Womersley, The American Revolution as a Conservative Revolution
Introduction: A Conservative Revolution
All students of the political thought of the eighteenth century are familiar with the broad outlines of the mature political philosophy of Edmund Burke, as it was expressed in his most famous work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790; hereafter cited as Reflections). Dismayed by the achievements of Jacobinism across the Channel and appalled at the enthusiasm for the principles of the Revolution evinced by many amongst both the lower orders and the propertied in England, Burke was impelled to articulate his own contrasting vision of healthy politics. In place of the Jacobinical abolition of the past, Burke proposed a careful cherishing of a nation’s political tradition as a kind of accumulated property or inheritance of practical political wisdom. In place of abstract, “natural,” rights, Burke preferred those different rights which had arisen as a result of concrete, legal decisions. In place of lofty but in his eyes vacuous protestations of an attachment to the whole of humanity, Burke preferred instead to rely on a politics which was aligned with the natural affections which arose in the more restricted setting of the family. In place of the Jacobins’s anti-clericalism, Burke respected the rights of national churches in a spirit of wise toleration. And above all Burke came ever more to respect the rights of property as the expropriations of the revolutionaries reached new heights and the economic policy of revolutionary France became ever more disastrous. As he would write to the Duke of Portland on September 29, 1793:
It is truly alarming to see so large a part of the Aristocratick Interest engaged in the Cause of the new Species of democracy, which is openly attacking or secretly undermining the System of property, by which mankind has hitherto been governed: But we are not to delude ourselves. No man, who is connected with a party, which professes publickly to admire, or be justly suspected of secretly abetting, this French revolution, who must not be drawn into its vortex, and become the instrument of its designs.1
But how did Burke’s political thought assume this character? The speed of his response to events in France, written and published as they were at a period when much moderate opinion in England saw nothing to be alarmed about in the course and nature of the Revolution, surely inhibits us from imagining that they were created by the events on which they comment. Indeed, the speed and apparent prescience of Burke’s analysis of the Revolution requires us to believe that the political philosophy he deployed against the Jacobins was already fully formed before 1790 and that thereafter it acquired additional intensity but did not noticeably change its shape. So the question remains: how did Burke’s political thought acquire its final, memorable character?
The question becomes both more curious and also more capable of being answered when we recall that there was much in Burke’s earlier writings which, while not in flat contradiction with the Reflections, nevertheless was certainly in tension with that later work. Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (hereafter cited as Thoughts) was published by Burke in 1770 in protest at what he called the system of “Double Cabinet” introduced by the Earl of Bute on the accession of George III in 1760—a system, as Burke represented it, which aimed at the enlarging of the powers of the Crown by means of a methodical undermining of the independence of the House of Commons. In the process, Burke also composed what was tantamount to the political creed of the Rockingham Whigs, the party to which he was then attached. It is in these more expansive passages, when Burke raises his eyes from the minutiae of British high politics in the 1760s and allows his prose to take wing at the thought of the Whiggish principles he was serving, that we meet emphases which jar when we recall the rather different elations of the Reflections. For instance, in the Reflections Burke would define man’s proper and healthy political disposition in terms of consecration, piety, and awe:
We have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling sollicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father’s life.2
Twenty years earlier, however, in the course of writing Thoughts, Burke had painted the character of an ideal Member of Parliament in hues drawn from a less reverential palette:
A strenuous resistance to every appearance of lawless power; a spirit of independence carried to some degree of enthusiasm; an inquisitive character to discover, and a bold one to display, every corruption and every error of Government; these are the qualities which recommend a man to a seat in the House of Commons.3
Or, to take another example, we might cite from Thoughts Burke’s pungently Whiggish understanding of the fundamental importance of the people in the British constitution:
The King is the representative of the people; so are the Lords; so are the Judges. They are all trustees for the people, as well as the Commons; because no power is given for the sole sake of the holder; and although Government certainly is an institution of Divine authority, yet its forms, and the persons who administer it, all originate from the people (292).
