Gilded Age: Heyday of Laissez-Faire Capitalism

From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican
Liberty in the Nineteenth Century
Alex Gourevitch
Introduction, pp. 3-

On November 26, the Journal printed a letter describing the Knights’ defiance of the “many companies of State militia, with their Gattling [sic] guns,” who were attempting to force the striking workers back to the fields. Little did the Journal’s editors know that by the time they had printed that letter the Louisiana state militia had broken the strike and corralled thousands of strikers into the town of Thibodaux, where a state district judge promptly placed them all under martial law. State militia then withdrew, intentionally leaving the town to a group of white citizen-vigilantes called the “Peace and Order Committee,” who happened to have been organized by the same judge that declared martial law. Upon meeting resistance from the penned in strikers, the white vigilantes unleashed a three-day torrent of killing, from November 21 to November 23, on the unarmed cane-workers and their families. “No credible official count of the victims of the Thibodaux massacre was ever made,” writes one historian, but “bodies continued to turn up in shallow graves outside of town for weeks to come.” 12 Precise body counts were beside the point. The question of who ruled town and country, plantation and courthouse, had been answered. As a mother of two white vigilantes put it, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule[,] the nigger or the white man? For the next 50 years . . .” 13 A few months later, the Knights continued to organize in parts of Louisiana and elsewhere in the South, but the slaughter at Thibodaux put strict limits on the black worker’s struggle for economic independence and equal rights in the South. Farming a plantation “on the co-operative plan” was not even a dream deferred; it was easy to forget it had ever been a possible world the cane cutters might live in. The Knights, meanwhile, were soon reduced to an historical footnote.

The officially sanctioned mob violence at Thibodaux was one of many over the course of Southern history. In each case, a challenge to race-based class rule was met with vigilante justice in the name of white supremacy. In this case, however, it is worth noting that the Knights articulated their challenge in a specific, not well-remembered, language of freedom. From the abolition of slavery to the end of Reconstruction, many freed slaves sought more than legal recognition as equal citizens. They felt their liberation included the right not to have a master at all. They refused to work for former masters, even when offered a formal labor contract and wages. 14 Instead, when possible, they seized or settled land set aside for them and worked it individually or in joint “labor companies.” 15 Former slaves asserted their independence at all levels by organizing their own militias to protect their rights, by working their own property, by voting as they wished, and by holding local and national office. This radical moment of Reconstruction was quickly suppressed and the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877 spelled the end of any but the narrowest interpretation of what emancipation would mean. 16

When the Knights of Labor swept into Louisiana a decade later, they not only revived old hopes about self-organization and economic independence. They also integrated these regional aspirations of former slaves into a recast national ideology of republican freedom. The aforementioned hopeful parenthesis – “by January 1 we will be in good trim to lease ( on the co-operative plan) a good plantation” – speaks to this ideological shift. No doubt black laborers and local leaders heard echoes of the short-lived Reconstruction-era “labor companies” and black militias in this new language of self-directed “co-operative plans.” Their enemies certainly did. The Thibodaux Sentinel, a racist local paper hostile to the Knights’ organizing efforts, warned “against black self organization by trying to remind whites and blacks of what happened a generation earlier, in the days of black militias, and white vigilantism” and evoked “the old demons of violence and arson by ‘black banditti.’” 17 But former slaves were now also modern workers, and the Knights trumpeted the same emancipatory language throughout the nation, heralding “co-operation” as a solution to the problems facing wage-laborers everywhere. If their message carried special historical resonances in the South, the Knights added a new universalizing and solidaristic note.

This program of liberation through cooperative self-organization, articulated in the transracial language of making all workers into their own employers, scared northern industrialists just as much as Southern planters. In fact, if we see the Thibodaux massacre as just a Southern race story, then we run the risk of unintentionally and retrospectively ceding too much to the plantocracy and its attempts to control labor relations by transforming economic conflicts into questions of racial superiority. After all, wherever the Knights went and wherever their message of cooperation and independence took hold, they were met with violence not all that different from that of Southern vigilantes. Throughout the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, the Knights faced private violence from employers and their hired guns, most notoriously the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons operated in legal grey zones, sometimes with outright legal sanction from the courts, and often in cooperation with National Guards or even Federal troops. In fact, on occasion it was the public violence of the state that was responsible for spectacular acts of legally sanctioned murder and coercion. 18 Labor reformers labeled this unholy alliance of the state with the “Pinkerton Armed Force,” its spies and “provocative agents,” as a kind of “Bonapartism in America,” threatening to turn “the free and independent Republic of the United States of America” into the “worm-eaten Empire of Napoleon the Third.” 19 Just as in Thibodaux, the lines between vigilante violence and legal coercion sometimes blurred into indistinction. What, then, was the idea of freedom that triggered such extreme responses?

The Knights of Labor represented the culmination of a radical, labor republican tradition. Their starting premise was that “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” 20 Wage-labor was considered a form of dependent labor, different from chattel slavery, but still based on relations of mastery and subjection. Dependent labor was inconsistent with the economic independence that every republican citizen deserved. That is why, in the name of republican liberty, these Knights sought “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.” 21 Here was the source of their “co-operative plan,” which they found as applicable to the cane fields of Louisiana as to the shoe factories of Massachusetts. 22 The Knights wrote the cooperative program into their official constitution, the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, and, at their peak, organized thousands of cooperatives across the country. 23 The cooperative ideal threatened Southern planters, Northern industrialists and Western railroad owners alike because it struck at the dominant industrial relations between employer and employee. Affording all workers shared ownership and management of an enterprise, whether a sugar plantation, newspaper press, or garment factory, was – according to the Knights – the only way to secure to everyone their social and economic independence. The abolition of slavery two decades earlier was but the first step in a broader project of eliminating all relations of mastery and subjection in economic life. Although these ideas had been around well before the Civil War, it was only the abolition of chattel slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism that allowed the republican critique of wage-labor to come forward as a unifying, national cause. As Ira Steward, a child of abolitionists and prominent post-war labor republican, wrote in 1873, “something of slavery still remains . . . something of freedom is yet to come.” 24

Broad Liberalism and Red Republicans

I noticed two things about my thinking.

First, I focus quite a bit on the topic of liberalism more than on the topic of conservatism. This makes sense. I am, after all, a liberal… or at least I usually identify as a liberal. I’ve struggled with liberalism and have come to an uneasy truce with it.

The second thing could be seen as harder to explain. I focus more on the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Yet I have never voted Republican nor do I have any personal investment in the GOP. Maybe I care more about it, for the simple reason that my parents are Republicans. Then again, my parents are also conservatives, but that doesn’t alter my heavy emphasis on liberalism.

So, why is this?

I have a theory. There is a commonality between liberalism and the Republican Party, as contrasted to conservatism and the Democratic Party. To my curious mind, they are simply more interesting.

Liberalism is more interesting than conservatism for a number of reasons. It is a broader category, more inclusive and diverse. It is a more ambiguous label. A conservative can identify as a classical liberal, but a liberal cannot identify as a classical conservative. As such, liberalism as a political tradition includes modern conservatism.

This is exaggerated even further in the United States that lacks much of a tradition of traditionalism. This country was founded on liberal values of the Enlightenment. The ancien regime never dominated and ruled in this territory to any significant extent. American conservatism is distinct from European traditionalism. Because of this, American conservatism is unrooted in the deep soils of the past. It is forced, instead, to be permanently in reactionary mode to liberalism and hence defined by liberalism.

The Republican Party is more interesting than The Democratic Party for one major reason. It is a younger party that is fully American. The Democratic Party is old, oldest in the world, and is rooted more in English political traditions from the founding generation of this country. The Democrats have always been a mainstream party, always been one of the two major parties. The Republicans began as a radical third party that arose to power alongside the heightening conflict that led to the Civil War.

I know the history of the Democratic Party. Most Americans who are reasonably well-educated know the history of the Democratic Party. But fewer Americans know about the history of the Republican Party, despite it being a shorter history. I’m constantly surprised how few Republicans know of the party’s radical beginnings. Those early third party activists were called Red Republicans for a good reason, and yet few people today stop to think why Republicans are associated with the color red. The Republican Party has become mainstream and respectable. The very notion of ‘republicanism’ has for many become identified with a conservative status quo. But when the Republican Party came on the scene it threatened to tear our country apart with its radical politics, so radical that during the Civil War it garnered the support of the likes of Marx.

There ya go. That is the best explanation I can offer for why I spend so much time contemplating such things. At one point, both liberalism and the Republican Party were extremely radical, completely altering the world around them. I find that interesting.

From Articles of Confederation to the Constitution

I’ve become increasingly fond of or at least seriously curious about federalism. I’ve often been attracted to libertarianism, albeit more leftist versions, which relates to federalism and states rights (also, the paired concepts of republicanism and democracy). What got me thinking more about federalism over the years are my ongoing studies of regionalism from the colonial era to the present. The distinctly separate colonies set the stage for both regionalism and federalism.

One thing that increased my interest in federalism is its relationship to the Articles of Confederation. This past year I learned that the Articles of Confederation had largely been the creation of John Dickinson, a Quaker-raised colonist and reluctant revolutionary from the Middle Colonies. The Middle Colonies created the theoretical justification and the practical working model for uniting the colonies into a single “United States” (or actually isn’t that plural?). The reason for this is that only the Middle Colonies had a regional culture of multiculturalism which meant there was a ready made vision and operating political system of balancing unity and diversity (Diversity within unity? Or unity through diversity? Or Both?).

When the Articles of Confederation needed improvement, the founders set about creating a constitution. However, the original intent was to create a constitution that would improve on the Articles of Confederation, not replace it. The first mistake of American politics was the creation of a constitution that did replace it and, one could argue, that mistake has led to an endless cascade of problems ever since.

The federalist support of the American Constitution came to be seen as opposite to and opposing of the anti-federalist position, but some of the anti-federalists weren’t against a constitution in principle or even against federalism in principle. They were against a federalist constitution that went contrary to the vision that motivated and justified the revolution.

Federalism, unlike it’s often been portrayed, wasn’t inherently in contradiction to the Articles of Confederation. It supposedly wasn’t meant to create a new nation-state or empire in the style of European countries, but that is what it later came to mean or anyway those were the consequences, intended or unintended. Federalism versus Anti-Federalism was a question of the balance between localized and centralized governance, not a question of a federal government ultimately being able to trump state governments in all matters. The role of the federal government was to mediate and moderate between the state governments, not to act completely independent of state governments. We long ago lost that notion of balance and moderation.

The anti-federalists argued that they were the true federalists. “Another complaint of the Anti-Federalists,” as the Wikipedia article explains, “was that the Constitution provided for a centralized rather than Federal Government (and in the Federalist papers James Madison admits that the new Constitution has the characteristics of both a centralized and federal form of the government) and that a truly federal form of government was a leaguing of states as under the Articles of Confederation.” The anti-federalists have been proven correct in their fears and warnings.

John Dickinson,who some consider to be a moderate federalist despite his being the main author of the Articles of Confederation, described his ideal constitutional government in his Fabius Letters. He explained that, “a territory of such extent as that of United America, could not be safely and advantageously governed, but by a combination of republics, each retaining all the rights of supreme sovereignty, excepting such as ought to be contributed to the union; that for the securer preservation of these sovereignties, they ought to be represented in a body by themselves, and with equal suffrage.” Whatever the United States has become, it certainly couldn’t be described as a “combination of republics” or rather, one could say, a confederation of republics. We’ve strayed far from that vision.

This confederation-based federalism wasn’t immediately destroyed by the Constitution that empowered the slave aristocracy and the capitalist plutocracy, but the seed of its destruction was planted within it. Soon after the signing of the Constitution, factions were already forming to take control of the federal government. Various factors gave the Southern colonies great power that extended into the early federal era. This allowed the Southern states to initially take control of the federal government. This power led them to try to force their social order and their slave laws onto the rest of the country. This angered the residents of the non-slave states and the settlers in the territories who had little desire to become slave states. Thus federalism died at the hands of the slavocracy and plutocracy. Those who rule with concentrated power and wealth have a tendency to further concentrate power and wealthy… surprise, surprise.

