The American Republic of Virtue

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

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.