In 1788 the American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, presented Thomas Lee Shippen, the son of a prominent Philadelphia family, to the French Court of Versailles. Young Shippen, who was studying law at the Inns of Court in London, was very excited; the young man, the nephew of Richard Henry and Arthur Lee of Virginia, was very socially conscious and, since he had “a little Vanity,” was apt to “run wild after the tinsel of life.” He had looked forward to his “Continental tour” with all its opportunities for cultivating “the acquaintance of titled men and Ladies of birth,” whose names,” a friend of the Shippen family regretfully observed, “he soon gets and . . . will never forget.”1
Of course, nowhere in the world was there more tinsel and titles than at the Court of Versailles, more indeed than Shippen had ever imagined. The protocol was incredibly elaborate: arriving at half past ten, “we were not done bowing until near 2”; in fact, “the business of bowing” went on so long, Shippen told his father, that “any but a Scotchman would have been tired of [it].” So ceremonious and so luxurious was the French court that this pretentious Philadelphian could only gawk and feel himself a “stranger” in its midst. He could not help expressing amazement at the “Oriental splendor and magnificence” of it all. The riches, the sophistication, the pomp dazzled him. The pictures of the royal family were “larger than life.” The members of the court had “all separate households and distinct portions of the Palace allotted to them,” and “between them they expend 36,000,000 of livres a year.” And the royal gardens—“What walks! What groves! What water works!” The situation of the “superb building” of the palace was “worthy of its grandeur, and both well suited to the Court of a great Nation.” Versailles was an “enchanting paradise,” all “very splendid,” and filled with such ceremony and civility, said Shippen, as “I had never seen.” Overawed, he could only puff with pride at having “received very uncommon marks of politeness and attention” from the nobles of the court.
Although Shippen “upon the whole . . . was well pleased with the day,” all the time he knew he was being snubbed. He sensed that the “oppressive . . . civilities” of the courtiers were condescending, that their polite questions only “served to shew rather a desire to be attentive to me, than to be informed of what they did not know already.” The American, something of an aristocrat in Philadelphia but hardly one at Versailles, could not help feeling his difference; and that difference became a shield for his self-esteem. He was, after all, he told his father, a republican: geographically and socially he was from another world. The magnificence and elegance of Versailles both impressed and repulsed him. How many thousands of subjects, Shippen wondered, had been doomed to want and wretchedness by King Louis XIV’s wasteful efforts “to shroud his person and adorn his reign” by building Versailles. He “revolted” at the “insufferable arrogance” of the present king, Louis XVI, and was even “more mortified at the suppleness and base complaisance of his attendants.” To witness “the file of ambassadors, Envoys Ministers &c. in full dress . . . prostrating themselves before him emulous of each other in demonstrating their obsequious adulation” was even more distasteful. He rejoiced that he was not the subject of such a monarchy but the citizen of a republic—“more great because more virtuous”—where there were no hereditary distinctions, no “empty ornament and unmeaning grandeur,” and “where the people respect sincerity, and acknowledge no other tyranny than that of Honor.” He was proud of Mr. Jefferson, who was “the plainest man in the room, and the most destitute of ribbands, crosses and other insignia of rank.” That America’s minister was the person “most courted and most attended to (even by the Courtiers themselves)” persuaded Shippen that good sense, merit, and integrity inevitably commanded respect “even among those who cannot boast of their possession.” He observed in the midst of all the splendor of the courtiers “an uneasiness and ennui in their faces which did not bespeak content or happiness.” The whole wonderful and eye-opening experience convinced him “that a certain degree of equality is essential to human bliss. Happy above all Countries is our Country,” he concluded, “where that equality is found, without destroying the necessary subordination.”2
IN A BASIC SENSE the importance of the American Revolution was summed up in Thomas Shippen’s day at Versailles. For nearly all Americans, as it was for Shippen, becoming republican was the deeply felt meaning of their revolution. They knew that by overthrowing monarchy and adopting republican governments in 1776 they had done more than eliminate a king and institute an elective system of government. Republicanism gave a moral, even utopian, significance to their revolution that had made their separation from Great Britain much more than a simple colonial rebellion. They were keenly aware that by becoming members of thirteen republics they had undertaken a bold and perhaps world-shattering experiment in self-government.
At the moment of independence that was how they thought of themselves—as thirteen separate republics. No American revolutionary even imagined the possibility of creating a strong continental-sized national republic similar to the one that was established by the Constitution a decade later in 1787–1788. In 1776 the only central authority that most Americans could conceive of was “a firm league of friendship,” or a confederation, among the thirteen individual states, similar in many respects to the present-day European Union, held together by a kind of treaty in which each state retained “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” This treaty of thirteen states held out the possibility and hope of other British provinces—Canada and East and West Florida—joining the Union. The treaty—the Articles of Confederation, as it was called—gave the United States of America a literal plural meaning that has since been lost.
Maintaining this confederation of republics would not be easy. Americans knew only too well that republics were very delicate polities that required a special kind of society—a society of equal and virtuous citizens. By throwing off monarchy and becoming republics, declared South Carolina physician and historian David Ramsay, Americans had “changed from subjects to citizens,” and “the difference is immense.” “Subjects,” he said, “look up to a master, but citizens are so far equal, that none have hereditary rights superior to others.”3 Republics demanded far more morally from their citizens than monarchies did of their subjects. In monarchies each man’s desire to do what was right in his own eyes could be restrained by fear or force, by patronage or honor, and by professional standing armies. By contrast, republics had to hold themselves together from the bottom up, ultimately, from their citizens’ willingness to take up arms to defend their country and to sacrifice their private desires for the sake of the public good—from their “disinterestedness,” which was a popular synonym for virtue. This reliance on the moral virtue of their citizens, on their capacity for self-sacrifice and impartiality of judgment, was what made republican governments historically so fragile.
Theorists from Plutarch in antiquity to Machiavelli in the Renaissance to Montesquieu in the mid-eighteenth century had argued that republics dependent upon the virtue of their citizens had to be small in size and martial in character; otherwise their citizens would have too many diverse interests and would not be able to cohere, defend themselves, and develop the proper spirit of self-sacrifice. The only republics existing in the eighteenth century—the Netherlands, the Swiss cantons, and the Italian city-states—were small and compact and no models for the sprawling United States of America. Large and socially diverse states that had tried to become republics—as England had in the seventeenth century—inevitably had ended up in military dictatorships like that of Oliver Cromwell.
As Shippen had suggested, republics were also supposed to have citizens who were more or less equal to one anther. They could have no legal or artificial aristocracies, no privileges conferred by governments, no positions based on social connections, marriage, or parentage. The social hierarchies that republics would permit would be based solely on individual merit and talent. Distinctions that did emerge would presumably have no time to harden or be perpetuated across generations. Consequently, this equality of opportunity, with individuals of successive generations rising and falling, would sustain a rough equality of condition.
Such an equality of condition was essential for republicanism. Since antiquity, theorists had assumed that a republican state required a general equality of property-holding among its citizens. Although most Americans in 1776 believed that not everyone in a republic had to have the same amount of property, a few radicals in 1776 did call for agrarian laws with “the power of lessening property when it became excessive in individuals.”4 All took for granted that a society could not long remain republican if a tiny minority controlled most of the wealth and the bulk of the population remained dependent servants or poor landless laborers. Equality was related to independence; indeed, Jefferson’s original draft for the Declaration of Independence had stated that “all men are created equal & independent.”5 Since owning property made this independence possible, all the states retained some kind of property qualification for voting or for officeholding.
Most of the Revolutionary leaders thought of property in pre-modern, almost classical terms—as rentier property, what some eighteenth-century historians have called “proprietary wealth.”6 They conceived of it as a source of authority and independence, not as a commodity or as the source of productivity and capitalistic investment. The most traditional kind of proprietary property was, of course, land; but it could take other rentier forms, such as government bonds or money out on loan.
Yet equality meant even more than having many independent landholders. The stress on the circulation of talent and on the ability of common people to elect those who had integrity and merit presumed a certain moral capacity in the populace as a whole. In the 1780s James Madison had his doubts about this moral capacity of the people stretched to the limit, but even he admitted that ordinary people had to have sufficient “virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom” or “no theoretical checks, no form of government, can render us secure.”7 Good republicans had to believe in the common sense of the common people.
Jefferson was undoubtedly correct when he later explained that when he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 its affirmation that “all men are created equal” was a widely shared belief. Writing the Declaration, he said, did not involve setting out “new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of,” but simply placing “before mankind the common sense of the subject.”8 By the latter part of the eighteenth century, to be enlightened was to believe in the natural equality of all men and to believe in the self-evident truth that all men had certain inalienable rights.
By modern standards, this declaration and these claims of equal rights smack of hypocrisy, or worse, given the severe unequal status of women, the treatment of the native peoples, and the fact that one-fifth of the American population was enslaved. To be sure, “we should not forget the restrictions placed on rights by eighteenth-century men, but to stop there,” cautions historian Lynn Hunt, “patting ourselves on the back for our own comparative ‘advancement,’ is to miss the point. How did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seemingly natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too as equals?”9
That many people had come to think of others as their equals was a crucially important development of the enlightened eighteenth century. Even those as aristocratic as the wealthy slaveholding planter William Byrd and Francis Fauquier, a colonial governor of Virginia, conceded that all men, even men of different nations and races, were born equal and that, in Byrd’s words, “the principal difference between one people and another proceeds only from the differing opportunities of improvement.” “White, Red, or Black; polished or unpolished,” declared Governor Fauquier in 1760, “Men are Men.”10 Most acknowledged that at some basic level all people were alike, that people, in the words of a Pennsylvania minister in 1790, were “all partakers of the same common nature” and that only education and cultivation separated one person from another. These were explosive assumptions—assumptions that came to dominate American thinking in the several decades following the Revolution.11
Possessing a common nature linked people together in natural affection and morality, or so the most radical reformers believed. People, however humble and uneducated, possessed a sympathetic social instinct and a moral intuition that told them right from wrong. Indeed, some liberals thought that plain unlettered people had a stronger moral sense than educated gentlemen. “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” said Jefferson; “the former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”12
These ideas lay behind Jefferson’s radical belief in minimal government. The most liberal-minded of the eighteenth century—those in the Revolution who had used terms from English politics and called themselves Whigs in opposition to the conservative and royalist Tories—tended to see society as beneficent and government as malevolent. Social honors, social distinctions, perquisites of office, business contracts, privileges and monopolies, even excessive property and wealth of various sorts—indeed, all social iniquities and deprivations—seemed to flow from connections to government. “Society,” said Thomas Paine in a brilliant summary of this radical Whig liberal view in Common Sense, “is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness.” Society “promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections,” government “negatively by restraining our vices.” Society “encourages intercourse,” government “creates distinctions.”13 If only the natural tendencies of people to love and care for one another were allowed to flow freely, unclogged by the artificial interference of government, particularly monarchical government, the most devout republicans like Paine and Jefferson believed, society would prosper and hold itself together.