But the Reflections would, twenty years later, be written in a spirit of angry denunciation against Richard Price’s A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, which also articulated the principle of popular sovereignty:
Civil governors are properly the servants of the public and a King is no more than the first servant of the public, created by it, maintained by it, and responsible to it; and all the homage paid him is due to him on no other account than his relation to the public. His sacredness is the sacredness of the community. His authority is the authority of the community, and the term Majesty, which it is usual to apply to him, is by no means his own majesty, but the majesty of the people.4
From this, Price had concluded that the people enjoyed a “right to chuse our own governors, to cashier them for misconduct, and to frame a government for ourselves” (190). Burke was at great pains in the Reflections to refute the interpretation of 1688 which undergirded Price’s portrait of the British constitution, and in particular he wished to repudiate this notion of popular sovereignty. Furthermore, it was when Fox echoed Price’s sermon in the House of Commons (saying, for instance, that “the Sovereignty was absolutely in the people, that the Monarchy was elective, otherwise the Dynasty of Brunswick had no right, and that the majority of the people, whenever they thought proper to change the form of Government, had a right to cashier the King”) that Burke realized that he must separate himself from his former allies.5 Yet, were Price and Fox so very far away, at least in point of language, from the Burke of 1770?
At this point let me be very clear about what I am saying when I bring the Burke of 1790 up against the Burke of 1770 and touch on the discrepancies which seem to divide them. I am decidedly not contending that there is an utter contradiction between Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents and Reflections on the Revolution in France. To do so would be at the very least to subscribe to a laughably one-sided interpretation of the Thoughts, which as well as the passages I have quoted above contains also sentiments such as the following concerning the congruence of domestic and political affections which would be entirely at home in the Reflections:
Commonwealths are made of families, free commonwealths of parties also; and we may as well affirm, that our natural regards and ties of blood tend inevitably to make men bad citizens, as that the bonds of our party weaken those by which we are held to our country.6
It was presumably because of passages such as this that Thoughts attracted the criticism of nascent metropolitan radical circles when it was first published.7 Yet what Catherine Macaulay and others objected to is precisely what now makes the Thoughts so fascinating, namely the simultaneous presence within it of both an element which can be easily aligned with the political doctrines Burke was to espouse in the 1790s and another element which points in a different direction and down an unchosen path. Between 1770 and 1790 something occurred to impel Burke away from becoming that alternative, Commonwealth Whig which, on the showing of Thoughts, was at that point equally available to him. What was it that moved Burke toward the path he eventually followed?
I suggest that it was the experience of colonial conflict and colonial war which decisively drove Burke down the path of political reflection which terminated in his great works of the 1790s: that is to say, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), An Appeal from the Old to the New Whigs (1791), A Letter to a Noble Lord (1796), and Letters on a Regicide Peace (1795–97). The conflict between Great Britain and her American colonies was the first of the three overlapping crises which occupied Burke from the mid-1770s onwards. Before peace had been concluded with the United States in 1783, he was deep in Indian affairs and preparation for the prosecution of Warren Hastings, and before that prosecution had drawn to a close, revolution had broken out in France. So the American crisis inaugurated the final phase of Burke’s public career in which he was unremittingly preoccupied with international and imperial issues at the highest level until his death in 1797. In the final twenty years of his life, Burke cleaved to the political insights generated by the American crisis.
Burke’s central thought about the colonial war between Britain and America was simple. He unflinchingly saw it as an entirely avoidable conflict between a high-handed administration and a colonial population whose breeding and mores had disposed them to vigorous resistance when menaced by oppressive innovation from the mother country. As he said in Conciliation with the Colonies (1775), one of the two major speeches Burke made in the House of Commons at the outset of the conflict, the American colonists “snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”8 This strong polarity between, on the one hand, innovating and oppressive politicians at home and, on the other, hardy, resilient and suspicious colonists abroad organizes everything Burke writes on America. For instance, we might cite many passages on the character of the colonists from Conciliation with the Colonies. In the first place, Burke emphasized the strength of the colonists’ commitment to liberty:
The people of the Colonies are descendents of Englishmen. England, Sir, is a nation, which still I hope respects, and formerly adored, her freedom. The Colonists emigrated from you, when this part of your character was most predominant; and they took this biass and direction the moment they parted from your hands (120).
But he then went on immediately to stress the particular and focussed quality of their attachment to liberty:
They are therefore not only devoted to Liberty, but to Liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. Abstract Liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object; and every nation has formed to itself some favourite point, which by way of eminence becomes the criterion of their happiness (120).
In America as in England, this “favourite point” is taxation:
They [the House of Commons] took infinite pains to inculcate, as a fundamental principle, that, in all monarchies, the people must in effect themselves mediately or immediately possess the power of granting their own money, or no shadow of liberty could subsist. The Colonies draw from you as with their life-blood, these ideas and principles. Their love of liberty, as with you, fixed and attached on this specific point of taxing. Liberty might be safe, or might be endangered in twenty other particulars, without their being much pleased or alarmed. Here they felt its pulse; and as they found that beat, they thought themselves sick or sound (120–21).
