Front Page Titles (by Subject) II: Republican Ideology - Literature of Liberty, April/June 1979, vol. 2, No. 2
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II: Republican Ideology - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, April/June 1979, vol. 2, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Republican ideology—the complex intellectual seedbed of much of the political, legal, economic, social, cultural, religious, and moral controversies during the upheavals of the seventeenth and eighteenth century revolutions—addressed the pressing question of social and political stability: why do republics rise or fall? In their analyses of the waxing and waning of various forms of government, Plato and Aristotle had discerned a cycle of corruption: kingship—or the rule of one—devolves into its corrupt variant of tyranny; next, aristocracy—the rule of the noble few—ousts tyranny but in turn becomes morally corrupted into a base oligarchy; next, democracy (or polity)—the rule of the many—replaces oligarchy, only to be corrupted and degenerate into mob rule and so inevitably lead to a renewal of this vicious cycle.
Polybius, a Greek historian of the second century B.C. assimilated and transformed this rather pessimistic cyclical analysis to his own purposes in explaining the spectacular rise of the Roman Republic to imperial power and apparent stability. In Book 6 of his Histories, Polybius attributes Rome's republican stability to its constitution, an ideal mixed or balanced constitution, which combined the right proportions of regal, aristocratic, and democratic principles to create harmony and escape the cycle of growth and decay. Later the Roman writer Cicero took over the Polybius notions of political cycles and the mixed constitution in his De Re Public and passed on these influential ideas to later European republicans.
Recently, the works of J. G. A. Pocock (most notably The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975; and the essay “Civic Humanism and Its Role in Anglo-American Thought,” in Politics, Language and Time, New York: Atheneum, 1973) has made a strong case for the role of such Florentine Renaissance historians as Machiavelli and Guicciardini in resurrecting and reinterpreting the ideals of the classical republic. Central to this Florentine interpretation was the view that republics seeking to overcome the problems of time, corruption, and instability needed recourse to “virtue” and “civic humanism.” Civic humanism refers to a style of thought that contends that an individual's moral development and self-fulfillment “is possible only when the individual acts as a citizen, that is as a conscious and autonomous participant of an autonomous decision-taking political community, the polis or republic.” Civic humanist interpretations of republican ideology stressed virtue and the avoidance of corruption as the moral and material basis of social and individual life. Such republican virtue and independence from corruption (by government or other factions) required that each citizen be economically independent of others by possessing nonalienable free-holding property in a basically agrarian society. This ideal harks back to the economically independent and virtuous Roman citizen-farmer, who in time of crisis would join the citizen militia in defense of the Common Wealth.
Pocock sees this civic humanist interpretation of republican ideology as powerfully influential in Puritan England and Revolutionary America. He pits the civic humanist conception of property and political power or agrarian virtue against the emergent values of Lockean individualism and commercial society. In effect, an ongoing tension or clash develops between two paradigms of power and property relationships: the more conservative and stabilizing attitude of the classical civic humanist tradition and the more liberal, destabilizing attitude of the commercial, bourgeois, or market orientation. Other issues, strands, and interpretations of republican ideology will be found in the following summaries together with the two Joyce Appleby summaries in the “Economic Schools and Analysis” section.
Civic Virtue, Mercantilism, and Liberalism
“The Social Origins of American Revolutionary Ideology.” Journal of American History 64 (March 1978): 935–958.
Neo-Whig historians of the last decade have largely dispelled the characterization of eighteenth-century American thought as unphilosophical, simple, and merely derivative of John Locke. Rather than emphasize the revolutionaries' political pragmatism as had the consensus historians of the 1950s, historians such as Bernard Bailyn, Richard Buel, Jack Green, and Gordon Wood have argued that American intellectuals of the revolutionary generation produced a sophisticated analysis of their complex social, economic, and political structure. This wave of revisionism viewed the revolutionaries as acutely sensitive moralists and intensely interested in designing governments which lent themselves to civic virtue rather than political corruption.
These revisionists have thus produced a more believable colonial past by elucidating the philosophical, moralizing, and social dimensions of revolutionary constitutionalism. However, this colonial past ill-suits the needs of historians working with later periods. Where do scholars find in this moralizing emphasis on civic virtue, fear of tyranny, and frenzy over corruption, the foundations of the later individualism, optimistic materialism, and pragmatic interest-group politics which emerged early in the nineteenth century?