Jefferson had so much confidence in the natural harmony of society that he sometimes came close to denying any role for government at all. During the 1780s he had little interest in strengthening the national government created by the Articles of Confederation. In his opinion the Confederation was little more than a temporary combination of the states brought together for the sole purpose of waging war against the British; with the peace it should be allowed to lapse. By December 1783 he thought “the constant session of Congress can not be necessary in time of peace.” After clearing up the most urgent business, the delegates, he said, should “separate and return to our respective states, leaving only a Committee of the states,” and thus “destroy the strange idea of their being a permanent body, which has unaccountably taken possession of the heads of their constituents, and occasions jealousies injurious to the public good.”14 This was a conception of the national government that Jefferson and some other optimistic republicans never entirely abandoned.
THE LIBERAL IDEAS that society was naturally harmonious and that everyone possessed a common moral and social sense were no utopian fantasies but the conclusions of what many enlightened thinkers took to be the modern science of society. While most clergymen continued to urge Christian love and charity upon their ordinary parishioners, many other educated and enlightened people sought to secularize Christian love and find in human nature itself a scientific imperative for loving one’s neighbor as oneself. “Just as the regular motions and harmony of the heavenly bodies depend upon their mutual gravitation towards each other,” said liberal Massachusetts preacher Jonathan Mayhew, so too did love and benevolence among people preserve “order and harmony” in society. Love between humans was the gravity of the moral world, and it could be studied and perhaps even manipulated more easily than the gravity of the physical world.15 Enlightened thinkers like Lord Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, and Adam Smith thus sought to discover these hidden forces that moved and held people together in the moral world, forces, they believed, that could match the great eighteenth-century scientific discoveries about the hidden forces—gravity, magnetism, electricity, and energy—that operated in the physical world. Out of such dreams was born modern social science.
Because this natural social or moral sense, said Scottish immigrant and Philadelphia lawyer James Wilson, made “a man capable of managing his own affairs, and answerable for his conduct toward others,” it not only held society together but made republican and ultimately democratic government possible.16 Indeed, for many American thinkers this natural sociability of people became a modern substitute for the ascetic classical virtue of antiquity.
Many intellectuals in the eighteenth century still clung to the value of the ancient masculine and martial virtues. Witness the acclaim that greeted Jacques-Louis David’s classical republican painting The Oath of the Horatii, exhibited in Paris in 1786. But many others like David Hume had concluded that such classical republican virtue was too demanding and too severe for the enlightened civilized societies of eighteenth-century Europe. It was true, wrote Hume, that ancient Sparta and Rome were free republican states whose citizens were virtuous and self-sacrificing. But they were also small states that were almost continually in arms. That kind of classical martial virtue no longer made sense in the enlightened eighteenth-century age of sprawling commercial societies.17
A new kind of virtue was needed, and many English-speakers, including many Americans, found it in people’s instinct to be sociable and sympathetic to one another. Virtue became less the harsh and martial self-sacrifice of antiquity and more the modern willingness to get along with others for the sake of peace and prosperity.
Everywhere in eighteenth-century America there was evidence of this natural conviviality and sociability—in coffeehouses, clubs, assemblies, and salons. People seemed more benevolent, conversations were more polite, and manners were more gracious than they had been in the past. From physician Alexander Hamilton’s Tuesday Club in Maryland to John Trumbull’s Friendly Club in Connecticut, groups of gentlemen up and down the North American continent gathered together periodically to discuss issues, write poetry, and share in each other’s company.
With this spread of politeness and civility, classical virtue had gradually become domesticated. Mingling in drawing rooms, clubs, and coffeehouses created friendship and sympathy and helped to hold society together. Some even thought that commercial exchanges and the trust and credit they bred contributed to this new conception of virtue. This modern virtue seemed softer, less masculine, and less political than the virtue of the classical past and could be expressed by women as well as men. Indeed, some said that women were even more capable than men of sociability and benevolence.18 Since republican America appeared to possess more of this moral or social sense, it seemed to some to be a much more encouraging place for women than monarchical Europe.
THE RADICAL BELIEF in the capacity of affection and benevolence to hold republican societies together may have been as unrealistic and as contrary to human nature as the traditional belief in ascetic classical virtue. Certainly hard-nosed skeptics, like Alexander Hamilton, came to doubt its efficacy. But many Revolutionary Americans imagined a new and better world emerging, a world, according to some clergymen, of “greater perfection and happiness than mankind has yet seen.” In this New World Americans would build a harmonious republican society of “comprehensive benevolence” and become “the eminent example of every divine and social virtue.”19
For some American leaders, however, the ink on the Declaration of Independence was scarcely dry before they began expressing doubts about the possibility of realizing the high hopes and dreams of the Revolution. During the following decade the doubts grew rapidly into a prevailing sense of crisis. By the 1780s the public press and private correspondence were filled with warnings that “our situation is critical and dangerous” and that “our vices” were plunging us into “national ruin.”20
The events of the 1780s seemed to point toward “some crisis, some revolution” that could not be predicted. Many, like New Yorker John Jay, secretary for foreign affairs under the Confederation, found themselves uneasy, “more so than during the war.” Then there had been a “fixed object,” and though the means and timing were questionable, few had doubted the ultimate victory. With the coming of peace in 1783 “the case is now altered.” Americans could see ahead of them only “evils and calamities, but without being able to guess at the instrument, nature, or measure of them.”21Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush even thought that the American people were on the verge of “degenerating into savages or devouring each other like beasts of prey.” Rush may have had a hyperactive imagination, but even the more sober and restrained George Washington was in 1786 astonished at the changes that had taken place in a decade’s time. “From the high ground we stood upon, the plain path which invited our footsteps, to be so fallen! So lost! It is really mortifying.”22
These expressions seem greatly exaggerated. Despite a temporary recession following the end of the war, the decade of the 1780s was generally a time of great expansion and release of energy. The population grew as never before or since; indeed, the 1780s witnessed the greatest demographic growth of any decade in American history. “There is not upon the face of the earth a body of people more happy or rising into consequence with more rapid stride, than the Inhabitants of the United States of America,” the secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson, told Jefferson in 1786. “Population is encreasing, new houses building, new lands clearing, new settlements forming, and new manufacture establishing with a rapidity beyond conception.” Amid all the expressions of crisis, the mood among the common people was high, expectant, and far from bleak. “If we are undone,” declared a bewildered South Carolinian, “we are the most splendidly ruined of any nation in the universe.”23
Yet there are all these hand-wringing and despairing statements in the 1780s, which were often made not in the frenzy of public debate but in the privacy of letters to friends. Why would Americans have lost their nerve so quickly? Why did some men, members of the gentlemanly elite, think America was in a crisis?
There were, of course, many defects in the Articles of Confederation that had become obvious by the 1780s. Lacking the powers to tax and to regulate the nation’s commerce, the Confederation Congress could neither pay off the debts the United States had incurred during the Revolution nor retaliate against the mercantilist trade policies of the European states, particularly Great Britain. At the same time, the new republican confederacy was hard-pressed to maintain its independence in a world of hostile monarchical empires. Britain refused to send a minister to the United States and ignored its treaty obligations to evacuate from American territory in the Northwest. In the Southwest Spain refused to recognize American claims to the territory between Florida and the Ohio River and was trying to use its ability to close the Mississippi to American trade to bring American settlers moving into Kentucky and Tennessee under its control. By 1786 all these problems, both domestic and international, had created mounting pressure to reform the Articles.
Yet it was not the defects of the Articles of Confederation by themselves that were causing the sense of crisis. These defects were correctable and were scarcely capable of eliciting the many expressions of horror and despair.
To be sure, these defects did make possible the calling of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 to amend the Articles. Almost every political leader in the country, including most of the later opponents of the Constitution, wanted something done to strengthen the Articles of Confederation and make the United States a more respectable nation. Since most were willing to grant the Congress at least a limited authority to tax and the power to regulate commerce, nearly everyone supported the meeting of the Convention, which presumably was only going to revise the Articles. Hence many were as surprised by the results as John Tyler of Virginia was. Tyler had expected the Convention to vote a necessary power to regulate commerce. “But,” he said, “it never entered into my head that we should quit liberty and throw ourselves into the hands of an energetic government.” Tyler, like many others who came to oppose the Constitution, discovered that the Convention had presented them with much more than they had bargained for.24
Thus the deficiencies of the Confederation themselves cannot account for the unprecedented nature of the Constitution created in 1787. By establishing a strong national government that operated directly on individuals, the Constitution went far beyond what the weaknesses of the Articles demanded. Granting Congress the authority to raise revenue, to regulate trade, to pay off its debts, and to deal effectively in international affairs did not require the total scrapping of the Articles and the creation of an extraordinarily powerful and distant national government, the likes of which were virtually inconceivable a decade earlier. To James Madison, the putative father of the Constitution, the document of 1787 became the solution for the “multiplicity,” “mutability,” and “injustice” of state legislation over the previous decade, what were often referred to as the “excesses of democracy.” It was the popular behavior of the state legislatures in the decade following the Declaration of Independence that lay behind the elite’s sense of crisis.