It was a political outlook irresistibly reinforced by two auxiliary influences—one religious, the other legal. In the matter of religion, the disposition of the colonists was such that the commitment to liberty which governed their actions during the working week was also recommended to them on the Sabbath, with an unquestionable sanction:
Religion, always a principle of energy in this new people, is no way worn out or impaired; and their mode of professing it is also one main cause of this free spirit. The people are protestants; and of that kind, which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favourable to liberty, but built upon it . . . The dissenting interests have sprung up in direct opposition to all the ordinary powers of the world; and could justify that opposition only on a strong claim to natural liberty. Their very existence depended on the powerful and unremitted assertion of that claim. All protestantism, even the most cold and passive, is a sort of dissent. But the religion most prevalent in our Northern Colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance; it is the dissidence of dissent; and the protestantism of the protestant religion (121–22).
In the matter of law, the prevalence of legal expertise amongst the colonists9 endowed with technical accomplishment an attachment to liberty which might otherwise have been easily circumvented by the politicians of Westminster, for
when great honours and great emoluments do not win over this knowledge to the service of the state, it is a formidable adversary to government. If the spirit be not tamed and broken by these happy methods, it is stubborn and litigious. Abeunt studia in mores. This study renders men acute, inquisitive, dextrous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources (124).
What is striking however in this analysis of the character of the colonists is the absence of any suggestion that their love of liberty disqualifies them to be the subjects of a monarchy. Indeed, Burke is at pains to underline the temperamental and political consanguinity of the colonists with their English cousins. According to Burke, the colonists were not looking to become the citizens of a republic. They were driven to that undesired expedient as a consequence of the short-sightedness and arbitrary conduct of ministers.
On the pernicious innovativeness of those ministers, we can do no better than to recall the peroration of American Taxation (1774) in which Burke summarized with great power his acute understanding of where government was going wrong in its dealings with the colonists:
Again, and again, revert to your old principles—seek peace and ensue it—leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they antiently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it. They, and we, and their and our ancestors, have been happy under that system. Let the memory of all actions, in contradiction to that good old mode, on both sides, be extinguished for ever. Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it. Let this be your reason for binding their trade. Do not burthen them by taxes; you were not used to do so from the beginning. Let this be your reason for not taxing. These are the arguments of states and kingdoms. Leave the rest to the schools; for there only they may be discussed with safety. But if, intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government, by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question. When you drive him hard, the boar will surely turn upon the hunters. If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body will be argued into slavery. Sir, let the gentlemen on the other side call forth all their ability; let the best of them get up, and tell me, what one character of liberty the Americans have, and what one brand of slavery they are free from, if they are bound in their property and industry, by all the restraints you can imagine on commerce, and at the same time are made pack-horses of every tax you choose to impose, without the least share in granting them?10
So much here invites and deserves comment: the bold dismissal from the arena of mature political deliberation of abstract questions of right, the untroubled equation of settled habits with political rectitude, the allocation of blame for the crisis squarely on the shoulders of the British administration, and finally the implication that the rejection of British sovereignty was not the primary aim of the colonists but rather a collateral consequence of their entirely laudable refusal to enter into conditions of slavery. For Burke, then, the colonial war was a struggle between insensitive, innovative government and an independent and self-reliant colonial population. It was the crime of that government to drive that colonial population down the path of armed insurrection and ultimately political separation by a misguided insistence on an abstract right to tax. And it was this crisis within empire which sensitized Burke to the political values which in the 1790s would become so closely associated with his name.
So one can easily understand why Burke so vehemently denied the allegation of the radicals, that when he attacked the French Revolution he was an apostate from his support of revolution in the 1770s. For Burke, although these two events were both labelled “Revolutions,” they were utterly unlike, and the difference between them can be easily seen if we reflect on the source of innovation (to which Burke professed himself a perpetual foe) in each case.11 In France it is the revolutionaries themselves who are the peddlers of political, financial, legal, and moral innovation. In America, political and legal innovation had come from Great Britain and had been resisted by the colonists. So in Burke’s opposed responses to the American and French Revolutions, we can see an implicit understanding of the American Revolution as, at least in its origins, that paradoxical thing, a conservative revolution.