The weakness in revisionists' interpretation is its emphasis on one intellectual tradition that was itself born in reaction to the liberal tradition with its economic and political writers who asserted that governments should step aside in the marketplace and allow enterprising individuals the economic freedom to fulfill themselves. This liberal position opposed the reactionary stance of many prominent British and colonial leaders who saw in the mercantile system of market organization a mechanism for balancing the desires of individuals for personal growth with the needs of the political system for social stability.
It is with these early English, so-called mercantilists, that the idea emerges of a natural order supporting economic relationships. Such a paradigm characterized all subsequent liberal writing in economics. This thinking was particularly prevalent at the end of the seventeenth century, and, after passing into eclipse during the early part of the eighteenth century, it re-emerged in the 1750s as a powerful force in both British and American politics. Not surprisingly, the liberal position strongly appealed to the youthful, upwardly mobile, American colonists. Its appeal was so strong, moreover, that the titanic clash between Crown and colony over the imperial economic system can be successfully viewed as a clash between liberal and reactionary ideas of economic freedom.
The Neo-Whig interpretation cogently interprets the Revolutionary period, but works from a perspective which rarely views its liberal past. Civic virtue was the rallying cry of the court party, the reactionaries, who politically dreaded confronting the demands of upwardly mobile entrepreneurs to withdraw the government from the marketplace. The liberal stance, so largely in evidence in the nineteenth century, had firmly established itself by the time of the American Revolution. Its slighting at the hands of Neo-Whig historians may be accounted as either an oversight or as unvirtuous indifference.
Republican People's Militias
“Radical Whiggery on the Role of the Military: Ideological Roots of the American Revolutionary Militia.” Journal of the History of Ideas 40 (January/March 1979): 43–60.
The ideas of radical English Whigs influenced Americans of the revolutionary generation, not only politically and philosophically (in terms of their understanding of the rights of Englishmen and the good society) but also in the very military structure and organizational methods by which the Americans fought to win their independence. The fundamental core of this outlook was a fear of standing armies and a reliance on republican militia.
A central figure in the development of this view was James Harrington (1611–1677). In his Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), it was the militia of freeholders which sustained the balanced constitution. These ideas were, in turn, based upon radical Whig perceptions of the history of the Middle Ages and the ancient Gothic constitution. The corruption of society was directly related to the rise of professional standing armies financed by the monarch.
In the late seventeenth century other leaders such as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Opposition spokesmen such as Algernon Sidney reiterated this popular militia tradition, and it was carried into the next century by other radical Whigs such as Robert Viscount Molesworth, John Trenchard, John Toland, Walter Moyle, and Andrew Fletcher.
Militia encampments were seen as educational places to instill republican virtues such as frugality, military discipline, and to encourage personal sacrifice for the public good. Food and dress would be simple and the same for all. In addition to training in the public virtues, Christian doctrine, and the arts of war; schooling would include the study of mathematics, geography, history, and astronomy.
Not only Opposition leaders but other thinkers, such as the philosopher Francis Hutcheson and the jurist William Blackstone, also commented favorably upon the concept of the citizen-soldier.
As is now widely known, all of these Opposition works were favorite reading by Americans on the eve of the Revolution. When the British military occupied Boston during the late 1760s, a number of Americans, including Samuel Adams, contributed newspaper articles to “Journal of the Times” that were widely reprinted and second in circulation only to John Dickinson's Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer. One selection argued that enforcement of the law by professional soldiers rather than the citizen's posse commitatus could only be part of a plot to rob the citizens of their rights and property. If this continued, the militia as the embodiment of the posse, would be the only means by which Americans could “protect personal security, personal liberty, and private property.”
After the Boston Massacre, this theme was repeated in numerous sermons. After the Tea Party and the closing of the port of Boston, the most elaborate statement of this view was developed by Josiah Quincy, Jr., in a little tract Observations on the Boston Port Bill; With Thoughts on Civil Society and Standing Armies.
The establishment of various colonial militias late in 1774 is thus best understood in the light of a long republican Whig dedication to that idea. The whole notion was best summarized perhaps, and certainly as a prelude to the later Second Amendment to the American Constitution, by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress's resolution in 1774 “that a well-regulated Militia, composed of the gentlemen, freeholders, and other freemen, is the natural strength and only stable security of a free government.”