The abuses of the state legislatures, said Madison, were “so frequent and so flagrant as to alarm the most stedfast friends of Republicanism”; and these abuses, he told Jefferson in the fall of 1787, “contributed more to that uneasiness which produced the Convention, and prepared the public mind for a general reform than those which accrued to our national character and interest from the inadequacy of the Confederation to its immediate objects.”25
The Revolution had greatly democratized the state legislatures, both by increasing the number of their members and by broadening their electorates. Many ordinary men of more humble and rural origins and less education than had sat in the colonial assemblies had been elected as representatives. In New Hampshire, for example, the colonial assembly in 1765 had contained only thirty-four members, almost all well-to-do gentlemen from the coastal region around Portsmouth. By 1786 the state’s house of representatives numbered eighty-eight members, most of whom were ordinary farmers or men of moderate wealth from the western areas of the state. In other states the changes were less striking but no less important. Many of the state capitals were moved from their former colonial locations on the eastern coastline to new sites in the interior.26
In all the states electioneering and the open competition for office had expanded dramatically, along with demands for greater public access to governmental activities. The number of contested elections and the turnover of legislative seats multiplied. During the eighteenth century the colonial assemblies had attained a high degree of stability with very little change in membership from year to year. The Revolution had reversed all that. By the 1780s annual elections of the legislatures (a radical innovation in most states) were often replacing half or more of the representatives every year. The colonial assemblies had remained closed to the public; even the record of the legislators’ votes had often been considered privileged information. The new republican legislatures built galleries and opened their proceedings to the public, and a growing number of newspapers, including dailies, began to report legislative debates.
Everywhere self-appointed leaders, speaking for newly aroused groups and localities, had taken advantage of the expanded suffrage and the annual elections to seek membership in the assemblies. New petty entrepreneurs like Abraham Yates Jr., a part-time lawyer and shoemaker of Albany, and William Findley, a Scots-Irish ex-weaver of western Pennsylvania, had vaulted into political leadership in the states. In the eyes of the more established gentlemen who had gone to Harvard or the College of New Jersey in Princeton, these popular upstarts with interests to promote seemed incapable of the kind of disinterested character that republican political leaders were supposed to display. Alexander Hamilton, for example, thought that Yates was “a man whose ignorance and perverseness are only surpassed by his pertinacity and conceit.” The state legislatures, concluded Robert R. Livingston of New York, had become full of men “unimproved by education and unreformed by honor.”27
Under these turbulent circumstances the state legislatures could scarcely fulfill what many Revolutionary leaders in 1776 had assumed was their republican responsibility to promote a unitary public interest distinguishable from the private and parochial interests of individuals. By the 1780s it was obvious to many, including Madison, that “a spirit of locality” was destroying “the aggregate interests of the community.” Everywhere the gentry leaders complained of popular legislative practices that today are taken for granted—logrolling, horse-trading, and pork-barreling that benefited special and local interest groups. Each representative, grumbled Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College, was concerned only with the particular interests of his electors. Whenever a bill was read in the legislature, “every one instantly thinks how it will affect his constituents.” Instead of electing men to office “for their abilities, integrity and patriotism,” the people, said Stiles, were much more likely to vote for someone “from some mean, interested, or capricious motive.”28
Parochial politics of this kind was not new to America; after all, the colonial assemblies had spent much of their time fixing the height of fence posts and adjudicating all sorts of petty local grievances. But the nature and scale of this post-Revolutionary parochial politics were new. Constituents were pressuring their representatives to legislate on behalf of their interests, which were usually economic or commercial. Taxes in the states were two to three times higher than they had been before the Revolution, and many people were angry, especially since many of the taxes were laid directly on polls and property. Thus farmers in debt urged the lowering of taxes, or at least greater reliance on tariffs rather than direct taxes on persons and land; they also advocated the suspension of court actions to recover debts and the continued printing of paper money. And although they were willing to resort to violence if the tax burden became too heavy, as events in several states revealed, they were discovering that electing the right candidates was more effective.
Other groups also had their special interests to promote. Merchants and creditors called for high taxes on land in place of tariffs, less paper money, the protection of private contracts, and the encouragement of foreign trade. Artisans lobbied for the regulation of the prices of agricultural products, the abolition of mercantile monopolies, and tariff protection against imported manufactured goods. Entrepreneurs everywhere petitioned for legal privileges and corporate grants. And in the state legislatures representatives of these interests were passing laws on their behalf, in effect, becoming judges in their own causes.
All this political scrambling among contending interests made lawmaking in the states seem chaotic. Laws, as the Vermont Council of Censors said in 1786 in a common complaint, were “altered—realtered—made better—made worse; and kept in such a fluctuating position, that persons in civil commission scarce know what is law.”29 Indeed, Madison in 1787 said that the states had enacted more laws in the decade since independence than had been enacted in the entire colonial period. No wonder he concluded that the lack of “wisdom and steadiness” in legislation was “the grievance complained of in all of our republics.”30
All these legislative efforts to respond to the excited pleas and pressures of the various interests alienated as many people as they pleased and brought lawmaking itself into contempt, at least in the eyes of elites. By excessively printing paper money and creating currency inflation and by enacting laws on behalf of debtors, the popularly elected representatives in the state legislatures were violating the individual rights of creditors and other property-holders.
Bondholders and those with money out on loan were especially vulnerable to inflation, which is why many leaders became so frightened by the paper money emissions and other debtor relief legislation passed by the state assemblies in the 1780 s. Inflation threatened not simply the livelihood of creditors and elites with proprietary wealth but their authority and independence as well. Although leaders like Madison often regarded the advocates of paper money and debtor relief schemes in the 1780s as little better than levelers, unconcerned with the rights of property, those popular advocates of paper money and easy credit were neither property-less masses nor destitute radicals opposed to the private ownership of property. They were themselves property owners, sometimes wealthy ones, who believed in the sacredness of property as much as Madison. Only it was usually a different kind of property they were promoting—modern, risk-taking property, property as a commodity; dynamic, entrepreneurial property; venture capital, even when it was land; not money out on loan, but money borrowed; in fact, all the paper money that enterprising farmers and proto-businessmen clamored for in these years.
By the 1780s it seemed as if the majorities of the popular legislatures had become just as dangerous to individual liberties as the detested royal governors had been. “173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one,” wrote Jefferson in 1785 in his Notes on the State of Virginia. “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.”31
Most alarming to leaders like Madison was the fact that these abuses of individual rights by the state legislatures were backed by the bulk of the electorates in each state. In the 1770s the Revolutionaries had not conceived of the possibility of the people becoming tyrannical. When Tories had suggested in 1775 that the people might indeed abuse their power, good Whig patriots like John Adams had dismissed the notion as illogical: “a democratic despotism is a contradiction in terms.”32 The crown or executive authority was the only possible source of tyranny; the people could never tyrannize themselves.
But by the 1780s many leaders had come to realize that the Revolution had unleashed social and political forces that they had not anticipated and that the “excesses of democracy” threatened the very essence of their republican revolution. The behavior of the state legislatures, in the despairing words of Madison, had called “into question the fundamental principle of republican Government, that the majority who rule in such governments are the safest Guardians both of Public Good and private rights.”33 This was the issue that made the 1780s so critical to large numbers of American leaders.
Liberals everywhere in the Western world were anxiously watching to see what would happen to the new American republics. If the expectations of 1776 should prove illusionary, if republican self-government could not survive, then, as the English radical Richard Price told Americans in 1785, “the consequence will be, that the fairest experiment ever tried in human affairs will miscarry; and that a REVOLUTION which had revived the hopes of good men and promised an opening to better times, will become a discouragement to all future efforts in favour of liberty, and prove only an opening to a new scene of human degeneracy and misery.”34
BY 1787 MANY of the Revolutionary leaders had retreated from the republican idealism of 1775–1776. People were not going to be selfless and keep their private interests out of the public arena after all. Almost from the outset Washington had realized that to expect ordinary people, such “as compose the bulk of an Army,” to be “influenced by any other principles than those of Interest, is to look for what never did, and I fear never will happen.” Even most officers could not be expected to sacrifice their private interests and their families for the sake of their country. “The few, therefore, who act upon Principles of disinterestedness,” Washington concluded, “are, comparatively speaking, no more than a drop in the Ocean.”35
Looking around at aggressive debtor farmers, engrossing merchants, and factious legislators, many could only conclude that private interest ruled most social relationships. The American people, wrote Governor William Livingston of New Jersey in a common reckoning of 1787, “do not exhibit the virtue that is necessary to support a republican government.”36 The behavior of the popularly elected state legislatures revealed to the Revolutionary leaders an unanticipated dark underside to democracy and equality. Because the Revolution had made the people the sole source of authority in the thirteen republics, there seemed little that could be done about it. In an untitled play written by Yale students and performed for their classmates in 1784, one of the characters is warned against speaking out against the will of the people. “I must confess,” the character responds, “this is something very singular, that a person must be cautioned against speaking his sentiments upon any political point in a free state.—but sir, we have a new set of folk lately come upon the stage.”37
Most Revolutionary leaders had not foreseen a “new set of folk” emerging in politics. They knew, of course, that the common people could occasionally get out of hand and riot. In 1774 the conservative New Yorker Gouverneur Morris had warned that “the mob begin to think and reason. Poor reptiles! It is with them a vernal morning; they are struggling to cast off their winter’s slough, they bask in the sunshine, and ere noon they will bite, depend upon it.” Although many of the leaders certainly did begin to fear the spread of disorder among the lower orders and the possibility of coming “under the domination of a riotous mob,” they had taken such occurrences more or less in stride for years.
Mobbing was one thing; having common people actually holding high offices of government was quite another, and Morris had not seen it coming. He had focused his fears on the mobs themselves while dismissing their leaders, Isaac Sears and John Lamb, as “unimportant persons.”38 Yet the crisis of the 1780s did not come from men like Sears and Lamb leading mobs; elites could deal with popular mobs, as they had in the past. Instead, the crisis came from the election in the 1780s of such “unimportant persons” to the state legislatures, in Sears’s and Lamb’s case to the New York assembly; in a republican elective system, that was a situation not so easily dealt with.
