by Seth Cotlar
University of Virginia Press, 2011, 270 pp., $35Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots
by Thomas S. Kidd
Basic Books: Perseus, 2011, 320 pp., $28
The Founding Fathers v. the People: Paradoxes of American Democracy
by Anthony King
Harvard University Press, 2012, 256 pp., $35
Like characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who long to go on pilgrimages as soon as spring comes around, American politicians, commentators and voters in an election year find themselves yearning to revisit the 18th century. Whatever their party stripes, they throng at the altar of the Constitution, pay homage to Lady Liberty and cast themselves as true defenders of the democratic faith. To the rest of the world, this American effort at time travel is a bit of a marvel. After all, the British do not still fight over the legacy of the English Revolution, and the French do not lose sleep over the original intent of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. They do not agonize over whether William Pitt or Napoleon would have approved of the candidates running in the next election. A closer look, though, reveals that Americans are neither antiquarians nor sectarian pietists; rather, they hunger to discover their own opinions in the Founders’ words. They seek usable history. They want legitimacy more than accuracy, for the necessary authority can only be obtained from the coffers of respected and shared cultural capital. Academic papers are fluctuating currency, but the Founding, as embedded in the collective memory, is gold.
Historians are quick to dismiss such populist presentism. They are right about the distortions, but even a brief survey of their work reveals that they are rooted in that same cultural landscape. They have produced a mountain of sophisticated but deeply divided scholarship on the Founders. They are as divided methodologically as the public is split politically. They have different heroes and villains, and despite disavowals, they too are often seduced by the burdens of present controversies.
Consider the two dominant schools of interpreting liberty as the central idea of the Revolution: the “consensus” school, arguing that its meaning was already modern and egalitarian and is essentially the same today; and the “progressive” school, assuming that it was initially modern but was “betrayed” by power-hungry Founders. The former puts stress on the democratic contributions of the Founders; the latter on inequalities and the impact of ordinary people. Despite these differences, both seem to nourish the popular American fiction that “liberty” is timeless, unchanging and self-evident in meaning rather than a man-made product of a specific time and place. The implication is that its absence is an anomaly.
Alas, actual history indicates otherwise. No one is born with the concept of the Fourth Amendment or trial by jury. All liberties had to be first invented. Assuming they were always asserted, but suppressed by forces of injustice, prevents us from viewing Revolution-era texts for what they often were: metaphorical models used for political battles, not objective depictions of reality. It prevents us from seeing how their meanings have changed over the centuries, even if the words remain the same (for example, “liberty” now refers to a wider spectrum of social groups than it did originally). And that, in turn, prevents us from explaining why the Founders acted as they did. Even though they created a “liberal” polity, the Founders understood liberty in an 18th-century sense, as an exclusive attribute available in full degree only to the propertied elite. But they also produced a highly universalistic narrative of rights and liberties—not to undermine the social order on top of which they sat (they were confident of holding on to their rank), but to justify the Revolution and seek political support from those beneath them in social rank. This narrative became part of America’s common cultural capital, and its legitimacy soon came to be employed by various groups to demand rights and inclusion. In short, to create a sensible account of the founding period, we should include both elites and ordinary people, and try to grasp how they exchanged concepts, shared meanings, negotiated interests and mutually reshaped views of what was thinkable.1
The reality is that most studies of both the progressive and consensus schools continue to occupy their separate territories. Seth Cotlar’s important book, Tom Paine’s America, is no exception. It is an analysis of the political radicalism that Paine represented and inspired, viewed against the backdrop of the Transatlantic flow of ideas produced by the American and the French Revolutions. The central question examined is how these ideas affected the turbulent period of the 1790s, when American society was undergoing a dual transformation—from a British colonial outpost to an independent country, as well as from a liberal state designed by the Founders on the model of classical republics ruled by virtuous elites to one that was democratizing more rapidly than the designers had anticipated or, for the most part, desired.
Paine stands out among Revolutionary leaders. His bold writings provided hugely popular arguments for the American Revolution, and his dramatic life story combined a meteoric rise to international fame with rejection and bitter humiliation at the end. His devotion to the cause of equal participation of ordinary people in the political sphere—at a time when such demands were unorthodox and risky—has made him an historical celebrity for diverse publics. He is a hero to those who opposed authoritarian government, and to those who pined for one so that egalitarian reforms could be imposed. And he is no less a hero for those who prized individual liberty and those who harbored collectivist dreams. Most of Paine’s admirers today are self-styled progressives, but, seen in a deeper historical perspective, Paine is the original American shape-shifter.
