The Beginning of Political Parties

Monday, April 6, 2009

Nothing in Federal Constitution anticipated the emergence of political parties. James Madison had hoped that one of the chief strengths of the Constitution would be its tendency to break and control the violence of factions. Jefferson, in one of his characteristic moments of rhetorical windiness, declared that allegiance to a party was the last degradation of a free and moral agent, and that “if I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all”. Hamilton said: “We are attempting by this Constitution to abolish factions and to unite all parties for the general welfare”. This might well have worked, but for the fact that the ideological division between Hamilton on the one side, and Jefferson on the other, quickly became so great; and the animosity between the two men so visible, that the new republic was less than a decade old before American politics had sorted itself out along two parties: the Hamiltonians or Federalists, and the Jeffersonian or Democratic Republicans, or simply Republican party.

Hamilton’s Energetic Federal Government

Federalists and Republican clubs and newspapers sprang up, candidates began presenting themselves to the voters as Federalists or Republicans. In 1804, in the most shocking demonstration of how deeply the idea of party had seized hold of political life, Alexander Hamilton was wounded and killed in a duel fought with one of Jefferson’s disciples, Aaron Burr. Everyone deplored parties, and everyone joined them. Each blaming the other for starting the process, each blaming the other for making their own party organization necessary.

Hamilton observed, during the Confederation, how easily the jealous interests of land-holders and land-speculators in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut could paralyze the very breath of the republic. Everywhere in the States Hamilton found provincialism, small-mindedness, bad habits and oligarchy. That could only be eliminated, in Hamilton’s mind, by ruthlessly subordinating the State governments to a strong central government, or even reducing the States to administrative units of the Federal government. And valorizing an economy in which the worth of an achievement could be measured in the form which is the most indifferent to hierarchies of color or inheritance: cash money.

This won, for Hamilton and his Federalist allies, the approval of city merchants, workers and most of New England. It also won him the vituperation of Jefferson and his Republican followers. It also got Hamilton a reputation for cold-blooded authoritarianism. Jefferson convinced himself that the Federalists were nothing but an alliance of the old Loyalist refugees and Tories, and American merchants who had sold their souls to the British. They wished for everything which would approach the new government to a monarchy, said Jefferson.

This was a strange set of accusations in the ears of the Federalists. Hamilton left the government in 1796, refusing to use his insider information to speculate in Western land, even mocking himself as one of those public fools who sacrifice his private interest to public interest, at the certainty of ingratitude. The major Federalist political voices were all those lawyers with no independent family wealth, who often ruined themselves financially in civil service. If the new republic had any likely candidate for being a member of an aristocracy, clearly the best offer was Thomas Jefferson.

The chief offence of Hamilton’s liberal economic program was that a debt-compelled government is no remedy to men who have lands and Negroes. As a result, Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans cried “Liberty!”, but mean, as all party leaders do, “Power”.

Jefferson’s Revolution of 1800

Power was what they got. In 1800, the Federalist John Adams run for reelection to Presidency, but lost to Jefferson. Running with Aaron Burr as his Vice-President, Jefferson beat Adams and the Federalists by 73 to 65 votes in the electoral college. Fifty-three of Jefferson’s votes came from the South, which hardly made Jefferson the uniform favorite of the nation. But that did nothing to discourage Jefferson from looking upon his election as the “revolution of 1800”, a mandate to undo everything Hamilton and the Federalists had accomplished.

He pledged in his inaugural to look above party: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Noble, generous sentiments, but privately Jefferson hoped to sink Federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection of it.

The Federalists’ economic policies that Hamilton had helped to cement into place were already too firm for Jefferson to dislodge them. The charter for Hamilton’s National Bank run until 1811, and Jefferson had to wait until the election of his hand-picked successor and Secretary of State, James Madison, for that charter to be cancelled. With the on-going war, as the French and the British threatened to put American shipping on the North Atlantic in the crosshairs of both warring navies, Jefferson thought he could solve the problem simply with an embargo of all American trade with them, and leaving off the products of virtuous American farmers.

Instead, Jefferson’s embargo triggered the first national economic collapse. Hamilton might have said “I told you so”. The Republicans blamed this on the evil machinations of Great Britain. There was just enough mean-spirited British encouragement given to British Canada to hostile Indian tribes on the frontier to give this a coating of credibility. Enough credibility, in fact, to send Jefferson’s successor, Madison, galloping after the British by declaring war in 1812, and expecting to annex Canada as a result.

The Disasters of the War

Without Hamilton’s National Bank, there was no money to fund an army or a navy, and so, the American army stumbled from one defeat to another, punctuated by a handful of victories in places where the victories got nothing. The American navy spent most of the war, apart from a few moral-lifting ship to ship combats, meekly bottled up in American ports by British ships-of-the-line. Without Federally funded manufacturing on the Hamiltonian model, there were no uniforms and weapons for the army, no national roads to assist them and get them from one place to another.

The war of 1812 cruelly revealed the inadequacies of Jeffersonian economic policy. “Our armies went to the frontier clothed in the fabrics of the enemy, ammunition of war was gathered as chance supplied them, and the whole struggle was marked by prodigality, waste and privation of a nation”, complained John Pendleton Kennedy.

It was this disaster of the war which Kennedy believed opened eyes to some important facts. Henry Clay, who represented Kentucky both in the House and the Senate, began his political life as an ardent Jeffersonian Democratic Republican. He helped engineer the defeat of the recharter of Hamilton’s Bank of the United States in 1811, and he was the most malevolent of the war hawks who agitated James Madison into declaring war on Britain in 1812.

Henry Clay’s Moderation and the Success of Andrew Jackson

The war left Clay a wiser Jeffersonian. In 1816, the repented Clay began singing a very different song, about the need for a National Bank, for government sponsored internal improvement projects, to build roads and canals, and for the erection of protective tariffs on imports in order to shield American manufacture from killer competition from abroad.

The embarrassments of the war of 1812 gave enough persuasiveness to this talk. Clay was able to navigate a bill for a second Bank of the United States through Congress. Madison’s successor in Presidency, James Monroe, gave a reluctant blessing to funding for a National Road, a federally financed highway. The result of this, however, was to split the old Democratic Republican party. A good deal of the split was related to the three-fifths clause.

Henry Clay himself was a slave owner. His State, Kentucky, legalized slavery. In the long run, Clay became, despite his slave holding, an ardent proponent of colonizing American slaves out of the United States, and gradually eliminating slavery from American law. Clay’s most famous disciple would be another Kentuckian who really did use the power of the national government to abolish slavery. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

For more than two decades after Jefferons’s “revolution of 1800”, the Constitution’s three-fifths clause guaranteed that the Presidency would go almost routinely to a Southerner, a Jeffersonian and a slave owner. By 1824, Jefferson’s old Democratic Republican party, with Clay at the head of one faction, had fractured so badly as a party that the presidential elections were no longer quite so predictable. John Quincy Adams, the Jeffersonian son of the last Federalist President, had served President James Monroe as Secretary of State, and that casted him as a presumptive to the Presidency in 1824.

Adams, however, was challenged by the ambitions of Henry Clay. In turn, Clay and Adams were challenged by a pure undiluted Jeffersonian, General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, a slave owner and the commanding general in the most important victory the United States had won in the war of 1812 at New Orleans. Jackson rose from out of nowhere to win the popular vote, but he failed to capture a majority in the electoral college. So, under the rules laid down in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, where Henry Clay was the speaker of the House.

Unable to sum up enough votes to win the Presidency for himself, Clay at least preferred to stop Andrew Jackson. Clay, through his support in the House of Representatives, elected Quincy Adams President. Adams hoped to pull down the remaining resistance to what Clay was now calling his American system of banking, internal improvements and tariffs. But rumors that Quincy Adams had stroked a corrupt bargain with Henry Clay for the election robbed him of the political momentum he needed.

In 1828, Andrew Jackson was swept into the Presidency on a wave of national enthusiasm and by the united votes provided by the three-fifths clause of the South. The two terms that Andrew Jackson spent in the White House were much more successful as a revolution that Jefferson’s in 1800.


The End of Moral Philosophy in America

The common sense morality was the perfect prescription for a secular republic in which both Thomas Jefferson and John Witherspoon had to live together. It yielded moral laws without compelling people to embrace protestant Christian theology, but it allowed protestant Christians to slip the fundamentals of Christian morality into public affairs without having to name Edwarsean revivalism. Thus, it allowed a kind of low-level evangelism to operate on the republican masses.