Burke’s insight into the originally conservative nature of the American Revolution is a useful landmark to bear in mind as one begins to read the essays collected in this volume. For they, too, bear witness to the conservative character of the colonists’ resistance to Great Britain. Two essays explore—picking up a theme from Burke’s Conciliation with the Colonies—the religious commitments of the American colonists. Robert Ferguson’s exploration of the relation between religious and legal understandings of the concept of liberty maps the tensions between them and seeks to explain how it happened that the religious conception of liberty was superseded by a legal conception: “For while ministers gave Revolutionary Americans much of their moral and intellectual courage to fight, lawyers defined the event and capped its directions.” Ferguson poses four searching questions: “If the religious sources of liberty are powerful and significant, why did they disappear from civil discourse so rapidly in the early republic? Where, in the continuing dialectic, are the religious contributions to civil and political liberty in American life? How did religious and legal sources of liberty interact to produce a distinct American understanding? What, if anything, does a closer look at religious explanation restore to a balanced understanding of American liberty?” The questions become all the more urgent when Ferguson establishes the strength and inevitability of religious frames of reference for the early Americans: “Early Americans had no choice but to think through a religious frame of reference; it was the mental equipment that people brought to daily life, and it was the ordering device for larger conceptions of history and communal well-being. Furthermore, the root of this conception required the thinker to accept a premise that Samuel Adams, the organizer of Boston mobs, gave most succinctly. In words that came from many lips throughout the crisis, Adams claimed ‘The Religion and public Liberty of a People are intimately connected; their interests are interwoven, they cannot subsist separately; and therefore they rise and fall together.’ ” Yet this was not a durable ascendency: “After the Revolution, ministers maintained the spiritual keeping of their congregations, but they lost the capacity to represent the gathered community in political thought.” The result was in at least one respect a diminution: “Religion remained a concern and for many a central concern, but it was no longer the pillar, no longer the explanatory tool, no longer the primal articulator of liberty. Ministers had ceased to be the guardians of social well-being. The keeping of liberty, once a joint responsibility, had passed rather suddenly to the legal mind in America. Something, however, had been lost in the process, and at crucial moments, communal sense of that loss would lead to resurgence in the religious side of the dialectic. Religion spoke to the people in a way that law never can. For while the law possesses many virtues, it smells of the lamp, of calculation and reason, of an elitest response; none of these elements ever tells the wistfully searching subject much about happiness.” And the key text in which this relegation of religious conceptions of liberty was effected was The Federalist: “In sum, The Federalist did more than cap the Revolution by calling for the ratification of the Federal Constitution; it confirmed, once and for all, the dominance of legal over religious explanation in civic discourse. Learned contrivance, practical artifice, and hard-headed institutional planning were the keys to a new mental adventure where those engaged knew they were neither angels nor under the control of angels.” Ferguson notes the dangers for liberty in the comparative extinguishing of religious conceptions of liberty and the apparently unchallenged ascendancy of legal positivism, with its eschewal of all recourse to underpropping notions of natural law: “the power and authority of the state to make and enforce law have increased a hundredfold while acceptance of liberty as a rhetorical guide to action has dwindled.” As he does so, he reveals a conservative tendency in the American Revolution: “Somewhere in the dialectic of liberty, a republic defined by the right of revolution has been replaced by a modern nation-state where the test of membership has become loyalty.”
Barry Shain’s essay stands shoulder to shoulder with Robert Ferguson’s in its insistence on the centrality of religion to the outlook of the colonists. Shain’s essential contention is that “at its revolutionary Founding, America was a nation of mostly British Protestants and Protestant communities whose culture was controlled by varying and contending Protestant categories of thought,” and in defending this view he moves forward on two related fronts:
Accordingly, I explore two key, if tension-ridden, facets of the Protestant inheritance that shaped America’s cultural landscape for well over a century before the Founding and thereafter continued to powerfully influence it. First is the American elevation of the freedom of religious conscience to a hallowed and inalienable individual right. Its persistent influence on the American political and religious culture resulted from the transformation of one of eighteenth century’s most traditional and dominant meanings of liberty, spiritual or Christian liberty, into the form of a right. And second is the formative role played by Americans’ acceptance of the Reformed Protestant understanding of original sin and its ubiquitous deformation of each and every human being. Only through a proper recognition of original sin’s centrality do key features of American political thought, such as America’s localism and hostility towards long chains of hierarchy, become readily understandable.
