Founding Visions of the Past and Progress

The foundng debate of Federalists and Anti-Federalists is always of interest. In perusng the writings, particularly the letters, of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine, there is a recurrent theme about land, property and taxation, which opens up onto a vista of other issues. The American colonists, before and after becoming revolutionaries, lived in a world of tumultuous change. And the world of their cultural kin in Europe, if far away across an ocean, presented a vision of further changes that posed a warning and felt too near for comfort.

From the beginning of the enclosure of the Commons centuries prior, the people’s relationship to the physical world around them had been the hinge upon which everything else turned. With the creation of landless peasants, there was the first waves of mass urbanization with industrialization and colonial imperialism soon following, not to mention social turmoil from the Peasant’s Revolt to the English Civil War. There was displacement as peasant villages were razed to the ground, creating a refugee crisis and mass movement of populations. What followed was widespread homelessness, poverty, starvation, malnutrition, disease, and death. That post-feudal crisis is what so many British had escaped in heading to the colonies beginning in the 1600s.

It was the greatest period of destabilization since the earlier wave of urbanization during post-Axial imperialism more than a millennia earlier. But in many ways it was simply a continuation of the long process of urbanization that was unleashed with the agricultural revolution at the dawn of civilization. The first agricultural people, often forming large villages and then city-states, went through a precipitous period of health decline, including regular plagues and famines. Even with advanced food systems and scientific-based healthcare, modern humans have still yet to regain the height, bone development, and brain size of paleolithic humans.

In the late 19th century heading into the next, moral panic took over American society as the majority became urbanized for the first time, something that had happened centuries earlier in Europe. There was the same pattern of worsening health that the American founders had previously seen in the burgeoning European cities. This stood out so clearly because early Americans, raised on rural life and food abundance with lots of wild game, were among the healthiest and tallest people in the Western world at the time. When those early Americans visited Europe, they towered over the locals. Some Europeans also noticed the changes in their own populations, such as one French writer stating that mental illness spread with the advance of civilization.

When Thomas Jefferson envisioned his agricultural ideal of the yeoman, he wasn’t merely proffering an ideological agenda of rural romanticism. He was a well-traveled man and he had seen many populations with which to compare. He worried that, if and when America became urbanized and industrialized, the same fate would await us. This was a prediction of the sense of societal decline that indeed took over not long after his death. Even before the American Civil War, there was the rise of large industrial cities with all of the culture war issues that have obsessed Americans ever since. But what is fascinating is that this worry and unease about modernity was such a pressing concern at the very foundation of the country.

In advocating for a democratic republic as did not exist in Europe where oppression and desperation prevailed, Jefferson wrote to Madison from Paris about his hopes for the new American experiment. There was the desire to learn from the mistakes of others and not repeat them. America held the promise of taking an entirely different path toward modernity and progress. He wrote that, in a letter to Madison (20 December 1787),

“After all, it is my principle that the will of the Majority should always prevail. If they approve the proposed Convention in all it’s parts, I shall concur in it chearfully, in hopes that they will amend it whenever they shall find it work wrong. I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe. Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”

Jefferson may have been an aristocrat, but he was a particular kind of rich white guy. Maybe it had to do with where he lived. The Virginia aristocracy, different than the Carolina aristocracy, lived and worked among their slaves year round. Slaves were spoken of as an extension of the family and the social structure was similar to the feudal villages that were quickly disappearing elsewhere. Jefferson became infamous for his close relations with his slaves with at least one supposedly having been his lover and several his children. He could play the role of an aristocrat, but he also knew how to associate with the poor, maybe why he was one of the only wealthy elite in the colonies who maintained a long-term relationship with the crude and low-class Thomas Paine.

When in France, Jefferson would dress in disguise to mingle among the dirt poor. He would visit with them, eat their food, and even sleep in their lice-infested beds. So, when he talked of the problems of poverty, he drew upon firsthand experience. The poverty of Europe went hand in hand with extreme concentration of wealth, land, and power. There were homeless and unemployed landless peasants living near the privatized Commons that had been turned into beautiful parks and hunting grounds for the wealthy elite. These poor were denied access to land to farm and upon which to hunt and gather, even as they went hungry and malnourished. This seemed like a horrific fate to the American mind where land and natural resources represented the foundation of freedom and liberty, the subsistence and economic independence that was necessary for self-governance and republican citizenship.