Gibbon on Virtue, Property, and Militias
“Between Machiavelli and Hume: Gibbon as Civic Humanist and Philosophical Historian.” In Edward Gibbon and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited by G. W. Bowersock, John Clive, and Stephen R. Grampon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977, pp. 103–118.
J. G. A. Pocock lays bare the elements of philosophic history latent in Gibbon's work and considers their role in The Decline and Fall. Eighteenth-century philosophic history debated such questions as the relationship of man to society and the causes of the rise and decline of societies, especially republics. Gibbon's debt to the “legacy of civic humanism as mediated by Machiavelli and his successors” is of particular interest to anyone concerned with the development of republican ideology in the eighteenth century.
At the heart of Machiavelli's Florentine “civic humanism” were two beliefs: man's highest fulfillment was in republican political association, and the political forms that would allow for this fulfillment were fragile because republics seemed susceptible to corruption. For Machiavelli, citizens in a true republic will bear their own arms since this forces the public authorities to admit them to a share in government. The Roman Republic expanded into empire and destroyed the independence and virtue of other societies. The corruption of empire led to professional armies and the decline of Rome as outlined by Harrington and Montesquieu.
Harrington elaborated on this theme by arguing that an armed citizen's independence ultimately depended on the independence of his property. Independent property thus guaranteed the virtue and equality of citizens. Rome declined when the leaders acquired the tax-ridden lands of the citizen-soldiers and those of conquered peoples. Inherited land is taken by Harrington to be the paradigm case of property that guarantees the independence, virtue, and personality of the individual [cf. J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, 1975)].
To Republican writers, the revival of commerce that had emancipated the freeholder from feudalism was a mixed blessing. Such excellent things as trade, enlightenment, and leisure encouraged the development of taxes to pay for standing armies in place of the self-defense of a property-owning militia [cf. Lois G. Schwoerer, “No Standing Armies!” The Anti-Army Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England (Baltimore, 1974)].
This is one reason why the Captain of the Hampshire Militia [Gibbon himself] was not useless to the historian of the Roman Empire; why—in the equally subtle thought of Adam Ferguson—the chaplain of a Highland regiment was not useless to the historian of the Roman Republic and of civil society; and why the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States maintains the old language of the militia ideal with such paradoxical results to this day.
Montesquieu, and to a lesser extent Hume, argued that a commercial society that held to its original institutions could contain and even overcome corruptive and degenerative tendencies. Gibbon, whose outlook was that of an investor of government bonds rather than of a property owner or entrepreneur, tended to ignore capitalism's ethic of production so that his commercial society is a non-market social system. Gibbon viewed the function of labor as supplying the income of a civilized ruling class.
In his sociological history of the Roman Empire, Gibbon joins a tradition, stemming in a number of ways from Locke, but developed by the Scottish school to a point where it is hard to tell whether Hume, or Ferguson, or Smith is chiefly in Gibbon's mind at this moment; it was a tradition that found the key to history in the growth of social intercourse, exchange, and interdependence, the objects before the human mind and its powers of perception, the passions which focused themselves upon these objects, and the powers of rational understanding which grew through reflection upon the objects and passions alike.
For Gibbon “virtue is pursued by the terrible paradox that property simultaneously gives government power over us, and corrupts while it confers the independence of mind which alone enables us to resist government.” Some solution to the paradox might have been found in Smith's Wealth of Nations published the same year as the first volume of The Decline and Fall.
The American revolutionaries saw themselves as engaged in a last-ditch stand against the ne-mercantilist revival sweeping England. England's war debts, monopolies, and restrictions on the free trade of salutary neglect seemed a triumph of ‘commercial’ corruption over freedom-based virtue.
The Unwritten Common Law
“Origins of the Unwritten Constitution: Fundamental Law in American Revolutionary Thought.” Stanford Law Review 30 (May 1978): 843–893.