The principle of analogy, in fact, worked so well, that sometimes it was hard to carry away with it. Through the intuitive response of a moral consciousness, Mark Hopkins rediscovered an intricate three-fold class of duties for which human beings had been created, including a moral obligation to obtain air, exercise, sleep and clothing. But also he discovered a right to property, which is graciously bestowed upon mankind for the purpose of stimulating them into action.

Union College students in the 1850’s found, through Lawrence Hickok, that they had natural and self-evident moral obligations to cleanliness of dress and person. Even more than that, Hickok believed that this common moral sense would teach people directly that they should privatize the post office, because State interference is oppressive to the public freedom. Like all tyranny, it should at once be abated.

All of these intuitive moral obligations climaxes in what Francis Wayland called the general obligation to the supreme love to God. This, for Wayland, led point by point to the cultivation of a devotional spirit, to prayer and even to good Sabbath keeping. As Wayland happily concluded: “as everything which we can know teaches a lesson concerning God, if we connect that lesson with everything which we learn, everything would be resplendent with the attributes of the deity”.

On the other hand, the fact that morality was supposed to be as real as physics did not mean that everyone naturally obeyed those moral laws the way inanimate nature obeys the laws of physics. After all, people had free will. They could choose to trump those laws if they wished. “Whether we can or cannot answer arguments against liberty, remarked the Presbyterian Archibald Alexander, we know that we are free”. Sort of an odd statement for a Presbyterian Calvinist to make. “Though we may not be able to understand or explain with precision this freedom, yet this ignorance of our nature should not disturb our minds.”

Free will was not the only culprit that kept people from realizing their moral duties. A consistent pattern of unwise choices would result in a permanent moral warpage of the soul.

The Status of the Moral Sense in the Human Mind

It is worth noting at this point that the 19th century moral philosophers were still talking about the human mind as a collection of faculties. Whatever else the Enlightenment had succeeded in questioning, it had not shaken people loose from the notion that the mind was an arrangement of mental departments. For the moral philosophers, the old warfare for supremacy between will and intellect had not ended. If anything, the Enlightenment’s suspicion of the way intellect could be perverted into wasting its energies on the creation of vast pyramids of theological nonsense, gave a new respectability to the legitimacy of the emotions or passions.

In Thomas Reid’s version of the Scottish common sense thinking, the mind’s faculties could be divided into three sections: the mechanical faculties, the animal faculties and the rational faculties, which were composed of the conscience and the intellect.

David Hume had dismissed morality as an animal faculty, just an emotion. But Reid upgraded the moral sense to the ranks of the rational faculties. So, the moral sense was above emotion. The moral sense was not ruled by the intellect, it ruled alongside it.

Too Much or Too Little Religion

Moral philosophy was a confident enterprise, but it also contained a number of important anxieties. The first of these anxieties concerned religion. Not whether moral philosophy had too much of it, but whether it might actually have too little. The college-based teachers of moral philosophy recorded their thinking and speculations in a lengthy collection of textbooks on ethics, many of which had very long lives and very high sales. Francis Wayland’s great “Elements of Moral Science”, which was first published in 1835, had sold 45000 copies by 1851, and 100000 copies by the end of the century.

These textbooks strained to present a semblance of uniformity on moral basis. Indeed they had to, because only uniformity would give a sense of verisimility to the claim that they were only reflecting the common sense of every conscious mind. However, the colleges where these moral philosophers taught were overwhelmingly church-related, and the faculties who taught in them were still overwhelmingly ordained clergy with specific, and sometimes very conflicting, denominational loyalties to serve.

Wayland was an ordained Baptist minister. Mark Hopkins was the grand nephew of Samuel Hopkins, and an ordained Congregationalist minister. Alexander was an old-school Presbyterian. It might prove highly inconvenient for a purely inductive and objective moral science to stumble across facts of human behavior, like free will, which might militate against their particular denominational identities, like Calvinism.

Worst still, it might be very embarrassing for these moral philosophers to find themselves in entire and uniform agreement in ethics with gentlemen who they were otherwise required by their denominations to anathematize. This was a particular problem for Calvinist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches and colleges. They could not had been happy at finding themselves allied in the cause of moral philosophy and the teaching of virtue alongside the wild fire of revivalism.

On the other hand, the moral philosophers may had been too loyal to their denominations. The very fact that they were mostly ordained clergy prevented them from setting up defensive national professional organization that other academic disciplines in America were already using to promote their own disciplinary interests, and the career of their members.

They all had to swear at the existence of a natural, and therefore common, Christian morality; but their conflicting denominational and theological identities prevented any of them from joining arms with each other in defense of either their discipline or morality. In the context of academic professionalization, that failure to organize any form of national professional association helped to deligitimize and undermine the whole moral philosophy endeavor.

So, they found themselves confused by the urge to remain loyal to their own denominational traditions, and paralyzed by the cynical suggestion that their denominational traditions really should mandate that they should never be seen together with these Revivalists.

The Failure of Moral Science

The second of moral philosophy’s anxieties touched on its claims to have a purely scientific non-partisan parentage. The moral philosophers liked to describe their inductive method of discovering universal moral principles out of the facts of consciousness as purely Baconian, after Sir Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. In other words, as purely scientific, as an experiment in a laboratory.

To professional scientists, morality is not something you can measure in a test, or predict on an experimental basis. What was worst than the disapproval of the scientific professionals was the disapproval of the scientific amateurs. Already in the 1840’s, Americans were becoming fascinated by series of scientific enthusiasms which meant nothing good for the integrity of moral philosophy.

A similar threat emerged from a new interest in races, sparked in large measure by the hankering of Southern slave owners for a way of justifying the enslavement of African-Americans. Racism did this by ways of racial distinctions. Racism infused the identity of moral nature and moral characteristics with simple differences in human physical nature, without the need to consult the facts of consciousness or a moral sense.

But the greatest problem the moral philosophers encountered was the problem of overreach. Moral philosophy promised that it could discover a logical order, not just in physical nature, but in moral, economic and political nature as well. They found, over time, that the really serious ethical problems about virtue in the republic were so complicated and so ambiguous, that no absolute solution had any hope of appearing right to everyone’s moral sense.

The moral philosophers achieved consensus, but only on the issues that were so trivial that they mattered to no one but themselves. On the big ticket issues, like slavery, moral philosophers in the North and in the South arrived at solutions flatly contradictory to each other. So flatly, that it called into question the notion that everyone possesses some form of common moral sense that would always, like a scientific experiment, yield the same conclusion.

By the 1870’s, moral philosophy, attacked on one hand as too scientific to be religious; and attacked on the other hand as too religious to be scientific (both accusations sometimes coming from the same secular critics), had lost its intellectual legitimacy. The last great textbook in moral philosophy, “Our Moral Nature”, by Princeton’s James McCosh, was published after Mccosh’s retirement in 1888. By 1908, just 20 years later, when John Dewey collaborated with the production of a textbook on ethics for the American Science series, all mention of analogy and moral philosophy had been replaced by Pragmatism and Social Democracy.

Although the claims of the moral philosophers to scientific universality in ethics loosed legitimacy, it gave its heroes and readers an inescapable sense of their moral nature as human beings. With it, the need to order their lives on a plane considerably higher than the hedonism and indifference with which their successors, pragmatism and psychology, ended up with. Evolutionary humanism gave no joy, and less humanity to America than it had had at the hands of the moral philosophers.


The American Moral Philosophy

Edwarsean revivalism was one way of solving the problem of how to generate and ensure virtue in the new American republic in the 18th century. It was not, however, the only way. The Enlightenment had won too many converts to deism, and there were too many routine ordinary protestants who were reluctant to embrace revivalism. However, there was an alternative, that laid remarkably close to the Scottish common sense philosophy, which we already saw how it influenced America before the Revolution at Princeton under John Witherspoon. It also had done so to a lesser degree at Yale, but it was really Witherspoon who gathered most of the credit for introducing Scottish thinking into America.

Using Scottish Epistemology

It hadn’t really been the purpose of the Scottish philosophy to engineer a republic. The real purpose of Scottish philosophy was to produce a realist epistemology that would reassure people about the reality of the external world, and the reliability of the mind’s perceptions of it. In so doing, rescue the Enlightenment from the death end of skepticism.

On the other hand, epistemology is never far removed from ethics. If you cannot be sure what or how you know something, then certainly you aren’t going to be sure about what you ought to do. And so, in short order, the chief labor of the common sense philosophy became the formation of a workable republican brand of ethics. This was not as easy as it sounds. Newtonian science taught to find in physical nature not the personal interventions of God, but repeatable and dependable laws of nature. What about human nature? Did human nature functioned the same way as physical nature?