When the Revolutionary leaders had asserted that all men were created equal, most had not imagined that ordinary people, farmers, artisans, and other workers would actually come to hold high governmental office. Men were equal at birth and in their rights, but not in ability and character. “The rights of mankind are simple,” said Benjamin Rush in 1787, expressing views that even those liberals like Jefferson with a magnanimous view of human nature would have endorsed. “They require no learning to unfold them. They are better felt, than explained. Hence in matters that relate to liberty, the mechanic and the philosopher, the farmer and the scholar, are all upon a footing. But the case is widely different with respect to government. It is a complicated science, and requires abilities and knowledge of a variety of other subjects, to understand it.”39
Average Americans who had occupations and had to work with their hands for a living lacked the proper qualifications for virtuous and disinterested public leadership. In the ideal polity, Aristotle had written thousands of years earlier, “the citizen must not live a mechanical or commercial life. Such a life is not noble, and it militates against virtue.” According to Aristotle artisans, agricultural workers, even businessmen, could not be citizens. For men “must have leisure to develop their virtue and for the activities of a citizen.”40
In the late eighteenth century some of this ancient prejudice against artisans and other workers participating in government still remained. “Nature never intended that such men should be profound politicians or able statesmen,” declared Oxford-trained William Henry Drayton of South Carolina on the eve of the Revolution. How could “men who never were in a way to study, or to advise upon any points, but knew only rules how to cut up a beast in a market to the best advantage, to cobble an old shoe in the neatest manner, or to build a necessary house”—how could such men claim a role in government? They were not gentlemen.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN gentlemen and commoners, this “most ancient and universal of all Divisions of People,” as John Adams called it, was a crucially important horizontal cleavage in a largely vertically organized eighteenth-century society in which most people were more aware of those above and below them than of those alongside them. This division may even have been more conspicuous to some contemporaries than the horizontal line separating freemen from slaves.41
A gentleman, as that eighteenth-century connoisseur of English manners Lord Chesterfield defined him, was “a man of good behavior, well bred, amiable, high-minded, who knows how to act in any society, in the company of any man.”42 Gentlemen, who composed 5 to 10 percent of American society—fewer in the South than in the North—walked and talked in certain ways and dressed distinctively and fashionably. In contrast to the plain shirts, leather aprons, and buckskin breeches of ordinary men, gentlemen wore lace ruffles, silk stockings, and other finery. Unlike common people, they wore wigs or powdered their hair. They learned to dance and sometimes to fence and to play a musical instrument. They prided themselves on their classical learning and often took great pains to display it. They even had their own sense of honor, which they sometimes upheld by challenging other gentlemen to duels.
Although American gentlemen, such as the Southern landed planters George Washington and Thomas Jefferson or the Northern attorneys John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, in no way resembled the elaborately titled English nobility or the legally privileged French aristocracy, they nonetheless tended to consider themselves as aristocrats, “natural aristocrats,” as both Jefferson and the New York farmer and self-made merchant Melancton Smith called them.43
They were different from ordinary folk because as gentlemen they did not have occupations, which meant, as the New Yorker Smith said, they were “not obliged to use the pains and labour to procure property.”44 Being a lawyer, a physician, a clergyman, a military officer, in other words, being members of what were beginning to be called “professions,” was not yet considered having an occupation. Lawyers, for example, often tried to assure themselves and others that they were really gentlemen who only occasionally practiced some law. For such men, such as young Thomas Shippen, law was not as much a skilled profession as it was a desirable attribute of a man of learning, one, as James Kent told his Columbia law students in 1794, that ought to be “usefully known by every Gentleman of Polite Education.” Such gentlemen-lawyers were expected to read Horace as well as Blackstone, Cicero as well as Coke, history and poetry as well as common law books. Early in his adult life Jefferson had been a lawyer, but he scarcely resembled a modern practitioner calculating billable hours. He believed that the law, like all of learning, was important for a variety of reasons. “It qualifies a man to be useful to himself, to his neighbors, and to the public. It is the most certain stepping stone to preferment in the political line.”45
Early in his career John Adams, the ambitious son of a small-town Massachusetts farmer, had struggled to fashion himself into a polite and enlightened gentleman. In 1761, at age twenty-six, he may have still been unsure of his own gentility, but at least he knew who was not a gentleman. That person was someone who “neither by Birth, Education, Office, Reputation, or Employment,” nor by “Thought, Word, or Deed,” could pass himself off as a gentleman. A person who springs “from ordinary Parents,” who “can scarcely write his Name,” whose “Business is Boating,” who “never had any Commissions”—to call such a person a gentleman was “an arrant Prostitution of the Title.”46
Adams had attended Harvard College, and that for him had clinched his gentility. By the time the Constitution was being written, he had come to know who a proper gentleman was: he was someone who had received a liberal arts education in a college. (Perhaps this became Adams’s exclusive criterion of gentility precisely because the rivals of whom he was most jealous, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, had not attended college.) “By gentlemen,” he wrote in 1787, “are not meant the rich or the poor, the high-born or the low-born, the industrious or the idle: but all those who have received a liberal education, an ordinary degree of erudition in liberal arts and sciences. Whether by birth they be descended from magistrates and officers of government, or from husbandmen, merchants, mechanics, or laborers; or whether they be rich or poor.”47
By a liberal arts education Adams meant acquiring all those genteel qualities that were supposed to be the prerequisites to becoming a political leader. It meant being cosmopolitan, standing on elevated ground in order to have a large view of human affairs, being free of the prejudices, parochialism, and religious enthusiasm of the vulgar and barbaric, and having the ability to make disinterested judgments about the various contending interests in the society. Of course, as Noah Webster said, having a liberal arts education—and becoming a gentleman—”disqualifies a man for business.”48 Conventional wisdom, in other words, held that businessmen could not be gentlemen.
Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations (1776) claimed that businessmen could not be good political leaders. Smith thought that businessmen in a modern complicated commercial society were too engaged in their occupations and the making of money to be able to make impartial judgments about the varied interests of their society. Only “those few . . . attached to no particular occupation themselves”—by which Smith meant the English landed gentry—”have leisure and inclination to examine the occupations of other people.”49
These independent gentlemen of leisure who were presumed to be free of money-grubbing were expected to supply the necessary leadership in government. This leisure was what gave the slaveholding Virginians such an advantage in holding public office. Since well-to-do gentry were “exempted from the lower and less honourable employments,” wrote the British philosopher Francis Hutcheson, they were “rather more than others obliged to an active life in some service to mankind. The publick has this claim upon them.”50 All the American Founders felt the weight of this claim, and they often agonized and complained about it.
The Revolutionary leaders did not conceive of politics as a profession and officeholding as a career. Like Jefferson, they believed that “in a virtuous government . . . public offices are what they should be, burthens to those appointed to them, which it would be wrong to decline, though foreseen to bring with them intense labor, and great private loss.” They did not like electioneering or political parties, and they regarded public office as an obligation required of certain gentlemen because of their talents, independence, social preeminence, and leisure. Benjamin Franklin never thought his accomplishments in science could begin to compare with the public’s demand for his service. He even went so far as to say that “the finest” of Newton’s “Discoveries” could not have excused the great scientist’s neglect of serving the commonwealth, if the public had needed him.51 Franklin had always stressed that he was an independent gentleman whose offices were obligations thrust upon him. In not one of fourteen elections, he insisted, “did I ever appear as a candidate. I never did, directly or indirectly, solicit any man’s vote.”52 Showing oneself eager for office was a sign of being unworthy of it, for the office-seeker probably had selfish views rather than the public good in mind.
Since politics was not yet regarded as a profession, the political office-holder was supposed to want to return to private life after serving the public; and this classical ideal remained strong. Washington’s fame as a modern Cincinnatus in the 1780s came from his eagerness to surrender his sword and return to Mount Vernon. In ancient Rome, declared James Wilson, magistrates and army officers were always gentlemen-farmers, always willing to step down “from the elevation of office” and reassume “with contentment and with pleasure, the peaceful labours of a rural and independent life.” John Dickinson’s pose in 1767 as a “Pennsylvania Farmer” is incomprehensible except within this classical tradition. Dickinson was in fact a wealthy and busy Philadelphia lawyer, but he needed to assure his readers that he was free of marketplace interests by informing them at the outset that he was a farmer, “contented” and “undisturbed by worldly hopes or fears.”53
Those who had worldly hopes and fears, especially men, in Melancton Smith’s words, who were “obliged to employ their time in their respective callings,” were presumed to have so many overpowering private interests as to be incapable of promoting the public interest. Prominent merchants dealing in international trade brought wealth into the society and were thus valuable members of the community; but their status as independent gentlemen was always tainted by their concern, as the distinguished Massachusetts minister Charles Chauncey once put it, to “serve their own private separate interest.”54 Wealthy merchants like John Hancock and Henry Laurens who wanted a role in politics had known this, and during the imperial crisis both had shed their mercantile business and sought to ennoble themselves. Hancock spent lavishly, bought every imaginable luxury, and patronized everyone. He went through the fortune he had inherited from his uncle, but in the process he became the single most popular and powerful figure in Massachusetts politics during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Laurens knew only too well the contempt in which trading was held in aristocratic South Carolina, and in the 1760s he had begun curtailing his merchant activities. During the Revolution he became president of the Continental Congress and was able to sneer at all those merchants who were still busy making money. “How hard it is,” he had the gall to say in 1779, “for a rich or covetous man to enter heartily into the kingdom of patriotism.”55
If successful tradesmen and mechanics, such as Roger Sherman of Connecticut, wanted high political office, they had to abandon their occupations. Only when wealthy Benjamin Franklin had retired from his printing business in 1748 did “the Publick,” as he wrote in his Autobiography, “now considering me as a Man of Leisure,” lay hold of him and bring him into an increasing number of important political offices.56 Thus, leisure in a classical sense was highly valued. In fact, the Virginia Revolutionaries in 1776 had originally adopted as the motto for the state seal Deus nobis haec otia fecit (God bestowed upon us this leisure). Only in 1779, after Jefferson and others protested that this was not the best message to set forth in the midst of a war, was the motto replaced by Perseverando (By persevering).57
Having sufficient leisure remained important for gentry status even in the North, which had far fewer slaves than the South. Members of the learned professions were usually considered gentlemen, particularly if they had been liberally educated in college. But were they impartial and disinterested? Were they free of the marketplace? Did they have enough leisure to be able to serve the public virtuously? The Philadelphia lawyer James Wilson thought so. So did Alexander Hamilton. In Federalist No. 35, Hamilton argued passionately that, unlike merchants, mechanics, and farmers, “the learned professions,” by which he meant mainly lawyers, “truly form no distinct interest in society.” Thus they “will feel a neutrality to the rival-ships between the different branches of industry” and will be most likely to be “an impartial arbiter” between the diverse interests of the society.58
BY THE 1780s all these classical ideals of political leadership were losing much of their meaning, particularly in the Northern states. The line between the gentry and the common people, never very strong to begin with in America, was becoming seriously blurred. The distance that traditionally had separated the social ranks from one another was collapsing, and subordinates no longer felt the same awe and respect in the presence of their superiors that they had in the past. Everywhere, but especially in the North, growing numbers of ordinary folk used the popular and egalitarian rhetoric of the Revolution to challenge their so-called gentlemanly superiors. If only acquired and learned attributes and not those of blood and birth separated one man from another, then these challenges were hard to resist. Although the aspiring commoners lacked many of the attributes of gentility, more and more of them were becoming quite wealthy, literate, and independent; and they were aping the gentry in a variety of ways, particularly by displaying consumer goods that had traditionally belonged exclusively to the gentry.59
So scrambled was the social hierarchy becoming that men struggled to identify the various degrees and ranks that were emerging. Most people did not yet think explicitly in terms of modern “classes”—those horizontal layers of income and occupation standing in an antagonistic relationship to one another that would become common forms of identity in the nineteenth century. Instead, most late eighteenth-century commentators talked about sorts—”the better sort,” “the meaner sort,” “the ruder sort,” “the lower sort,” and, increasingly, “the middling sort.”