The same familiarity with the dirty masses was true of Benjamin Franklin who, like Paine, did not grow up in wealth. I doubt Franklin followed Jefferson’s example, but colonial life disallowed vast gulfs of class disparity, except in certain Deep South cities like Charleston where opulent wealth helped re-create more European-style urbanization and depradation. Most of the founders, including George Washington also of Virginia, were forced to live in close proximity not only the lower classes but also Native Americans. A number of the founders wrote high praise of the Native American lifestyle.

Franklin, a man who loved the good life of urban comfort, felt compelled to admit that Native American had a more natural, healthier, and happier way of living. He observed, as did many others, that Native Americans raised among the colonists often returned to their tribes the first chance they got, but Europeans raised among Native Americans rarely wanted to return to the dreary and oppressive burdens of colonial life. Observations were often made of the admirable examples of tribal freedom from oppression and republican self-governance, some of which was a direct inspiration to designing the new American government. This fed into the imagination of what was possible and desirable, the kinds of free societies that no European could have imagined existing prior to travel to the New World.

The American colonies, at the borderland of two worlds, was a place of stark contrasts. This drove home the vast differences of culture, social order, and economic systems. The agricultural colonies, to many early American thinkers, seemed like an optimal balance of rural health and the benefits of civilization, but it was also understood as a precarious balance that likely could not last. Someone like Jefferson hoped to restrain the worst elements of modernity while holding onto the best elements of the what came before. Other founders shared this aspiration and, with early American populations having been small, this aspiration didn’t appear unrealistic. Such a vast continent, argued Jefferson, could maintain an agricultural society for centuries. The forces of modernization, however, happened much more quickly than expected.

Nonetheless, this rural way of life held on longer in the South and it fed into the regional division that eventually split the nation in civil war. Southeners weren’t only fighting about racialized slavery but also fighting against what they perceived as the wage slavery of industrialization. Their fear wasn’t only of political dependence on a distant, centralized power but also fear of economic dependence on big biz, corporate capitalists, monied interests, and foreign investors. As an early indication of this mindset, Jefferson went so far as to advise including “restriction against monopolies” (equal to “protection against standing armies”) in the Bill of Rights, as it was understood that a private corporation like the British East India Company could be as oppressive and threatening as any government (letter to James Madison, 20 December 1787). In fact, corporations were sometimes referred to as governments or like governments. The rise of corporate capitalism and industrialized urbanization was seen with great trepidation.

This fear of urbanization, industrialization, and modernization has never gone away. We Americans still think in terms of the divide between the rural and urban. And in the South, to this day, fairly large populations remain in rural areas. The Jeffersonian vision of yeoman independence and liberty still resonates for many Americans. It remains powerful both in experience and in rhetoric. Also, this isn’t mere nostalgia. The destruction of the small family farm and rural farm communities was systematically enacted through government agricultural policies and subsidization of big ag. Jefferson’s American Dream didn’t die of natural causes but was murdered, such that mass industrialization took over even farming. That happened within living memory.

The consequences of that decision of political power has made America into a greater and more oppressive empire than the British Empire that the American colonists sought to free themselves from. Europe has fully come to America. The anxiety continues to mount, as American health continues to decline over the generations, such that public health is becoming a crisis. The American founders were never opposed to modern civilization, but maybe they were wise in speaking of moderation and balance, of slow and careful change, in order to protect the ancient Anglo-Saxon memory of strong communities, proud freedom and republican virtue. A healthy, civic-minded society is hard to create but easy to destroy. The Anti-Federalists, more than any others, perceived this threat and correctly predicted what would happen if their warnings were not heeded.

They believed that the worst outcomes were not inevitable. Compromise would be necessary and no society was perfect, but their sense of promise was inspired by a glimpse of social democracy, something they did not yet have a term for. Ironically, some European countries, specifically in Scandinavia, better maintained the small-scale social order and responsive governance that many of the American founders dreamed of. Those countries have better managed the transition into modernity, have better regulated and compensated for the costs of urban industrialization, and better protected the public good from private harm. The American Dream, in one of its original forms, is nearly extinct in America. And what has replaced it does not match the once inspiring ideals of the American Revolution. Yet the promise lingers in the hearts and minds of Americans. Moral imagination remains potent, long after much of what supported it has disappeared and the memory fades.