Aristotle distinguished between the written law (the rules governing a particular community) and the unwritten law (those equitable principles “supposed to be acknowledged everywhere”). Grey observes that “this Aristotelian dialogue permeates American constitutional law.” This dialogue “is played out around the issue of whether the formal enacted Constitution, conceded to be legally supreme, is the exclusive legitimate source of judicially enforceable constitutional law.” It is an unarguable historical fact that our judges have over time developed a body of unwritten constitutional law, which Grey calls “noninterpretive,” and a major issue now swirls around the legitimacy of this kind of judicial review. The bulk of the article is an effort to examine American constitutional theories in the years prior to 1776 as a way of establishing the historical legitimacy of noninterpretive judicial review.
The medieval view of law recognized no unlimited political sovereignty. Parliamentarians like Coke and Pym argued that the King's as well as Parliament's authority was limited by fundamental law. For the American Whigs “the origins of these fundamental unwritten laws themselves were buried beyond recovery in the Saxon past.” And, “as Christopher St. Germain had noted in the sixteenth century, the common lawyers' resort to what was considered ‘reasonable’ as a source of law was the English equivalent of the natural law arguments of the scholastics and the Roman and canon lawyers.” At the same time, reason with respect to the idea of law was a special “artificial” type, infused with the dictates of custom, experience, and the professional training of lawyers.
While modern concepts of the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial power were not fully developed in the seventeenth century, there are a number of cases of judicial review which can be cited, the most famous of which is Dr. Bonham's Case in 1610 in which Coke made his celebrated declaration that “when an act of Parliament is against common right and reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the common law will control it, and adjudge such act to be void.”
It was in the seventeenth century, during and after the English Revolution, that these limitations began to change in favor of the supremacy of Parliament. Yet, into the era of the American Revolution some leading lawyers continued to assert the old common law limitations. Blackstone was a leading figure in this triumph of the positive law view. Americans were also influenced by such thinkers as Grotius, Pufendorf, Burlamaqui, Vattel, and Rutherforth. Like Locke and Blackstone, they stressed the importance of natural law, but went far beyond in viewing it as a legally binding force, while asserting the idea of a fixed constitution placing limitations on the legislative power.
Americans were generally unpersuaded by the new notions that Parliament had the power to do as it liked. This is evident in writings such as those of John Wise or James Otis. Using the research of Lawrence Leder, Grey questions Bernard Bailyn's views about the supposed inconsistency of the early American arguments, for instance, those of Otis. Daniel Dulany also questioned the supremacy of Parliament in his protest against the Stamp Act, and some Americans, in essence, raised the question of judicial review.
John Dickinson's Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer, written in protest against the Townshend Acts, were also an appeal to fundamental law. Stemming from these specific cases, by 1774 the Americans found themselves involved in a challenge to all parliamentary authority. Among the English, Edmund Burke understood best the American view about the illegality of British policies, “and the law to which the colonists appealed was the unwritten fundamental law of reasonable custom and customary reason that made up the British constitution.”
Given this outlook, the justification of independence had “to be based entirely upon extra-legal considerations of utility and political philosophy.” That kind of majoritarian democracy argument differed from the fundamental law and the two together form the contrasting views which have been a part of the American legal tradition.
Republicanism and Inheritance
“Republicanism and the Law of Inheritance in the American Revolutionary Era.” Michigan Law Review 76 (November 1977): 1–29.
A heated debate among historians concerns just how “revolutionary” was the American Revolution. One way of approaching this problem involves an “inquiry into the manner by which the institution of law affected the progress of the Revolution and was affected by it.” What happens to the laws of property is central to the study of any revolution, and, likewise, “the question of inheritance is central to the conception of property. Moreover, the law of inheritance represents a major intersection of public and private law.” Though not completely carried out, the rhetoric of the American revolutionaries “often seemed to call for thorough reform of the laws of inheritance.”
“Broadly speaking, two sorts of justification for the law of inheritance have been advanced: one is derived from the Romano-medieval natural rights tradition, the other emerged out of modern—that is, eighteenth-century—conceptions of popular sovereignty and legal positivism.” Hugo Grotius and John Locke stand as advocates of the natural law view, while William Blackstone is representative of the positivist outlook, both of which influenced events in the American colonies.
English inheritance laws as passed on to the Americans were still largely products of the feudal past. A man “could dispose more or less freely of his wherewithal by will, while at the same time the provision for intestate succession operated clearly in favor of his immediate family.” During the Revolution, the direction of inheritance reform was exemplified by the work of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia in striking down the vestiges of primogeniture and entail. “In fact, however, this legal and constitutional change was largely formal and symbolic, and it is not clear that either had restricted the distribution of property.”