Cotlar does an admirable job presenting the explosion of conceptual experimentation with democratic radicalism in the last decade of the 18th century. He tracks its evolution from the initial, fiery phase to a decline occasioned by the backlash against the French Revolution and by the Federalist/Anti-Federalist rivalry. However, by placing the radicals at center stage, he reshuffles the contemporary political spectrum to make the Jeffersonians (who do not get proper credit here via George Mason even for the Bill of Rights) seem like conservatives who rebuffed broader democracy.
Some of the best pages in the book are devoted to cosmopolitanism. This Enlightenment concept of global citizenship transcending national interests arrived from France, together with the egalitarian fashion for addressing its disciples as “citizens.” Cosmopolitanism became a bone of contention between radical democrats who stressed global humanity and Federalists, like Noah Webster, who firmly believed that the creation of an American national identity was indispensable to the survival of the young country. Cotlar ably surveys this riveting debate, although at times he appears to conflate cosmopolitanism with universalism, a related but separate concept (keenly favored by nationalists) popularized earlier by the Revolutionary rhetoric about equal, Creator-given natural rights and liberties.
Cotlar identifies with his subject most closely when discussing radical democrats’ views on equality and economic justice. He bemoans the fact that by the early 19th century American elites had “cordoned off private property from the collective political will of the people” by means of judicial review that hampered political control of property rights, and by Jeffersonian endorsement of a market economy.
The moral aspects of discrepancies of wealth have, of course, been intensely debated ever since, but there is another side to the problem that is passed over in Tom Paine’s America. A key characteristic of American society has been upward mobility. Even the wealth of the Revolutionary elite was mostly first- or second-generation wealth. With the exception of the unfree, the majority of immigrants came hoping to acquire property—to climb the social ladder, to achieve the respectability, security and independence associated with ownership. They therefore envisioned legal protections for property and economic freedom, not the redistribution of private property by the government. By intimating the attainability of the radicals’ redistributive visions, Cotlar seems to imply that the country might actually have produced what, for lack of a better term, would have been a proto-socialist order at the end of the 18th century. This is an interpretive stretch far beyond the evidence.
The sources in Tom Paine’s America consist mostly of articles, pamphlets and essays produced by the educated intellectuals of that time—urban publishers, journalists and political writers. These sources tell us little about how their ideas were received by ordinary people who, we are nevertheless told, were enthusiastic about them. Cotlar’s story revolves around political philosophies, an approach that omits much of the social, economic and cultural context of such ideas, and makes it difficult to separate abstractions from real social practice. For instance, Cotlar unconvincingly attempts to link reading newspapers in taverns with the emergence of actual “communities” linked by a shared ideology.
This points to a larger problem. Assigning too much weight to phenomena that were more exceptional and elitist than broad-based risks wading into anachronism. What were the chances that one of Cotlar’s main spokesmen for radical democracy, Robert Coram—a vegetarian who promoted replacing meat with apples, grapes and herbs, admired the tribal use of land in common among the Indians and believed that abolishing property ownership would bring equality—would find a receptive audience among, say, the Scotch-Irish farmers in Virginia? Cotlar acknowledges that Coram and others like him were utopians, but he also unambiguously implies that their designs were better prescriptions for improving society than the ones offered by the Founders. Paine himself can serve as an example of the dangers of utopian thinking: He resented autocratic governments run by elites distant from the people, yet his recipe for confiscating and redistributing people’s possessions, something that would be fiercely resisted and therefore could only be accomplished coercively by an authoritarian government, points to another future.
Along the same lines, Cotlar contends that the failure of Paine’s followers and the election of Jefferson represented a “retreat” from visions of participatory democracy, forcing citizens to “relinquish their political aspirations.” This seems lavishly overstated. The radical democrats were imaginative, lively and certainly ahead of their time (for better or for worse, the future holding horrors as well as progress), but limited in scope and appeal. Paine’s anti-religious ideas were rejected not because elites were reactionary, but because he offered them to a deeply religious society. And while radical democrats conjured up abstract visions of equality, it remained a cultural given for most of them that women, Indians and slaves should be excluded.
Patrick Henry would have eagerly supported some of Paine’s views, but he would have unequivocally rejected others. Though he is well known for his extraordinary rhetorical talents, and especially for his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, Henry has not usually occupied the front row of American Founders. This is probably due to his militant opposition to the Constitution, his explosive quarrels with Jefferson and other major figures and, perhaps most of all, the difficulty of categorizing him tidily within the history of the Revolution. In a new biography of Henry, Thomas Kidd attempts to do just that.
As with other founding luminaries, different groups searching for usable history have made different claims to Henry’s legacy, as his complex and at times contradictory positions allow. Slaveholders could cherish his forceful defenses of states’ rights and his dire warnings against Federal government power grabs, abolitionists his denunciation of slavery, and progressives his stance as a courageous political dissenter. Kidd depicts him as a small-government, Christian conservative—a very contemporary fellow, indeed.
Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots is a well-written, engaging and accessible history, with not a trace of academic jargon or fashionable buzzwords. Henry’s activities are solidly documented and adroitly woven into the larger history of Virginia and the Revolution. Kidd follows Henry’s humble early years, shows how he emerged as a public figure just in time for the Revolutionary turmoil, and covers his meteoric political trajectory to the Constitutional Convention and the governorship of Virginia. However, the chief focus is his concept of limited government and its relationship to his idea of personal liberty—two themes Kidd believes were the true but forgotten legacies of the Revolution.
A reader might wish that more space had been devoted to Henry’s family life and to his celebrated oratory. The first would help explain some of his seemingly questionable decisions, and the latter could tell us a lot about the rapidly changing political culture in which he operated. Henry was a populist speaker in an age where political elites still regarded such style as unrefined, even verging on demagoguery. Yet it was also a time when powerful pressure was emerging to make political rhetoric more accessible to ordinary people. This required introducing a more emotional and evocative style—a taboo for those who deified reason and were schooled in classics. Henry pioneered the new style, which Jefferson thought was unbecoming flamboyance and fame-seeking, and which Federalists feared would needlessly incite the rabble. Henry, who was neither born into a gentry family nor received a formal education, had no such inhibitions. He was instead influenced by the Great Awakening style of preaching, something Kidd notes but unfortunately does not pursue in greater detail.
The book does broach several controversial issues haunting Henry’s legacy: his slaveowning, his extensive land speculation and his ambivalent views on debt. However, since Kidd has made virtue and Christianity the defining themes of Henry’s philosophy, one would have expected a more thorough examination of the moral aspects of his life, and their better grounding in the culture of the planter class. To take one element that could use such inquiry, Henry was certainly not unique among his peers in condemning slavery while buying and selling slaves throughout his life. He never freed his slaves, not even in his will (as Washington did), and he offered only the weak justification that it would be “inconvenient” for him to do so. A fuller discussion of how this position corresponded with the restricted, socially circumscribed sense of freedom among the planters would have provided for a better understanding of Henry’s behavior.
Kidd’s apparent desire to commend his hero’s qualities as models for contemporary politics has produced two side effects. He repeatedly describes Henry with inflated language, as in lines like “the era summoned heroic personalities like his, men who were called to defend America’s liberties with political and moral fervor.” And he downplays discrepancies between 18th– and 21st-century meanings of terms like liberty, virtue and patriotism. Kidd leaves the impression that these meanings are more or less the same. However, the power of such concepts did not permanently reside in them, but in the uses made of them in a specific historical time and place. For instance, when Henry appealed to patriotism, he more often than not had local, Virginian rather than national loyalties in mind. Similarly, the term virtue does not automatically evoke in today’s reader a gentry-bound, property-linked ideal of politically disinterested public service, but that is precisely what it meant at the time.
The book would have benefited from a more human depiction of Henry. While his peers (not least Alexander Hamilton and George Mason) considered it a violation of honor to cheat one’s creditors, Henry opposed paying back legitimate American war debts. Kidd merely explains that his protagonist’s “championing of virtue was sincere but he had to worry about his own prosperity.” Henry’s relentless opposition to the Constitution, if carried to its logical end, would have prevented the creation of the United States. Yet Kidd maintains that he took this position because he stood for “true” liberty, threatened by a powerful Federal government that lacked disinterestedness.
It is quite a stretch to see Henry’s activities as disinterested. When his land speculations were threatened by Federal supremacy in the Western territories, he contemplated secession and the creation of an independent republic on the Yazoo River, where he held a large land grant. His personal hostility to Jefferson may have played a role in his stance toward the Federal government. Kidd mentions all these flaws, but his less-than-fine examination of them is tantamount to blanket forgiveness.
Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots closes with a question: What would Henry think of our contemporary political scene? Despite Kidd’s caveats about the presentist nature of such speculations, his answer tries to establish Henry as a libertarian hero whose vision of America was based on three timeless values: “virtue, religious faith, and responsive government.” With echoes of Congressman Ron Paul ringing through the pages, we read that Henry would have decried a mammoth Federal government, foreign military interventions, bailouts, body scans at airports, warrantless wiretapping, torture, rendition and a host of other sins that populate 21st-century political debates. It seems that we do not even have to visit the Founders; they are always with us.
Perhaps a view from overseas can offer a more detached commentary on the Founders’ impact. Anthony King, a political scientist at the University of Essex in Britain, has joined a long list of foreign authors who have written about American history. Just as Americans have been perennially interested in debating their own identity, many foreign authors have been trying to capture the country’s distinctive essence, often claiming that as outsiders they are able to see through things opaque to the locals. Perhaps they can, but then there are only so many de Tocquevilles, and visitors can bring their own errant localist assumptions to their interpretations. One need only recall that the late Jean Baudrillard’s America (1986), which contains some dazzling reflections amid its often grotesque portrayal of a cultureless, fabricated and somewhat benumbed country (“Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth”), is really a cautionary tale meant for France and the French.