Shain argues passionately for the dominant religious conception of liberty among the colonists: “Americans, then, were predominantly Protestants, though certainly not all of one piece. And for all Protestants, the most important form of liberty was not the instrumentally critical liberty of communal self-government or that of liberal natural rights but instead the liberty through which Christ could make them free, that is, spiritual liberty.” And he carefully explains the communitarian rather than individualistic nature of this liberty: “In America this traditional Protestant sense of liberty was understood to eschew all claims of worldly liberation at the individual level while consistently and enthusiastically promoting and conflating a mixture of spiritual and political liberty at the corporate level. The result was that, among most Americans, spiritual liberty was used to defend the freedom of the community while simultaneously limiting that of the individual.” Furthermore and in support of Robert Ferguson, he notes how the Protestant freedom of conscience became overwhelmed in the welter of other “natural” rights which the successful outcome of colonial rebellion produced: “The Protestant freedom of religious conscience was thus clearly separate from the panoply of personal rights that its defenders, in the main, unintentionally helped create via their war efforts. Intentional or not, the most revolutionary fallout of the war was indeed the universalization, secularization, and extension of unalienable individual rights. Here, Zuckert and others, even if wrong in their historical reconstruction of the reasons and influences which produced this particular outcome, are right in closely associating the rise of the language of natural rights and the American Revolution.” Yet it seems that it was this particular right which acted as Trojan horse to introduce other “natural” rights into the mainstream of American political life in the aftermath of successful rebellion. For it happened that “the unalienable individual right of religious conscience, expansively extended to broader rights claims by Americans in their support of the prosecution of the War for Independence, had created the foundation upon which a new class of rights would be constructed.”
Shain then goes on to trace the complicated process whereby the language of rights in America shifted and developed, before moving on to examine the second main legacy of this Protestant matrix—as well as freedom of conscience, there is also the pervasive awareness of original sin: “But the enduring influence of the hallowed status attached to the individual right of conscience is not the only lasting Protestant presence that continues to shape American culture and politics. For in any attempt to understand late-eighteenth-century American thought and its continuing influence, one must take note not only of the freedom of religious conscience and those natural rights which followed in its train but of the American conception of the controlling power over society and men of the Christian understanding of original sin.” Shain brings out with great clarity the democratic character of the entailments of this penetrating conviction of original sin—its power to drive from the field any kind of hierarchy or intrinsic authority vested in merely human instruments. Shain describes the consequence of this Protestant character of colonial society as follows: “Thus, late-eighteenth-century Americans learned from almost every public source, Christian humanist, secular rationalist, Calvinist, and pietistic separatist (theologically Calvinist) that a life of liberty rather than license demanded that passions, lusts, and selfishness be tightly controlled through communal living.” In his account the Revolution thus emerges as a calamitous event whose ultimate tendency was to cut colonial society loose from its historical moorings. For as Shain observes, “It would only be with the birth of the new world of the late 1780s, which was to witness a rapid decline in confidence among elites in their willingness to accept scriptural claims, that there would be in America a willingness of the elite to embrace the dictates of liberalism and correspondingly to abandon the effort to bend recalcitrant sinful human nature to accord with the dictates of the guiding force of Reformed Protestantism.” So the former colonies began their tentative and faltering journey into the future. Shain’s conclusion is provocative but inescapable: “the heart of America’s Revolutionary-era’s political culture and aspirations was Reformed Protestantism and, thus, America was born neither secular nor liberal.” And the result of this is modern America’s indelibly ambiguous heritage from its colonial past: “Today, Protestant design and conceptions continue to shape many of our inherited political and cultural institutions; if you will, they are active cultural artifacts. Americans, clearly the most religious of any modern industrial people, continue to live within a world subtly formed by the shadows of our Protestant foundations. Most importantly, we continue to live in the shadow of the hallowed freedom of religious conscience and the delimiting consequences of belief in the Christian dogma of original sin. The former, knowing no natural limits, has proven to be a superb solvent of all societal boundaries, while the latter has often served societal aims that stand in opposition to such individualistic and antinomian propensities. Albeit tension-ridden, our political and cultural inheritances are eminently Protestant rather than secular in origin.”
The strongly religious character of colonial society set out in Ferguson’s and Shain’s essays is corroborated indirectly by the essays of Danford and Frey, which question the extent to which it makes sense to think of the American Revolution under the rubric of Enlightenment. Raymond Frey focuses on a particular tension in the intellectual matrix of the Founding: “I want to suggest that there is a tension between some of these ideas, specifically, between moral sense theory and the claim that there are natural rights, a tension that has in the end to do with different kinds of reflections upon the foundation of morality.” What Frey demonstrates is “how the attempt to ground morality in human nature puts pressure upon the attempt to hang on to natural rights.” Thus there was a moral confusion in the background of the Founding for “natural rights do not bind our moral sense, and it is the latter, not the former, that is the ground of virtue.” Furthermore, “moral-sense theory gives us no real way of privileging certain of our concerns, of marking them off as fundamental in a way that bars another person’s moral sense in principle from objecting,” and this is why it is in tension with natural-rights theory which demands that some of our concerns are elevated in this way.