These “middling sorts” were middling because they could not be classified either as gentlemen or as out-and-out commoners. They could not be gentlemen, because they had occupations and worked for a living with their hands; even artisans who employed dozens of journeymen-employees were regarded as something less than gentlemen. At the same time, however, these middling sorts, such as the petty New York merchants Isaac Sears and John Lamb, were often too well-off or too refined and knowledgeable to be placed among “the lower sort” or “the meaner sort.” Of the three thousand adult males in Boston in 1790, for example, eighteen hundred or 60 percent made up the middling sort; they were the artisans or mechanics, the laboring proprietors, who held 36 percent of the taxable wealth of the city and constituted the majority of its property-holders.60
From the beginning of the eighteenth-century thinkers like Daniel Defoe had tried to explain and justify these emerging middling people, including the “working trades, who labour hard but feel no want.”61 These well-to-do working people with property, like the young printer Benjamin Franklin, increasingly had prided themselves on their separation from the common idleness and dissipation of the gentry above them and the property-less poor beneath them. “It was, in fact, the unique combination of work and property,” as one perceptive scholar of this social group has put it, “that distinguished the ‘middling sort’ from the elite who owned but did not engage in productive labor, and from the wage earners who labored but did not own.” These were the beginnings of what would become the middle class of the nineteenth century.62
Although the gentry still tended to lump these middling sorts who had occupations and worked openly for money with the lower orders of wage-earners in the single category of commoners, many of these middling people saw themselves as the equals of the so-called aristocracy or gentry and were eager to use the republican emphasis on equality to contest those above them. Many of them had wealth enough, and they could not see why they should not be regarded as gentlemen too. Or if they themselves were not to be considered gentlemen, then they hoped, as one Pennsylvania radical put it in 1775, to bring “gentlemen . . . down to our level,” and ensure that “all ranks and conditions would come in for their just share of the wealth.”63 Other middling sorts were becoming increasingly self-conscious of their separate but equal status and began, for example, to contest the right of the gentry to sit in separate boxes in the theaters. Some of them even took to writing plays and building theaters designed for their own middling kind.64
Of course, there were immense differences among these middling sorts. The artisans or mechanics, for example, ranged from the very wealthy to the marginally poor. Some, such as bakers and bricklayers, required large amounts of capital for entry into the trade and thus were richer than most. Others, such as goldsmiths and clockmakers, required specialized skills that restricted their numbers and raised their incomes. And still others, such as weavers and shoemakers, were more lowly and poorer. But all these tradesmen and other middling persons tended to be united in a common antagonism to the would-be aristocracy above them.
The social struggle that took place during the three or four decades following the Revolution, especially in the Northern states of America, was essentially between these middling people and the gentry-aristocracy who claimed to be “exalted above the rest.”65 Everywhere, but particularly in the North, tens of thousands of ambitious middling men—commercial farmers, master artisans, traders, shopkeepers, petty merchants, and all those who later came to be called businessmen——were acquiring not only considerable wealth but also some learning, some politeness, and some awareness of the larger world.
By the 1780s the would-be aristocrats were finding it difficult to resist such challenges. In his debate with some middling sorts in the New York ratifying convention in 1788, Alexander Hamilton conceded that in America every governor, every member of Congress, every magistrate, and every militia officer, indeed, “every distinguished man was an aristocrat.”66 If this were the case, then anyone elected or appointed to these offices thereby became a gentleman-aristocrat. The problem had become evident during the Revolutionary War. Much to the chagrin of the more established gentry, such middling sorts—”the Sons of Farmers or Mechanicks, who had quit the Plow or Workshop” to join the army as officers—had tried to use their commissions as junior officers to claim the status of gentlemen. Middling men elected to political office in the 1780s were doing the same: they were asserting their gentry status by the fact of election alone, without having acquired all the cultural attributes of gentlemen.67
These middling sorts launched the momentous social struggle that eventually turned them into the dominant “middle class” of the nineteenth century. When men at the time talked about the contest between the few and the many, or the aristocracy and the democracy, taking place in the society of the early Republic, it is this social struggle they are referring to.68
Historians have interpreted this complicated social struggle in very different ways. Some have denied that there was a social contest at all, contending that the Revolution had no social causes or consequences whatsoever and was simply a war for independence. Others have agreed that there was a struggle but have seen it in exclusively economic rather than social terms, with a few moneyed men exploiting the common workers. And still others have differed over who the contestants were and who was oppressing whom.69 Yet the struggle was very real, and it fundamentally changed American society in the decades following the Revolution, particularly in the North.
THE FEDERAL CONSTITUTION of 1787 was designed in part to solve the problems created by the presence in the state legislatures of these middling men. In addition to correcting the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution was intended to restrain the excesses of democracy and protect minority rights from overbearing majorities in the state legislatures. But could that be done within a republican framework? Some thought not. “You may think it very Extraordinary,” Joseph Savage of New Jersey told his son in July 1787, “but the better sort of people are very desirous of a Monarchical government and are in daily Expectation of having it recommended by those Gentlemen in Philadelphia.”70 Of course, the middling sorts in the states did not think there was too much democracy in the various legislatures; on the contrary, because of the heavy taxes they were paying, they thought there was not enough democracy.
Certainly no one described the crisis of American politics in 1787 more acutely than did the thirty-six-year-old Virginian James Madison. Madison had become a member of the Continental Congress at age twenty-eight and was thoroughly familiar with the Confederation’s weaknesses. Indeed, throughout the middle 1780s he, along with other national leaders, had wrestled with various schemes for overhauling the Articles of Confederation. But it was his experience serving in the Virginia assembly in 1784–1787 that convinced him that the real problem of American politics lay in the state legislatures. During the 1780s he saw many of his and Jefferson’s plans for reform mangled by factional fighting and majoritarian confusion in the Virginia assembly. More than any other Founder, Madison questioned the conventional wisdom of the age concerning majority rule, the proper size for a republic, and the role of factions in society. His thinking about the problems of creating republican governments and his writing of the Virginia Plan in 1787, which became the working model for the Constitution, constituted one of the most creative moments in the history of American politics.
Yet Madison’s conception of a proper national government expressed in his Virginia Plan was very different from that of many of his fellow supporters of the Constitution. Although Madison very much desired to transcend the states and build a nation in 1787, his idea of the role of the proposed central government was very judicial-like.
No government, Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, could be just if parties, that is, people with private interests to promote, became judges in their own causes; indeed, interested majorities in the legislatures were no better in this respect than interested minorities. Madison’s solution to this problem was to create a national government that he hoped would be a kind of impartial super-judge over all the competing interests in the society. The new Constitution would create, he said, a “disinterested & dispassionate umpire in disputes between different passions & interests” in the various states.71 In fact, he hoped the new government might play the same super-political neutral role that the British king ideally had been supposed to play in the empire.
Madison had little or no interest in creating the sort of modern European-like war-making state with an energetic and powerful executive that other nationalists such as Alexander Hamilton wanted. In fact, Madison seems to have never much valued executive authority as a means of countering legislative abuses, even in the states, and his conception of the executive in the new national government remained hazy at best. As late as April 1787 he told Washington that he had “scarcely ventured as yet to form my own opinion either of the manner in which [the executive] ought to be constituted or of the authorities with which it ought to be cloathed.”72
Through much of the Convention he assumed that the powers over appointment to offices and the conduct of foreign affairs would be assigned to the Senate, not the president. Only in mid-August 1787, three months into the Convention, when Madison and other nationalists became alarmed by the states gaining equal representation in the Senate, were these powers taken away from the state-dominated Senate and granted to the president. Madison and others so feared the state legislatures, each of which would elect two senators under the “Connecticut Compromise,” that they no longer wanted the Senate to have the degree of power earlier granted to it when it would have been proportionally elected and would not have represented the states.
Although the final version of the new Constitution eliminated what Madison regarded as essential parts of his Virginia Plan, including proportional representation in both houses of Congress, it did retain the tripartite structure of an executive, a bicameral legislature, and a judiciary. The Constitution corrected the deficiencies of the Confederation by granting the new national government some extraordinary powers, powers that ambitious state-builders could exploit. The Convention, however, rejected Madison’s impractical plan for a national congressional veto over all state laws, a rejection that Madison feared would doom the Constitution to failure. Instead, the Convention in Article I, Section 10, prohibited the states from exercising a remarkable number of powers, including levying import or export duties, printing paper money, and enacting various debtor relief laws and laws impairing contracts. But if these prohibitions were not enough to prevent the excesses of localist and interest-ridden democracy in the states, then the expanded and elevated structure of the federal government itself was designed to help.