Although largely formal in content, the rhetoric about inheritance was deeply embedded in republican ideology and the promotion of ideals of equality. Early in his career Jefferson, for example, believed “that the creation and maintenance of a republic required not just barriers to aristocratic accumulation of property, but also a scheme to distribute at least small parcels of land to all members of the society.”
A more radical thinker on the subject was Thomas Paine, whose writing on property in Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice form a link between both the American and French Revolutions. Paine argued for a progressive tax on property as a means of fragmenting large estates and promoting a wider distribution of ownership. Although in favor of such ideas in the 1790s, by the end of his life Jefferson had repudiated them. Even the French revolutionists did not, on the whole, attack the idea of private property, but they did try more extensive legislation to facilitate wider equality of ownership.
Thus the efforts of the Americans to reform inheritance laws to promote equality fell far short of the French experience. In America, “the fundamental notion was that, in a republic, careers should be based upon talent rather than status.” Most Americans apparently rejected the more extreme ideas of inheritance as once accepted by Jefferson and Paine.
Abraham Clark's Radical Republicanism
“New Jersey's True Policy: The Radical Republican Vision of Abraham Clark.” William and Mary Quarterly 35 (January 1978): 100–109.
Abraham Clark, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was probably one of the more radical republicans of the Revolutionary era. In many ways Clark presaged the Shaysites, the radical Jacksonians, and even the Knights of Labor and the Grangers. He was four-square behind debtors, farmers, and mechanics, and dead-set against speculators, ministers, physicians, tavernkeepers, lawyers, and merchants. He hoped that issuing paper currency as legal tender in New Jersey might erase the imbalance.
Toward this end, Clark possessed an attitude toward both the legislature and the people that would have made Federalists tremble. On the principles of justice and equity, he argued that the legislature had the obligation to “interfere” in situations “where combination is formed against the general good.” He informed his colleagues: “Your business is to help the feeble against the mighty, and deliver the oppressed out of the hands of the oppressor.” Legislatures ought to design policies that would “avoid that inequality of property which is detrimental in a republican government.”
To the people of New Jersey, Clark exhorted them to “stand no longer idle” but to mobilize against the “moneyed men, merchants and lawyers,” who were very industrious in seeking their goals. However, he warned against further than humble petition, arguing that in the next election, they could throw the rascals out.
Herman Husband's Republican Vision
“‘A New Government of Liberty’: Herman Husband's Vision of Backcountry North Carolina, 1755.” William and Mary Quarterly 34 (October 1977): 632–645.
Herman Husband, a westerner whose causes included the Regulator movement and the Whiskey Rebellion, shows his feelings for what the backcountry of North Carolina should be like in this 1755 series of epistles. Husband opposed the establishment of the Anglican Church, slavery's growth, and speculation (although he himself had engaged in speculation). His opposition to the church was because “such a maintainance of the clergy by law opens a door to for wiked designing men” [sic]. His opposition to slavery seems to be rooted in a racial desire to keep Africans out. Nonetheless, his writings and life seem to evince a better picture of what western Americans thought during the days just before the Revolution.
One of the 1755 documents expresses Husband's republican conviction that western North Carolina would become a “new government of liberty” when settled by industrious farmers. This republican vision was an idealization shared by other backcountrymen who cherished freedom of religion and economic liberty which allowed each man to prosper.
John Taylor and Republicanism
“A Virginia Cato: John Taylor of Caroline and the Agrarian Republic.” Introduction to John Taylor, Arator. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Classics, 1978, pp. 11–46.
Following the Revolution, the Virginia lawyer John Taylor became famous as a political and agrarian philosopher and “became the classic figure of ‘old republican’ theory: the exemplar of an almost Roman virtus, the Virginia Cato.”
Taylor's interpretation of the Revolution and of republican political theory was that the colonies had cast off oppressive centralized control and replaced that with a Union which he feared could become a usurping authority of “energetic government” controlled by factions. He also opposed an activist judiciary. He was dedicated to the sovereignty of the states and local communities vis à vis the Union into which they had entered in a strictly limited compact.