The Northern alliance of states wrested control following the Civil War. Northerners then did the same thing to the South that Southerners, before the Civil War, had done to the North. Politics had fully become a game of power and factionalism. What came to rule was partisan politics, special interests, and big money lobbyists; thus, setting the stage for the following century. Still, this was just the inevitable results of the anti-confederation and anti-libertarian constitutional order itself that was built on oligarchy (i.e., slavery, political oppression, aristocracy, plutocracy, and class-based inequality). It took different forms as the country developed, but this basic social order remains to this day.

Most Americans don’t understand what was lost when federalism ended, especially when confederation-based ‘true’ federalism ended, and why the constitution was such a failure of political vision (or rather the success of the wrong political vision). Federalism was what made the American experiment so unique. Yet we’ve just become another vast empire.

In fact, we became a full-fledged empire the moment that Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase, although the imperialist vision was present long before that (almost implicit in the early justifications of American independence as, in Paine’s words, “Small islands, not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”). From that point on, America began its steady expansion across the North American continent and its steady expansion by way of attacking independent nations/peoples and claiming their territory when possible (the attacks on Canada and on Cuba being two of the failures of this imperialist project). This has led America, like the colonial empires before it, to now have in its possession vast territories not just on a single continent but also on various islands, from incorporated territories such as Hawaii to unincorporated territories such as Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam (a total of 6 inhabited unincorporated territories, 7 uninhabited unincorporated territories, and 3-5 depending on how you count former territories).

This colonial imperialism also has led America to be such a diverse country. It is ironic that those who praise America’s greatness because of its power often criticize the diversity that was the inevitable result of this imperialist project. You can’t have one without the other, as has been demonstrated with every great empire that has ever existed from the ancient empires of Rome and Hellenistic Greece to the later colonial empires of Spain, France, Netherlands and Britain.

Federalism allowed for a different kind of unity within diversity. The Southern colonies and later states favored monoculture that was strictly forced by a hierarchical social order. Some of the Northern governments/elites, however, embraced, encouraged and/or tolerated multiculturalism. Early federalism allowed these regional governments to have a fair amount of local control over their respective immigration policies, along with local control of their own ports and borders. It was the failure of federalism that led to proposals of secession. It wasn’t just Southerners that sought secession but also Northerners as well.

Even as federalism failed, the conditions that made it possible continue to exist.

Now that we have an empire, we can’t easily reverse the path we’ve taken. We could give independence back to the Native Americans, the Southwestern Hispanics, and the various island peoples. We could do that, but at this point many of these individuals and communities feel as American as the rest of us and they likely don’t want to have their American citizenship taken away from them.

A better solution would be to re-create confederation-based federalism by returning some of the power to local governments, local communities, and local populations. If Southerners want to be xenophobic, then let them be as xenophobic as they want within their own state boundaries. But I don’t want Southerners forcing their xenophobia onto me nor forcing onto me their fundamentalism and elitist class-based social order. Also, I don’t want to force my Midwestern values onto anyone else. Just let us Midwesterners do our own thing. I say let every state and every region do what it wishes, within some basic limits along the lines of the model of the Articles of the Confederation. Some states would choose to have tightly controlled borders and some open borders, some more democratic governance and others less so, some more capitalist and others more socialist, some with tough-on-crime laws and others full of a bunch of pot-smoking hippies getting gay married, and all of that would be perfectly fine.

Since some people are so obsessed about original intent, let us do what was originally intended. Let us make a constitution that improves upon, rather than replaces, the Articles of Confederation.

One context for my thinking is, oddly, the movie Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I thought this movie would be a fun note on which to end.

In that fictional world, there is a central government that has come to gain control over all the people. The different regions, I’m not sure how large, are divided up into districts. It seems these districts are relatively isolated, either geographically or by carefully controlled borders.

It is standard divide-and-conquer strategy. One of the ways this division is maintained is by the Hunger Games. These annual contests served a similar diversionary purpose as American elections. Everyone obsesses over who is going to win, but no matter who wins nothing is essentially going to change for those in power remain in power (or rather those behind the power remain behind the power).

This division of districts reminds me of all kinds of divisions in America. It was the regional divisions that led to the local political factions to seek to take over the centralized ‘federal’ government and enforce their political will onto the entire country. I was the formation of political parties, of which Washington warned about, that led these regional factions to become so nationally powerful. It was the divisions of religion, race and ethnicity that served as constant distraction and animosity among the lower classes which were then manipulated and exacerbated by the upper classes in consolidating their own power.

A centralized government only ever serves the interests and agendas of those with centralized power and wealth. Also, it is the centralized government that allows the continued centralization of power and wealth. Generation after generation, this has led to an ever-growing Establishment of hereditary plutocracy and political family dynasties.

The states no longer act as independent or even semi-independent republics. They are no longer functioning ‘states’ for they have fully come under the control of the federal government. This isn’t just about states rights for that can simply mean power centralized in the state governments. Self-governance is also about individuals, all individuals (lower classes and minorities included). Self-governance is also about communities which means a society built on individuals, families, churches, neighborhoods, militias, grassroots organizing, and actually functioning democracy.

We Americans aren’t as far away from the Hunger Games as we might like to imagine ourselves to be. Certainly, the post-9/11 centralization of power has brought us closer to such an extreme dystopia or else some other variant (e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale). Worse still, so many Americans have bought into the propaganda that, if we just fight for our faction (our race, ethnicity, religion, or whatever), we will finally have the America we want and the America we like to project onto the past. As with the Hunger Games, it is a vision of the ultimate win-lose scenario where the only way our faction can win is for all other factions to lose. This isn’t a road to unity, whether with diversity or not. Instead, this is the road to oppression and a second revolution.

Revolutions: American and French

A book that has often caught my attention is Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light by Susan Dunn. I haven’t read it nor do I plan to. The title sounds like something I’d like to read, but the blurb and reviews of it lessen my interest. I’d love to read a good analysis of these two revolutions, just maybe not this one.

I mention it because of one review to which I commented. It is Completely Biased against French Rev by A Customer. The following is my response.

The problem is not all comparisons are useful.

The French Revolution was an event more similar to the English Civil War, both about the local population overthrowing a king and a new social order attempting to violently establish itself against violent oppression. The American Revolution was also very violent, but it involved more isolated populations, including little infrastructure such as roads connecting the colonies. Even if someone wanted to, an authoritarian group couldn’t have forced its will on such a spread out and disconnected population.

Besides, the American Revolution really was just the second part to the English Civil War, bringing to fruition what had been started there. The American Civil War was the final bloody conclusion to what the founding fathers failed to do. If you consider these three together, the Anglo-American political transformation was as violent as the French Revolution. It’s just that both justice and violence was severely delayed in the Anglo-American example.

You also have to consider that the French in Canada were developing a more democratic society long before the British colonies ever attempted that degree of freedom. However, the French colonial experiment in Canada was oppressively destroyed by the British, the prerogative of empires. Furthermore, consider the Basque people from Southern France who helped inspire the republican thinking of the founding fathers.

“Referring to the historical ties that existed between the Basque Country and the United States, some authors stress the admiration felt by John Adams, second president of the US, for the Basques’ historical form of government. Adams, who on his tour of Europe visited Biscay, was impressed. He cited the Basques as an example in A defense of the Constitution of the United States, as he wrote in 1786:

“”In a research like this, after those people in Europe who have had the skill, courage, and fortune, to preserve a voice in the government, Biscay, in Spain, ought by no means to be omitted. While their neighbours have long since resigned all their pretensions into the hands of kings and priests, this extraordinary people have preserved their ancient language, genius, laws, government, and manners, without innovation, longer than any other nation of Europe. Of Celtic extraction, they once inhabited some of the finest parts of the ancient Boetica; but their love of liberty, and unconquerable aversion to a foreign servitude, made them retire, when invaded and overpowered in their ancient feats, into these mountainous countries, called by the ancients Cantabria…”

“…It is a republic; and one of the privileges they have most insisted on, is not to have a king: another was, that every new lord, at his accession, should come into the country in person, with one of his legs bare, and take an oath to preserve the privileges of the lordship”.[1]

“Authors such as Navascues, and the Basque-American Pete T. Cenarrusa, former Secretary of the State of Idaho, agree in stressing the influence of the Forua of Biscay

on some parts of the US Constitution. John Adams traveled in 1779 to Europe to study and compare the various forms of government then found on the Old Continent. The American Constitution was approved by the first thirteen states on 17 September 1787.”

The French had their own traditions of republicanism, self-governance and social democracy. History is complex. Why some traditions come to the forefront and others get suppressed is impossible to predict in advance, but easy to see with hindsight as somehow being inevitable, some kind of inherent character. Reality is to complicated for the simple stories we project onto it.

Some say the French Revolution was a failure. Many others would say the same thing about the American Revolution. Paine saw both revolutions with his own eyes and participated in both. Without his inspiration, the American Revolution likely would never have gone anywhere.

Yet, the American Revolution was taken over by plutocrats and oligarchs, hardly a victory to be celebrated. We continue to suffer from the oppressive ruling elite that established itself after the revolution. The oppressive police state we have seen grow with the Cold War and the War on Terror is simply the endgame of the average American having lost the American Revolution. The society we have was built by the winners.

Here is a passage from The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America by Barbara Clark Smith (Kindle Locations 2707-2813):

Mass demonstrations, committee meetings, and crowd actions were more than central to the resistance movement. These experiences were also critical to Americans’ capacity to imagine independence from Great Britain. We see this clearly in the text that many historians credit with placing independence in the forefront of American thinking: Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense.

In retrospect, the colonists may seem to have been slow to consider separation from the mother country. True, by the close of 1775, faith in Britain was at low ebb. In April, British soldiers and colonial militiamen had clashed at Lexington and Concord. Men from throughout New England had gathered to contain the British troops in Boston. In June, both sides had suffered significant losses at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Over the summer, the Second Continental Congress found itself petitioning for peace but conducting a war. Congressmen quickly adopted New England’s provisional forces into a Continental army and placed the Virginian, George Washington, in command. Through fall and early winter, Washington and his men held the hills around Boston harbor in a wary standoff with British forces occupying the city. Even still, many colonists treasured their ties to Britain. Then, in January 1776, Paine’s pamphlet came off the press in Philadelphia. A second edition appeared in February, and printers in New York, Boston, Salem, Newport, Hartford, Lancaster, Norwich, Albany, and Providence all issued copies within a few months’ time. With this publication, Paine helped shift colonial discussion from reconciliation with Britain toward independence.

One element of Paine’s success was rhetorical: his work was brilliantly written and forcefully argued. Did some speak respectfully of the drama of the state? Paine wrote of government as a “puppet show,” a genre known and understood by every apprentice who had wasted time in Philadelphia streets. Paine powerfully endorsed the capacities of ordinary Americans. Common men themselves might consider and decide matters of political right and political wrong, even to issues of empire, monarchy, and the very forms of government. Paine carried this conviction through four chapters, never explicitly confronting the conventional view of cobblers and farmers but rendering it moot. Rather than defend the commonalty, he wrote as if their competence were unquestioned.134

Yet Paine’s success reflected as well an ability to fathom the extraordinary political process taking place around him and the unprecedented possibilities that it introduced. Over the resistance years, Americans witnessed, read about, and took part in repeated public negotiations that exercised and affirmed their capacities as neighbors and countrymen. In mass gatherings, local governments, and local committees, merely common men of merely common sense had become increasingly accustomed to exercising political discretion and wielding political power. New men had argued and acted along with more experienced local leaders in official and unofficial bodies. Common tradesmen and farmers had stood in judgment of men who were their social superiors, and they had grown accustomed to receiving deferential hearing from merchants, lawyers, and other educated members of the Patriot elite. When writers in the press scoffed at their abilities, ordinary men had found articulate replies and allies among their betters. For such men, Common Sense reverberated deeply. It assumed and extended the most liberating premise of Patriot practice: the sufficiency of ordinary men and ordinary knowledge.135

At the same time, Common Sense confirmed another belief central to the resistance: the power and virtue of affection, the security to be found in the social bonds that united disparate households into community and society. “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.” Later thinkers might employ Paine’s phrase to argue for individual rights against the state or for policies of laissez-faire. Yet in 1776, Paine meant something rather different, and something rather more, for what mattered in that crucible year was the strength of colonial societies, understood primarily as arenas of obligation and mutual commitment rather than individuality.