Madison and other supporters of the Constitution—the Federalists, as they called themselves—hoped that an expanded national sphere of operation would prevent the diverse and clashing interests of the society from combining to create tyrannical majorities in the new national government. Madison understood that it had worked that way in American religion: the multiplicity of religious sects prevented any one of them from dominating the state and permitted the enlightened reason of liberal gentlemen like Jefferson and himself to shape public policy and church-state relations and to protect the rights of minorities. “In a free government,” wrote Madison in Federalist No. 51, “the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”73
Madison, however, did not expect the new federal government to be neutralized into inactivity by competition among these numerous diverse interests. He did not envision public policy or the common good of the national government emerging naturally from the give-and-take of hosts of clashing private interests. Instead, he expected that these interests 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.74
As “an auxiliary desideratum” to his scheme, Madison predicted that the elevated and expanded sphere of national politics would act as a filter, refining the kind of men who would become these national umpires.75 In a larger arena of national politics with an expanded electorate and a smaller number of representatives, the people were more apt to ignore the illiberal narrow-minded men with “factious tempers” and “local prejudices,” the middling men who had dominated the state legislatures in the 1780s, and instead elect to the new federal government only disinterested gentlemen.76 One has only to compare the sixty-five representatives who were designated for the first national Congress with the thousand or more representatives in the state legislatures to understand what this filtering and refining process of the Constitution might mean socially and politically.
Most of the Revolutionary leaders, in other words, continued to hold out the possibility of virtuous politics, practiced by at least a few in the society. Amid all the scrambling of private interests, perhaps only a few were capable of becoming founders and legislators, who, as Hamilton said, from their “commanding eminence . . . look down with contempt upon every mean or interested pursuit.” “The rich,” declared Robert R. Livingston in the New York ratifying convention, possessed “a more disinterested emotion” than ordinary people, who tended to be “most occupied by their cares and distresses.”77 Even Jefferson admitted that only those few “whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue” could “be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.”78 Only a few were liberally educated and cosmopolitan enough to have the breadth of perspective to comprehend all the different interests of the society; and only a few were independent and unbiased enough to adjudicate among these different interests and advance the public rather than a private good.
Such an elitist conception of the Constitution was bound to arouse opposition in an America that was becoming increasingly egalitarian and filled with ambitious middling people who wanted a say in how they were governed. Indeed, as John Dickinson warned his colleagues in the Philadelphia Convention, “when this plan goes forth, it will be attacked by the popular leaders. Aristocracy will be the watchword: the Shibboleth among its adversaries.”79
Dickinson was not wrong. Confronted with the new elevated federal government, the opponents of the Constitution, or the Anti-Federalists, as they were called, could only conclude that the proposed Constitution was a document designed to foist an aristocratic government of “Powdered heads” on republican America.80 Although some of the prominent Anti-Federalists, such as George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, and Elbridge Gerry, were themselves aristocratic gentlemen, most of the opponents of the Constitution were ordinary middling men such as Melancton Smith, William Findley, and John Lamb—spokesmen for the market farmers, shopkeepers, traders, and paper money borrowers who represented the future dominant force of American society, at least in the Northern states of America. And they did not hesitate to lash out at the Federalists for promoting a government in which, as the New York Anti-Federalist Smith put it, “none but the great will be chosen.”81
In the egalitarian atmosphere created by the Revolution, no accusation could be more effective. The declaration in the Constitution that “no Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States” was now interpreted to mean that no one should be set apart from the body of the people.82 As the poet Joel Barlow noted, the very word “people” had come to mean something different in America than in Europe. In Europe the people remained only a portion of the society—the poor, the canaille, the rabble, the miserables, the menu peuple, the Pöbel. But in America, as Fisher Ames pointed out, “the class called vulgar, canaille, rabble, so numerous there, does not exist.”83 The people had become the whole society and were taking on a quasi-sacred character. In America there were no orders, no hereditary aristocracy, no estates separate from the people.
Some American gentry may have expressed contempt for ordinary folk in the privacy of their dining rooms, but it was no longer possible for an American leader to refer to the people in public as the common “herd.” During the Virginia ratifying convention in June 1788 Edmund Randolph used just this term in reference to the people, and the popular demagogue Patrick Henry immediately called him on it. By likening the people to a “herd,” Henry charged, Randolph had “levelled and degraded [them] to the lowest degree,” reducing them “from respectable independent citizens, to abject, dependent subjects or slaves.” Randolph was forced to defensively declare “that he did not use that word to excite any odium, but merely to convey an idea of a multitude.”84 But clearly he would not use it again in public.
The suggestion of elitism in the Constitution put the Federalist gentry on the defensive. In the New York ratifying convention Robert R. Livingston and Alexander Hamilton vainly tried to evade all the Anti-Federalist talk of aristocracy, or what Livingston referred to as “the phantom aristocracy . . . the bugbear” of the Anti-Federalists. Hamilton claimed he hardly knew the meaning of the word “aristocracy,” and he denied that any traditional aristocracy existed. He and gentlemen like him, he said, were not “men elevated to a perpetual rank above their fellow citizens and possessing powers entirely independent of them.” But his middling opponents would not be put off by such an Old World definition, and they continued to pound away at the aristocratic character of the Federalist leaders, the “high-fliers,” as Abraham Yates called them. This was just the beginning of accusations of aristocracy that would be repeated throughout the subsequent decades.85
In 1787–1788 the middling Anti-Federalists may have lost the struggle over ratification of the Constitution, but they had won the rhetorical battle over the role of the people in public life.
AMERICANS WERE SO EXCITED over the successful ratification of the Constitution that they momentarily forgot the deep differences that existed among themselves and among the various states and sections. Social animosities were put aside, and gentlemen and mechanics and other middling sorts celebrated the establishment of the Constitution together, mingling their ranks in parades “in a truly republican style.”86 Even though two states—North Carolina and Rhode Island—were still outside the Union, Americans greeted the ratification of the Constitution with more unanimity than at any time since the Declaration of Independence. “‘Tis done!” declared Benjamin Rush in July 1788 with his usual impulsive enthusiasm. “We have become a nation.” (He said this despite the Convention’s having eliminated all references to the word “national” in the Constitution.) The creation of the Constitution, said Rush, had produced “such a tide of joy as has seldom been felt in any age or country.” It represented the “triumph of knowledge over ignorance, of virtue over vice, and of liberty over slavery.” With a fifth of America’s population still enslaved, the irony in that last phrase was lost on Rush, at least for the moment.87
Rush was not the only enthusiast. Although Washington did not believe that the people of the United States had become a nation, and indeed believed that they were far from it, he abandoned his earlier pessimism and looked forward to better days, indulging a “fond, perhaps an enthusiastic idea, that as the world is much less barbarous than it has been, its melioration must still be progressive.” Everywhere Americans saw their “rising empire” at long last fulfilling the promises of the Enlightenment.88
The rebellion of the North American colonies took place at a propitious moment in the history of the West, a moment in which hopes of liberal and benevolent reform and making the world anew filled the air on both sides of the Atlantic. That the American Revolution occurred at the height of what later came to be called the Enlightenment made all the difference: the coincidence transformed what otherwise might have been a mere colonial rebellion into a world-historical event that promised, as Richard Price and other foreign liberals pointed out, a new future not just for Americans but for all humanity.
The settlement of America, John Adams had declared in 1765, was “the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.”89 The Revolution had become the climax of this grand historic drama. Enlightenment was spreading everywhere in the Western world, but nowhere more than in America. With the break from Great Britain complete and the Constitution ratified, many Americans thought that the United States, as Congress told the president in 1796, had become the “freest and most enlightened” nation in the world.90
For the people of these obscure provinces, “so recently,” as Samuel Bryan of Pennsylvania admitted, “a rugged wilderness and the abode of savages and wild beasts,” to claim to be the most enlightened nation on earth and to have “attained to a degree of improvement and greatness . . . of which history furnishes no parallel” seemed scarcely credible.91 Americans had no sophisticated court life, no magnificent cities, no great concert halls, no lavish drawing rooms, and not much to speak of in the way of the fine arts. Indeed, throughout the first half of the eighteenth century most of the American colonists had been overwhelmed by a pervasive sense of their cultural inferiority. When confronted with the contrast between the achievements of metropolitan England and their provincial societies, they had felt only awe and mortification. American travelers in England had been continually astonished by the size and grandeur of English social and cultural life, by London and its excitement and social complexity, its buildings, its art, its extravagance and sumptuousness.
By 1789, however, much of this earlier colonial sense of inadequacy had fallen away. The Revolution was such an exhilarating psychological event precisely because it allowed Americans to transform their feelings of cultural inferiority into ones of superiority. Americans had thrown off the “prejudices” of the Old World and had adopted new liberal, enlightened, and rational ideas, said Thomas Paine. “We see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used.” Ignorance was being expelled and could not return. “The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.”92
Many of the ambiguities colonial Americans had felt about the rural and provincial character of their society were now clarified. What some had seen as the crudities and limitations of American life could now be viewed as advantages for republican government. Independent American farmers no longer had to be regarded as primitive folk living on the edges of Western civilization and mired in the backwaters of history. Far from remaining on the periphery of the historical process, they now saw themselves suddenly cast into its center, leading the world to a new era of republican liberty. They would show the way in ridding society of superstition and barbarism and would gently bind together all parts of the globe through benevolence and commerce. “There cannot, from the history of mankind,” declared John Winthrop of Massachusetts in 1788, “be produced an instance of rapid growth in extent, in numbers, in arts, and in trade, that will bear any comparison with our country.”93
Yet despite the ratification of the Constitution, most Americans knew that they were not yet a nation, at least not in the European sense of the term. At the end of the Declaration of Independence the members of the Continental Congress had been able only to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” In 1776 there was nothing else but themselves that they could have dedicated themselves to—no patria, no fatherland, no nation as yet.