That the engagement of the Founders with the thought of the European Enlightenment was merely shallow and opportunistic is the conclusion also of John Danford, whose essay reflects on the shortcomings of the economic understanding of the Founders. Danford argues that in one important area—political economy—the Founders were more nostalgic than progressive and were too bewitched by ancient republics to appreciate the different effects which might flow from commercial activity in a modern republic. So this essay sensitizes us to the regressive elements in the American Revolution and reminds us that its proximate cause was a resentment against innovation.
At first sight, however, David Wootton’s subtle and deep essay seems to stand out against the findings of Frey and Danford. Wootton’s central contention is that the Founders had a new way of thinking about politics and in particular about constitutional design: “the Founders had a new way of thinking of a constitution as a system, one which could be analyzed in the terms provided by a new ‘science of politics.’ ” This makes the Founders seem not confused and lagging behind developments in Europe but rather dazzlingly up-to-date: “Madison, Hamilton, and Hume were all the beneficiaries of a conceptual shift which had taken place around 1700, one which expressed itself through the adoption of a new mechanistic language. It is, I maintain, the mechanical metaphor which lies at the origins of modern constitutionalism. This metaphor was used to argue that constitutions are interacting systems in which, as Hume put it, ‘Effects will always correspond to causes,’ and that consequently what matters is not the moral quality of the rulers but the structure of the institutions within which the rulers operate.” Wootton’s ground-breaking essay excavates the surprisingly complicated meanings digested into the familiar phrase “checks and balances.” Buried within this phrase, argues Wootton, was an insight about the cardinal principle of constitutional design, deliberately placed there by the Commonwealth Whigs who coined and publicized the metaphor: “their claim was that good men would eventually be replaced by bad men (it was only a short step, but one they hesitated to take, to claim that power tends to corrupt and turns good men into bad), and that in the long run what counts is not the quality of the men or the rectitude of their intentions but the nature of the political system within which they operate.” However, although in technical terms this extension of the conceptual tool kit of political thought was innovative, its tendency—the additional potency with which it armed would-be political theorists—was the very reverse of progressive. As Wootton understands, its effect was to enshrine within the founding political language of the American republic a massive bias in favor of resistance to substantive innovation since the encouragement it could give to novelty is at one remove beyond the immediate comfort it gives to those who favor a certain immobility in the arrangements of government.
Ronald Hamowy’s essay moves us towards the afterlife of the colonial conflict, a territory entered also by Lance Banning and Gordon Wood. Hamowy’s theme, addressed by way of the disagreement between Richard Price and Adam Ferguson, is the stimulus which events in the colonies imparted to inquiries into the nature of liberty and of the imperial system proper to Great Britain. His essay pays tribute, then, to the intellectual potency of American affairs. Yet it was an ambiguous potency: “A reading of Price’s Observations and Ferguson’s response naturally raises the question: in which ways did these two writers, who shared so much of the Whig tradition and who were both highly regarded for their political insights by so many colonists, differ from each other in their assessment of the events in America?” The two men shared common ground in their understanding of social liberty: “both Price and Ferguson, by completely divergent routes and despite differing epistemological underpinnings, arrive at similar conclusions respecting the nature of liberty. Independent of exactly how rights are defined, both Price and Ferguson agree that a free society is one, in Ferguson’s words, ‘which secures to us the possession of our rights, while it restrains us from invading the rights of others.’ ” But Price and Ferguson differed sharply in their understanding of rights. For Price, these were natural and irrefragable. For Ferguson, they were historically produced and thus artificial and changeable. Hamowy’s conclusion is perhaps too blandly eirenic:
It is a reflection on the scope of the eighteenth-century Whig tradition that it could encompass two writers whose views were as dissimilar in certain particulars as were those of Price and Ferguson. Yet both were legatees of the Revolutionary Settlement of 1688 and both accepted its ideological premises. Both agreed that a free society was one that recognized the primacy of private property and the critical importance of the rule of law and both identified individual liberty with the rights of citizens to act as they chose, limited only by a modestly intrusive government. Finally, both had original insights into the nature of freedom and despotism that enlightened and informed. In light of this, it is not difficult to see why, despite their differences, the American colonists were receptive to both these thinkers.
Well, yes: but that receptivity also says something about the diversity of conviction amongst the colonists themselves—diversities which we can see also in the numbers of emigrants to Canada and in the profound divisions which opened up even amongst the successful rebels in the aftermath of 1783.