For Paine, as for other Patriots, what was good about society was its web of commitments. Society “promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections,” he wrote. Unified affections were the very basis of any connection among people, the very ground of political identity. Paine accordingly argued that political allegiance depended on powerful social bonds that transcended mere interest to include sentiments of mutuality and sympathy. Paine offered reasons why the colonies should separate from England and reasons why their strength arose from union with one another. Did some colonists feel gratitude for occasions when Britain had protected the colonies? Their feelings were misplaced, for when Britain defended colonial borders and colonial shipping, “her motive was interest, not attachment.”136 In this logic, self-interest might bind individuals or groups into alliance, but true political unity depended on a deeper tie. Only attachment could join different neighborhoods, towns, counties, or provinces into a single people. “Present convenience” was not enough. Political unity derived from such “feelings and affections which nature justifies, and without which we should be incapable of discharging the social duties of life.”137 And though such feelings no longer subsisted between the colonies and Britain, colonists from different provinces, he maintained, did enjoy such confidence in and feeling for one another.138

Indeed, despite their manifest differences, had not many colonists of different regions, social classes, and religious beliefs forged a sense of sameness and commonality, precisely through their shared, public pursuit of the Patriot cause? There had been common resolutions of different provincial assemblies; committees chosen by hundreds of towns and counties in different parts of the continent; a gathering and acquiescence of different ranks in real and symbolic punishments, rituals that testified that every Son and Daughter of Liberty detested unconstitutional laws, overreaching officials, and invidious distinctions among neighbors and could be counted on to oppose them all. There had been renewed engagement with one another in commitment to fair and mutually beneficial exchange. In the pages of Patriot newspapers, colonists could read of one another’s actions and resolutions; they could know themselves to be part of a larger movement, a community of the like-minded and the like-hearted. If Americans could dispense with loyalty to England, it was because they possessed an equally powerful allegiance that could take its place.139

Readers responded to Common Sense with a sense of recognition and liberation. And no wonder. Here is Paine’s description of a hypothetical group of people (he called them “colonists”) beginning in an original state of “natural liberty.” Such people would quickly form a society, prompted by “a thousand motives” to “seek assistance and relief” from each other. Only when some individuals, weak in their “attachment” to their fellows, acted out of selfish motives would the colonists move toward the discipline of rudimentary government. Then, said Paine, “Some convenient tree will afford them a State-House, under the branches of which the whole colony may assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of Regulations, and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem.”140 Could readers in British North America fail to recognize their own social and political movement in these lines? Here, surely, was the Patriot system of resistance, the meetings beneath Liberty Trees, assemblies of the many who regulated behavior with the threat of “public disesteem.” What were Patriots doing, then, other than forming a new society, laying the ground for a new political union? Americans could imagine a future of unity, cooperation, mutual benefit, and widespread prosperity. Perhaps they might rest secure in their mutual social, economic, and political ties. Paine’s pages made manifest this lesson of Patriot pacts, for all those who had been taking part in their towns, counties, and provinces. They stood at an extraordinary, pristine, and precious moment.

By spring of ’76, Paine’s words and the actions of George III worked together to convince many colonists of the need to separate from Britain. From the first, colonists had sought to recall the British people to the special relationship that they had assumed bound them to one another. Surely, the colonists believed, when Englishmen realized that Parliament’s policies would cause suffering among their brethren across the Atlantic, they would relent. But the intransigence of British policy makers prompted reconsideration. They came to realize, the Reverend Ezra Stiles said, that repeal of the Stamp Act had not come, after all, from “generous fraternal principles.” With the Townshend Acts, wrote Benjamin Franklin from London, many colonists “reflected how lightly the interest of all America had been estimated here, when the interests of a few of the inhabitants of Great Britain happened to have the smallest competition with it.”141 The British set themselves apart by “their total unfeeling neglect of the most essential concerns of us Americans,” wrote a South Carolinian. New Yorkers noted that the colonies had lost “confidence in the Tenderness of Great Britain.”142 Lingering hopes for reconciliation dwindled in the face of English policy. White southerners recoiled when they heard that the ministry was considering plans “for instigating the slaves to insurrection.” And in the wake of bloody combat between regulars and civilians, there came the news that George III, “with the pretended title of Father of his People,” was dispatching more troops against them.143 From a Patriot perspective, the parent country was guilty of a fundamental failure of feeling. It was Britain that renounced the historic connection, through lack of affection, tenderness, and fraternity. Joined with that belief was another: the security that England failed to offer, the colonists might provide for one another. In June 1776, the Second Continental Congress delegated it to a Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to find the precise words.

In this way the Declaration of Independence was made possible by countless prior declarations of neighborly interdependence, declarations made in local meetings, in committee chambers, beneath Liberty Tree, in the press, in the hearing of a broad public. These were declarations made when the well-to-do passed up fancy imported gloves for more common American-made; when colonial women held spinning bees, sacrificed imported tea, and spent their time processing flax instead of buying fine cloth from European merchants. They were declarations made by college students who gave up liquors and merchants and storekeepers who gave up profits when commodities were in short supply. Such acts testified to faith in an ultimately common interest, a common commitment to regard no private interest apart from the whole.

Let me be clear: Patriots surely feared dependency. Their worries about vassalage and slavery were real ones. They feared the seductions of addictive consumer goods. They worried about the dangers of femininity seen in some women’s abandonment of household production and their entry into fashionable consumption. Dependence on the wealthy and powerful, indebtedness to strangers rather than neighbors-these would result in “the slavery and ignorance of the many.” Yet Patriots developed in detail and in practice, and through coercion and publicity, a potent critique of the sort of individual independence that many Americans in the nineteenth century would celebrate. For though the ideal voter and the ideal representative were each independent-not servile, not beholden to great men-that idea did not imply boundless endorsement of private judgment, individual dissent, or private accumulation of property. On the contrary: as Patriots saw it, securing the independence of the many required limits on the independence of the few.

In this context, independence meant sufficient wherewithal to allow dissent from the mighty and powerful; it did not imply independence from the locality, from the opinions of one’s neighbors, from a jury of one’s peers, or “the Tribunal of the Publick.”144 Patriots thus endorsed independence from the powerful, the wealthy, the would-be oppressor, but they opposed-sometimes violently-the independence of individuals from the judgments, standards, and interests of their neighbors. The distinction was logical and necessary for anyone who understood freedom as a matter of social arrangements, a social distribution of property. “It will be highly politic, in every free state, to keep property as equally divided among the inhabitants as possible,” said one Connecticut clergyman in 1773, “and not to suffer a few persons to amass all the riches and wealth of a country,” for the wealthy would soon control everyone else.145 Mutual dependence on neighbors represented the sole way for ordinary households to remain free of dependence on greater men. The alternative to “vassalage” and “lordships”-to the dependence of the lowly many on the exalted few-was the mutual dependence and association of the roughly equal. Within rough equality, there was room for rough inequality, so long as such inequality was countered by a shared status of inhabitant, subject, fellow, or neighbor, by constantly acknowledged and presumably continuing relationships with one another. So the tradesmen of New York might challenge the merchants: “Who is the Member of the Community that is absolutely independent of the rest?”146 No one, was the answer, and it followed that no one group might pursue its way without reference to or consultation with the others. Patriots did not require social leveling; they did require arrangements and institutions that secured ongoing mutual commitment and accountability. The independent nation and the empire that many Americans imagined would look much like a neighborhood writ large. The liberty that they sought thus required more than the absence of parliamentary oppression; it required the presence and vitality of neighborly relationships in their own societies.

Conservative Anti-Democratic Elitism

In my last post, I wrote:

“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.”

 The last sentence was inspired by an actual conversation I recently had with a conservative, although I’ve had similar conversations in the past with other conservatives. This particular conservative thought the founding fathers had a point in not allowing the common rabble, the ignorant lower classes to vote and such things.

He was being completely honest and genuine. This not atypical conservative fears mobocracy more than he fears plutocracy or oligarchy. The reason he fears it more is that he assumes that, if there was a ruling elite, he’d be allowed to be a member. It’s the common desire to have as much power over others while disallowing others to have power over you. It is obviously self-serving and that is the entire point.

This kind of person doesn’t realize that once power becomes undemocratic then who gets it and who doesn’t can become quite arbitrary. His certainty that he’d be part of the ruling elite is rather naive.

I think this is made clear in the words of Benjamin Franklin, at least in interpreting those words according to the present context of democracy: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary danger, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Just exchange “Essential Liberty” for “Universal Liberty” and exchange “Temporary danger” for “mobocracy”… and you get the same basic idea: Those willing to sacrifice the freedom of others, intentionally or unintentionally, end up sacrificing their own freedom.

 This conservative explained his reasoning which is what really got me thinking. I pointed out that 8% legal personhood when defined by such narrow terms (whether race, gender or class) is concentration of power. He argued that such benevolent paternalism wasn’t concentration of power if it was done on the local level such as Jefferson envisioned, ignoring for a moment that alternative benevolent paternalism of Hamiltonian federalism.

I was utterly shocked by this profound lack of insight. When a local police force or private thugs beat, kill or imprison labor protesters on behalf of a local business, why would that not be concentrated power just because it was local? When a dictator or oligarchy takes over a smally country, why would that not be concentrated power just because it is on the smallscale? When a cult leader controls the lives of his followers, why would that not be concentrated power just because it only involves a small group of people?

Without inclusive democracy and popular soveriegnty, how does one prevent benevolent paternalism from becoming concentrated power? What makes American conservative ideals of benevolent paternalism different from all those other ideals of benevolent paternalism that have a long history of justifying oppression?

What is scary is that this profound lack of insight is at the very heart of the conservative vision of America. Conservatives are very serious about their fears of democracy. That is why I fear conservatism.

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.

Deep South, American Hypocrisy, & Liberal Traditions

This post is a continuation of my previous post: Deep South, Traditional Conservatism, & Future Possibilities. I have a couple of points to add to my analysis/commentary. First, I want to point out the consistent culture and politics of the Deep South, not just recently but for its entire history. Second, I want to point out an element of hypocrisy in the American psyche and how it relates to the Deep South.

* * *

Deep South’s Unique Place In American History

In the book American Nations by Colin Woodard, I found a good summary of the agenda of the Deep South or rather the agenda of the oligarchs of the Deep South who have maintained their dominance of local politics for its entire history (Kindle Locations 4915-4927):

“The goal of the Deep Southern oligarchy has been consistent for over four centuries: to control and maintain a one-party state with a colonialstyle economy based on large-scale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, poorly educated, low-wage workforce with as few labor, workplace safety, health care, and environmental regulations as possible. On being compelled by force of arms to give up their slave workforce, Deep Southerners developed caste and sharecropper systems to meet their labor needs, as well as a system of poll taxes and literacy tests to keep former slaves and white rabble out of the political process. When these systems were challenged by African Americans and the federal government, they rallied poor whites in their nation, in Tidewater, and in Appalachia to their cause through fearmongering: The races would mix. Daughters would be defiled. Yankees would take away their guns and Bibles and convert their children to secular humanism, environmentalism, communism, and homosexuality. Their political hirelings discussed criminalizing abortion, protecting the flag from flag burners, stopping illegal immigration, and scaling back government spending when on the campaign trail; once in office, they focused on cutting taxes for the wealthy, funneling massive subsidies to the oligarchs’ agribusinesses and oil companies, eliminating labor and environmental regulations, creating “guest worker” programs to secure cheap farm labor from the developing world, and poaching manufacturing jobs from higher-wage unionized industries in Yankeedom, New Netherland, or the Midlands. It’s a strategy financial analyst Stephen Cummings has likened to “a high-technology version of the plantation economy of the Old South,” with the working and middle classes playing the role of sharecroppers.”