Because of extensive immigration, America already had a diverse society, certainly more diverse than most European nations. In addition to seven hundred thousand people of African descent and tens of thousands of native Indians, all the peoples of Europe were present in the country. In the census of 1790 only 60 percent of the white population of well over three million remained English in ancestry. The rest were composed of a variety of ethnicities. Nearly 9 percent were German, over 8 percent were Scots, 6 percent were Scots-Irish, nearly 4 percent were Irish, and over 3 percent were Dutch; the remainder were made up of French, Swedes, Spanish, and people of unknown ethnicity. The Mid-Atlantic region was especially diverse.94
Yet in their early attempts to invent their nationhood, Americans did not celebrate the ethnic diversity of America in any modern sense. The French immigrant and author Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, in one of his ecstatic celebrations of the distinctiveness of the New World in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782), was not exaggerating by much when he described the American as “this new man,” a product of “that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country.”95 What the Revolutionary leaders emphasized, as Crèvecoeur’s comment suggests, was not the multicultural variety of the different immigrants, but rather their remarkable acculturation and assimilation into one people, which, as the Massachusetts political and literary figure Fisher Ames pointed out, meant, “to use the modern jargon, nationalized.”96
America, declared the enthusiastic president of Yale, Timothy Dwight, in his millennial eclogue Greenfield Hill (1794), was destined to be God’s commonwealth composed of one people.
One blood, one kindred, reach from sea to sea;
One language spread; one tide of manners run;
One scheme of science, and of morals one;
And, God’s own Word the structure, and the base,
One faith extend, one worship, and one praise.97
The Revolutionary leaders’ idea of a modern nation, shared by enlightened British, French, and German eighteenth-century reformers as well, was one that was homogeneous, not one fractured by differences of language, ethnicity, religion, and local customs. That enlightened dream of wanting to be a single people tended to trump all reality. John Jay lived in New York City, the most ethnically and religiously diverse place in all America, and was himself three-eighths French and five-eighths Dutch, without any English ancestry whatsoever. Nevertheless, Jay could declare with a straight face in Federalist No. 2 that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts . . . have nobly established general liberty and independence.”
Yet the fact that most Americans were of British heritage and spoke the same language as the subjects of the former mother country created problems of national identity that troubled the new Republic over the next several decades. Indeed, almost to the moment of independence the colonists had continued to define themselves as British, and only reluctantly came to see themselves as a separate people called Americans.98 The colonists were well aware of the warning John Dickinson, the most important pamphleteer in America before Thomas Paine, had given them on the eve of independence. “If we are separated from our mother country,” he asked in 1768, “what new form of government shall we adopt, and where shall we find another Britain to supply our loss? Torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affection, relation, language and commerce we must bleed at every vein.”99
Could these colonists who had been British and who had celebrated their Britishness for generations become a truly independent people? How could one united people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, and professing the same Protestant religion differentiate themselves from the people of the former mother country? These questions, perhaps more than any others, bedeviled the politics of the early decades of the new Republic’s history. In the end many Americans came to believe that they had to fight another war with Great Britain in order to reaffirm their national independence and establish their elusive identity.
If they were to be a single national people with a national character, Americans would have to invent themselves, and in some sense the whole of American history has been the story of that invention. At first, they struggled with a proper name for their new country. On the tercentenary celebration of Columbus’s discovery of America in 1792 one patriot suggested “the United States of Columbia” as a name for the new Republic. Poets, ranging from the female black slave Phillis Wheatley to the young Princeton graduate Philip Freneau, saw the logic of the name and thus repeatedly referred to the nation as Columbia. With the same rhythm and number of syllables, Columbia could easily replace Britannia in new compositions set to the music of traditional English songs. In his song “Columbia,” written in 1777 but not published until 1783, Timothy Dwight, as an army chaplain at West Point, sought to shed the new Republic’s colonial English heritage and create a land that existed outside of history.
COLUMBIA, Columbia, to glory arise
The queen of the world, and the child of the skies!
Thy genius commands thee; with rapture behold,
While ages on ages thy splendors unfold.
Thy reign is the last, and the noblest of time,
Most fruitful thy soil, most inviting thy clime;
Let the crimes of the East ne’er encrimson thy name,
Be freedom, and science, and virtue, thy fame.100
But the name did not stick. Neither did Dr. Samuel Mitchill’s suggestion that the new nation be called Fredon or Fredonia and its people Fredonians. Despite Mitchill’s argument that “we cannot be national in feeling and in fact until we have a national name,” the country’s designation remained “the United States of America,” with its people appropriating the name that belonged to all the peoples of the New World—even though the term “Americans” actually had begun as a pejorative label the metropolitan English had applied to their inferior and far-removed colonists.101
Lacking a unique name and ethnicity, the best Americans could do was to locate their national identity and character in something other than the traditional sources of nationhood. In the absence of a common nationality, Union often became a synonym for nation. But even more important in making them a distinctive people, they told themselves, was the fact that they were both peculiarly enlightened and ideally located along the process of social development.102
Educated Americans were fascinated by the widely held belief in successive stages of historical evolution that ranged from rude simplicity to refined complexity. The various theories of social progress current in the late eighteenth century had many sources, but especially important to the Americans was the four-stage theory that had been worked out by that remarkable group of eighteenth-century Scottish social scientists—Adam Smith, John Millar, Adam Ferguson, and Lord Kames. These thinkers posited four stages of evolutionary development based on differing modes of subsistence: hunting and gathering, pasturage, agriculture, and commerce. As societies grew in population, so the theory went, people were forced to find new ways of subsisting, and this need accounted for societies advancing from one stage to another.
Nearly every thinker saw the aboriginal inhabitants of America as the perfect representatives of the first stage, which Adam Smith called the “lowest and rudest state of society.”103 Indeed, it would be hard to exaggerate the extent to which the European discovery of the Indians in the New World influenced the emergence of the theory of different stages of history. Eighteenth-century theorists assumed that thousands of years in the past Europeans had been as savage as the Indians of America were in the present. The Indians helped create the notion, as John Locke put it, that “in the beginning all the world was America.”104
If the American Indians represented the initial stage of history, then contemporary England and France represented the fourth and final stage of development, modern commercial society. This final stage of history was characterized by much of what Americans lacked—sprawling poverty-ridden cities, over-refined manners, gross inequalities of rank, complex divisions of labor, and widespread manufacturing of luxuries. Americans, such as Samuel Stanhope Smith of Princeton, knew only too well “that human society can advance only to a certain point before it becomes corrupted, and begins to decline.”105 Many concluded that Britain and France and other highly developed nations were steeped in corruption, dependency, luxury, and self-indulgence and therefore had to be on the verge of dissolution.
American patriots in 1776 had been sure that England was so deeply implicated in the final stage of commerce that as a nation it could not last much longer. Indeed, over the next half century many Americans continued to expect and hope that overly refined and overpopulated England would soon fall apart in selfishness, extravagance, and dissipation.
By contrast, most white Americans located themselves much earlier on the progressive spectrum of history. “In the present age, our Country is in a medium between Barbarity and Refinement,” declared the Reverend Nathanael Emmons of Massachusetts in 1787. “In such an age, the minds of men are strong and vigorous, being neither enfeebled by luxury, nor shackled by authority.”106 Americans had advanced far beyond the earliest stage of development in which the native peoples of the New World appeared to be strangely frozen. In fact, because of the proximity of the native “savages,” educated Americans were anxious to emphasize their progress. Their society may have been simple and egalitarian in many respects, without the polish and refined characteristics of Europe, but they repeatedly told themselves that they had put the bloody barbarism and savage violence of the previous century well behind them. They were confident that their society was becoming more polite and commercially sophisticated, but, of course, not to the point reached by the decadent Old World. The American people may have lacked the fine arts of Europe, wrote John Adams, but in all other matters, especially agriculture, commerce, and government, they were superior. “In this respect,” he said, “America is infinitely further removed from Barbarity, than Europe.”107
AMERICANS ASSURED THEMSELVES that they were a young and forming people. Their youth, in fact, justified their lack of all the refinements that Thomas Shippen found so repulsive. Americans may have been raw and callow compared to Europeans, but, they told themselves, at least they were not overwhelmed by a debilitating luxury. They knew from history that too much politeness was just as bad as too much vulgarity. Look what had happened to ancient Rome when its society had become too sophisticated, too luxury-loving, too divided by extremes of rich and poor. Too much refinement eroded valor, and the Romans lost their will to fight for their liberty. Look too, they said, to what was happening to eighteenth-century England.
The English radical Whig historian Catherine Macaulay warned George Washington in 1790 of what was in store for Americans if they tried to “copy all the excesses” of England. By wallowing in “all the deceitful pleasures of a vicious dissipation,” Americans “will overturn all the virtue which at present exists in the Country.” Then “an inattention to public interest will prevail, and nothing be pursued but private gratification and emolument.” Despite Macaulay’s apprehensions that the American people were showing “a greater inclination to the fripperies of Europe, than a Classic simplicity,” most Americans believed that their society was young enough to avoid these evils of over-refinement.108
Just as Americans lacked the corrupting luxury of Europe, so too, they constantly told themselves, were they without Europe’s great distinctions of the wealthy few and the poverty-stricken many. Compared to Great Britain, America had a truncated society; it lacked both the great noble families with their legal titles and sumptuous wealth and the great masses of poor whose lives were characterized by unremitting toil and deprivation. In America, wrote Benjamin Franklin in one of the many expressions of the idea of American exceptionalism in these years, “a general happy Mediocrity” prevailed.109
Commentators were eager to turn the general middling character of America into an asset. “Here,” wrote CrÈvecoeur, “are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one, no great manufactures employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe.” There was nothing in America remotely resembling the wretched poverty and the gin-soaked slums of London. America, continued CrÈvecoeur, who wrote his essays before the Revolution that he eventually repudiated, was largely made up of “cultivators scattered over an immense territory,” each of them working for himself. Nowhere in America, he said, ignoring for the moment, as most American social commentators did, the big houses of the Southern planters and the slave quarters of hundreds of thousands of black Africans, could one find “the hostile castle and the haughty mansion, contrasted with the clay-built hut and miserable cabin, where cattle and men help to keep each other warm and dwell in meanness, smoke and indigence.”110
This American yeomanry, Americans told themselves, was not to be compared to the illiterate peasantry of the European states. The fact that the great bulk of Americans were landowners radically separated them from the rest of the world. Even England had very few freeholders left: most English farmers were tenants, cottagers, or landless laborers, not like “the yeomanry of this country,” said Noah Webster, which “consist[ed] of substantial independent freeholders, masters of their own persons and lords of their own soil.”111 Americans were a society, in other words, ideally suited for republicanism.