The same reasoning that erased intelligence and purpose from physical nature, and reduced it all to laws, could just as easily erase intelligence and purpose from the human soul, and reduce everything we think of as unique to human behavior to some kind of psychological determinism. The effects of this kind of skepticism on science would be bewildering. On ethics, they will be fatal.

This did not necessarily troubled some of the American founders. Alexander Hamilton cheerfully accepted the notion that self-interest rather than virtue was the basic engine of human action. Little wonder that the Federalist Papers described the Constitution as a natural system that could work purely by checks and balances, rather than by virtue. But for many others, the disappearance of virtue was an intellectual disaster. It was the Scottish philosophy which became the second means of restoring virtue to public life.

In American colleges before the Civil War, just about every major collegiate intellectual was an enthusiastic disciple of Scottish common sense realism. Thomas Clap, Nathaniel William Taylor, Noah Porter; all preached to the undergraduates at Yale college.

These ethicists or moral philosophers were not content merely with using the Scottish philosophy to establish a certain epistemology, they wanted that epistemology to pay them the added dividend of articulating a public ethic that would serve as the foundation for public virtue and moral order in this new secular republic. They proposed to do this in three steps.

The Three Steps to Establish A New Moral Code

First of all, they proposed to establish a realist epistemology. An epistemology that would guarantee that human life was not passive, nor mistaken in its apprehension of a real external world. There was a real world exterior to the mind, filled with real objects, and the mind had real connections, real direct apprehensions of this world.

The second step was to erect, on that epistemological foundation, the proposition that purpose and intelligence in the universe also had to be real. If all the objects out there are real, and we have direct apprehensions of them, then we have to include perceptions of intelligence and purpose as real, because our perceptions of intelligence and purpose are the undeniable default position of human consciousness.

We look outside ourselves and see objects, the objects are really there and we have direct apprehensions of them. But we also look out at the external world and we see cause and effect. We don’t see cause and effect in the same way we might see a chair or a table, but nevertheless it is the default position of human consciousness, therefore cause and effect should be understood to be as real as those chairs. And not only we see cause and effect, when we see cause and effect, we also have to see a causer, and that means we have to see intelligence and purpose. When we see those things in such an elemental fashion, then we ought to understand that intelligence and purpose in the universe are qualities fully as real as all the other qualities that your mind perceives in things or objects exterior to yourself.

The third step comes when you invite the student to shift attention from physical nature to human nature. Ask whether the same intelligence and purpose cannot also be perceived in human nature as well as physical nature. Then you calculate form the nature of that intelligence and purpose what the contents of a real moral code ought to be. You do it not as though this moral code was based on religious doctrine or the product of religious teachings, but as an induction from the observed facts of human nature, fully as scientific in its method as Newtonian physics.

On that basis, such a code of ethics could be embraced by all the citizens of the republic: Christians, deists or otherwise; because it was simply a scientific realization of the moral facts hard-wired into human nature. Moral philosophy, will thus become what Yale’s Noah Porter called the science of duty. Was there a science of physics? Sure, because we have direct apprehensions of physical operations in the universe. Was there a science of duty? Sure, because we have direct apprehensions in human nature of intelligence and purpose.

The Moral Science

Fitting ethics and morality into the same clothes of science required that the moral philosophers produced a hermeneutical or interpretative principle, which would allow them to transfer the patterns of intelligence and purpose that they saw in physical nature to the human soul. That principle was the principle of analogy. Analogy worked like this: by the epistemological rules of the common sense realist philosophy, everybody experiences inescapable intuitions about the existence of facts. Facts are there. You cannot avoid coming to conclusions about facts. Facts are all around you. You have direct apprehensions of them. You can’t hide under the desk to get away from the reality that is all around you. The existence of facts is inescapable.

One of the most basic of those facts is that change operates in a law-like fashion. Certain things exist and certain changes are taking place in them, and this we know because we cannot avoid knowing them. But when we know it we also know that these changes don’t take place at random. Not only it is inescapable that you have intuitions about facts external to yourself, but you also know that those facts change and that the change follows a law-like pattern.

All laws can, according to the moral philosophers, be shown to have a single pattern. If they didn’t, then we couldn’t talk about a law at all, because every motion and every substance in the universe will then be a law by itself, and the result would be universal ruin.

If the mind could really know the exterior world, and knew it to be governed by laws, then one should expect the interior world of human consciousness to be governed by the same lawfulness. There should, in other words, be a striking ground of analogy between the laws of things, which command and put forth the force uniformly; and the laws of persons, which make certain ethical choices obligatory. “No man was ever known to exist who in any sense could be called a developed human being who did not recognize certain ethical distinctions as real and esteem them of supreme importance”, wrote Noah Porter. “We take them as we know them, whether civilized or savage”.

You see, morality or virtue is not merely a cultural accident. It is not merely a social convention. It is not just an illusion. It is a conscious component of the mind. Unlike the physical laws of science, it instructs people in the laws of character development, of social relationships, of politics, of economics and spiritual duties to God.

The Foundation for Public Virtue

This common sense morality was the perfect prescription for a secular republic in which both Thomas Jefferson and John Witherspoon had to live together. It yielded moral laws without compelling people to embrace protestant Christian theology, but it allowed protestant Christians to slip the fundamentals of Christian morality into public affairs without having to name Edwarsean revivalism. Thus, it allowed a kind of low-level evangelism to operate on the republican masses.

For instance, “the analogy of the human soul furnishes a decisive argument in favor of the conclusion that the Creator and Thinker is one being”. In saying that, Porter was not actually proselytizing anybody, he was simply making an inductive statement of ethical fact. But the result of that thinking would very likely be some form of Christian behavior. It was through this carefully scientized methodology that the moral philosophers were able to rebuild the structure of Christian public ethics in the half-century after the American Revolution, and offer it as a guide to national virtue without braking over Jefferson’s wall of separation, and without needing the furies of revivalism.


Edwardseanism and the Second Awakening

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Jonathan Edwards did not live long to put his theology into full play, but his two disciples, Samuel Hopkins from West Springfield, Massachusetts; and Joseph Bellamy of Bethlehem, Connecticut; they did. What both men generated first was not revival but controversy.

In 1766, Hokpins’ An Inquiry Concerning the Promises of the Gospel indicted the New England Churches for having watered down the depravity of original sin, and then turn conversion into a gentile embrace of polite morals, and thus ending up making God into an indulgent uncle rather than a righteous father. Given the profound moral warpage of human depravity, one might as easily expect a hand-less climber to scale a mountain as to expect a sinner to use the means of grace. Given God’s hostility to human sin, its ill effects could only be overcome when gives a new heart in regeneration. Only then, is a foundation laid in the mind for the discerning of the truth of the Gospel in its real beauty and excellency.

This meant that there could be no gradual wrapping up to a new heart. Instead, this change was worked by the spirit of God immediately and instantaneously. Nobody should fool himself into believing that there were promises of regenerating grace made to the exercises and doings of the unregenerate. There was only one option. Hopkins said that men are required to repent and turn to God on pain of eternal damnation, and are declared to be in a state of condemnation until they do so.

Established Congregational order in New England was defied by the prospect of the new divinity, which discounted all the efforts made under the use of means, and demanded the full use of their natural ability and immediately repent. They liked it still less when Hopkins and Bellamy began excommunicating those who didn’t repent at once. And when Hopkins began teaching that not only were people obliged to use all their natural ability to repent, but were also obligated to exercise, after repentance, a Christian and self-denying life.

Through Edwards’ juxtaposition of natural ability and moral necessity, Hopkins and Bellamy could preach the most extreme Calvinistic versions of absolute divine sovereignty.

They enraged some people by this. Hopkins, in fact, was forced out of his church in 1769, and moved to New Port, Rhode Island, where he enraged still more people by denouncing the slave trade as the ultimate sin against disinterested or impartial benevolence. Bellamy stayed as pastor of Bethlehem for 50 years. In the words of one of his followers, his preaching “made God so great”. Indeed it did.

The Second Awakening

Restless and idealistic theological students, fresh from the tepid atmosphere of Yale and Harvard, flocked to Hopkins and Bellamy for ministerial apprenticeships. It was these next generation Edwarseans who really lit the bonfires of revival across New England, in what became generally known as the Second Great Awakening. By the 1790’s, Hopkins estimated that he and Bellamy had planted over 100 of their pupils and sympathizers in pulpits across Western Massachusetts and Western Connecticut. The revivals were sweeping more than 100 towns in New England, most of them under the preaching of this new divinity.