The Deep South has had limited power over national politics ever since the Civil War. However, several factors have lead to their gaining power: decades of Cold War attacks and propaganda against Leftist politics, Civil Rights movement bringing Appalachia into alignment with the Deep South, the Southern Strategy which created an effective way to campaign, and the globalizing of the economics that favored deregulation and vast wealth disparities. Because of this, national politics has fallen under the sway of the Deep South worldview. The results are what has happened in recent decades (Kindle Locations 5002-5017):

“From the 1990s, the Dixie bloc’s influence over the federal government has been enormous. In 1994 the Dixie-led Republican Party took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. The Republicans maintained their majority in the U.S. House until 2008 and controlled the Senate for many of those years as well. While perhaps disappointed with the progressivism of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Deep Southern oligarchs finally got one of their own in the White House in 2000, for the first time since 1850. George W. Bush may have been the son of a Yankee president and raised in far western Texas, but he was a creature of east Texas, where he lived, built his political career, found God, and cultivated his business interests and political alliances. His domestic policy priorities as president were those of the Deep Southern oligarchy: cut taxes for the wealthy, privatize Social Security, deregulate energy markets (to benefit family allies at Houston-based Enron), stop enforcing environmental and safety regulations for offshore drilling rigs (like BP’s Deepwater Horizon), turn a blind eye to offshore tax havens, block the regulation of carbon emissions or tougher fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, block health care benefits for low-income children, open protected areas to oil exploration, appoint industry executives to run the federal agencies meant to regulate their industries, and inaugurate a massive new foreign guest-worker program to ensure a low-wage labor supply. Meanwhile, Bush garnered support among ordinary Dixie residents by advertising his fundamentalist Christian beliefs, banning stem cell research and late-term abortions, and attempting to transfer government welfare programs to religious institutions. By the end of his presidency—and the sixteen-year run of Dixie dominance in Washington—income inequality and the concentration of wealth in the federation had reached the highest levels in its history, exceeding even the Gilded Age and Great Depression. In 2007 the richest tenth of Americans accounted for half of all income, while richest 1 percent had seen their share nearly triple since 1994.

It’s amazing when you think about it. That is a long time for an entire region to have so little power. And then when they regain power, they take national politics by storm. You might even say a perfect storm. The stage was in the process of being set for a takeover ever since the Southern Strategy began. Reagan argued he was against the Civil Rights Act because of his defense of states’ rights, the very same argument the Deep South oligarchs often used to defend slavery and originally used to steal the land of Native Americans living in their states. To rub salt into this wound, Reagan gave a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi that was famous for being the location where 3 civil rights workers were killed. If not for the strong racism, the Dixie bloc would not have been possible. There was very little love lost between Appalachia and Deep South, but white supremacy was something they could agree upon.

I’ve heard some argue that they’ve experienced worst racism in parts of the North. There is racism in the North like most places, but it would be disingenuous to say it is worse. The North doesn’t have a long history of killing uppity blacks and the white civil rights workers who would defend them. It wasn’t in the North where the KKK was so politically active and powerful. For all the faults of the North, violent and oppressive racism isn’t top on the list, especially not in the past century or two (although it is fair to say that long ago the Puritans were far from friendly to those perceived as different: Quakers, Native Americans, etc). The point being that the North, despite what racism existed, didn’t seek to create a politcal bloc based on racism.

There is another argument made about slavery in America being race-based and that slavery was somehow different in the past. As Skepoet wrote in response to a comment of mine:

“It’s racialization was part of the counter-enlightenment as there is NO talk of “race” before that recorded, and most prior slavery was not racialized but the result of war.  That is also true for slavery in the colonies, as there were many “endured servants” of all races, but it was increasingly racialized through time.”

Here was my counter-argument:

“I don’t know the history of racial attitudes, but I doubt that it is true that there was no talk of “race” before that time. Earlier people may not have used that term. There are many ways to speak of race since race is often connected to so many other factors in societies: culture, geography, national identity, language, religion, clothing, etc. But it would be true that globalized capitalism would lead people to make more generalized conclusions based on race as it would lead them to make more generalized conclusions about everything. I don’t think this would be limited to recent centuries, though. When the Greek and Roman empires were trading with other empires all over the world, I’m sure people began to increasingly categorize people according to ideas of race and other similar categories, although their particular ideas might look different than those of the modern era.

“Race isn’t just about skin color. The whitest of white people from Northern Europe sometimes weren’t considered ‘white’ in the US because they came from a culture very different than that of Britain. I’m sure, for example, that most Roman slaves weren’t both genetically and ethnically of Roman descent. Most slaves came from conquered people which usually meant in those days of a different race. To go further back, the Spartans had an overtly race-based slave society. The two models of Western democracy have always been that of Athens and Sparta.”

I was reading more from American Nations and so I have further clarifications. An important point is that a specifically racialized slavery was introduced by the Deep South because their colony was modeled on Barbados which was racialized slave colony. Tidewater later adopted this racialization of slavery, but never to the extremes of Deep South. Even Native Americans were enslaved to a greater degree by the Deep South than in the other colonies, sometimes shipping off Native American slaves in exchange for shipping in African slaves. Furthermore, Deep South and Tidewater were the only colonies that were primarily based on a slave economy. Here is what Colin Woodard writes on this particular issue (Kindle Locations 1447-1482):

“Of course, the Deep South wasn’t the only part of North America practicing full-blown slavery after 1670. Every colony tolerated the practice. But most of the other nations were societies with slaves, not slave societies per se. Only in Tidewater and the Deep South did slavery become the central organizing principle of the economy and culture. There were fundamental differences between these two slave nations, however, which illuminate a subtle difference in the values of their respective oligarchies.9 We’ve seen how Tidewater’s leaders, in search of serfs, imported indentured servants of both races—men and women who could earn their freedom if they survived their servitude. After 1660, however, the people of African descent who arrived in Virginia and Maryland increasingly were treated as permanent slaves as the gentry adopted the slaveholding practices of the West Indies and Deep South. By the middle of the eighteenth century, black people faced Barbadian-style slave laws everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line.

“Even so, in Tidewater, slaves made up a much smaller proportion of the population (1 to 1.7 whites, rather than 5 to 1), lived longer, and had more stable family lives than their counterparts in the Deep South. Tidewater’s slave population naturally increased after 1740, doing away with the need to import slaves from abroad. With few new arrivals to assimilate, Afro-Tidewater culture became relatively homogeneous and strongly influenced by the English culture it was embedded within. Many blacks whose ancestors had come to the Chesapeake region prior to 1670 had grown up in freedom, owning land, keeping servants, even holding office and taking white husbands or wives. Having African blood did not necessarily make one a slave in Tidewater, a fact that made it more difficult to dismiss black people as subhuman. Until the end of the seventeenth century, one’s position in Tidewater was defined largely by class, not race.10

“The Deep South, by contrast, had a black supermajority and an enormous slave mortality rate, meaning thousands of fresh humans had to be imported every year to replace those who had died. Blacks in the Deep South were far more likely to live in concentrated numbers in relative isolation from whites. With newcomers arriving with every slave ship, the slave quarters were cosmopolitan, featuring a wide variety of languages and African cultural practices. Within this melting pot, the slaves forged a new culture, complete with its own languages (Gullah, New Orleans Creole), Afro-Caribbean culinary practices, and musical traditions. From the hell of the slave quarters would come some of the Deep South’s great gifts to the continent: blues, jazz, gospel, and rock and roll, as well as the Caribbean-inspired foodways today enshrined in Southern-style barbeque joints from Miami to Anchorage. And because the Deep South’s climate, landscape, and ecosystem resembled those of West Africa far more than they did those of England, it was the slaves’ technologies and practices that guided the region’s agricultural development. “Carolina,” a Swiss immigrant remarked in 1737, “looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people.”11

“In the Deep South, African Americans formed a parallel culture, one whose separateness was enshrined in the laws and fundamental values of the nation’s white minority. Indeed, the Deep South was for at least the three centuries from 1670 to 1970 a caste society. And caste, it should be noted, is quite a different thing from class. People can and do leave the social class they are born into—either through hard work or tragedy—and can marry someone of another class and strive for their children to start life in a better position than they did. A caste is something one is born into and can never leave, and one’s children will be irrevocably assigned to it at birth. Marriage outside of one’s caste is strictly forbidden. So while the Deep South had rich whites and poor whites and rich and poor blacks, no amount of wealth would allow a black person to join the master caste. The system’s fundamental rationale was that blacks were inherently inferior, a lower form of organism incapable of higher thought and emotion and savage in behavior. Although pressed into service as wet nurses, cooks, and nannies, blacks were regarded as “unclean,” with Deep Southern whites maintaining a strong aversion to sharing dishes, clothes, and social spaces with them. For at least three hundred years, the greatest taboo in the Deep South was to marry across the caste lines or for black men to have white female lovers, for the caste system could not survive if the races began to mix. Even the remotest suspicion of violating the Great Deep Southern Taboo would result in death for a black male.”

I quoted that passage in full because I wanted to be clear. The slavery of the Deep South wasn’t like anything else found in the other American colonies. As the author goes to great effort in explaining, it wasn’t just race or even class for it had a thoroughly structured racial caste system. This was necessary in a slave society where the slaves out-numbered the non-slaves, but it also was what Deep South inherited from the Barbados model of slavery. It is also important to note that this has everything to do with war. Britain was a war-mongering imperial power that conquered and built colonies. It wasn’t anything new. Empires have been warring and conquering new lands for millennia and it isn’t unusual for the conquered (typically of another race) to be made into slaves. There wasn’t anything particularly new about this. Even the Romans would ship in slaves from far away and treat their slaves brutally according to a strict caste system.

* * *

An American Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy part relates to the two regions most dominated by a capitalist worldview: Deep South and New Netherlands. The former has led to a more neoconservative authoritarian vision of capitalism and the latter a more neoliberal egalitarian vision, but it is the neoliberal vision that has been most powerfully used as libertarian rhetoric. The American colonies were already well established prior to the era of classical liberalism. However, because of the revolutionary times, classical liberalism had a great impact on what America was becoming.

Classical liberalism has had a profound impact on both the development of liberalism and conservatism in America. It is for this reason that America has never had any political tradition or party that was distinctly and solely conservative in nature. Also, classical liberalism in America has brought forth an egalitarianism that has be ever since shadowed by its ties to colonialism, serfdom and slavery. Classical liberalism was the perfect formula of promoting an equality where some were more equal than others. Even Yankeedom, born out of the Reformationist vision of Puritan egalitarianism, has had a hard time maintaining its distinct identity separate from the classical liberalism introduced into the regions to the South of it. Still, it is Yankeedom and Midlands that has remained most resistant to classical liberalism. Some people make the mistake of assuming all American liberalism originates from classical liberalism. As I explained in my discussion with Skepoet:

“The Yankees and Midlanders were influenced by the German notion of freedom where every person is born with equal freedom, no matter their parentage, their social status, or their race. The Midlands, of course, had a notion of liberty rooted in the more socialist tendencies of German and Scandinavian immigrants. [ . . . ] The two visions are the following: Northerners tend to view property rights being based on human rights; and Southerners tend to view human rights being based on property rights.”

The liberalism of the North originated in religious beliefs, rather than in secular philosophy. And these Northern religious beliefs originated from the Reformation, rather than the Enlightenment. This is why Northern liberalism, besides the exception of New Netherlands (New York City), has fought against unfettered capitalism. In Yankeedom, it was the Puritan vision. In Midlands, it was the Quaker vision. In both Yankeedom and Midlands, it was a vision of a society created by an educated middle class, rather than a capitalist elite. It was because of religious beliefs that Northerners promoted public education for all, the reason being that only if all people were literate could all people read the Bible and have a personal relationship to God. On the other hand, Deep South was originally one of the least religious colonies in America.

Because of certain historical events, classical liberalism has been associated most strongly with the South. The key figure in this development was John Locke who was born and spent much of his life in England. The odd part is that he was born to Puritan parents and so one would think he would have more in common with Yankeedom, but because of political and economic ties he became involved in the Deep South colony and the slave trade. In fact, he even wrote or helped write the Carolina constitution. This is where it becomes interesting. Through the Carolina constitution, Locke both fortified serfdom and slavery in the Deep South while also guaranteeing religious freedom. So, only the latter part could be considered liberal in any reasonable sense and it was precisely that part that was overturned by the Deep South aristocracy in order to stengthen their alliance with colonial rule in England. Deep South aristocrats basically took the classical liberal rationalizations that justified unfettered capitalism and got rid of the rest (American Nations, Kindle Locations 1422-1428):

“While not particularly religious, the planters embraced the Anglican Church as another symbol of belonging to the establishment. Locke’s charter for the colony had guaranteed freedom of religion—Sephardic Jews and French Huguenots emigrated to the region in great numbers—but the elite overturned these provisions in 1700, giving themselves a monopoly on church and state offices. Their Anglican religious orientation also gave the Deep South elite unfettered access to London high society and the great English universities and boarding schools, milieus generally denied to Puritans, Quakers, and other dissenters. Whether English or French in origin, the Deep South’s planters would also come to embrace the Tidewater gentry’s notion of being descendants of the aristocratic Normans, lording over their colony’s crass Anglo-Saxon and Celtic underclass.”