For Taylor, the federal Constitution was political law as opposed to local or civil law designed to restrain the citizen in his own community. The Constitution was basically a law to restrict the conduct of legislators and other public servants—a law to limit law—and to prevent those abuses that had made Americans revolt.
Taylor's understanding of republican political theory interpreted law and government as protecting human right and liberty in self-governing communities. Through a political law to limit government and a strictly federal separation of powers, America created a stability never experienced in the Rome of Cato or in Britain.
Taylor was an arch-opponent of: a national bank; the federal government assuming state debts; federal public works; and Hamilton's mercantilist schemes for financing the new government. Taylor opposed a large standing army on the grounds that it provided a patronage system; was a basis for an artificial aristocracy; was contrary to the best republican precedent; and was a threat to self-government.
Taylor feared the damage of war to republican institutions, a basic contention of the old-Whig doctrine. War would profit contractors; certain “kept” industries and business firms; those desiring military appointments; and the friends of arbitrary “emergency” power. Liberty would become exceptional; the cities would be filled; families broken; and inflation promoted to undermine the basically rural Republic.
Adams, Factions, and a Balanced Constitution
“John Adams and American Constitutionalism.” American Journal of Jurisprudence 21 (1976): 20–33.
Of the major founding fathers, John Adams is the least well known. But Adams's contribution to the Constitution was significant and reflected his attachment to free, republican government for the United States. According to Adams, constitutional balance is the heart of an enduring free government. He sought to support the idea of balance with three strands of argument.
The first is philosophical and relates the idea of balance to the nature of both man and politics. Adams believed ambition or “this passion for superiority” to be the central feature of man's psychology when acting in the political realm. Adams saw the key task of the constitution designer as that of allowing ambition to serve the public interest by creating constitutional channels to both satisfy and press this ambition into the service of the public good. A balanced constitution would allow men to distinguish themselves, but would also obstruct self-serving schemes. Compromise would be a prerequisite to political achievement, and compromise would be accomplished only through appeal to the public good.
Secondly, Adams argued for constitutional balance that socioeconomic reasons supported. He felt that each part of the constitutional structure could reflect various socioeconomic features of society, and that this would create in the populace the necessary feeling of attachment and legitimacy to sustain a free government.
Finally, Adams argued from a mechanical model of social conflict depicting how without a balanced constitution there would be no way of controlling factions short of despotism. In particular, Adams saw the cleavage between rich and poor as a primary source of faction which a constitution must control. In Adams's view, the poor are too readily attracted to material gain and lawlessness, while the well-to-do too often are attracted to power. Both groups, Adams believed, are apt to plunder each other.
These considerations convinced Adams that the United States should have a balanced constitution which would establish an autonomous executive, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary, rather than a “unified” government of the sort urged by the French philosophes and intended to express the “will” of the people. In this issue Adams saw a deeper question: In a republican form of government, what is to be represented? Adams's answer was clear—diversity, rather than the homogeneity of the general will.
Republican Farmer-Citizens and Free Trade
“Benjamin Franklin's Vision of a Republican Political Economy for America.” William and Mary Quarterly 35 (October 1978): 605–628.
At the base of eighteenth-century republican political theory in America lay a deep appreciation of the critical interdependence between polity, economy, and society. Republican revolutionaries argued that the success of a fundamental change in the structure of governance depended on the underlying moral quality of economic and social relationships among the citizens. This conviction led republican theorists to speculate on the compatibility between the ancient, civic values they celebrated in criticizing British politics and the economic realities of expanding commerce and emergent industrialism. What issued from their speculation was a rejection of the British political economy that supported and furthered their rejection of British monarchical government.
Benjamin Franklin stood in the forefront among those who criticized British commercial life. Convinced that manufacturing was founded on a base of laboring poor, Franklin concluded that republican virtue could not be secured in a commonwealth that promoted industry to the detriment of agrarian life. Franklin shared the common republican view that civic virtue was based on a citizenry whose economic interests were tied to real property, preferably land. Thus, landless citizens, particularly if they were also poor, raised one of the major threats to any republican experiment in governance.
Franklin's view of England confirmed his analysis. British land policy had reared a generation whose economic interests were ever more closely allied with manufacturing. The growing, urban populations empowered the leaders of manufacturing with political leverage that they used at Court to secure special privileges. The virtuous state was the inevitable victim of these new lobbyists. England was dangerously corrupt largely because it was: bereft of virgin land; slowly undermining the political status of the landowning farmer; and dedicated to mercantilist policies of economic development.
