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The Republic: As Elusive In 1981 As In 1801?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1981
The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in jeffersonian America. By Drew R. McCoy. $21.50. Institute of Early American History and Culture. North Carolina.

Between the mid-18th century and the decade after the War of 1812, the 13 colonies in British North America triumphed in a war of independence, adopted new constitutions, inaugurated a federal government, spread settlement across the Allegheny Mountains, and established diplomacy, of course; but just as certainly less tangible though perhaps more momentous changes impended. Was the New World to be a “City upon a Hill” for the Old, as John Winthrop envisioned in 1630, or perhaps even “an asylum for mankind” from the oppression of Europe, as Thomas Paine rhapsodized in 1776? Was the progress of civilization westward as Bishop Berkeley and others proclaimed? Could the flood of diverse immigrants, the astonishing birthrate, and the abundant opportunity of the British colonies be the foundations of a new people and a new society, as Franklin and Crèvecoeur conjectured? Jonathan Edwards even mused in 1742 that the Kingdom of God might come first to New England, while another Massachusetts clergyman announced 40 years later that only in America, where liberty “unfetters and expands the human mind, can science flourish.”

Such large prospects and grand aspirations surely in some measure influenced the men of affairs who fought the Revolution and launched the new government. But how did it all fit together: the greed and the search for self-fulfillment, the lust for power and the dreams of a bright future? Most particularly, were there among the nation-builders conceptions of a good society that gave shape to the uniquely open possibilities in public affairs? Drew McCoy now offers a comprehensive and fruitful effort to answer this question for “the Jeffersonians,” those statesmen-philosophers led by the third president who sought to give substance to a model republic aspired to by what Crevècoeur called “the new man in the new world.”

McCoy properly emphasizes tension and ambiguity in the Jeffersonian outlook, because its ideology was “caught precariously between traditional concerns anchored in classical antiquity and the new and unstable conditions of an expansive commercial society.” Jefferson, for example, was imbued with “the republican spirit” of the ancient world and with the brilliant neoclassical evocation of that spirit by Pope, Addison, Swift, and others, but he was also intrigued with the science, progress, and cosmopolitanism of the new commercial world view heralded by Defoe, Mandeville, and Adam Smith. The dazzling economic growth of the British colonies, moreover, made it certain that a new nation created from them would become “an expansive commercial society.” But the moral dangers faced by such a society were severe. One Jeffersonian wrote in 1799, for example, that in commerce one “often gets rich by accident, by imprudent and unfair venturing, by sudden exertions. Wealth thus suddenly obtained is, in many respects, detrimental to the community. It operates as a lottery, . . .it too often introduces ostentatious luxury, not warranted by the sober dictates of moderate and regular gains.” The problem, then, for the Jeffersonians was somehow to retain a steady, virtuous, public-spirited republican polity in a world that even in 1776 bore little resemblance, economically at least, to the classical model.

Though McCoy acknowledges the profound moral and teleological debate engendered by the rush toward “modernity,” he has chosen in this book to focus on the implications for “political economy,” that is, the assumption of “the necessary existence of a close relationship between government, or the polity, and the social and economic order.” He shows, thus, that crucial to Franklin’s growing alienation from Great Britain in the two decades before 1776 was his disgust with its mercantilist political economy. The concern for a “favorable balance of trade,” the consequent pre-oceupation with export industries resting on the exploitation of the working class, and the management of this through systematic trade regulation and even wars by a corruption-prone government (epitomized by the dominance of Robert Walpole, 1721—1742), made England in Franklin’s eyes an “old rotten State” where “needless Palaces, enormous Salaries, . . . Bribes, groundless Quarrels, foolish Expeditions, . . . Contracts, and Jobbs, devour all Revenue, and produce continual Necessity in the Midst of natural Plenty.” To remain united with such a nation, he concluded in 1775, will “corrupt and poison us also.” Yet Franklin himself was thoroughly modern: he was a sophisticated scientist, and he had lived all his life among artisans, tradesmen, and merchants whom he not only admired but, in the guise of Poor Richard, had taught to bring to their occupations the traditional virtues of the farmer: industry, self-reliance, honesty, public-spiritedness, and so on. Franklin, that is, began the self-conscious search in America for “the elusive republic,” the harmonious joining of ancient values and virtues with modern science and commerce in a self-governing polity.