These preachers prided themselves with the passion with which they wrote and studied. Nathaniel Taylor devoted himself for 78 years, from ten to sixteen hours a day, in his study. Hopkins met with two of his students to talk theology through the day. They eventually noted a glow from a fire in the East. It was actually the sun coming up the next day.

Bellamy was even more determined to train new divinity missionaries for the New England churches. Upwards of 60 theological students passes through the barn he refurnished in Bethlehem as a one-man seminary. They became the most vivid and demanding voices for a consistent Calvinism, as they called it, in the post-Awakening and post-Revolutionary decades. They, in turn, trained ministerial students of their own.

The Father of Modern Revivalism

None of the new divinity ministers, however, cleared a wide path for himself in American culture as Charles Grandison Finney. Born in Western Connecticut, Finney moved to upstate New York, and originally trained as a lawyer. In 1821, Finney was dramatically converted, and embarked on a new career as a preacher of revivals. No one ever wielded the thunderbolts of the sinners’ moral ability, that need for immediate repentance and the requirement for a perfect disinterested benevolence, than Charles Finney.

He served as pastor of the Chatham Street Chapel and the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City. Eventually, he became one of the leading lights in founding Oberlin College. He denounced selfishness as the sin of sins, and the diametric opposite of disinterested benevolence. Under the heading of selfishness, Finney included everything from slave owning to overdressing.

Revivals of religion are not permanent states of affairs. With Finney, the violence of the new divinity reached its apex, and then diminished its intensity. His preaching dwelt so much on the sinners’ natural ability to repent, that people forgot (and accused him of forgetting), that he was, after all, a Calvinist. Disinterested benevolence, which shaped both the origins of the anti-slavery movement and the organization of missionary work, finally degenerated into a cheerless code of does and don'ts.

When Finney tried to illustrate just how much natural ability sinners had by installing an anxious bent near his pulpit, and inviting anxious sinners to come, sit there and be prayed with; even his fellow revival laborers began to dismiss him as a sensation-seeking embarrassment. Yet, these intellectual airs of Jonathan Edwards turned the Second Great Awakening into a great cultural force. In a secular republic, the revivalists wrenched control of the will of the republic, or at least of the republic’s culture, out of the hand of the deists, out of the hands of the secularists, and turned the ship that Jefferson and Madison had imagined would sail before secular winds, and set it to sail before God’s winds.

They showed by this that American religion did not need an official tax-supported, government-recognized base in American politics in order to have a decisive influence on American life. In almost the same way that Edwards had taught, that God rules human conduct not by force but by the presentation of motives, so the Edwarseans transformed all the protestant churches of America into presenters of motives to American culture, rather than tax collectors who were backed up and reinforced by civil statutes.

Unable to legislate, they organized independent societies for Bible distribution, for alcoholism reform, for observance of the Sabbath, for suppressing vice and immorality, and for the end of slavery. Specially for the end of slavery.

Edwardseans and the Anti-slavery Movement

Slavery described precisely the sort of natural inability and natural necessity which Edwards insisted was not the true notion of Calvinism. To the extent that slavery literally involved the repression of Christianity among the slaves by their masters, it was bound to arouse the animus of the new divinity. Oddly enough, Edwards himself had been a slave owner, although not on the dimensions of Thomas Jefferson. His slave ownership was limited to the purchase of an occasional domestic helper for the Edwards’ household in 1731 and 1736. But, as early as 1741, Edwards was already criticizing the New England slave trade. During Edwards’ pastorate in Northampton, six African slaves were admitted to full membership on an equal par with any other citizen of Northampton.

It was Hopkins who characteristically applied the full logic of Edwards to slavery. In 1771, he began his preaching against slave trade as a violation of the principle of disinterested benevolence. Two years after that, Hopkins began directly attacking not just slave trade, but slavery itself. He was joined in his protest by Edwards the younger, in New Haven. Radical opposition to slavery eventually became an independent issue on its own for the new divinity.

In 1859, the most radical blow yet struck against American slavery, would come from a man nurtured under a new divinity pastorate, John Brown. The power generated by the revivals, awakenings and the new divinity theology gave the now disestablished churches of New England everything they needed to accomplish the reforms that Jefferson’s wall of separation prevented them from imposing directly as organized churches.

When the French liberal Alexis de Toqueville took his celebrated tour of the United States in the 1830’s, he was amazed to find that in the United States religion had no influence on the laws or on political opinions, nevertheless it worked to regulate the State. If Edwarsean style of revivalism was an important means for firing up interest in religions and reform, the truth was that it was a less than happy instrument, less than successful instrument for sustaining that interest.

The demand for immediate repentance and for disinterested benevolence was supposed to infuse new virtue back into public life through renewed individuals. Well, unhappily, it might just as easily convince renewed individuals to have nothing further to do with public life, to disengage entirely from the sinfulness of their surrounding neighbors. So, Edwarsean revivalism was, at the end of the day, still a reflection of the old Puritan weakness for syncretism.

The revivals called people to repentance, but they also called them out of society, out of their normal relations, out of their everyday moral lives, to participate in an intensely demanding, but still very other-worldly version of protestant Christianity. The very fact that a revival was judged necessary at all was a judgement on the failures of the regular churches and on the impurities of conventional society. Its logical end was to turn people into come-outers of various sorts, and to inflate a radical individualism.

A new answer to the problem of religion’s role in leading American life will come from the 19th century academic moral philosophers, and from John Witherspoon’s Scottish philosophy of common sense.


Jonathan Edwards on Free Will

Friday, April 3, 2009

A wall of separation between Church and State was not what the righteous Presbyterians and Congregationalists of America had gone into the Revolution for. It became a very good question what they would propose to do about it. The first answer came from the disciples of Jonathan Edwards.

Curiously, the intellectual fuel for these answers laid buried in the pages of Edwards’ great treatise on free will. It arose out of an important distinction Edwards wanted to make so that he could demonstrate that all human actions were divinely ordered by God (Calvinism), and yet hold people morally accountable for those actions. When God decreed a certain act, that act became necessary, it had to happen. But acts can become necessary in one of two very different ways.

God could actually arm wrestle someone into doing what he wants. All the while, the person is kicking and screaming in protest because he really wanted something else. That’s one way an act can become necessary. This is mostly the caricature of what people think about Edwards, Calvinism and unconditional election. On the other hand, though, an act can become necessary if you already have a certain psychological inclination toward that act. If you like chocolate, I can pretty well bet money that if I point out just the right chocolate or just the right amount of it, you’ll choose it. There is a certain measure of predictability in human behavior, we don’t live, act or behave randomly. The more intense a person’s inclination toward a certain behavior, the more likely it is that it will be acted upon.

Edwards called the necessity that involves force, the arm twisting version of necessity, natural necessity. He cheerfully admitted that anyone who is compelled to act under the force of natural necessity cannot be held morally accountable for what they do. If you force me at gun point to drive you to or from the scene of crime, I can’t be held as your accomplice, you violated my free will.

The other kind of necessity, which arises from our own inclinations and desires, Edwards called moral necessity. Because nobody is actually forcing us to do things by moral necessity, we can be held liable. In fact, the greater the force of an evil inclination in our actions, the more accountable we are, precisely because we have all the physical power we needed to do otherwise.

With that, Edwards hit everyone’s panic button. As sinners in the hands of an angry God, we possess a nature that inclines us to sin. In fact, it inclines us to sin all the time. We labor day by day under the force of moral necessity. That gives us a moral inability to do anything other that sin. None of this happens because God forces us to sin. That would be a natural necessity, and then we would have an excuse, we could say that we were made to do it that way, you can’t blame us.

The fact is, said Edwards, we actually possess all the natural ability we could ever want not to sin. Translated into practical terms, what this meant was that no one could shelter themselves from the call to repentance and conversion, as they had for generations in New England, behind such pious beliefs as the Half-Way Covenant, or the plead that they were gradually working their way through their depravity (almost like therapy), by using the means of grace, such as prayer or reading the Bible. You were, Edwards taught, deprived totally and there is nothing you could do about it, but you have arms, legs, lips and brains, and you could use them all to bow down in the dust and repent, and you could do it now without waiting for grace to get you around doing it.

So, you were liable. Even if you were totally deprived. If we were to look at this as a modern psychologist would, we would say that Edwards was creating a moment of mental crisis. He was confronting people simultaneously with their depravity, and then he was offering a release, by telling them that they were fully responsible to repent and believe.

Edwards himself did not live long to put this into full play, but his two disciples, Samuel Hopkins from West Springfield, Massachusetts; and Joseph Bellamy of Bethlehem, Connecticut; they did.