Franklin's criticisms of English commercial life led to his formulation of a truly republican vision of the virtuous economy. At the heart of the economy stood the enfranchised farmer, but the ideal economic commonwealth was far from hermetic. Franklin embraced the concept of free trade and openly promoted commercial life. Growth in commerce, however, took place within the fundamentally agrarian society. Franklin proposed that western lands be made available for poor immigrants, and he urged governments to use western lands to empty their cities of the poor. He believed that the landowning farmers would produce far more goods than they could consume, and the surplus would provide a basis for trade with foreign markets. Free trade, in turn, would assure the annual clearing of American surpluses, and the resulting growth in commerce would rebound to the benefit of the true basis of republican polity, the farmer-citizen.
The twin pillars of Franklin's vision—western expansion and free trade—stood as the guarantors of a virtuous political economy, a necessary element to success in republican governance. This approach to the relationship between polity, economy, and society became central to the Jeffersonians, and laid the foundation for the republicans' efforts to accommodate nineteenth-century industrialization with the political theory of the revolutionary generation.
Madison and Scotland
“James Madison and the Scottish Enlightenment.”
Journal of the History of Ideas 40 (April/June 1979): 235–250.
James Madison's thought reflects in significant ways the teachings of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and John Millar. Salient features of Madison's political thought parallel these Scottish teachings while differing markedly from the revolutionary thought of Madison's contemporary revolutionary allies. As examples we can cite: Madison's dissent from Jefferson's radical call for a cleansing revolution every nineteen years; his appreciation for society's achievements; and the indebtedness of future generations for the improvements completed by their predecessors.
Similarly, Madison's evolutionism appears most vividly in his adoption of the four-stage argument employed by Smith and Millar. While society naturally progressed through hunting, pasturage, farming, and commercial stages, Madison agreed with Ferguson in fearing the possibility of regression.
While Madison's contemporaries, Jefferson and Adams, conceptualized American politics in the traditional European terms of an on-going antagonism between aristocratic and democratic interests, Madison propounded a more sophisticated analysis of the role of groups. This analysis of factions mirrored descriptions given by David Hume and Adam Ferguson. Often overlooked is the fact that Madison, as did the Scots, evaluated factions positively as well as negatively. In fact, Madison's famous dictum in Federalist 10 of the advantages for liberty from factions counteracting factions was the original contribution of Adam Ferguson.
Madison emerges as a great synthesizer of Lockean rationalism, contract theory, and majority rule, with the Scottish School's embodiment of a historical-developmental view of society. In this last regard, Madison emulated the Scottish emphasis upon the reformist and moderating contributions of occupational, political, and commercial groups to the progress of society.
Non-Lockean Thought and the Declaration
“The Significance of the Non-Lockean Heritage of the Declaration of Independence.” American Journal of Jurisprudence 21 (1976): 156–177.
For many the Declaration of Independence is the central document of the American political tradition. And although it was authored by Thomas Jefferson, portions of the Declaration seem almost as if they were “cribbed” from John Locke's Second Treatise. The echoes of Lockean political philosophy within the Declaration have lead a great many Americans to view the Declaration as simply providing an American expression of Locke's principles. Without denying a strong Lockean element in the Declaration, Professor Nicgorski does argue that the conventional understanding of the Declaration ignores its non-Lockean side and the non-Lockean aspects of Jefferson's thinking. Moreover, Nicgorski claims that “the Declaration's creed is but a partial statement, often no doubt a misleading statement, of the vital moral-political convictions of the founding period.”
Nicgorski devotes the bulk of his article to an examination of the important non-Lockean influences on the Declaration and on the “moral-political convictions of the founding period.” He concludes that a renewal of the American political order—i.e., its salvation from the “corrosive” influence of the nearly unbridled play of private interests and desires—will require a broader conception of the moral foundation of the American political order than the political philosophy of John Locke.
Republicanism: Virtue or Lockean Individualism?
“The Liberal Tradition Revisited and the Republican Tradition Addressed.” In New Directions in American Intellectual History. Edited by John Higham. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins Press, 1979, pp. 116–131.
