, “A very little time will show you Great Britain reduced into absolute monarchy, or exalted into a Republic!” 45 In the years preceding the Revolutionary War, it should not be forgotten, only a tiny fraction of the American colonials desired independence, and only a much smaller fraction thought in terms of a democratic transformation of society and government. Young belonged to a numerically insignificant sliver who, long before their fellow colonials dared to imagine the possibility of a break from the mother country, dreamed of independence as a means to launch a democratic revolution that would sweep through the British Empire and then around the world.

[ . . . ]

Yet Thomas Young remains, in the words of historian David Freeman Hawke, “unquestionably the most unwritten about man of distinction of the American Revolution.” Hawke made that claim in 1970— and it is still mostly true. Apart from a few worthy pieces of scholarship, the “dirty little screw” of the American Revolution continues to languish on the shop floor of history. 50

“Part of the problem is that Young died too early for his own good, succumbing in July 1777 to a sudden fever contracted while serving as a surgeon for the Continental Army. Having done his best work on the streets and in the backrooms of revolutionary committees, he left no one with any great stake in fighting for his posthumous reputation— no one, that is, except the ever-loyal Ethan Allen, who was soon busy immolating his own legacy.

The biggest obstacle that stood between Thomas Young and the history books, however, was his unabashed deism. In a fistful of bracing newspaper columns, not-so-anonymous pamphlets, and private letters, Young left few of his contemporaries in doubt about the extreme heterodoxy of his religious views. “Could we raise up the spirit of one of the murderers of St. Stephen, to tell us what a figure Paul cut, when he breathed out threatening and slaughter against his Savior, then we might form an idea of Dr. Y—— g,” said one outraged Tory. 51 “Suffice it to say, this man stands accused of rebellion, not only against his Sovereign, but against his God.”

“Young’s fellow citizens regularly accused him of being “a man of no morals,” an “infamous character,” and, of course, an “infidel.” 52 And Young— this is perhaps the most unusual thing about him— regularly responded with daring public confessions in which he let it be known, in so many words, that if with such terms his antagonists meant to identify him a deist, then they were right. Rushing to his defense after one assault on the doctor’s unacceptable creed, his fellow members of the Boston Committee of Correspondence marveled that on his journey through life he had accumulated many friends of high character, notwithstanding the fact that “uniform throughout, he appears in all places to have declared his sentiments on all subjects, natural, civil, and religious.” The thing about Young, everyone agreed, was that he could not keep his mouth shut. When he died, the nation he served found it convenient to forget such a troublesome individual. Let him now face the consequences in the afterlife whose reality he so blasphemously denied, they said, and they moved on.

“Young’s philosophical oeuvre is not large or systematic, and it is sometimes obtuse, as one might expect from a self-taught medicine man moonlighting as a global revolutionary. Yet its neglect turns out to be the most damaging of the many unfortunate consequences of his omission from the history books. In the uncomfortably personal confessions he committed to print, Young tells us what it was like to come of age as a deist in prerevolutionary America. In his sundry philosophical treatises, he articulates a form of deism that is substantially more radical than that which has traditionally figured in the stories America tells itself about its philosophical heritage. And he makes clear that, at least in his own mind, this radical philosophy was the axis on which the Revolution turned. For him, the project to free the American people from the yoke of King George was part of a grander project to liberate the world from the ghostly tyranny of supernatural religion.


Anti-Partisan Original Intent

I was reading the introduction to The Invention of Party Politics by Gerald Leonard. The beginning comments caught my attention (Kindle Locations 62-65):

“This is a book about political parties and the American Constitution between the founding of the United States and the Second Party System of the 1840s and 1850s. In those years, and especially between 1820 and 1840, the idea and fact of party organization gained a preeminent place in the American constitutional order, even though the Constitution itself had been designed as a “Constitution against parties.”*”

(* From Idea of a Party System by Richard Hofstadter)

I knew many of the Founders saw party politics as a danger. This went along with the perceived threats of political factionalism and regional/state sectionalism. Unity was the watchword of those early Americans. They were seeking to create a United States, a radical vision. Not a nation-state and not just what the Articles of Confederation proposed. Plural states, but united, tied together with common cause and purpose. A Union.