Jefferson’s Separation Between Church and State

I’ve spent some time writing about Jonathan Edwards. I have to admit that I did live it dangling there, and you would be right to wonder what really happened to him after his self-exile to the Western Massachusetts Indian mission. Well, the answer is: not very much. Edwards hoped in his heart that the Great Awakening would lead to the Day of Judgement, and the thousand years reign of God directly on earth, when religion shall in every respect be uppermost in the world. But instead of the dawning of a general revival of the Christian Church, what Edwards got was the day to day routine of attending a mission to Indians whose language he did not speak, and an English congregation whose attention span was, in Edwards’ Judgement, not up to one of a kid.

His own attention soon went back to his early enchantment with philosophy. Between 1750 and 1757, he composed three great treatises in moral philosophy, on Original Sin, on Freedom of the Will, and the Nature of True Virtue; all awhile praying for a new Awakening, until the trustees of Princeton invited him to take up the presidency there in 1757. He goes there at the beginning of 1758, only to find that smallpox is in the neighborhood. He takes the inoculation, but the inoculation turns out to be more lethal than the smallpox. He dies of the complications.

What ultimately follows on the hills of the Great Awakening was not the new awakening Edwards hoped for, but a secular revolution. The leadership of the colonial Churches was not better prepared for the revolution than it had been for the Great Awakening. The vast majority of New England Congregationalists and Presbyterians supported the American cause. Even the Church of England, since it was legally a department of the English government, lost three quarters of its American clergy who exiled in England or Canada.

The Secular Revolution

For those Congregationalists and Presbyterians who joined the revolution, the war was seemed as a marvelous opportunity to condemn the corrupt commercialized society of Great Britain and any of its American partners and admirers. They also looked upon the Revolution as an opportunity to earn a special place of respect for Christianity in the construction of this new republic. This was, however, exactly what did not happen. The disruptions created by occupation, invasion and enlistments battered all of the Churches equally.

The Philadelphia's Baptist association saw its congregations decline from 42 to 26. Its membership dropped down by a fifth. Moreover, the revolutionary leadership was conformed by Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams, Hamilton, James Madison. These all were men with little interest in Christian theology, and whose case against the British was fed by secular political theory. Instead of leading the Revolution, the clergy of the American Churches found themselves being used by it. When the Revolution was over, instead of having a new public role for the Churches of American society, they found that they had lost almost all the vestige of the public roles they once had.

New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware eliminated all public funding for Churches in 1776. New York followed in 1777. In Massachusetts, the new revolutionary Constitution of 1780 kept public tax support for the Congregational Churches enforced, but it did not allow tax payers to send their tax money to Churches of their own choosing.

Virginia suspended taxation for the support of the Church of England in 1776, and in an effort to nail exclusion down more securely, Thomas Jefferson wrote a statute for religious freedom, adopted by the Virginia Assembly in 1786, with the support of Madison. It confirmed that “no man should be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever”. Jefferson statute for religious freedom was only the most famous of the efforts that Jefferson and Madison made to force religion off the public square.

The Wall of Separation

Sitting in the Confederation Congress in 1785, Madison actually opposed a plan to reserve public lands for the support of religion. Jefferson preferred putting the most useful facts from Greek, Roman, European and American history into the hands of children rather than the Bible. His 1817 plan for a system of public education in Virginia decreed that “no religious reading, instruction or exercise shall be prescribed or practiced”.

The involvement of Jefferson and Madison in Virginia’s dismantling of public religion gave the final blow to the hopes of the churches that the Revolution and the Millennium could be had for the same price. Congress stipulated that the first amendment shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting their free exercise thereof. Now, although technically this no-establishment clause only addressed the Federal government, and left states like Massachusetts free to establish state churches or state funding; it clearly set a direction to public policy that was not friendly towards an official seat for religion on the public square.

Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god”, Jefferson wrote sympathetically to a group of unhappy Connecticut Baptists, who had to put up with paying state taxes for religion until 1817. “I contemplate, said Jefferson, with sovereign reverence, those Americans who declare that their legislatures should make no law respecting and establishing religion, or prohibiting their free exercise thereof. Thus, building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

A wall of separation between Church and State was not what the righteous Presbyterians and Congregationalists of America had gone into the Revolution for. It became a very good question what they would propose to do about it. The first answer came from the disciples of Jonathan Edwards.


Thomas Jefferson: The Indebted Yeoman Farmer

No other figure in American history, except Washington and Lincoln, stands closer to the heart of American national identity than Thomas Jefferson. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and in that Declaration he defined the spirit of the American Revolution as an experiment in Enlightenment politics and philosophy. He was the second American, after Washington, to ascend to the level of the symbol of American liberty. His home in Virginia exists today as a kind of temple for that symbol. Even Abraham Lincoln, who privately deplored Jefferson’s example as a slave owner, felt compelled to genuflect publicly before Jefferson’s example as the most distinguished politician of our history.

The Intellectual

Jefferson was, in addition to being a politician, a man of extraordinary intellectual gifts and tastes. A man who liked to think of himself as simply an American version of the Enlightenment’s rational elite. Almost his entire life was lived in politics, yet he had little love for the practical day to day grind of vote-getting and administration. “Science is my passion, he briefly remarked, politics my duty”. He served as the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809, but he served for more than twice as long as the President of the American Philosophical Society. He claimed in 1812: “when I was young, mathematics was the passion of my life”. And even as President of the United States he dubbed industriously in anthropology, mineralogy, religion and history.

It was Jefferson who sponsored the first great scientific expedition of the New Republic: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s journey from 1804 to 1806 to map the North American continent from the Mississippi river to the Pacific ocean.

When he was asked in 1771 to compose a list of basic books, Jefferson came up with 28 titles which spanned poetry, fiction, politics, history, philosophy and the classics. He recommended Locke on the conduct of the mind and the search for truth, Montesquieu, Franklin of electricity, Seneca, a heavy dose of the Scots, and even a textbook on physics and surgery. Forty years and a lifetime of book-collecting later, Jefferson’s collection of 6000 books became the core around which the Library of Congress was built.

Jefferson even had the mannerisms commonly associated with an intellectual. “Jefferson is a slender man”, wrote William Mclays, who sat in the Federal Congress and who had many opportunities to observe Jefferson at a close range. “He has rather the air of stiffness in is manner. His clothes seem too small for him. He sits in a lounging manner, on one hip commonly, and one of his shoulders elevated much more than the other. His face has a scroungy aspect. His whole figure has a shackling air.” He even added that Jefferson was a poor public speaker. His informal conversation was invariably a revelation. He scattered information wherever he went.

In the largest sense, although Jefferson wrote only one full-length book in 1781, his Notes on the State of Virginia, which appeared anonymously; Jefferson defined a Classical Republican political philosophy, which stood over against the Liberal Republicanism of Alexander Hamilton. It was a philosophy which defined the role of government in the Republic and addressed the question of religion in the Enlightenment political regime. Jefferson’s political philosophy was a force in his day and it remains one in ours.

The Practice of Law

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at the family plantation at Shadwell. Because a fire destroyed Shadwell in 1770 and most of the 27-years-old Jefferson’s papers lighted, painfully little survives of Jefferson’s intellectual coming of age. What we do know, however, is how much of that coming of age was connected to representatives of the Scottish Enlightenment. His first tutor, a Church of England clergyman named William Douglas, was a Scot and a graduate of Glasgow and Edinburg. When Jefferson arrived at William and Mary to begin his collegiate studies in 1760, the college was in the hands of another Scot, William Small, whom Jefferson described as “a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners and an enlarged and liberal mind”.

The most immediate contribution Small made was not philosophical, but legal. He introduced Jefferson to George Wythe. Jefferson proceeded to study law under Wythe tutoring at Williamsburg until he was admitted to the bar in 1767. Two years later, Jefferson is elected to the House of Burgesses. He scored a minor sensation with the publication of a anti-imperial pamphlet in 1774: A Summary View of the Rights of British America. In 1775, he found himself sent to Philadelphia to serve in the Second Continental Congress, a colonial lawyer among other colonial lawyers.

Up until the 18th century, law was hardly a profession at all. Administration of the law was in the hands of appointed magistrates, who only rarely had any formal education in law. Lawyers were, in general, not much more than gentlemen who happened to have an education in law. In fact, in 17th century England, professional lawyering was actually prohibited by statute. However, as the British empire awoke throughout the 18th century for the need to establish new useful laws and practices in the colonies, so did the need for professional lawyers and judges.