Those divisions are the subject of the essays by Lance Banning and Gordon Wood. Banning muses over the ambiguity of the significance of the successful struggle with Britain and reflects on how it did not point in any completely clear way towards the kind of form which the new American government should take beyond that it should be republican in spirit. As Banning describes them, the scope and extent of the debates in the early republic indicate how ambiguous, various, and fluid were the understandings of different Americans of goodwill concerning the nature of the liberty they had grasped and how that liberty was to be preserved. The dispute between Madison and Hamilton over the founding of a national bank illustrates well how colleagues might harbor strongly opposed conceptions of the kind of liberty proper to be enshrined in the American Constitution and of the institutions which might support or undermine it. The effect of Banning’s essay is to pose with renewed force Hamilton’s searching question, which challenges so many of the central elements of American self-identity: “And is it really possible in any large and populous nation for a single government to be republican in character and spirit—‘republican,’ that is, in something like the sense in which the great Virginians and many others of the Founding generation defined that term?”
Gordon Wood’s essay on Madison seeks to reconcile the early and late phases of his political thought. First there is the Madison of the 1780s: the fervent nationalist who feared the states and their vicious tyrannical majorities and wanted to subject them to the control of the central government. Then there is the Madison of the 1790s: the strict constructionist, states’ rights cofounder of the Democratic-Republican party who feared the national government and its monarchical tendencies and trusted the popular majorities in the states. How can these two figures be made to cohabit? As Wood epigrammatically puts it: “For the early Madison, popular majorities within states were the source of the problem; for the later Madison, these popular majorities in the states became a remedy for the problem. It is hard to see how these two seemingly different Madisons can be reconciled.” Wood’s solution is to posit a Madison whose deepest political instincts were regressive, and he underlines the backwards-looking, even perhaps nostalgic character of Madison’s political thought: “With this conception of the new national government as a neutral disinterested umpire, Madison becomes something other than the practical pluralist that many scholars have believed him to be. He was not offering some early version of modern interest-group politics. He was not a forerunner of twentieth-century political scientists like Arthur Bentley or David Truman. He did not envision public policy or the common good emerging naturally from the give-and-take of hosts of competing interests. Instead, he turns out to be much more old-fashioned and classical in his expectations. He expected that the clashing interests and passions in the enlarged national republic would neutralize themselves in the society and allow liberally educated, rational men—men, he said, ‘whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices, and to schemes of injustice’—to decide questions of the public good in a disinterested adjudicatory manner.”
According to Wood the really modern man amongst the Founders was Hamilton, and thus it was entirely in keeping with the nostalgic coloring of Madison’s political thought that he should resist Hamilton’s efforts to turn the United States into a modern fiscal-military entity along the lines of eighteenth-century France and Great Britain: “Madison may have wanted a strong national government to act as an umpire over contending expressions of democracy in the states, as his Virginia Plan suggests. But he had no intention of creating the kind of modern war-making state that Hamilton had in mind. Which is why he had no sense of inconsistency in turning against the state that Hamilton was building in the 1790s.” The key which unlocks Madison’s consistency, then, turns out to be nostalgia and the resolve to resist the advent of political modernity: “republican idealism—this fear of the modern fiscal-military state and this desire to find peaceful alternatives to war—is the best context for understanding the thinking of Madison and other republicans.”