To understand the hypocrisy within Locke’s own beliefs, here is an explanation about one part of the Carolina constitution (John Locke, Carolina, And The Two Treatises Of Government by David Armitage):

“Therefore (as the Fundamental Constitutions’most notorious article put it), “Every Freeman of Carolina shall have absolute Authority over his Negro slaves of what opinion or Religion soever.”40 Though none of his later detractors could have known it, Locke himself had augmented the slaveholders’ “absolute Authority” by adding that “” in the 1669 manuscript nowamong the Shaftesbury papers.41 Had they known, that fact would have only confirmed their suspicion that “the most eminent Republican Writers, suchas LOCKE, FLETCHER of Saltown, and ROUSSEAU himself, pretend to justify the making Slaves of others, whilst they are pleading so warmly for Liberty for themselves.””

This would put Lockean classical liberalism more in line with the reactionary conservatism described by Corey Robin. A conservative critic of Locke, writing in 1776, summarized it well:

“Republicans in general . . . for leveling all Distinctions above them, and at the same time for tyrannizing over those, whom Chance or Misfortune have placed below them.”

The Republican is, therefore, the penultimate reactionary conservative. They seek to level all the traditional distinctions above them which the traditional conservatives seek to maintain. Meanwhile, they seek to maintain the traditional distinctions below them simply out of a tactical effort of keeping more radical liberals/left-wingers from challenging the entire system. To put this in realpolitik terms, reactionary conservatives want to take away the power from those who have power over them and increase the power they have over others. It’s just another way of justifying power, but it is a new form of power being put in old garb. Even as reactionary conservatives attack traditional conservatives, they romanticize about a distant conservative past, which in this case means the oligarchic republics of ancient times.

In this light, classical liberalism is correctly claimed by contemporary American conservatives. Lockean classical liberalism is conservative in that it seeks to defend a class-based society, and it is specifically conservative in a reactionary sense because it is a counter-revolutionary response to the Enlightenment belief that all men should be treated as equals. An odd aspect of reactionary conservatism is that, because it is responding to liberalism, it often takes on the forms and appearances of liberalism… and so some even confuse it with the liberalism it mimics. Reactionary conservatism is purposely distinguishing itself from traditional conservatism which is why mimicking liberalism is such a clever tactic. It seeks to replace traditional conservatism while simultaneously co-opting the tactics and language of liberalism. Both liberals and reactionary conservatives speak of freedom. How you tell them apart is by looking for whether the freedom they propose is inclusive or exclusive.

Classical liberalism was partly formulated as a rationalization for colonization. Unlike the Spaniards, the English wanted a more convincing reason for their colonial power than merely the right over the conquered. What was proposed was that those who used the land had the right to the land. Since Native Americans were perceived as not using the land, they therefore had no right to the land. This was a capitalist argument for oppression. More from David Armitage:

“Locke’s argument from divine command to cultivate those “great Tracts”of unappropriated land became the classic theoretical expression of the agriculturalist argument for European dominium over American land. Precisely that argument underlay the rights claimed by the Proprietors over the land of Carolina, according to the terms of their grants from the English Crown. The original 1629 grant had called Carolina a region “hitherto until led. . . . But insome parts of it inhabited by certain Barbarous men,” and this description hadbeen reaffirmed in Charles II’s grant to the Lords Proprietors in 1663, which had charged the Lords Proprietors “to Transport and make an ample Colony of our Subjects . . . unto a certain Country . . . in the parts of AMERICA not yet cultivated or planted, and only inhabited by some barbarous People whohave no knowledge of Almighty God.”83 The agriculturalist argument wasthe best justification that could be given for dispossession after argumentsfrom conquest and from religion had been gradually abandoned. As the English learned from the Spanish, the argument from conquest could only justify imperium over the native peoples but not dominium over American land. Nor could Amerindian unbelief alone provide a justification for dominion. As we have seen, in 1669 the authors of the Fundamental Constitutions had speci-fied that “Idollatry Ignorance or mistake gives us noe right to expell or use[the Natives of Carolina] ill,” and that article remained in all later versions ofthe Fundamental Constitutions. Locke himself later upheld just that same argument in the Letter Concerning Toleration (1685): “No man whatsoever ought . . . to be deprived of his Terrestrial Enjoyments, upon account of his Religion. Not even Americans, subjected unto a Christian Prince, are to bepunished either in Body or Goods, for not imbracing our Faith and Worship.”84 The only remaining argument was the contention (first propounded in its modern form by Thomas More in Utopia) that dominion fell to those best able to cultivate the land to its fullest capacity, not least to fulfill the divine command to subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28, 9:1). The peculiar form of Locke’s argument therefore had identifiably colonial origins, though not exclusively colonial applications.”

As it had other possible applications, it was also an argument that became generalized beyond just colonialism. In its most extreme form, it meant that those who owned the capital had the right to political power over those who didn’t own capital. In Deep South, this meant a strictly enforced class-based society where the vast majority (hereditary serfs, slaves, women, and those who didn’town large tracts of land) didn’t have the right to vote or to hold public office, and this also included through the constitution the first hereditary nobility in America. In New Netherlands (which became New York City), this meant a corrupt anti-democratic political system that was powered by vast wealth and industry (the archetype, sadly, of many other major industrial cities).

It is interesting to consider the relationship of the land use argument to the American Dream. Many early Americans saw freedom in terms of land such as Thomas Paine with his ‘Agrarian Justice’ and Thomas Jefferson with his promoting agriculture over industry. It was, after all, agriculture that originally made America so vastly wealthy. America has some of the best soil in the world and our agricultural sector is still top notch to this day.

It was the agrarian reformists, along with abolitionists and socialists, who helped form the Republican Party. The Republican Party was originally the complete opposite of the Republican politics of the Deep South aristocracy. In fact, the Republican Party started in the North and of course produced the Lincoln presidency which led the North to fight against the aristocracy, slavery and caste system of the Deep South. Many Americans outside of the South were afraid of the Deep South aristocracy forcing their culture onto the rest of the country and they had good reason to fear. The Deep South was actively seeking to expand its slavery into new territories and to enforce its slave laws even onto non-slave states. The agrarian reformist Free Soil advocates were the most aggressive in fighting against the South’s attempt to impose slavery on, for example, the Kansas territory. The majority of Kansan farmers didn’t want slavery in Kansas, but unsurprisingly many elite wanted slavery there. This is why Kansas sided with the Union during the Civil War, Kansas by the way is split between Midlands and Far West (both areas known for having an uneasy relationship with centralized or authoritarian power, especially when it is commanded by people living far away whether in Yankeedom or Deep South).

To return to Locke in my concluding thoughts, I should clarify the claim of hypocrisy. John Locke experienced persecution himself. At one point, he moved to Netherlands which probably was a major influence on his thinking. Netherlands embodied the values of classical liberalism better than any of the other colonial powers of that era. Freedom of religion and of the press allowed Locke to write and publish his own work on religious freedom while in the Netherlands. This side of Locke seems genuinely liberal, but that didn’t change the fact that as an adult he was part of and dependent on the upper class of both English and American society. His liberalism was that of a respectable gentleman and not that of the working class rabblerousers of London who inspired Paine. Still, it seems odd that Locke would get tangled, politically and professionally, in an oppressive caste society like Deep South. It was New Netherlands that more fully embodied what Locke claimed to believe. New Netherlands, like its mother country, had a relative large degree of social freedom in terms of religion, race and social mobility. It’s true that New Netherlands had its ruling capitalist elite, but it at least wasn’t based on racialized slavery and a caste system.

Locke’s failings being what they may, he seems to have maintained some genuine streak of liberalism. Despite of or rather because of his close associations with the Deep South, he wrote in reference to the Deep South aristocracy, “The Barbadians endeavor to rule us all.” The Barbadians of course had limited interest in Locke’s ideals of freedom, other than how classical liberalism might be used to help maintain their power and authority.

Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?

Was Classical Liberalism and Social Democracy Opposed?

utubehayter wrote:

Hold on, you think classical liberals were for social democracy? Oh boy, what Thomas Paine are you reading? The same anarchist that almost got himself killed by the Jacobins for his anti-democracy stance? And Henry David Thoreau, the “almost an anarchist” classical liberal?

Where the hell do these people preach social democracy?


“Not monarchy” does not mean “a republic”. And you are calling others ignorant?

My Response

The broadest definition of classical liberalism is all liberalism prior to the 20th century. I realize modern right-wingers have come to define classical liberalism narrowly to only refer to themselves and assert that it represents the ‘true’ conservative tradition. But some modern liberals also claim their lineage comes from classical liberalism. And it must be noted that the liberal values and vision of social democracy existed long before the Progressivism of the 20th century. Alan Wolfe writes (from A False Distinction):

[E]verywhere I go, the moment I tell people that I have written a book about liberalism, I am invariably asked which of the two I mean. Classical liberalism, my interlocutors patiently explain to me, is that wonderful notion of the free market elucidated by Adam Smith that worships the idea of freedom. The modern version, by contrast, is committed to expansion of the state and, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to slavery. One must choose one or the other. There really is no such thing, therefore, as modern liberalism. If you opt for the market, you are a libertarian. If you choose government, you are a socialist or, in more recent times, a fascist.

I try to explain to people that in my book I reject any such distinction and argue instead for the existence of a continuous liberal understanding that includes both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. But so foreign is this idea to them that they stare at me in utter disbelief. How could I have possibly written a book on liberalism, I can almost hear them thinking, when this guy doesn’t know a thing about it?

[ . . . ] I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.

When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.

Liberalism and conservatism aren’t specific ideologies so much as they are general attitudes. By definition, a conservative wishes to conserve and a liberal does not. This brings us to one of the problem of American politics. As Gunnar Myrdal explained, “America is conservative in fundamental principles… but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.” So, conservatism will criticize the living breathing liberalism of the moment often in defense of the fossilized liberalism of the past. This is why conservatives will claim classical liberalism as their own. Liberalism of the past is safe because it’s been cleansed of all unknown, and hence uncontrollable, elements. Even though neither is a specific ideology, conservatism is forever seeking to conserve the ideologies of the past whether they are considered liberal or conservative. Conservatives in the past would have criticized classical liberalism, but conservatives today can safely admire it because it’s been made into a set doctrine. This might also explain why many Americans identify as conservative even as they hold traditionally ‘liberal’ positions. Progressive policies were liberal when they were first proposed, but now that they’ve been established for almost a century they’ve become a part of the American tradition and so many conservatives will seek to conserve something like Social Security.

Liberalism, by nature, is constantly changing, constantly pushing the boundaries, constantly trying new things (or putting old things in new contexts). As such, liberalism isn’t a single set of beliefs and policies. When conservatives are getting used to classical liberalism, liberals are already onto another original concept or system. Liberals adapt to present circumstances seeking to go in new directions. Nonetheless, there is a fundamental core to the liberal attitude. As Wolfe points out, “For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.” A liberal is less concerned for the method than for the desired results (which the conservative, burdened by traditions of the past, might consider overly idealistic and pragmatically unrealistic; this reminds me of research that showed optimists are less realistic about the present but, for that reason, less likely to get stuck in present problems; therefore, it’s more difficult for the pessimistic conservative to envision a new future or to trust what a liberal envisions). As such, a liberal is willing to try any method or system to achieve the desired result, always with their ideal as the pole star to guide them. Liberalism is broad and wide-ranging because liberalism wants to expand, to liberate. Here is a general definition of liberalism:

Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, “of freedom”)[1] is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights.[2] Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but most liberals support such fundamental ideas as constitutionsliberal democracyfree and fair electionshuman rightscapitalismfree trade, and thefreedom of religion.[3][4][5][6][7] These ideas are widely accepted, even by political groups that do not openly profess a liberal ideological orientation. Liberalism encompasses several intellectual trends and traditions, but the dominant variants are classical liberalism, which became popular in the eighteenth century, and social liberalism, which became popular in the twentieth century.