Even so, by 1775, there were only 45 practicing attorneys in Massachusetts. One reason for the comparatively small number of lawyers was that law was not terribly lucrative by itself. People who hoped to make money from law hoped really to do it through the opening law gave them to politics, and through politics to patronage and influence.

Another reason why lawyering did not take all at once in popularity was that, in practice, criminal law was largely a matter of punishment for moral or religious offences against the community. It was not terribly involved with the protection of property. The notion of institutional imprisonment for criminal violators will not result in the construction of an American prison until the 1790’s.

Civil law was not much more attractive as a pursuit, for it was preoccupied with matters of inheritance and debt, debt being the one thing which really could get you imprisoned. The laws these lawyers obeyed came from two sources. One was Statute Law, in other words, law created by the colonial legislatures. The other was British Common Law, that big mass of traditional procedure in British law, which judges and magistrates interpreted and applied by their own lights, without consultation with legislatures.

Up until the eve of the Revolution, it was Common Law procedures which governed most of colonial law. Judges and magistrates, not legislatures, decided what was law and what was punishment. The American Revolution changed this. Having thrown off British political rule, Americans wondered if their courts should continue to operate by British Common law or not. Revolutionaries saw no more wisdom in allowing a single man to rule by his own whim as king, than allowing magistrates and judges to rule by their whim in court. And it did not help the reputation of Common Law that the prevailing Common Law textbook of the day, Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, which enjoyed a circulation of nearly 25000 copies in America by 1776; tried to base Common Law on the sovereignty of the king.

If in the new, revolutionary and republican climate, sovereignty resided in the people rather than in the king, then the place where law should be made was in the legislature, and casted in the form of legislative statutes. If Blackstone hoped to make old law into the king’s law, the Americans’ tendency was to limit all law to legislative statutes.

Jefferson never developed any significant law practice of his own. He was involved in only 941 cases over 7 years, and he stopped practicing law altogether by 1776. But the legal problems posed by Common Law, about sovereignty, inheritance, debt and slavery; became the central problems of his life. And no wonder. Jefferson was born into a well-to-do family, but his father died while he was in his teens. The terms of his father’s will put all the power of his inheritance into the hands of the will executors. Even permission to attend William and Mary had to be obtained from his guardian.

Migraines Caused by Debt

He married Martha Wayles in 1772, only to loose her to complications of child birth in 1782, and never remarry. Through his wife, Jefferson inherited some 11000 acres of land and 135 slaves, which added to the 5000 acres and 50 slaves that came to him after the death of his mother in 1773. This made Jefferson one of the biggest land owners in Virginia. By then, he was already well on his way to designing and building that great mountain top home that he dreamt off as his great sanctuary, Monticello.

The problem was that his father-in-law’s state had also arrived burdened with debt. The costs of building Monticello and the costs of the Virginia gentry lifestyle gradually turned from pleasures into inescapable burdens for Thomas Jefferson. Inflation during the Revolution rotted the value of his property. 22 of his slaves ran off to find freedom with the British. By the end of his life, he will be over 100000 dollars in debt.

Those debts enraged him. Indebtedness threatened him with loss of control, and fear of the loss of control triggered staggering bouts of migraine for Jefferson. He could not take the humiliation of constantly bowing the knee to creditors, to money lenders, to the merchants who supplied his books. In Jefferson’s mind, only a nation of those who own enough property to freely support themselves without dependence could create a Republic. When debt-ridden farmers in Western Massachusetts staged an uprising in 1786, Jefferson frankly sympathized with them. “Can history produce an instance where rebellion so honorably conducted?”, Jefferson asked. “God forbid, we should never be 20 years without such a rebellion. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Maybe also with the blood of creditors.

This resentment at the dependence imposed by debt took a more organized form in a letter Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1789, where Jefferson was still serving as the American minister to France. Jefferson had enjoyed a front row seat in Paris that summer for the outbreak of the French Revolution. The prospect of the French Revolution excited and appalled him. Clearly, in Jefferson’s mind, the violence of the French Revolution was due entirely to the way an elite of aristocratic families had reduced most of France’s population to debt and loss of land.

In Jefferson’s thinking, creditors could just as easily be bankers and merchants as aristocrats. No creditor, he wrote, can by Natural Right oblige the lands someone occupies, or the person who succeeded in that occupation to the payment of debts contracted by him. By performing a series of calculations, he informed Madison that, by rights, 19 years is the term beyond which neither the representatives of a nation nor even the whole nation itself assembled could stand a debt.

Perhaps it was only coincidental that the 19 years he allotted for the permissible run of debts was just one year shy at the 20 years he allotted for permissible revolutions and the bloody watering of the tree of liberty. It certainly blinded him to the follies of the French Revolution, as that revolution was blowing up around his ears in Paris in 1789.

What To Do With National Debt

The summer of the French Revolution began with Louis XVI yielding to the demand for calling of a national assembly, the Estates General. That in turn resulted in the swift capture of the Estates General’s leadership, by the seizure of the king and by the imposition of a somewhat constitutional monarchy. When the king attempted to escape, he was recaptured, and then trialled and executed. After his death, a reign of revolutionary terror, inspired by Maximilien Robespierre and his party, the Jacobins; swept over Paris and over France.

To all of the butcheries and the terrorism instituted by the Jacobins, Jefferson turned a resolutely blind eye. He praised the Jacobins for their resolution to set fire to the four corners of the kingdom and to perish rather than to relinquish from their plan of total change of government. When Jefferson returned to the United States in 1789 to became the first Secretary of State under President George Washington, his adulation for the French Revolution continued without pause. The Jacobins, he said, were the true revolution spirit of a whole nation. And he founded sickening that uncomprehending Americans, like Washington and Hamilton, called the French robbers and inhumans.

By 1793, Jefferson was compelled to admit a little bit more, that in the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the form of trial, and with them also many innocent ones. But this was simply the collateral damage of revolution. “My own affections had been deeply wounded by some of the murders of this cause, but rather than seeing it fail I would better see the earth desolated.”

What the Jacobins accomplished in France, Jefferson hoped that Statute Law might accomplish peacefully in the United States. His political philosophy seems to have nothing more substantial to it than an expectation that virtuous citizens, by reason of their virtue, could make government almost unnecessary. But instead of the new constitution rendering government unnecessary, Jefferson was infuriated to discover that the old fiscal policies of indebtedness and collection were being reimposed through Statute as designed by the new Secretary of of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

At the end of the Revolution, the United States was catastrophically in debt. First to the French and then to the Dutch, but also to a lot of people. Many of the fiscal crisis during the Revolution had been adverted by individuals stepping forward to lend money to the Continental Congress. One quick way for the new United States to deal with these debts was to repudiate them, and to wish good luck to the Congress’ creditors. But Hamilton was convinced that a repudiation of the revolutionary debts would be a terrible decision.

For one thing, many of the Congress’ creditors were ordinary pensioners, they were patriot souls who now will be ruined if the government repudiated its debts. But at a largest scale, repudiation would be a signal to foreign nations that the United States was an unworthy debtor, and in that case, supplies of foreign credit would dry up. Without that foreign credit, it would be impossible for Americans to overcome a hundred years of economic restriction by the British that had prevented them from developing a commercial manufacturing base.

In a series of three great reports to Congress, Hamilton recommended, with as much persuasive power as he could muster, a commitment by Congress to pay off its revolutionary debts, to build up American manufacture, to establish a national bank to fund commercial development and, in a display of his belief that only the Federal Government could hold all of this off, the assumption by the Federal Government of all of the States’ Revolutionary War’s debts as well. All of this by statute.

Hamilton’s plan captured everything. It was likely to bring one of Jefferson’s famous migraines. It made debt untouchable. It put manufacturing and the money lending that manufacturing required in the driver’s seat of the American economy. It guaranteed that independent farmers would increasingly find themselves forced to bear the burdens, not only of indebtedness enforced by statute, but of the taxes the Federal Government would levee to fund its own debts.

Jefferson and Slavery

Although Jefferson was anything but a typical yeoman farmer, he increasingly spoke as though he was one, and as though Hamilton was trying to create a cash-robbing aristocracy to bring back the British Empire. “Now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and corporations under the guides of their favorite branches of manufacturers, commerce and navigation; ruling over the beggared yeomanry.“

This mistrust led to a massive fracture of the Revolutionary generation into two hostile political parties: the Federalists, who enlisted Washington, Hamilton and John Adams as their figure heads; and the Democratic Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison. In time, this fracture would be more than political, it would come to violence. In 1804, one of Jefferson’s most prominent disciples, Aaron Burr Jr., would maneuver Hamilton into fighting in a duel and kill him.

Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800, partly because the Federalists had quarrelled and divided, but also partly because of slavery. Slavery has always been the dog in Thomas Jefferson’s manger, principally because the author of the proposition that all men are created equal held over human beings in a very unequal state of bondage. But also because, on closer inspection, he actually sold slaves to pay off debts, and conducted a long-term liaison with a female slave, Sally Hemings, who was herself the offspring of an illicit master-slave union, in this case Jefferson’s father-in-law. This actually means that Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s half-sister by blood. He never pretended that he had an excuse for keeping black slaves. In his Notes on the State of Virginia , in the 1780’s, Jefferson admitted that slaves were as fully entitled to liberty as anyone else. But at the same time, Jefferson’s own fragile independence rested squarely on the shoulders of his slaves.

They represented the capital he could liquidate when the creditors came knocking. And they produced the goods that paid the creditors at all other times. Nor, as it turned out, could he had been President without them either. In order to placate the Southern States, the Constitutional Convention in 1787 allowed the seven states to count three fifths of their slaves to work the calculation of their electoral votes. Without those extra electoral votes, Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800. With it, he not only won the Presidency, but installed a democratic Jeffersonian ascendancy which would dominate the American Presidency for the next 60 years.

Had he been more of a practical politician than a political philosopher, Jefferson might had been more successful in dismantling the structures of finance and manufacture created by Hamilton in the 1790’s. Well, it was not for lack of trying, but Hamilton had cannier political instincts, and he had built better than Jefferson could dismantle. Hamilton had as his great second the man who would become Jefferson’s next nemesis, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshal. The manufacturing economy Hamilton constructed was defended by Marshal with a series of major pro-commercial judicial decisions.

After Jefferson’s death, that occurred on the 4th of July 1826, fifty years from the adoption of his Declaration of Independence; Monticello was seized and sold to pay the debts that only Thomas Jefferson’s last breath released him from.


Hamilton’s New Constitution

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A nation of land owning young men might very well make for independence, but also it might very well make for stagnation. What Alexander Hamilton wanted most from life was not stagnation but mobility. Born in 1755 on the West Indian Island of Nevis, Hamilton was the illegitimate son of a Scot who abandoned the mother and the boy when he was 10 years of age.

Young Hamilton’s quickness and vividness made so great an impression on a local Presbyterian missionary, Hugh Knox, that he sent the boy to New York City for education. Hamilton entered King’s College, now of course Columbia University. Hamilton took the lead in student protest against Birtain in 1775, and was commisioned in 1776 as captain of an artillery company. He saw action in one Continental defeat after another, and suffered with the army through one humilating delay of supply after another caused by the quarreling among the States’ Continental Congress. He ended the war as one of George Wahington’s aides, and was permitted to practice law in New York in 1782.

The Lessons of War

The war taught Hamilton a number of lessons, the first of which was not to put too much trust in the virtue of people. It is not safe to trust the virtue of any people, Hamilton discovered, since the same stock of passions which generates a hatred of oppresion, can just as easily lead people to a contempt and disregard of all authority. It is not virue, said Hamilton, but power what motivates people. Men always loved power, Hamilton wrote. That might not be ideal, and, in fact, that might not be a compliment to Republicans.

The question in the Republic was not about identifying and protecting virtue, or about identifying and protecting that livelihood which automatically promotes virtue, but rather about identifying and blunting power.

Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton inherited no wealth and no land. Quite the opposite. His rise to fame began in commerce as a clerc, and continued that way as a New York City lawyer. Not surprisingly, he dimissed the Classical Republican’s paranoia about commerce, cities and manufacuring out of hand. The prosperity of commerce, Hamiton said, is not perceived and acknowledged to be the most useful, as well as the most productive source of national wealth.

The often agitated question, said Hamilton, between agriculture and commerce, has from indubitable experience received the decision which has silenced the rivalships. The decision of experience has proven, to the satisfaction of their friends, that their interests, the interest of agriculture and commerce, are intimatelly blended and interwoven. So, what if commerce did not produce virtue. Let’s face it, Hamilton said, neither really did agriculture.

The solution was not to be found in suppresing one or the other, but in harnessing them both to become a great national team. The trick, of course, was in the harnessing, because that implied a harnesser. The one thing which was clear was that the Confederation Government was incapable of harnessing together anything. On the other hand, a government strong enough to harness together agriculture and commerce appaled with Jeffersonians. That not only meant putting agriculture and commerce on the same plane, but it would require preciselly the kind and level of taxes which would corrupt the virtuous farmer.

However, to Hamilton, the mechanic and manufacturing arts furnished the materials of mercantile enterprise and industry. That, in turn, would arm the American Republic as a whole with the kind of economic power which would permit it to resist the encroachments of the English and the Spanish. For that reason, Hamilton belongs pretty firmly in the Liberal Republican current. And also for that reason, Jefferson and Hamilton became the ying and yang of the revolutionary generation.

If men were angels...

Between Jefferson and Hamilton stood James Madison. Born in 1751, Madison graduated from Princeton in 1771. Madison served in the Virginia legislature, and from 1780 to 1783 in the Continental Congress. Most of his early efforts were aimed at serving Virginia state interests, and he always remained uneasy at the prospect of a powerful national government. His hope was for a government of Classical Republican virtue. He was frank about his desire for a Constitution whose first aim would be to obtain rulers men who possess wisdom to discern and virtue to pursue the common good of society.

But Madison had learned enough at the hands of his Calvinist mentors at Presbyterian Princeton. He learned not to put too much trust in spontaneous appearence of virtue in politics. If men were angels, Madison remarked, no government would be necessary. But men were not angels, even if they were farmers. Next in importance to recruiting the virtuous to serve as rulers, a Constitution was needed to take the precautions for keeping them virtuous while they continue to hold the public trust. There is, Madison admitted, a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumpensction and mistrust.

Nowhere was the need for that mistrust more evident on display than in the Confederation Congres, where the States obstructed the taxes of even the most modest import duties and defeated treaties with foreign powers on little more than whims. Without being a Liberal Republican at heart, Madison had a Liberal Republican’s head; that head told him in the 1780’s that something drastic needed to be done about the articles of the Confederation, or else the American union would dissolve and it would not matter how virtuous American farmers might actually be.

Madison and Hamilton got their chance in 1786, when a convention called to settle disputes over river rights between Virginia and Maryland broke down and forced the commissioners, including, Madison and Hamilton, to blame the brake down on the articles of Confederation, and to call for a convention of the States to rewrite them. The convention, however, when it met in Philadelphia in May of 1787, took the bit in its teeth, and instead of rewriting the articles, junked them completely, in favor of writing an entirely new Constitution that transformed the articles of independent states into a federalized union.

The Constitution of 1787 is a remarkable political document for many reasons. The most important issue at stake was establishing a strong workable union that could arbitrate state conflicts and give a sense on united national identity to the republic. What was noticebly abscent, however, was any appeal in the document to the Classical Republican virtues. Instead, the Constitution of 1787 was a document filled with a series of extremely skeptical compromises whose chief purpose was to deal with the effects of power, not to offer sermons on virtue. They meant to create mechanisms that will place one kind of power in the new republic against another.

The government, for instance, was divided into three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. Each of which was set to watchdog the other. Within the legislative branch, power was divided between a house of representatives, elected by the people; and a senate, choosen by the state legislatures. While the chief executive officer, the president, was elected through a two stage process. First by a general election and then by an electoral college.

As Madison explaines, liberty was best served by contriving the interior structure of the government, so that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their propper places.

So, where virtue might fail to make people cooperate, self-interest would not. If the self-interest of the various parts, not only of the government, but of the republic as a whole, were set carefully against each other, then the interest devoted to promoting itself would prevent any single one of them from obtaining control over the others.

The New Government

There was an echo with this in the Constitution’s provisions for the economic life of the republic. Or rather, the almost complete absence of any provisions for regulating the economic life of the republic. The new Constitution did not, in fact, articulate any economic policies or preferences. It merely reserved to the new federal legislature, the Congress, the power to regulate comerce with other nations, levee taxes and tariffs, pass bankrupcy laws and borrow money. More importantly, it clearly restrained the states from establishing their own economic policies.

So far, in fact, was the Constitution from prescribing any particular form of public virtue, that it managed not only to say nothing about how the economy should be build, it managed to avoid even making any reference to God or to Christianity, unlike Jefferson’s declaration. If Jefferson had been a member of the Philadelphia Convention, he quite conceivably could had made a great deal of grief for Hamilton and Madison on all of these points. But Jefferson was not there. Jefferson was serving as American minister to France. And Hamilton and Madison both mounted an effective mediate campaign on behalf of the new constitution through a series of 85 brief articles they serialized in the New York Papers, which subsequently would be known as the Federalist Papers.