The only essay in this collection which seems to challenge a conservative reading of the American Revolution is Jack Greene’s excavation of colonial attitudes in mid-eighteenth-century Jamaica (notwithstanding the palinode of its two final paragraphs but one, composed and added after Professor Greene had been given the opportunity to read this introduction in proof). Greene wants to “unpack the meaning of liberty among settler populations in the latent republics that had emerged out of the first century and a half of British imperial activity in the Americas” by looking at the tensions which arose between the colonists of Jamaica (“Britain’s most economically important and politically precocious colony”) and government in London. Greene explains and narrates in some detail “the overwhelming influence of the local political establishment and the lack of gubernatorial independence in Jamaica’s internal affairs, giving the provincial Jamaican polity a quasi-republican character.” But is that really the story that his archival labor puts before us? There is much virtue certainly in that “quasi”—the weakness of this essay is surely that it makes it too easy for the colonists to be republicans. But sturdy independence did not, at this time or any other, have as its inescapable companion republican politics. Greene is implausibly sharp-sighted in seeing the seeds of what was to come in these dealings of the Jamaican colonists with the administrators of Whitehall. For it is a striking fact that at no point in his narrative does Greene produce an utterance or a written comment by a Jamaican colonist which is couched in republican language or which makes a republican claim. Instead, what the colonists’ words plainly show is that they intended to maintain and support their rights as subjects of the British Crown. To be a subject is not (pace Professor Greene) to be a slave. That is why the Assembly insisted on retaining “the rights of the people, their own liberties, and the happy constitution which they have enjoyed under his present most gracious majesty, and his royal predecessors, for above seventy years.” There is not much that smacks of republicanism here. Nor is it easy to make The Respondents Case, the pamphlet at the center of Greene’s essay, wear a republican aspect, extolling as it does “those brave Britons who made the Conquest of Jamaica” and who in so doing would automatically have taken their inheritance (“all the old and valuable Laws of England”) with them. By which presumably they did not mean only those laws passed during the fleeting months of republican government which England had enjoyed in the mid-seventeenth century. So Greene deduces an elaborate narrative of events, but does he understand its real significance? One can only reject his labelling of Jamaica as a “de facto settler republic.” It was no such thing, as the material he himself brings forward vividly demonstrates. Rather, the story Greene has elicited from the archives corroborates Burke’s insight into the conservative dynamic at the heart of the American Revolution—an insight which admonishes that, however much some of us may wish the cherishing of liberty to be found in company with the advocacy of progressive causes, they are much more likely to be antagonists than allies.
- St. Catherine’s College Oxford
[1. ]Edmund Burke, Correspondence, ed. T. Copeland et al., 10 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958–78), 7:437 (hereafter cited as Correspondence).
[2. ]Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France in Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, ed. Leslie Mitchell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 8:146.
[3. ]Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, ibid., 2:296.
[4. ]Richard Price, A Discourse on the Love of Our Country in Richard Price: Political Writings, ed. D. D. Thomas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 185–86.
[5. ]Report of Fox’s speech in the House of Commons on February 1, 1793, in a letter from Lord Sheffield to Edward Gibbon of February 5, 1793, in The Private Letters of Edward Gibbon, ed. R. E. Prothero (London: John Murray, 1896), 2:368.
[6. ]Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, 2:315.
[7. ]On which response, see the endnote by Paul Langford, ibid., 322.
[8. ]A phrase as remarkable for its characterizing of the policy of Lord North’s administration as tyrannous, as for its ascription of suspicious vigilance to the colonists, Speech on Conciliation with America, ibid., 3:124.
[9. ]“In no country perhaps in the world is the law so general a study. The profession itself is numerous and powerful; and in most provinces it takes the lead” (ibid., 123).
[10. ]Ibid., American Taxation, 2:458.
[11. ]See Burke’s letter to the Duke of Richmond of May 8, 1780, in which (with litotes) he confesses to “a timidity that I have, partly from nature and partly from principle, in making very quick, strong and bold alterations in the fundamental parts of the Constitution under which I was born,” Correspondence, 4:236.
- Adams on the American Revolution
- Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution I
- Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution II
- American Political Sermons
- American Political Sermons: A Bibliography
- American Political Writing during the Founding 1760-1805
- Berger & the 14th Amendement
- Berger on the 14th Amendment
- Carey’s Defence of the Constitution
- Colonial Origins of the American Constitution
- Dickinson & Lee on Federal Power
- Farrand on the Federal Convention of 1787
- Federalist: A Glossary
- Federalist: A Reader’s Guide
- Federalist: An Introduction by Carey and McClellan
- Findley and the American Constitution
- Forrest McDonald, “The Founding Fathers and the Economic Order”
- Founders Constitution
- Hamilton & the Federalist
- James Wilson and the American Constitution
- Jefferson: An Introduction to his Writings
- Madison and Federalism
- Madison’s Notes: Analytical Index (Elliot ed.)
- Madison’s Notes: Analytical Index (Hunt ed.)
- Madison’s Notes: Analytical Table of Contents (Elliot ed.)
- Madison’s Theory of the Republic
- Major Collections in the OLL: the Founding Fathers of the American Republic
- Pamphlet Debate on the US Constitution
- Political Sermons and the American Revolution
- Quentin Taylor, “The Federalist Papers: America’s Political Classic”
- Ramsay’s History of the American Revolution
- Rule of Law & US Constitutionalism
- Shaping the Constitution: A View from Mount Vernon
- Tucker and the US Constitution
- Warren’s History of the American Revolution
- Washington, George (1732-1799)
- Webster and Hayne on the American Constitution
- Womersley, The American Revolution as a Conservative Revolution