Such a definition includes classical liberalism but obviously isn’t limited to it. Liberals, starting with the classical liberals, focus on the individual. They put greater importance on the human being than on the system. The system is merely there to serve people, not the person to conform to the system. When faced with an oppressive or unfair government, liberals will seek to free themselves by limiting government (i.e., classical liberalism). When faced with an oppressive or unfair capitalism, liberals will seek to free themselves by regulating capitalism (i.e., social democracy). It’s the same impulse just responding to different problems at different times. Both responses are seeking the public good by decreasing that which impinges upon individual freedom. It’s not mere idealization of the individual. It’s an understanding that what is good for one is good for all and what is bad for one is bad for all. But at any given time the balance between public good and individual freedom is never perfect, constantly shifting in order to adapt to present realities. This is why classical liberals, faced with an oppressive social system, emphasized individual freedom. And this is why social democrats, faced with an oppressive corporatist plutocracy, emphasized public good.

The conservative, on the other hand, wants a set of principles that will stand for all time. For this reason, the conservative prefers to find a system that has proven itself over time, a tradition (whether religious, political, or economic). The commonality between the fiscal conservative and social conservative is that both want to conserve, but American tradition is such a mixed bag that there are many choices about what a conservative may choose to conserve. American conservatives are put in an odd position. America was founded on radical change. How does one conserve radical change?

American Politics & Thomas Paine

What differentiates American politics is that Classical liberals “established political parties that were called “liberal”, although in the United States classical liberalism came to dominate both existing major political parties.” The struggle of early American politics wasn’t whether to be liberal or not, but how liberal to be. Thomas Paine, for example, was a radical liberal. Compared to Paine, many of the founding fathers were conservative in that they still wanted to conserve a ruling class of landowners and of educated elite. However, compared to the British political system, the founding fathers were liberal in that they wanted to eliminate the monarchy. This was the meaning the founding fathers had in mind when they used the word ‘republic’ to describe America. The original and most basic meaning of republic was a government that wasn’t a monarchy. Power didn’t come from a monarch but from the people (‘republic’ originates from res publica: the public thing/affair, commonwealth).

The debate between Paine and some of the founding fathers is rather telling about the internal conflict of American politics (that continues to this day). It was Paine’s radical vision that inspired the American Revolution, but that radical vision was tamed when the constitution was written. Many of the founding fathers were conservatives in that they feared change. They didn’t merely want to create something radically new as Paine proposed. The founding fathers saw themselves as part of a small ‘r’ republican tradition that had it’s roots in British culture. They revolted against the monarchy not to be radicals but to conserve this republican tradition. They didn’t trust the general public any more than they trusted the British monarchy. They weren’t against an aristocracy per se. They just wanted a political elite based on a meritocracy rather than on mere inheritance. They assumed the upper class of landowners were superior to the common rabble. That is why they explicitly denied the majority of the population the right to vote or to hold public office.

Paine, however, was against all aristocracy, against all ruling elites. Paine wanted all men and women to be free, to have the right to vote and hold public office. He realized that for practical reasons representation was necessary for democracy, but he wanted democracy to be as direct, as grassroots, as localized as possible. He wanted democracy to literally be in the hands of the people, no matter how poor, no matter whether man or woman, no matter what race or religion. Paine wasn’t shy in his defense of equal rights nor shy in his criticisms of those who would disenfranchise others of their rights (Dissertation on the First Principles of Government):

But the offensive part of the case is that this exclusion from the right of voting implies a stigma on the moral character of the persons excluded; and this is what no part of the community has a right to pronounce upon another part. No external circumstance can justify it: wealth is no proof of moral character; nor poverty of the want of it.

On the contrary, wealth is often the presumptive evidence of dishonesty; and poverty the negative evidence of innocence. If therefore property, whether little or much, be made a criterion, the means by which that property has been acquired ought to be made a criterion also.

The only ground upon which exclusion from the right of voting is consistent with justice would be to inflict it as a punishment for a certain time upon those who should propose to take away that right from others. The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected.

To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case. The proposal therefore to disfranchise any class of men is as criminal as the proposal to take away property.

When we speak of right we ought always to unite with it the idea of duties; rights become duties by reciprocity. The right which I enjoy becomes my duty to guarantee it to another, and he to me; and those who violate the duty justly incur a forfeiture of the right.

Let me now respond to the first part of utubehayter’s comment:

Hold on, you think classical liberals were for social democracy? Oh boy, what Thomas Paine are you reading? The same anarchist that almost got himself killed by the Jacobins for his anti-democracy stance?

I must admit that I’m still learning about Thomas Paine. I’ve learned about Paine mostly by my reading Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye and therefore my understanding of Paine is biased by this author, although I have read a bit of Paine’s writing on its own. Here is a quote where Kaye describes why so many different types of people have tried to claim Paine as one of their own (Kindle location 767):

In words that would forever delight libertarians and anarchists, he distinguished between society and government and maintained that “society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” Yet Paine was neither a libertarian nor an anarchist or for that matter a Lockean liberal. He was a revolutionary democrat, and contrary to the commonly accepted view, his tale was rendered not so much as a diatribe against government, at least not all forms of government, as a narrative of democratic beginnings and commitments.

So, that is the premise of Kaye’s book. I’ll now share some sections that make the case that Paine was a social democrat who believed government played an important role. There is a concept that conservatives don’t seem to understand. A person can be both a small ‘r’ republican and a small ‘d’ democrat’. In fact, one of the first American parties was the Democratic-Republican Party (the name is used by political scientists, but the members of the party often would call it either Republican or Democratic, “the two terms often used interchangeably.[22]). Kaye explains Paine’s own understanding of republicanism and democracy (Kindle location 841):

Republicanism to Paine, as he would later explain, meant not a “particular form of government” but a government constituted for “respublica … or the public good,” as opposed to one that served “despotic” ends. And he understood the particular form of government he advanced as representative democracy: “By ingrafting representation upon democracy, we arrive at a system of government capable of embracing and confederating all the various interests and every extent of territory and population.”24

The America Paine portrayed was not thirteen separate entities but a single nation-state. Deeply concerned that the tenuous colonial alliance might fall apart, he was the first to propose the idea of convening a conference to frame a “Continental Charter.” And—making it all the more original—his democratic commitments and sensibilities led him to insist that the conference be “impowered by the people.”

When Paine spoke of democracy, he meant it in the most radical and inclusive sense as an uncompromising egalitarianism (Kindle location 1129):

“in all countries where the freedom of the poor has been taken away, in whole or in part, that the freedom of the rich lost its defence,” he insisted that “freedom must have all or none, and she must have them equally.”61 Paine was not naïve. He knew freedom could be dangerous, but he pointed out that “if dangerous in the hands of the poor from ignorance, it is at least equally dangerous in the hands of the rich from influence.” Dismissing neither possibility, he suggested ways of addressing them. To prevent ignorance he recommended education. And to prevent political corruption he again demanded democracy: “numerous electors, composed as they naturally will be, of men of all conditions, from rich to poor.”

It’s true many of the founding fathers feared democracy, but Paine did not. One of the reasons the founding fathers feared democracy is because they feared what they saw happening in France. Paine’s response to France was to be optimistic. He hoped revolution would spread all across Europe and Paine’s writings inspired revolutionary fervor in many countries. The founding fathers feared that Paine would inspire in America what helped to inspire in France. But Paine believed in, rather than feared, the common man (Kindle location 1300):

Conceding the danger of “mobs,” Paine attributed their actions to the brutality of aristocratic societies, especially their cruel forms of punishment. Rejecting Burke’s thesis that generations were obliged to defer to their ancestors, he upheld the “rights of the living” and insisted that generations cannot “bind” future generations: “Every age and generation must be free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it.” And countering Burke’s propositions about the “ancient” origins of rights, he retorted that Burke did “not go far enough into antiquity,” for the “natural rights of man” went all the way back to “creation” and remained in every generation “equal” and “universal” among men. Divinely ordained, natural rights might be suppressed, but they could not be forfeited or alienated.16

Paine expressed tremendous confidence in the “genius and talents” of common people, if only governments would engage them: “There is existing in man, a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him … to the grave. As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions.”

In Paine’s vision of America, he saw the possibility of a government that would help the common person. He believed a government could empower the public by putting the power of the government in the hands of the public. He wanted a government that was literally for and by the people. For this reason, he wasn’t seeking to lessen the power of the government but to increase the power of the people through self-governance. A government was only worthy in his eyes to the degree that it helped all people equally and helped all people to achieve some semblance of equality. Paine was a social democrat in that he saw the necessity of a welfare state to lessen the problems of modern civilization, not a paternalistic state but an empowering government (Kindle location 1365):

Paine did more than censure Britain’s political order. Reviving the plan he had begun to formulate years earlier but had set aside in his encounter with America, he extended his radical-democratic thinking by outlining a series of welfare programs that a revolutionary change in government would afford. Along with suggesting a progressive estate tax to limit accumulation of property, he recommended raising the incomes of the poor by remitting their taxes and augmenting the sums, distributing special relief for families with children, creating a system of social security for the elderly, instituting public funding of education through a voucher system, providing financial support for newly married couples and new mothers, and establishing employment centers for the jobless. He also rendered a most appealing image of the good society:

When it shall be said in any country in the world, “My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of happiness”: when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.27

Even as Paine pushed radicalism in a social-democratic direction, he proclaimed, “I have been an advocate for commerce, because I am a friend to its effects.” It may seem odd to many of us today, but like many eighteenth-century radicals confronting the legacies of absolutism, Paine comprehended “political liberty and economic liberty” as mutually interdependent and imagined that economic freedom served to assure equality of opportunity and results. Witnessing monarchical regimes taxing the productive classes, transferring wealth to parasitic royals and aristocrats, and punishing working people and the poor, he personally had come to view nondemocratic governments, not markets, as the fundamental cause of social inequality and oppression. Consequently, he proposed the liberation of the market and expansion of commercial activity.28

Commerce was, for Paine, “a pacific system, operating to unite mankind by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each other … If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable of, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivilized state of governments.” As much as he appreciated the manifold potential of free markets, however, he did not hold that equality and democracy must necessarily defer to the imperatives of commerce and trade. And as his revolutionary proposal for welfare-state policies attests, he increasingly realized that the democratic governments for which he fought would have to politically address inequality and poverty.

If you had any doubts about Paine being a radical social democrat (which isn’t the same as socialist or communist), the following should eliminate all doubts entirely (Kindle location 1562):

In July 1795 Paine published Dissertation on First Principles of Government, fervently reaffirming his commitment to republican democracy. While he granted that “property will ever be unequal,” he argued against the right of any regime to divide the citizenry into civil or political ranks by wealth and rejected the notion that owning property afforded any entitlements. Furthermore, he demanded the establishment of universal manhood suffrage. And laying down that “the only ground upon which exclusion from the right of voting is consistent with justice would be to inflict it as a punishment for a certain time upon those who should propose to take away that right from others,” he proclaimed. “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which others are protected.”49

When, regardless of his complaints, the government proceeded with its constitutional plans, Paine withdrew from the Convention and went to work on finishing the second part of The Age of Reason. That autumn he again fell seriously ill, and rumors flew around the Atlantic that he had passed away. But Mrs. Monroe nursed him back to health.

Back on his feet, Paine immediately set himself to writing a series of new pieces, including the highly original Agrarian Justice. He had come to see all the more clearly that inequality and poverty were the consequences not simply of exploitative systems of taxation and government expenditure but also of economic power and the payment of inadequate wages. “Civilization,” he wrote, “has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state … [T]he accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.”50

Paine refused to blame the poor for the economic circumstances to which they were reduced, for “poverty is a thing created by … civilized life,” which, he believed, did not exist “in the natural state.” In the face of increasing disparities, he grew increasingly impatient: “The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and … a revolution should be made in it.” And even more strenuously than he had in Rights of Man, Paine propounded that society had an obligation to address material inequality and poverty through a system of public welfare. This “ought to be considered as one of the first objects of reformed legislation,” he insisted, and its aim should be to “preserve the benefits of what is called civilized life, and to remedy at the same time the evil which it has produced.”51

Paine had been led to write Agrarian Justice by Bishop Richard Watson’s sermon “The Wisdom and Goodness of God, in having made both rich and poor,” which Watson had included in his reply to The Age of Reason. “It is wrong to say God made both rich and poor,” Paine responded. “He made only male and female; and He gave them the earth for their inheritance.” Paine then held that since God had provided the land as a collective endowment for humanity, those who had come to possess the land as private property owed those who had been dispossessed of it—“on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization”—an annual ground rent. Specifically, he delineated a limited redistribution of income by way of a tax on landed wealth and property:

To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property: And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.