As George Washington famously explained in his farewell address,

“In contemplating the causes, which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern, that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by Geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavour to excite a belief, that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence, within particular districts, is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart-burnings, which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those, who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”

His warning was that parties would lead to ruling elites who served their own interests rather than the country.

“All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.”

It wasn’t just a complaint about the practical running of government. Rather, it was a conflict of visions. The vision of Union was in direct contradiction to the vision of partisanship. For parties to form meant the revolutionary spirit to have been defeated, the entire reason and justification for the founding of the United States.

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.”

Washington goes into more detail, but you get the basic idea. The guy saw political parties as one of the greatest threats to a free country and to all who value liberty. Those are strong words for the first president who wasn’t known for stating anything strongly. He decided to make almost his entire farewell address about this single warning. We should take this as seriously as we take Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of the Military-Industrial Complex.

To return to The Invention of Party Politics, the author continues with some thoughts on the Constitution:

“In all the massive literature on American political history in that period, however, there was little indication of what I have since come to understand: that the early history of party is best understood within the history of the Constitution, just as the history of the Constitution is best understood within the history of party development.”

It is good to keep in mind that the Constitution was written to replace the Articles of Confederation. The early Confederation was too weak and so the vision of Union took form, but the idea of a Union was a guiding vision from before the Constitutional Convention. There was disagreement about the exact relationship between the states and yet there was much agreement that the states needed a shared system of politics, of laws, of economics, and more importantly of values.

However, that vision of a fully united Union didn’t last. Understanding that change is what this book is about. Also, it is about understanding why the founders fought so hard for a new vision of a non-partisan society.

“In the nineteenth century, the mass political party dominated American politics and, in fact, came to be the defining institution of modern “democracy,” a status it still enjoys (perhaps in tandem with the market economy). Yet thousands of years of prior human history had yielded practically no efforts to justify party organization or institutionalized opposition. Virtually every political thinker before the nineteenth century condemned “formed opposition” as destructive of the public good and fatal to public peace. The freedom of individuals to express dissent might sometimes be celebrated, but the organization of a political club in continuing opposition to the policies of the government— perhaps even conceiving of itself as a potential replacement for those currently in power—smacked more of conspiracy and treason than of healthy political competition . In the early nineteenth century, however, all that changed. Americans embraced mass party organization, and politics and governance were altered forever. Eventually, this embrace of party became a commitment to a “party system”— an enduring competition between democratic parties within a basic constitutional consensus, expecting to exchange power and office in indefinitely long cycles 2 —as the sine qua non of democracy in America and much of the world.” (Kindle Locations 66-78).

The American Civil War is a clear example of what Washington had warned about. We shouldn’t get too comfortable about our party system. And we shouldn’t be so naive as to think another civil war will never happen.

I want to end on a different note, though. Those on the political right often speak of original intent, specifically in terms of the Constitution. I just want to point out that any person in a political party (including the Republican Party and the Libertarian Party) who makes any argument about originalism, any such person is being blatantly hypocritical.

Of course, hypocrisy is part of the US political tradition going back to the Founders. Still, I doubt conservatives and right-wingers are basing their originalist defense on the standard of hypocrisy. Or maybe they are.

I find myself going back to that early period of American and Western history. The groundwork of principles and values were laid for modern democracy. Yet we don’t take those principles and values as seriously as we should. They are hard to live by and live up to, as the Founders quickly discovered.

I feel a desire to make my own defense of original intent about the entire early modern revolutionary era and the entire Enlightenment Age. I wish to defend the radical visions that transformed the Western world. Many of those early radicals didn’t fall into hypocrisy. Those are the people upon which I wish to base my own originalism.

Maybe it is time for us to revisit those radical ideas and visions. Maybe we took the wrong path somewhere along the way. Let us retrace our steps and rediscover the forks in the road that could have taken our society in other directions. Maybe party politics is a dead end, after all.

American Paternalism, Honor and Manhood

I’ve been reading a number of books recently, mostly about early America and related subjects, including such topics as Quaker pacifism, Southern honor, and concepts of family. Here are some of my thoughts and observations.

First, I was only slightly shocked to learn that a mere 8% of Americans were considered legal persons when the Constitution was ratified. This means that 92% of the population had very limited rights of any sort, from voting to having one’s own bank account. Women, for example, were basically seen as property, owned by fathers and later husbands with only widowhood giving them some power and freedom.