McCoy then traces this intention through the first 50 years of independence, showing that in the minds of Jefferson, Madison, and their colleagues every political question had to be considered in the light of this republican model. Thus the alliance with France, the Constitution of 1787, the future of slavery, the growth of the navy, the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, and the beginnings of Clay’s “American System” all were measured according to their compatibility with the model republic. Events repeatedly forced adjustment in means and tactics, but McCoy shows that the republican ideal remained remarkably constant. The obvious progress of science and the arts as commerce expanded in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, compelled the Jeffersonians to welcome trade, but they also hoped America might reap the benefits through the exchange of goods and hence avoid the social and moral ills of the European cities producing the new wealth. The republican vision, then, gradually became one of “a Utopia anchored to westward expansion and free trade.” The United States, that is, as industrious farmers exploited the natural abundance of its vast lands, would be able to trade its surplus of “necessities” for the “luxuries” produced in the debilitating factories of the old world. This would allow America to substitute a morally constructive spatial progress for the degenerative chronological “progress” 18th-century social thought assumed was the inevitable pattern as nations went from virtuous “non-age” to a maturity enfeebled by luxury and corruption. The decline of the Roman Empire and the “rotten State” of Georgian Britain were the endlessly cited examples to be avoided.

The effect of McCoy’s book is not to dispute the countless volumes emphasizing economic motives, class conflict, social structure, geopolitics, and, most recently, “garrison government” in early American history (except insofar as those works might claim too much), but rather to add an illuminating dimension to our understanding. If one asks, after reading The Elusive Republic, whether one better understands such important events as the quarrel between Hamilton and Jefferson, the election of 1800, or the Embargo of 1807, the answer is a resounding “yes.” McCoy explains that in Jeffersonian eyes the 1790’s was a period when “a minority faction consisting of an American Walpole [Hamilton] and his corrupt minions” had sought, unnaturally, to stimulate commerce and industry while making the nation’s economy and even national security dependent on Great Britain. To restore the republican values of the Revolution, then, Jefferson and his colleagues intended in 1801 to insure three essential conditions: “a national government free from any taint of corruption, an unobstructed access to an ample supply of open land, and a relatively liberal international economic order that would offer adequate foreign markets for America’s flourishing agricultural surplus.” Reducing the national debt, purchasing Louisiana, shrinking the armed forces, resisting Anglo-France trade restrictions, and even building a national road thus can be seen as integral parts of “a truly republican political economy, one that would be patterned after Benjamin Franklin’s vision of a predominantly agricultural empire that would expand across space, rather than develop through time.” This, then, was what Jefferson meant when he called the election of 1800 “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form” (to Spencer Roane, Sept. 6, 1819). Indeed, McCoy explains these intentions so persuasively that Henry Adams, transfixed a century later by the power of dynamos, seems obtuse in insisting that the Jefferson and Madison administrations, once in power and confronted with the geopolitics of the real world, had to become, as John Randolph had charged, “crypto-Federalists.” To see how off-target this is, one need only consider what Hamilton might have done had he guided the nation’s affairs between 1801 and 1817.

The very cogency of The Elusive Republic, however, invites speculation and scholarly exploration in directions beyond McCoy’s focus on political economy. One suspects, for example, that the cultural and especially moral tensions produced by “modernity” were more fundamental than the political-economic ones. What did it do to one’s self-conception to be told that rather than seeking to serve others and to attend directly to the common good (i.e., be virtuous), it was acceptable, even necessary, above all to pursue individual wealth? Could it be, as Mandeville put it, that “public benefit” could come only from such selfishness (“private vice”)? This proposition precipitated the central 18th-century debate over personal and public “virtue,” and evoked the supremely articulate scorn of Pope, Swift, and others at the moral horror implicit both in mercantilism and in free-trade economics. And since these literary voices probably spoke to more fundamental issues than the political economists McCoy generally draws on, it might be insightful to put the Jeffersonians more fully in the context of the underlying moral-cultural debate. In another direction, we need more exploration of how the Jeffersonian ideology affected the growth of (resistance to?) political parties, the conception of national leadership, the understanding of the Bill of Rights, the effort to give substance to the principle of government by consent, and so on. But the mere provoking of these suggestions, of course, is a tribute to the stimulating quality of McCoy’s work.