The 1975 publication of J. G. A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition compels historians to re-examine the liberal foundations of American politics. Unlike Louis Hartz who, in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), interpreted American political history as the flowering of liberal ideas traceable to Lockean individualism, Pocock views American politics as the expression of ancient and renaissance concepts about republican governance and the moral quality of society. Pocock's history gives little weight to the Lockean influences in producing the dominant ideological positions in eighteenth-century political history. Pocock finds typical republicans intensely concerned with the moral well-being of society—a concern expressed in political discourse by the eighteenth-century fixation on corruption and the socio-political processes leading to tyranny, the ultimate stage of moral decay. This interpretation reads the history of American politics as one of changing content in the republican concept of governance.
This interpretation is extremely important in explaining the rise of the new liberalism during the late nineteenth century. If Pocock is correct about the basis of political debate in the eighteenth century, then political discourse in the late nineteenth century revives republican concerns about the moral integrity of government, the corrupting influences of monopoly, and the future of political freedoms. Nineteenth-century intellectuals, no less than eighteenth, believed that material and demographic progress resulted in the corruption of civic virtue if left unchecked or unregulated by government. This revival of republicanism appears strongest in the writing of Josiah Strong, Henry George, and Edward Bellamy, but it was also present in a wide range of work spanning the intellectual spectrum from academic debates to the protest literature of agrarian radicalism.
Viewing the intellectual history of the late nineteenth century as a revival of the republican tradition enriches our understanding of the age of reform. An intellectual kinship can be seen between the reform and revolution of the eighteenth century and the pervasive search for order that Robert Wiebe identified as the animating principle of reform movements between 1870 and 1920. Moreover, a suggestive tension appears between reformers in the republican tradition and the new process-oriented, bureaucratic reform mentality that ultimately dominated political activism in the twentieth century. Bureaucratic reformers embraced the idea of progress and worked to create a political and economic system that advanced the special interests of particular economic and social groups. The bureaucratic departure from the republican fear of such governmental activity leading to political and social corruption highlights the emergence of a new tradition, one that assumes the moral integrity of the citizenry and the ability of state action to create a better society.
Jefferson's Declaration: Lockean or Scottish?
“Jefferson and the Scottish Enlightenment: A Critique of Garry Wills's Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.” William and Mary Quarterly 36 (October 1979).
Garry Wills's study misinterprets Jefferson's Declaration of Independence “as a product of Scottish moral philosophy devoid of Lockean influence.” Wills dismisses the political philosophical influence of John Locke's Two Treatises of Government on Jefferson and reads the Declaration as primarily a product of the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment (Thomas Reid, David Hume, Adam Smith, Lord Kames, Adam Ferguson, and especially Francis Hutcheson). Wills's contention ignores Bernard Bailyn's scholarship that identifies the ideological origins of the American Revolution with the writings of Locke and Lockean-inspired pamphlet literature of the Whig revolutionary tradition (which advocated the radical interpretation of natural rights, political liberty, and social and governmental contract theory).
Contrary to Wills, the Declaration closely echoes Locke's Second Treatise in both wording and ideas. Such similarities as may exist between the Declaration and the Scottish Hutcheson, derive from Hutcheson's familiarity with Locke and the political writings of the Whig revolutionary tradition of Locke, Algernon Sidney, and James Harrington. The other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers differed significantly from the rather Lockean Hutcheson in their political views concerning liberty and rights, particularly the right of political resistance.
The evidence—Jefferson's writings and the books in his libraries—clearly points to the influence of Locke, rather than of Hutcheson, on Jefferson. “Indeed, Hutcheson, who among the Scots comes closest in his views to those expressed in the Declaration, is not once quoted, cited, referred to, or recommended, in any connection, in any of Jefferson's writings!” The other Scots' writings were either unavailable for Jefferson or irrelevant to his radicalism.
Wills also misreads the Declaration as a discourse on Scottish moral philosophy rather than as a radical document of Whig political principles. Jefferson's phrase “the pursuit of happiness” indicates that men have a right to pursue happiness free from government meddling and prescinds from the moral question of whether this happiness is material or spiritual. Further, Jefferson in an early draft wrote that “all men were created equal and independent.” This “denial of man's innate sociability and sense of benevolence” is out of keeping with the Scottish moralists but is consistent with Locke and the Whig revolutionary tradition.