The founding fathers wanted a society determined by class, race and gender. They wanted to create an independently wealthy class of “disinterested aristocrats” (i.e., rich white males). Talking to many conservatives, I realize that this vision of a ruling elite still has strong support.

There were two problems with this vision.

First, few of the founding fathers were independently wealthy and so a disinterested aristocracy wasn’t possible. Only someone like Franklin was wealthy enough to work as a politician for free. The rest had to work jobs on the side such as lawyers or plantation owners.

Second, the 92% of the population didn’t want to be ruled by a benevolent ruling class. Also, with Jefferson’s dismantling much of Hamilton’s centralized government, grassroots populist democracy flourished. The American people didn’t need anyone else to solve their problems, especially not about their own local self-governance. In the first half of the 19th century, government as a formal institution was almost invisible.

The founding fathers had been disappointed by their failed lofty ideals of a gentile brotherhood. Their vision was one of honor as defined by Englightenment thinking. It was about noble self-sacrifice by well-educated wise leaders (a modernized version of Plato’s philosopher kings). All of this was grounded in ancient ideas of a republic. Some of the founding fathers were more radical, but most of them didn’t want democracy as we now appreciate, heck most of them probably didn’t even understand such a concept. Rule by “The People” for them meant rule by the 8%.

Jefferson, somewhat unintentionally, made way for an entirely different vision of America. What America became in the 19th century was a country of shopkeepers and religious reformers. There was no nobility, no valor, no honor in being a shopkeeper. Anyone could be a shopkeeper. Even a lowly housewife or black person could produce something to be sold. And religious reform was an emasculating force often led by women.

Along with this, a middle class began to arise, although in some ways it was more of a perception than a reality in the 19th century. After the American Revolution had ended, there actually was more economic inequality than before. But the difference was that Americans now saw themselves as free, even if many of their freedoms had been curtailed by an overreaching and sometimes violently oppressive plutocracy (the Whiskey Rebellion comes to mind).

This also relates to Jefferson. He wanted a society based on agricultural landowners who worked their own land. This was the beginning of the American Dream of everyone owning their own home. The government artificially created a middle class by giving public land away for free or else very cheaply and by providing such things as public education. This made the American population more self-reliant and so less needing of paternalistic rulers.

Another unforseen result was the religious revivalism and the politicized religioisity that it fomented. This frightened many of the founding fathers who saw religion in more elite and intellectual terms. Adam Smith despised Evangelicalism and began to longingly speak of British aristocracy. Jefferson ended up being profoundly wrong in his prediction that Unitarianism would become the dominant religion within a few generations of America’s foundation.

What the Evangelicals and other religious reformers offered was something new. They didn’t want paternalistic benevolence such as money being given to the poor. They wanted to solve the problem of poverty itself. They tried to discover the roots of poverty and they sought to reform society. This was what would later result in the movements of Populism and Progressivism. Grassroots democracy was becoming a force to be reckoned with, especially with the new breed of populist politician (e.g., Andrew Jackson). This was only exacerbated by the influx of European immigrants during the 19th century, many of whom were escaping oppressive ruling classes and some of whom were radical revolutionaries.

The earlier ideals of honor and manhood were becoming lost. The Revolutionary generation was growing old and the public recollection of the Revolutionary era were becoming hazy. The founding fathers often felt forgotten and disrespected.

America was founded on the eve of early industrialization. Even farming was being transformed through new technology. In this marketplace society, there was no place for elitist Enlightenment thinking. Most Americans knew nothing about Enlightenment thinking and had no desire to know. Americans were becoming a people of producers and consumers.

Grand conflicts were no longer so apparent to the average American. People didn’t feel directly threatened by the French, British or even Indians. The frontier had moved so much further Westward, far away from the bustling cities of commerce.

The problem was: How were Americans to maintain a larger sense of meaning and purpose as a nation? How were boys to be made into men and how were men to prove their manhood? This problem seemed clear to the founding generation who reminisced about the ennobling effect of war. Many saw the War of 1812 as an opportunity to develop character in the American people. This feeling became strong in places like Kentucky where masculine identity had been built on romanticized notions of the early Indian fighters. However, the War of 1812 was a failure and besides it never captured the imagination of most Americans.

This sense of a problem remained. And it led to divisions in how America should be defined.