And notably, Paine did not limit the initial stake or later payments to men.52

Paine also made it clear that he was not proposing a charity but rather was advocating the “right” of the dispossessed to “compensation.” And he then enunciated an important democratic principle and practice, namely that “the payments [are to] be made to every person, rich or poor. It is best to make it so, to prevent invidious distinctions.” Those who “do not choose to receive it,” he added, “can throw it into the common fund.”53

While Paine called for a “revolution in the state of civilization,” he was not a socialist. He did not suggest redistributing or recollectivizing the land. He did not contest the right of the propertied to hold their property. Nor did he long to restore some lost “golden age.” The progress of “civilization” had created inequality and poverty, yet it had also materially improved life. Not only was the natural state clearly “without those advantages which flow from agriculture, art, science and manufactures,” but “it is never possible to go from the civilized to the natural state.” There was no turning back the historical clock.

Paine’s vision of America is radical even by today’s standard of a welfare state. I don’t think it’s fair to even call Paine’s vision welfare because he merely saw it the egalitarian protection of God-given rights. God gave us all rights, but God didn’t give the ruling elite their wealth and land. Even today, most wealth in America is inherited rather than earned wealth. We always hear the promise of America that any person can grow up to be anything, even president. But we all know that is a lie, just pretty words to uplift the peasants from the drudgery of their existence. Paine, however, actually believed in those words.

Henry David Thoreau: Liberal?

Finally, let me deal with the last part of the comment by utubehayter:

And Henry David Thoreau, the “almost an anarchist” classical liberal?

I actually don’t know what Thoreau identified as, but I’d imagine he wasn’t much interested in confining himself to labels. Thoreau probably was inspired by classical liberalism. In fact, he was inspired by many things considering he read widely including books from Eastern countries. Whether or not we label him a classical liberal, it’s for certain he was a liberal even by modern standards of liberalism. It’s funny that utubehayter thinks there is a conflict between liberalism and anarchism considering that the latter is an just extreme version of the former. You can’t get any more liberal than anarchism. Anyway, I don’t think Thoreau was an anarchist. He was just a humanist who was cared about people and was suspicious of corrupt power, both in government and in capitalism.

I’ve written about this before:

Henry David Thoreau: Founding Father of American Libertarian Thought | by Jeff Riggenbach

Thoreau was a liberal libertarian who argued for egalitarianism and later inspired civil rights leaders such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King jr. Also, I’ve never seen any example of Thoreau defending property rights as do conservative libertarians. When he moved to Walden, he lived on someone elses property (Emerson’s property as I remember which Emerson had inherited from his wife). He did his own work as he was very industrious and knowledgeable, but he was perfectly fine with receiving gifts of goods he needed and borrowing tools.

“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.”

Thoreau had some anti-statist tendencies for sure, but this wasn’t based on his feeling territorial about the home he built or protective of his private property. He apparently wasn’t even bothered by minor acts of theft.

“I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers. The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire, the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper. Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book, a volume of Homer, which perhaps was improperly gilded, and this I trust a soldier of our camp has found by this time.”

Watching this video helped me to articulate the difference between the two wings of libertarianism. A conservative libertarian tends to argue for rights in terms of capitalist terminology (e.g., property rights and contractual rights). And a liberal libertarian tends to define capitalism in terms of civil rights. This shows a difference of priority. Conservative libertarians are more accepting of hierarchical power and liberal libertarians prefer egalitarianism (liberalism being the common thread between libertarianism and anarchism).

“I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

US: Republic & Democracy (pt 2)

The other day, I wrote a post about the rightwing assertion that the US is a republic and not a democracy (US: Republic & Democracy). The basic confusion is that rightwingers are using a narrow definition of democracy that was used by some of the founding fathers.

“Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths… A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.” (James Madison, Federalist Papers, the McClean Edition, Federalist Paper #10, page 81, 1788)

What the founding fathers meant by republic is what modern scholars mean by representative democracy. When you get right down to it, rightwingers don’t like ‘democracy’ because it shares the same letters in the same order as the ‘Democratic’ party. Anyways, it’s obvious that the founding fathers weren’t arguing against the democratic process of voting and representation. I don’t think most rightwingers are arguing against that either. So, it all comes down to semantics.

There is no inherent conflict between a republic and a democracy. To clarify, here is the Wikipedia definition of a Republic:

republic is a form of government in which the people or some portion thereof retain supreme control over the government,[1][2] and in which the head of government is not a monarch.[3][4] The word “republic” is derived from the Latin phrase res publica, which can be translated as “a public affair”

Both modern and ancient republics vary widely in their ideology and composition. The most common definition of a republic is a state without a monarch.[3][4] In republics such as the United States and France, the executive is legitimized both by a constitutionand by popular suffrage. In the United States, James Madison defined republic in terms of representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy,[5] and this usage is still employed by many viewing themselves as “republicans”.[6] Montesquieu included bothdemocracies, where all the people have a share in rule, and aristocracies or oligarchies, where only some of the people rule, as republican forms of government.[7]

I noticed someone even dedicated a webpage to this issue, titling it: The “Not a Democracy” Gnomes. The author states he has noticed this rhetoric going back to 2000, but I’m sure it goes back further. It’s just the internet (especially in its growth this past decade) has been a useful medium for popularizing and spreading such viral memes. Here is the first point the author makes:

The Gnomes Rely on an Absurdly Narrow Defnition of “Democracy”: as absolute, direct, simple and immediate majoritarian authority on matters of policy. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, they find problems with “democracy” so defined. They then depend on the reader to assume that their narrow definition of democracy matches the much broader common definition of democracy, and that therefore their criticism applies to that broader definition.

That is the same argument I’ve been making. These rightwingers use a definition so narrow that they make it seem ridiculous. Meanwhile, they ignore the long history of democracy in the real world. It reminds me of a conservative I once debated about the meaning of ‘socialism’. It turns out that this person had such a wide definition of ‘socialism’ that it involved all forms of government. Since he was a anti-statist conservative, it was convenient for him to define all state government as socialist. This is a weird way to win an argument, either over-simplifying or over-generalizing the terms of the debate.

Like me, the author goes on to give the actual, rather than imagined, definition of ‘democracy’:

The ridiculous nature of that argument is clear with the knowledge that a republic (the gnomes’ contrast to democracy) is actually itself one variety of democracy. Let’s look at the Oxford Modern English Dictionary definition of the word:

democracy. 1a) a system of government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives. b) a State so governed….

A “republic“, which provides for governance indirectly through elected representatives, is covered as a possibility under this definition.

The definition of “democracy” stretches back much further, of course, to the Greek, in which demos refers to “the people” and “cracy” to rule or authority. The broadest definition of “democracy” is therefore simply “the rule of the people,” the ideal of a citizenry engaged in civic life and enfranchised to take part in some meaningful fashion in politics, the exercise of decision-making in a sphere of authority (see Oxford here as well). Now why would some parties have a problem with this democratic ideal? Any ideas?

And the second point the author makes:

Proponents of democracy recognize it is an ideal. We do not live in a full democracy, since it has not yet been achieved. Especially after the latest election debacle, we’re all too aware of that. But the pursuit of the democratic ideal in the United States is a righteous quest with a long history, involving an ever-broadening emancipation of citizens. It is an overwhelmingly popular quest, and one which, in my opinion, should continue.

The democratic quest requires for its support a thoroughly educated and informed public, a tolerance for the questioning of authority and the spirit of community. For those who are opposed to these conditions and to their ultimate end, sending out the “not a democracy!” gnomes is a pleasant diversion. But the more educated, the more questioning, and the more civic we become, the more clear it is that the gnomes’ verbal minuet is trivial and therefore irrelevant.

I was wondering about the origin of this rightwing ploy to dismiss democracy. It sounds more like rhetoric than an argument. Somehow it’s being spread which makes me think it’s either a talking point in the rightwing media or else some particular group is using it for an agenda. Whatever the origin or motivation, there is certainly a memetic quality about this simple idea.

I suspected that one source would be Glenn Beck or someone like him. I was correct.

That isn’t surprising, but Glenn Beck isn’t the originator. What Beck preaches has been preached before by many others. So, I wasn’t surprised to see a video by the John Birch Society arguing against democracy.

I also shouldn’t have been surprised to see a video making the same argument in an interview by Alex Jones (interviewing Aaron Russo).

I did find it interesting that Milton Friedman was also spreading the same rhetoric.

If I had to guess, it’s probably the John Birch Society (or other similar groups) who have spread this rhetoric the most. The John Birch Society has been around for a very long time. As I recall, Cleon Skousen had some connection to that group. And, of course, people like Glenn Beck have been heavily influenced/inspired by the tradition of thought that includes Skousen and the John Birch Society. It’s the same tradition of thought that included the KKK back when it was a part of respectable society. This tradition of thought includes very specific beliefs and attitudes: patriotic nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiments, traditional family, white culture/supremacy, and Christian fundamentalism. These are the people who argue that America is a Christian nation. Instead of a democratic republic, they’d prefer to have a theocratic republic.

[…] the society we have which remember is not a democratic society and wasn’t intended to be. If you take a course in political theory here, I’m sure they’ll teach you that the United States is not a democracy. It’s what is called, in the technical literature, a polyarchy. […] Polyarchy is a system in which power resides in the hands so those who Madison called the ‘wealth of the nation’, the responsible class of men; and the rest of the population is fragmented, distracted, allowed to participate… every couple of years, they’re allowed to come and say ‘yes, thank you, we want you to continue another four years’ and they have a little choice among the responsible men, the wealth of the nation. That’s the way the country was founded. It was founded on the principle, explained by Madison in the Constitutional Convention, that the primary goal of the government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

Reading the Wikipedia article on polyarchy, it’s not clear to me why Chomsky makes this distinction between democracy and polyarchy. Apparently, the originator of the term ‘polyarchy’ didn’t define it as excluding ‘democracy’. In fact, polyarchy would seem to be a specific form of representative democracy. As an anarcho-socialist libertarian, I understand that Chomsky would prefer a more direct form of democracy. It’s interesting that, for different reasons than the rightwinger, Chomsky also wants to narrow the definition of democracy. Whatever the reasons for Chomsky’s argument, Gore Vidal makes a similar assessment about the motivations of the founding fathers (On Europe and why the U.S. is not a democracy):

Many of us are descended from Cromwell’s men. That’s how we became to be such vicious Protestants. Well, if you want to see any of the founders, read the federalist papers. Any one of them looks like he’s near apoplexy, he’s about to have a stroke when he’s talking about the people. They hate the people. They want the people out of government. Their idea of bad government is Pericles in Athens. And that’s just, you know, forbidden country for our founders. They were Republicans, and they wanted a republic based on Rome, secretly based on slavery and based on imperial progress elsewhere in the world.

So from the beginning, we’ve been imperial. From the beginning, we’ve missed the whole point of the republican effort to create a republic in this brave new world.

People argue against the US being a democracy for various reasons. Some, on both the far right and far left, argue that the founding fathers didn’t intend democracy. Others might argue against our government being a democracy but that it includes democratic processes. Some counter that the democratic processes are failing or never existed.

Let me give my analysis. I would argue that our political system is either a type of democracy or, if you’d rather not call it a democracy for ideological reasons, it certainly contains democratic processes going back to the beginning of the country. Yes, these are imperfect, but the point is that they exist even if only in minimal form. I would, furthermore, argue that we don’t need to defend our republic against democracy. There are dangers in both republics and democracies, and I think the two systems balance eachother. I truly doubt it would be possible for a republic to exist entirely without any democratic elements and vice versa. Using the general definition of a republic as being other than a monarchy, a direct democracy would be the most extreme form of a republic. A direct democracy can and has existed on the local levels. Many communities have formed based on direct democracy, but a community would have to remain very small to maintain direct democracy. As an absolute ideal, direct democracy is an abstraction (and so is republicanism).

The founding fathers feared both monarchy and direct democracy…. or, to put it another way, a political system where the select elite has most of the power or a political system where the masses have great power. The founding fathers weren’t against the elite having power as they saw themselves as the elite, but they just wanted to guarantee that the power was evenly or meritocrously spread among all of the elite. They intentionally didn’t want to guarantee the average person (non-whites, females, working class, etc) had access to political power. Mostly, power was held by rich, white landowners (plutocracy). They believed in meritocracy and they assumed, as many Republicans do today, that the upper class men have earned or otherwise deserve their power. You have to at least give them credit for believing the idealistic role of disinterested aristorcracy that they saw themselves playing.