King avoids many pitfalls of the genre, and offers a reasoned, well-argued and readable take on American political culture. His argument is structured around a metaphor of tensions between two tectonic political plates. One comprises those who revere the Constitution, with its elite-designed, semi-indirect, Madisonian system of government, and the other those who believe in more populist, Paine-style, direct democracy. It is an intriguing proposal because it implies that current political divisions broadly mirror the immediate post-Revolutionary debates between those who stressed local, participatory government by the people, and those who believed that elites, elected by the people, should rule. It also cuts across conventional wisdom: In this model, the Tea Party as well as many progressives, including Occupy Wall Street, would find themselves in one camp, while technocratic, big-government liberals and neo-conservatives would sit together in the other.
One wishes King had developed this theme further. Instead, he spends most of The Founding Fathers v. the People arguing that the weaknesses of the current political system have their roots in the Revolutionary era. In his view, because the Founders were wary of the common people, and created roadblocks to their participation in politics, America today is stuck with constitutional provisions that make governing dysfunctional and less than democratic. King is serially “puzzled” by the existence of such obsolete structures as barriers to amending the Constitution, constraints of birth and age on presidential candidates, term limits, excessive power given to unelected and unaccountable Supreme Court judges who may determine public policy, the Electoral College, the winner-take-all electoral system and the lack of Federal referenda. He sees many paradoxes in the system. For instance, primaries bring politics to the province of ordinary voters while the Electoral College diminishes the meaning of the popular vote. These are all legitimate issues for analysis and debate. King blames them all on the presumed original sin of the Founding: a constitutional doctrine based on contradictory concepts of robust, central government limited by checks and balances, and radical democracy, where the people rule and have the last word.
At this point, King’s supposed outsider advantage turns into an Achilles’ heel, as his distance from the subject, instead of producing more objective observations of the American scene, keeps him from making sense of it. American traditions appear “strange” and “curious.” King finds it remarkable, even “touching”, that Americans do not realize how misguided they are in venerating their flawed Constitution. “Most Americans are almost certainly unaware of the paradoxes discussed in this book”, he writes, “and, even if they were aware of them, would probably not be bothered by a majority of them.” Elsewhere, he opines that “most Americans probably have only a limited knowledge and understanding of what the U.S. Constitution actually says, and many undoubtedly conflate it in their minds with the Declaration of Independence.” It should not surprise us, then, that King’s stated goal is to “provoke Americans into thinking about aspects of their political system that they themselves might wish to criticize if they pause to think about them.”
King’s bafflement over America’s devotion to its antique political system could have been much alleviated by a deeper examination of the complex historical and cultural roots of this reverence. Long-established traditions of other peoples are only puzzling when taken out of their socio-cultural context. One might easily imagine an American tourist in Britain mystified at discovering that it does not have a unified, written constitution, and that its unwritten one is a hodgepodge of conventions and precedents going back many centuries. It only exists because of British society’s reverence for such conventions, and because it has worked over a long period of time. In this respect, the British are much like the Americans, while the greater formality of the American arrangement has served the country well because it anchors a much larger and far more diverse society.
This brings us to two concerns about King’s otherwise convenient organizing metaphor. The first is that tensions between his “tectonic plates” of political philosophies aren’t anomalous. Cultures are never consistent, and paradoxes often usefully coexist—because their conflicting components have different social functions (for instance, colonial American slavery coexisted with the planter’s fervent worship of personal liberty). More importantly, governing is a dynamic process, and tensions that produce creative compromises and balance divergent interests can bring positive outcomes. Modern democracy does not rest on homogenizing people, but on incorporating differing groups and accepting them as equally valid parts of the overall system.
Nor is it entirely clear that in the Revolutionary era demands for radical democracy—one side of the tectonic duo—were a force that could compete on an equal basis with constitutionalism. There is not much evidence that calls for direct democracy and social leveling were so strong that the Revolution was triggered by pressure from below. Similarly, today populism and suspicion of centralized government are strong, but this has been the historical norm in the absence of clear and present national security threats. It’s nothing new, yet one detects no clamor for revising or replacing the framers’ product. On the contrary, Americans are overwhelmingly satisfied with it. In a pluralistic country where achieving unity on anything is a challenge and where much of the public has little confidence in government and its relevance for their lives, the enduring high regard for the Constitution is a scarce cultural and political asset that ought to be handled with care. Fortunately enough, it usually is.
1For an extensive discussion of this problem, see Michal Jan Rozbicki, Culture and Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution (University of Virginia Press, 2011).