Andrew Jackson was a Scots-Irish Southerner who, along with being the first president not being born an aristocrat, embodied the Southern vision of militant honor. He combined that with an overtly racist and anti-intellectual sensibility that was particularly popular among Southern white farmers. The North was more industrialized and had a different vision of honor that was influenced by Puritan and Quaker values, but it was the South rather than the North that dominated politics at that time. It was only with the mass immigration to the North that allowed a change of political fortunes during the Civil War.

An odd thing happened, though. The Civil War was traumatizing for both sides. There was little honor in victory, but Americans began to romanticize the honor of Southern loss and so began to romanticize Southern notions of gentlemanly honor. This, of course, led to much conflict around class and race.

Going into the 20th century, Americans were still struggling with what honor and manhood meant. There was a mass exodus from farming communities. A new generation grew up in the cities, the largest generation of child labor and the first generation of modern consumers of all the products being built in the factories in which they worked. They were a generation without authority figures. They became known as the Lost Generation. They fought in WWI, a war worst than the Civil War. They travelled the world and became cosmopolitan in the way no group of Americans had been since the founding fathers.

This was the beginning of the Progressive era which was strongly promoted by religious reformers such as Evangelicals. This was when the National Parks were created and when the streams were stocked with European game fish, the idea being that such things as hunting and fishing could make men out of this urbanized generation of boys.

It’s interesting how these themes formed and how they continue to this day.

Republican Liberalism

I was looking at two scholarly books about the history of American ideologies. Both books are fairly recent (2007 & 2008) and both bring up a similar viewpoint about the relationship of republicanism to liberalism. I’ve never come across this view before and so it made me wonder what caused two different authors to write about it at around the same time.


The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America
by Michael J Thompson
pp. 2-3, location 208

“My basic argument is that liberal and republican themes were wedded in the American mind at the nation’s founding. Both viewpoints saw an intimate relation between power and property, if not coevality with each other. Liberalism was a doctrine of individual labor and, by extension, property, and it sought to give independence to individuals, smashing feudal relations of dependency that were predominate before the American Revolution. Republican themes emphasized the need for the institutions of the state to ensure that inequalities in property—and by extension, power—were kept in check. Within the context of an emerging commercial society bent on popular government, the theme of economic inequality was therefore central. Both liberalism and republicanism—two doctrines that have traditionally been seen as oppositional in previous literature on American political history—were actually seen as two sides of the same coin. Both sought to confront inequality of property and political power, and each saw that this was a central concern in eradicating the vestiges of feudalism that were at the heart of the birth of the American republic and modernity more generally. But the real essence of the story is that these two impulses begin to differentiate over the course of American history as the economic context develops. The evolution of capitalism begins to chart a course for liberalism at the expense of republican themes. By the end of the twentieth century, liberalism becomes co-opted by capitalism, and republican themes of the past fade into the background. The result is an overall acceptance or at least toleration of economic inequality and the gross differentials in political and social power it engenders in contemporary American politics and culture. I contend that this has led to a reorientation of democratic life in America and that as long as economic inequality and politics are held separate, a more vibrant democratic culture and consciousness will not be possible.

“Indeed, the success of neoconservative and neoliberal thought over the last thirty-five years has had the effect of redrawing the boundaries of American liberalism. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the loss in mainstream American political discourse of one of the most crucial veins of American political thought, which ran, until quite recently, like a roiling river at the heart of American life. This vein is the politics of economic inequality”