The founding fathers were scared of the average person for good reason. The French revolution demonstrated that the average person was a threat to rich people like them. I think similar reasons explain why modern Republicans are also afraid of what average Americans would do if given political power through direct democracy. It’s obvious, of course, why rich, white males continue to fear democracy. Beyond that, whites in general no longer hold the monopoly on political power they once had and whites are quickly losing their majority position. If you’re someone who identifies with being white and/or identifies with ‘white culture’, then democracy is a very real threat to you. Yes, just like you, the founding fathers were white. Many white conservatives like to take credit for what past white people did and claim the problems of society today are the erosion of traditional ‘white culture’. If you’re a conservative white person who fears what is becoming of the country, it is only natural to idealize the founding fathers who were white and idealize early America when whites had absolute power. It’s true that, if it weren’t for democracy, whites would probably still have all the power.

Since the time of the founding fathers, direct democracy has increased. From Republicanisn in the United States:

Over time, the pejorative connotations of “democracy” faded. By the 1830s, democracy was seen as an unmitigated positive and the term “Democratic” was assumed by the Democratic Party and the term “Democrat” was adopted by its members. A common term for the party in the later 19th century was “The Democracy.” In debates on Reconstruction, Senator Charles Sumner argued that the republican “guarantee clause” in Article IV supported the introduction by force of law of democratic suffrage in the defeated South.

As the limitations on democracy were slowly removed, property qualifications for state voters were eliminated (1820s); initiative, referendum, recall and other devices of direct democracy became widely accepted at the state and local level (1910s); and senators were made directly electable by the people (1913).

Women can vote. Non-whites can vote. The working class can vote. Not only can all of these people vote but they can also hold political offices. For our modern standards, a democracy where only rich, white men can vote and be elected doesn’t seem like much of a free society. Even most conservative white males who defend the good ol’ days have to admit that such a state of affairs was far from ideal. But, to be honest, that is exactly what a republic was prior to the increase of direct democracy. Democracy is messy and inefficient. It’s much easier to have a republic without democracy. Most fascist and communist governments are technically republics and many of them even identified themselves as such, but the founding fathers understood that having at least some democracy, however limited, was a good thing even for rich, white males such as themselves.

In conclusion, I’ll let Thom Hartmann have the last word. I’ll share a video where he argues the founding fathers were truly seeking egalitarianism and so were actually betraying their social class . It’s a much more positive vision of America’s beginnings. After the video, is a transcript from Thom Hartmann’s show. He summarizes perfectly the issue of republic vs democracy in American history.

(See here for full video.)

Thom Hartmann’s show, March 29, 2010:

If you want the most technical term, our country is aconstitutionally limited representative democratic republic. Our form of government, the constitution limits the power of government. We elect representatives, so it’s not a pure democracy. But we do elect them by majority rule so it is democratic. And the form of, the infrastructure, the total form of government, is republican, it is a republic.

In the early days of this country, James Madison basically created a distinction that didn’t exist before this, and this was in 1787. The, it used to be, if you look at dictionaries pre 1787, the words democracy and republic were interchangeable. The Roman republic was referred to as a democracy, the Greek democracy was refereed to as a republic. The words were interchanged. And in one of the Federalist papers, and I forget which one it was, I think 14 maybe, but it’s been a long time since I read them, in one of the Federalist papers in an effort to, which were put into the newspapers by Hamilton and Madison, and John Jay wrote a couple of them, to sell the constitution to people, because we were operating under the articles of Confederacy in 1787.

To sell the constitution, Madison created this artificial distinction. And what he said, basically, was that democracy, that we weren’t creating a democracy in the United States, and in a technical sense it is not a pure democracy, because like Greece, you had to have at least 6,001 people show up for a decision to be made. It had to be real majority rule. And so Hamilton, excuse me, Madison made the point that democracy could arguably be considered a form of mob rule, whereas a republic imposed, you know, an infrastructure of laws and prevented mob rule.

Now, what he omitted, intentionally, because he was trying to sell the constitution, he was trying to basically reinvent language, what he omitted was that we democratically elect our representatives. And later in his life, in the 1830s, after his presidency was over, keep in mind this was in the 1770s or 1780s, in the 1830s when he was an old man, when he was writing his memoirs, he came out and said, and there’s a whole, if you go to and look at my book reviews, the very first book review that I ever did for BuzzFlash, which was like five years ago, it’s the oldest one on the list, is all about this topic, or it has several chapters on this topic. And I forget the title of it now, but it’s a great book and it’s written by a guy who’s a constitutional scholar [“How Democratic Is the American Constitution?” by Robert A. Dahl.] And Madison in 1834 said, you know, after all these years, we can, you can use the words interchangeably. And that was about the time that the Democratic Republican party that Jefferson created dropped the word “republican” from its name. And that was about the time that Madison, who was one of the early founders of the Democratic Republican party started again using the word democracy.

So from the 1830s, so from the founding or in the mid 1780s until the mid 1830s we referred to America as a Republic. From the 1830s until the modern era we referred to it as a democracy, but then when Joe McArthur came along he started, he and some of his advisors, and Karl Rove really got on this big time, said, “wait a minute, calling this a democracy sounds too much like the Democratic Party. We should call it a Republic because that sounds more like the Republican Party.” And so the talking point on right wing radio has been, and Limbaugh’s been pushing this for 20 years now, has been that we don’t live in a democracy, we live in a republic, and that you shouldn;t call it a democracy, it’s a republic. And the reason why is because they like the word republic because it sounds like republican and they hate the word democracy because it sounds like democratic. And … that’s the bottom line, we live in a democratic republic.

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US: Republic & Democracy (pt 3)

US: Republic & Democracy

I keep noticing a particular belief among a certain kind of rightwinger. What they say is that the US government isn’t a democracy but a republic. I’ve seen this stated thousands of times in blogs and comments around the web.

I wonder what is the source of this claim. The fact that it keeps being repeated by so many people makes me think it’s a talking point often heard in conservative media. There is one thing that is obvious to me about this phenomenon. These people didn’t learn this idea by looking up the term ‘democracy’ in a dictionary or an encyclopedia or even Wikipedia.

Half of the statement is correct and half of the statement is false. The US government is BOTH a democracy AND a republic. To be more specific, the US government is a representative democracy and a constitutional republic. What these rightwingers fail to understand is that there are multiple definitions of democracy and multiple definitions of republic.

Even going back to Greek society, there was vast difference between Spartan and Athenian democracy. Sparta was a representative democracy with a political system that was divided. Athens was more of a direct democracy where even the lowest citizen could participate. The US is a bit of both these. The US is like Sparta in the following ways: representation instead of direct democracy, divided government, and a professional military. The US is only like Athens in one way: any citizen can participate and potentially become elected into government.

The only place where direct democracy operates in the US very partially is on certain major issues of local governance that are decided by citizen vote. I suppose also that jury by peers could be thought of as a watered down or constrained version of direct democracy. Still, the vast majority of the government is representative and the ‘mob’ of the citizenry has little direct influence.

The rightwingers are arguing that democracy is solely defined as direct democracy or, as some call it, mobocracy. But they are simply wrong. Their ignorance amazes me. Let me demonstrate by considering a random definition from a mainstream dictionary. I did a search and this is the top result (after Wikipedia):

Merriam-Webster, definition 1, part b (emphasis mine)

a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

Here is the confusion. Rightwingers are taking the following part of the definition as if it were the whole definition:

Merriam-Webster, definition 3

capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the United States <from emancipation Republicanism to New Deal Democracy — C. M. Roberts>

Basically, it comes down to a simplistic play on words. These rightwingers are trying to make an argument that the Republican party is the party of real America, the party that represents the emancipation Republicanism of the founding fathers. The problem is that this argument is so simplistic as to be inane. There is absolutely no conflict between a constitutional republic and a representative democracy. US democracy is constrained by being indirect and by having the govt divided. Furthermore, US democracy is constrained by the constitution (and the constitution is responsive to the democratic process, i.e., amendments).

There are a few basic confusions.

The original meaning of ‘republic’ was simply a government that wasn’t a monarchy. The difference between a monarch and a president is that the former represents himself or represents the ruling elite and the latter theoretically represents the whole population and the country as a whole. As far as I know, this doesn’t require a constitution. The term ‘republic’ just basically means that the leader can’t simply act on whim and must be held accountable to the law like everyone else, but these laws aren’t necessarily the same as a constitution. A constitution is similar to laws, but the difference is that a constitution is what all other laws are based upon and that they must remain basically unchanged. Most republics probably tend towards declaring constitutions, but a strong legal system independent of the leader can serve the same purpose as a constitution. A constitution is just a safeguard in case the legal system fails. The constitution, of course, has no power in and of itself. Still, it’s powerful in being a symbolic mission statement of a society.

Let me now share part of the definition of ‘republic’:

Merriam-Webster, definition 1, part b(1)

a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law

That serves as an equally good definition of a representative democracy.

Two things come to my mind: 1) Henry Fairlie’s definition of a Tory; and 2) rightwing rhetoric about ‘mobocracy’ and ‘real Americans’.

So, how did Henry Fairlie define a Tory? The Tories support the British government… which includes the period of monarchy. The Tory has faith in government in general for the reason they mistrust capitalism controlled by the wealthy elite. The government represents the people or at least the country, but capitalists have no inherent loyalty to anything besides profit. I think this represents the basic distinction between conservatives and liberals in the US. Conservatives mistrust government and instead trust capitalism. Liberals have a basic faith in government while being wary of capitalism. This is demonstrated by how Democrats show stronger support for even Republican presidents than Republicans show for Democrat presidents. Liberals trust the government even when they don’t have one of their own in power because they see government as being greater than either party.

This brings me to the second point. Liberals also have more basic faith in the American people and human nature in general. Liberals believe humans are inherently good or at least have the inherent predisposition towards good. Conservatives believe that people need to be told what to do by traditional authorities (i.e., religious leaders) and by those who are seen as having earned authority (i.e., successful/wealthy capitalists). Conservatives talk about ‘real Americans’, but they don’t mean the average American. What they’re talking about is the specific group they belong to: fundamentalist Christians, ‘white culture’, etc. So, their notion of ‘real Americans’ is very narrow. The liberal notion of a real American is more broad and I doubt most liberals would even deny conservatives as being real Americans. Just look at the Democratic voters who evenly divide between identifying as liberals and conservatives (according to the 2005 Pew data: Beyond Red vs Blue).

I’d also point out that it’s because of conservatives mistrust of people and government that they emphasize the constitution so much. That is why they tend to think of the constitution as an unchanging document akin to a religious document such as the Ten Commandments. Conservatives trust principles and beliefs, traditional values and institutions; whatever they perceive as a living and unchanging tradition of their particular in-group. Democracy, even though ancient, isn’t a traditional part of Christianity and so not a traditional part of European culture. Greek ideas which inspired the Enlightenment Age were reintroduced to Europe from the Middle East and so Greek ideas are considered suspicious.

My main point in all this is just that it’s odd to see rightwing constitutionalists denying the very democracy that was created by the founding fathers. There are argument rests on the fact that when some of the founding fathers were using the term ‘democracy’ they were often referring to only direct democracy, although not always (Thomas Paine seemed to have meant something more broad when he wrote about ‘democracy’). Apparently, many of the founding fathers used the term ‘republic’ to mean representative democracy. However, in the modern world, the term ‘democracy’ is more commonly used for both direct and representative forms. The rightwingers using narrow definitions from a couple of centuries ago and dismissing modern meaning of words is rather pointless. The meanings of words change. That is just the way the world works.

Like it or not, the US government is a democracy. If (some) rightwingers for some strange reason wanted to get rid of democracy, they’d be forced to get rid of the republic itself which is built on the political process of democracy (voting, representation, etc). I’m assuming rightwingers don’t want to do this. So, why do they continue with the ignorant argument that America isn’t a democracy? Is it intentional ignorance in that there being ideoligically divisive in what they see as a battle that must be won at all costs, the battle of defeating liberals and Democrats? Or is it just passive ignorance of people who never read anything (including dictionaries and encyclopedias) outside of conservative media?

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US: Republic & Democracy (pt 2)