By June of 1788, the Constitution had been ratified by the necessary number of states and become the new law of the land. When Madison finally wrote to Jefferson in October of 1787 to describe the new Constitution, Jefferson was predictably anenthusiastic. I like much the general idea, Jefferson replied in December. But he was not a friend of a very energetic government. Well, energetic government was precisely what he was now to witness in action.


The American Republic of Virtue

Looked up from a distance, the success of the American Revolution in throwing off the yoke of British rule must have seemed miraculous. So miraculous, in fact, that forever afterward, the leaders of the revolution, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin; were all seemed like demigods walking on water in the promised land of American Independence. Looked up more closely, what stands out about the revolution is how much of its success was lost in its failures.

As general and chief of the revolutionary army, Washington actually stumbled from one defeat to another from 1775 to 1780. His little army was often on the point of mutiny and disintegration. Even in victory, only his own personal example prevented his officers and men from attempting a coup d'├ętat against their provisional and incompetent government, the Continental Congress. Had the French not intervened, first with financial credits and supplies, and then with troops and ships, it is entirely likely that the whole revolutionary affair would have gone up in smoke.

On the other hand, it was precisely the Continental Army’s multiple failures which robbed it of the confidence and prestige necessary to make a coup into a real threat. The Continental Congress may not have liked the prospect of its army, but those loses kept it too feeble to gather the strength it needed to turn and destroy its creator.

The Weak United Government

There were other failures, however, which did not have such silver linings. First, the independent mind and habits of the colonies, which led them to fight against imperial rule by Britain, also led them to fight against each other. Few of them had ever engaged as colonies in anything that looked like cooperation. If anything, by maintaining allegiance in London for lobby in their interests, the colonies had always seemed themselves in competition with each other for imperial favors.

The Continental Congress had been called into being in 1774 to act as a common front for the colonies’ grievances, but its effectiveness at getting them to work together was small. A number of the North American colonies, despite sharing those grievances, refused to sent any representatives at all to the Continental Congress. This at first included Georgia, but also and permanently, included the French-speaking Canadian provinces and the West Indian island colonies.

They would never had created a united government at all if the French had not refused to deal with the revolutionary movement that had no central government. The government that revolutionaries did create by adopting the articles of the Confederation in 1781 made the word “United” in United States sound hollow. Even then, the representatives of the States of the Confederation Congress frequently behaved as though Congress existed only for the promotion of their own interests, and wanted to make sure that the Confederation could never invade the sovereignty of the States the way British imperials did. The Confederation Congress had no power to impose national taxes or even to create a unified currency.

The Loyalists

Another failure that was not so thick with silver lining concerned the colonial Loyalists. Although Americans dearly prised the image of Washington’s Continentals suffering nobly, almost as many Americans took up arms in defence of the Crown; either in regiments of Loyalist organized by the British army or in Loyalist militias in the South. And they, not Washington’s Continentals, were the big losers at the end of the revolution. Their properties were confiscated, their leaders banished, and between 60 and 80 thousand of them actually left America entirely, starting their lives over again in Canada, the West Indies or Britain.

What this did in political terms was to dump the beginnings of an Anglicised elite in America and open up political leadership to what one unhappy Boston Loyalist described as “fellow who would had clean my shoes five years ago”. In New York, the proportion of farmers settling in State Legislature rose from 25% before the revolution to 42% afterwards. In Massachusetts, the percentage rose to 47%. In Georgia, voting rights were opened to all tax payers, not just, as had been the case in every colony, only those who own certain levels of property.

Americans, who had formerly based their claims to leadership on wealth or status, now either left America entirely or changed their tunes, and preferred to emphasize how humble their birth had been; a prime case of which was Benjamin Franklin, who was a social and intellectual climber par excellence. Franklin had been a Loyalist right up until 1775, at that point he prudently switched sides to join the revolutionaries. Afterwards, he composed an autobiography that relentlessly reminded his readers that he was, after all, a self-made man.

College education in the new United States also ceased to be the private privilege of gentlemen. Between 1776 and 1800, sixteen new colleges were founded, to exhibit to the world the perfection which the mind of man is capable of receiving from the combined operation of liberty and learning. Well, this satisfied those who thought it was fair that they should now claim the power to govern. It also meant the power now fell into the hands of people who had little experience at using it. And that was about to bring a surprise to those revolutionaries who supposed, on the basis of Whig political theory and on the example of Classical Republicanism, that once the rubbish of corrupt imperial rule has been swept aside a natural and virtuous leadership will step into place and rule the new republic as the ancient Roman Republic had been ruled by its noble and virtuous senate.

That, of course, was not what happened. The restless new state legislatures, complained New Jersey’s governor William Livingston, do not exhibit the virtue that is necessary to support the Republican government. Indeed they did not. They stripped Churches of public tax support and took over the powers which had once belonged to governors and judges for themselves; and these legislatures quarreled remorselessly with each other and within themselves.

Meanwhile, as a protest of the treatment given to loyalists, the British refused to send diplomatic representatives to the Confederation, and they privately financed the Indians of the North West to raid American settlements along the frontier. The Spanish closed the Mississippi river to American trade in an effort to strong-line the frontier counties of Kentucky and Tennessee. If the Confederation and the State legislatures insisted on the steady habit of fighting between each other, then the whole notion of an American republic might fall in on itself. That in turn would be a setback of colossal proportion, not only for the idea of Whig Republicanism, but for the Enlightenment’s fundamental notions about human nature.

The Virtuous Republic of Jefferson

Perhaps the great problem here was not that the Republican ideology had been overconfident about the possibilities of success of America, but that the wrong version of Republicanism had held the upper hand ideologically for so long. All English-speaking Whig Republicans in the 18th century shared certain Whig essentials. First of all, they repudiated tradition, hereditary monarchy and aristocracy as unnatural and unreasonable. Also, they were all suspicious of power, seeing it as the enemy of liberty. Third, all of these Whig Republicans believed fervently in the supremacy of reason, and within the realm of politics, the chief job of reason was the discernment of natural law.

In some cases, like the Deists, natural law was almost a replacement for religion, and not only natural law but the pursuit of natural rights, natural rights which they held to be fundamental and universal for all of humanity.

Then, lastly, all of these Whig Republicans found their chief inspiration in the example of Republican Rome. What divided them, however, was the split in Republican thinking between Classical and Liberal Republicans. Although that split was neither so wide or so absolute as it has sometimes been portrayed, it at least represented a profound difference of attitude between American Republicans. We can understand how this worked out in practical terms after the Revolution by considering the position of three of those American Republicans: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

Jefferson can be described very much as a classical Republican. For Jefferson, the necessary glue of a republican society was virtue, and virtue was related with the ownership of land. Land represented real wealth. Land was the place where work and soil combined produced tangible prosperity. The discipline required to create that prosperity, to work that land, was itself the best reinforcement of virtue.

“Those who work in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people”, Jefferson wrote in the 1780’s. Protecting the independence of land owners, of those who labored the earth, was, consequently, paramount to Jefferson. Dependence produces banality, suffocates virtue and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. Only those who own land, only those who work land could really escape the bonds of dependence, could only be genuinely independent.

Now, this dependence could take one of two forms. It could come as it had in 1776, from a corrupt government which levees taxes on virtuous farmers, and with those taxes force farmers into debt. Debt implied dependence. Or, dependence could come from a corrupt elite, who tempted the virtuous farmers to spend themselves into debt. Or they could come from an unholy alliance of both, to shift the centers of the Republic’s economy into manufacturing bubbles, therefore drawing farmers off the land and into the cities, and reducing them to cash robbers wagers who will be as dependent to their employers as the tax payers were to corrupt officials.

Commerce and manufacture, in Jefferson’s mind, dealt in treason, stratagems and spoils. It dealt in illusory forms of wealth; not land, but loans, interest, mortgages, credits, stock, cash; all of them unsubstantial, mere empty signs of wealth rather than the real thing, which was land.

So, said Jefferson, while we have land to labor then let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work bench. For those kinds of manufactured goods, let American exchange their agricultural abundance with Europe, and whatever was lost by the balance of trade will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. And let cities be merely the depot for those agricultural goods, rather than seeing cities turn into manufacture ant hills where wage laborers do as their masters tell them. When we get piled upon one another in large cities as in Europe, we should become corrupt as in Europe, then go eating one another as they do there.

However, this agricultural paradise of Jefferson had a dark side. It was this dark side which bothered Alexander Hamilton.