Liberal Beginnings: Making a Republic for the Moderns
by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson
location 1685-1700
“Working with these orientations, proclivities, and tools, these thinkers and actors powerfully transformed republicanism into political liberalism but did so distinctively. Their pathways to a common outcome were not identical. The formation and crystallization of political liberalism was not the result of a single line of development. Nor can its origins be identified with a seminal thinker, or even with one lineage or sheer acts of substitution.
“[ . . . ] republican failure to identify and secure a stable and enduring political center in the space between radical Jacobinism and reactionary monarchism. This disappointment prompted her liberal inventions. It was her dissatisfaction with French republicanism’s violence, fanaticism, and dictatorship, as well as her fears that republicans could not end the Revolution, that impelled her to explore such new political formulations. Republican traumas, in short, motivated Stael’s liberalism.
“[ . . . ] These various paths converged. At their terminus, constitutional liberalism existed; republicanism no longer was a freestanding alternative, but it did not disappear. Republican values, sensibilities, and orientations have survived as deposits that fused with, and became integral to, liberal politics. In light of this history, some of the most familiar, and often pejorative, dichotomies in today’s political thought, including the right and the good, interest and virtue, individual and community, make little sense. These oppositions are new fabrications that do not accurately capture the rich historical and conceptual relations between the two traditions. They contradict the most prominent aspects of liberal beginnings.
“Further, both republican nostalgia and liberal purity are revealed to be false alternatives. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it became apparent that the republican model was radically deficient. So it is worse than ironic that some leading thinkers today counsel a resurrection of what even leading republicans two centuries ago transformed and superseded, and for good reasons. It is respectively discomfiting that a good many liberal advocates have distanced themselves from the lessons taught by key founders. By contrast with often abstract and philosophical exercises, the thick and sturdy liberalism fashioned within and against republicanism was open and syncretic, not closed and exclusive.”

Thomas Paine and the Promise of America

Decades ago Ronald Reagan borrowed a phrase from a founding father often overlooked. He rallied his party at the Republican National Convention with these patriotic words: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Calling for a revolution, Reagan chose those words from the writings of America’s first great radical, and its first best selling writer. His name was Thomas Paine. Over two centuries ago this month, Paine’s most famous book, COMMON SENSE, sold what today would be fifty million copies. Farmers in the fields stopped to read it.

Other influential works followed including THE AMERICAN CRISIS which proclaimed, “These are times that try men’s souls.” George Washington took those words to heart when he ordered his troops to be read Paine’s passionate call for liberty as they went into battle.

Paine’s extraordinary life was both glorious and tragic. He was not always revered as some of our other founding fathers — and during his lifetime he was often feared and lampooned — and under threat of prison and even death. Harvey J. Kaye, who recently told his story in THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA, notes that Paine has again become currency in political debate because of a revolutionary idea that spread from the colonies to France and around the globe:

That the common people…that Americans could be citizens and not merely subjects. That people had it within themselves not only to listen to their superiors, but literally to speak to each other and deliberate and govern themselves.

Protectionist America

I was wondering about protectionism in terms of free trade. So, I did some research.

From what I can tell, the US was founded on and has always been a protectionist country. The reason for this is that the Founding Fathers were fighting against transnationals that were undermining the local industry. There can’t be even a semblance of free trade in a country if the national economy isn’t protected against transnationals monopolizing global markets. Many worshipers of free trade like to point to the Gilded Age of industrialization as an example, but protectionism was going on then as well. Even the great Ronald Reagan was one of the most protectionist presidents.

I don’t understand the complexities of protectionism, but it seems obvious that the American economy grew strong through protectionism. I’m not arguing that protectionism is necessarily good. It seems problematic when combined with the imperial aspirations of the US in the last century (which was the problem early Americans faced with the imperialism of the British protectionist economy). However, like the US, many countries around the world grew strong economies through protectionism.

There are always countries that will use protectionism (that is, until there is a global government to force a single policy on all countries). Any country that doesn’t protect against the protectionist policies of other countries will inevitably be taken advantage of and taken over by foreign entities. Modern economic colonialism is filled with examples of countries economically controlled or manipulated by countries that grew powerful and wealthy through protectionism.

Obviously, there is both good and bad to protectionism. It’s simply a tool that in itself is morally neutral. The reality of our world is that protectionism exists. Fantasizing about a hypothetical free market utopia won’t make it become real. Any country that doesn’t use protectionism is doomed. Protectionism is essentially self-defense. Why wouldn’t a country economically defend itself just as it militarily defends itself? Being economically taken over can be just as bad as being militarily taken over.

One other thing. Many of the pro-capitalist types like to complain about income tax. It’s true there wasn’t always an income tax. Previously, the government relied upon high tariffs on imports.

I don’t know the answer or even fully understand the problem. What I do know is that free trade worshipers are naive. Yes, if you are a person with power and connections seeking personal wealth, free trade is good for you and your associates. However, for most of the rest of the world’s population, free trade will mean getting taken advantage of by people with power and connections.

I’m not saying protectionism is always the answer. I just get tired of the ideologues who righteously put forth simplistic ideals.