Indeed, the appearance of The Elusive Republic as the nation changed presidents makes it quite clear that all the great questions the Jeffersonians pondered remain with us: how do we (200 years later) give effect to the ideals of the American Revolution? What political economy (today) is consistent with the “republican forms” of our government? How can we (in 1981) ward off the corruptions and “degeneracies” that, as Jefferson and Madison feared, seem to accompany urbanization, wealth, and world power? Jimmy Carter declared in his farewell address that “for this generation, ours, life is nuclear survival; liberty is human rights; the pursuit of happiness is a planet whose resources are devoted to the physical and spiritual nourishment of its inhabitants.” In 1981, Carter was saying, no nation inheriting the Jeffersonian intention could, in self-respect, accept the spread of nuclear weapons that threaten all life, overlook the denial of liberty, or take lightly environmental degradation corrosive to human happiness everywhere. Jefferson was convinced that history does not move necessarily or even easily toward decency and humaneness and that a republic would therefore need to pay careful attention to the occupations, sources of information, technical skills, education, and practice in self-government of its citizens. In the same way, in 1981, whatever his flaws of conception, articulation, and execution, President Carter recognized the comprehensive idealism of the republican quest by insisting that worldwide, immensely complex problems could, indeed had to be seen in a context of universal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Jeffersonians of any age, furthermore, would insist that a moral sense, an understanding of “higher law,” and a concern for the common good guide the nation’s public life. Citizen-rulers, like admired rulers from David and Pericles to Elizabeth I and George Washington, that is, would be judged, finally by the quality, the justice, the public-spiritedness of their exercise of power. This is not to say, of course, that even all “Jeffersonians” would agree oh details of policy, or that others might not offer attractive alternate “visions” of the nation’s future (as Hamilton had done so brilliantly, for example), but it does underscore McCoy’s theme that an informing sense of the common good guided the Jeffersonian search for “the elusive republic.”

An even more poignant reminder of the Jeffersonian quest came through in Carter’s warning about the malignant impact of “special interest” politics. His words echoed both the scorn heaped on the Mandevillean dictum of “private vices, public benefits” by Jeffersonian ideologues, and their insistence that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. It also parallels Washington’s farewell admonition (with which Jefferson entirely agreed) that “artful and enterprising factions” sought to make public administration “mirror [their] ill-concerted and incongruous projects,” rather than be an “organ of consistent and wholesome plans, digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.” The first president also had gone on to caution his countrymen “in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party [in modem parlance, special interests]. . .which . . .has perpetrated the most horrid enormities [and] itself is a frightful despotism” (Washington’s Farewell Address, Sept. 17, 1796). The whole point of Washington’s role as father (consider the connotations: fairness, nourishment, good will, wisdom, etc.) of his country and of the Jeffersonian quest for a republic of substantial virtues was to insist that the polity was more than diverse elements intent on survival and co-existence. In giving us the clearest picture yet of the republican intentions of Jefferson and his colleagues (especially Franklin and Madison), McCoy has both enlarged our understanding of early American history and given us a perspective from which to see the deficiencies of the republic today.

President Reagan’s declaration in his inaugural address that Americans in 1981 were “ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children,” and were willing again to “be exemplars of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom,” is clear evidence that, rhetorically at least, he too, like Jimmy Carter, is a Jeffersonian. Whether President Reagan and his advisors, and those in positions to influence his administration, will make policy in accord with the inaugural aspirations remains to be seen. The gross celebrations, Newport-style, of the well-to-do at the inaugural ceremonies (surely the most class-conscious festivities since those, oppositely, of the Jacksonian hordes in 1829), the gloating of the special interest lobbies now infesting Washington, budget and tax bills that benefit the wealthy and seem heedless of the public good, and Reagan’s own campaign declaration that he hoped, as president, to be “the advocate of the people against government,” are not auspicious signs; but it may be that a certain emancipation from discredited welfare state prescriptions and a surfacing of the enterprise and decency of those resolved to give effect to noble aspirations will provide useful redirections for the 1980’s. One wishes, at any rate, that Reagan and future American presidents might search as earnestly for “the elusive republic” as McCoy shows us was the case for the first Jeffersonians—could we be so lucky as a nation for it to be true today in spirit, as John Adams thought mistakenly in body on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, that “Thomas Jefferson still survives”?


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