Because of the prevalence of land, declared Jefferson, Americans had no need to develop the kinds of extensive urban workshops and intensive manufacturing establishments that confined tens of thousand of Europeans to daily dependent drudgery. Most Americans assumed that they were living in the age of agriculture with only the beginning signs of entering the age of commerce. They could remain farmers, and what a providential blessing that was. For “those who labour in the earth,” said Jefferson, in the most famous of his paeans to agriculture, “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he had made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”
It was precisely the prevalence of all these independent farmers that made possible virtuous republican government in America. They seemed to Jefferson and other Americans freer of the sorts of vicious temptations that prevented Europeans from adopting republicanism. As long as America rested on their independent shoulders, it was secure. “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators,” said Jefferson, “is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.”112
Not only did Americans describe themselves as a nation of independent farmers, they saw themselves as a mighty multiplying people, indeed, the fastest-growing people in the Western world. Consequently, “our population,” declared Ezra Stiles in 1783, “will soon overspread the vast territory from the Atlantick to the Mississippi, which in two generations will become a property superiour to that of Britain.” This could only mean that “God has great things in design and . . . purposes to make of us a great people.”113
Precisely because Americans were separated from Europe and, as Jefferson said in 1787, “remote from all other aid, we are obliged to invent and execute; to find means within ourselves, and not to lean on others.”114 The result of this American pragmatism, this ability “to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance,” was a general prosperity. White Americans enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world, and goods of all sorts were widely diffused throughout the society.115
Most important of all, America was the premier land of liberty. The Americans had always been a vigilant people, jealous of their liberty and, as Edmund Burke had noted, snuffing tyranny in every tainted breeze. They knew—the English radical Richard Price told them—that “a Spirit,” originating in America, was arising in the Western world. This spirit promised “a State of Society more favourable to peace, virtue, Science, and liberty (and consequently to human happiness and dignity) than has yet been known. . . . The minds of men are becoming more enlighten’d, and the silly despots of the world are likely to be forced to respect human rights and to take care not to govern too much lest they should not govern at all.”116
By the early 1790s Americans were not surprised that their country was in fact attracting refugees from the tyrannies of the Old World. The enlightened everywhere had come to recognize the United States as the special asylum for liberty. In the spring of 1794 the United Irishmen of Dublin sent the renowned scientist Joseph Priestley their best wishes as he fled from persecution in England to the New World. “You are going to a happier world—the world of Washington and Franklin. . . . You are going to a country where science is turned to better uses.” Priestley was only the most famous of the many European refugees who arrived in America during the 1790 s. Thus most Americans had every reason to congratulate themselves, as they did at every opportunity, for being, in scientist David Rittenhouse’s words, “an asylum to the good, to the persecuted, and to the oppressed of other climes.”117
Americans were free and independent because, as they repeatedly told themselves, they were an intelligent people who could not be easily fooled by their leaders. The Revolution itself had stimulated them. It had given “a spring to the active powers of the inhabitants,” said South Carolina historian David Ramsay in 1789, “and set them on thinking, speaking, and acting far beyond that to which they had been accustomed.”118 Levels of literacy may not have been high by modern standards, but by eighteenth-century standards, at least for white Americans in the North, they were higher than almost any other place on earth and were rapidly climbing, especially for white women. All their reading made them enlightened. Jefferson was convinced that an American farmer rather than an English farmer had conceived of making the rim of a wheel from a single piece of wood. He knew it had to be an American because the idea had been suggested by Homer, and “ours are the only farmers who can read Homer.”119
With the formation of the many state constitutions and especially with the formation of the federal Constitution of 1787 Americans had demonstrated to the world how to apply reason to politics. They knew that all previous nations had had their governments imposed on them by conquerors or by some supreme lawgivers or had found themselves ensnared by governments born in accident, caprice, or violence. They repeatedly assured themselves that they were, in John Jay’s words, “the first people whom heaven has favoured with an opportunity of deliberating upon and choosing the forms of government under which they should live.” With the scrapping of the Articles of Confederation and the creation of their new federal Constitution, declared David Ramsay, they showed that governments could be changed to fit new circumstances. They had therefore placed “the science of politics on a footing with the other sciences, by opening it to improvements from experience, and the discoveries of future ages.”120
In addition, Americans thought that they were less superstitious and more rational than the peoples of Europe. They had actually carried out religious reforms that European liberals could only dream about. Many Americans were convinced that their Revolution, in the words of the New York constitution of 1777, had been designed to end the “spiritual oppression and intolerance wherewith the bigotry and ambition of weak and wicked priests” had “scourged mankind.”121 Not only had Americans achieved true religious liberty, not just the toleration that the English made so much of, but their blending of the various European religions and nationalities had made their society much more homogeneous than those of the Old World. The European migrants had been unable to bring all of their various regional and local cultures with them, and re-creating and sustaining many of the peculiar customs, craft holidays, and primitive practices of the Old World proved difficult. Consequently, morris dances, charivaries, skimmingtons, and other folk practices were much less common in America than in Britain or Europe. The New England Puritans, moreover, had banned many of these popular festivals and customs, including Christmas, and elsewhere the mixing and settling of different peoples had worn most of them away. In New England all that remained of Old World holidays was Pope’s Day, November 5—the colonists’ version of Guy Fawkes Day. Since enlightened elites everywhere in the Western world regarded these plebeian customs and holidays as remnants of superstition and barbarism, their relative absence in America was seen as an additional sign of the New World’s precocious enlightenment.122
America had a common language, unlike the European nations, none of which was linguistically homogeneous. In 1789 the majority of Frenchmen did not speak French but were divided by a variety of provincial patois. Englishmen from Yorkshire were incomprehensible to those from Cornwall and vice versa. By contrast, Americans could understand one another from Maine to Georgia. It was very obvious why this should be so, said John Witherspoon, president of Princeton. Since Americans were “much more unsettled, and move frequently from place to place, they are not as liable to local peculiarities, either in accent or phraseology.”123 With the Revolution some Americans wished to carry this uniformity further. They wanted their language “purged of its barbaric dross” and made “as pure, simple, and systematic as our politics.” It was bound to happen in any case. Republics, said John Adams, had always attained a greater “purity, copiousness, and perfection of language than other forms of government.”124
Americans expected the development of an American English that would be different from the English of the former mother country, a language that would reflect the peculiar character of the American people. Noah Webster, who would eventually become famous for his American dictionary, thought that language had divided the English people from one another. The court and the upper ranks of the aristocracy set the standards of usage and thus put themselves at odds with the language spoken by the rest of the country. By contrast, America’s standard was fixed by the general practice of the nation, and therefore Americans had “the fairest opportunity of establishing a national language, and of giving it uniformity and perspicuity, in North America, that ever presented itself to mankind.” Indeed, Webster was convinced that Americans already “speak the most pure English now known in the world.” Within a century and a half, he predicted, North America would be peopled with a hundred millions of people, “all speaking the same language.” Nowhere else in the world would such large numbers of people “be able to associate and converse together like children of the same family.”125
Others had even more grandiose visions for the spread of America’s language. John Adams was among those who suggested that American English would eventually become “the next universal language.” In 1789 even a French official agreed; in a moment of giddiness he actually predicted that American English was destined to replace diplomatic French as the language of the world. Americans, he said, “tempered by misfortune,” were “more human, more generous, more tolerant, all qualities that make one want to share the opinions, adopt the customs, and speak the language of such a people.”126
Americans believed that their English might conquer the world because they were the only true citizens of the world. To be enlightened was to be, as Washington said, “a citizen of the great republic of humanity at large.” The Revolutionary leaders were always eager to demonstrate their cosmopolitanism; they aimed not at becoming more American but at becoming more enlightened. As yet they had little sense that loyalty to their state or nation was incompatible with their cosmopolitanism.127
David Ramsay claimed he was “a citizen of the world and therefore despise[d] national reflections.” Yet he did not believe he was being “inconsistent” in hoping that the professions would be “administered to my country by its own sons.” Joel Barlow did not think he was any less American just because he ran for election to the French National Convention in 1792–1793. The many state histories written in the aftermath of the Revolution were anything but celebrations of localism. Indeed, declared Ramsay, who wrote a history of his adopted state of South Carolina, they were testimonies to American cosmopolitanism; the state histories were designed to “wear away prejudices—rub off asperities and mould us into a homogeneous people.”128
Intense local attachments were common to peasants and backward peoples, but educated gentlemen were supposed to be at home anywhere in the world. Indeed, to be free of local prejudices and parochial ties was what defined a liberally educated person. One’s humanity was measured by one’s ability to relate to strangers, and Americans prided themselves on their hospitality and their treatment of strangers, thus further contributing to the developing myth of their exceptionalism. Indeed, as CrÈve-coeur pointed out, in America the concept of “stranger” scarcely seemed to exist: “A traveller in Europe becomes a stranger as soon as he quits his own kingdom; but it is otherwise here. We know, properly speaking, no strangers; this is every person’s country; the variety of our soils, situations, climates, governments, and produce hath something which must please everyone.”129 “In what part of the globe,” asked Benjamin Rush, “was the ‘great family of mankind’ given as a toast before it was given in the republican states of America?”130
THE INSTITUTION that many Americans believed best embodied these cosmopolitan ideals of fraternity was Freemasonry. Not only did Masonry create enduring national icons (like the pyramid and the all-seeing eye of Providence on the Great Seal of the United States), but it brought people together in new ways and helped fulfill the republican dream of reorganizing social relationships. It was a major means by which thousands of Americans could think of themselves as especially enlightened.
Freemasonry took its modern meaning in Great Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The first Grand Lodge was formed in London in 1717. By mid-century English Masonry was strong enough to provide inspiration and example to a worldwide movement. Although Masonry first appeared in the North American colonies in the 1730s, it grew slowly until mid-century, when membership suddenly picked up. By the eve of the Revolution dozens of lodges existed up and down the continent. Many of the Revolutionary leaders, including Washington, Franklin, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Richard Henry Lee, and Hamilton, were members of the fraternity.131
Freemasonry was a surrogate religion for enlightened men suspicious of traditional Christianity. It offered ritual, mystery, and communality without the enthusiasm and sectarian bigotry of organized religion. But Masonry was not only an enlightened institution; with the Revolution, it became a republican one as well. As George Washington said, it was “a lodge for the virtues.”132 The Masonic lodges had always been places where men who differed in everyday affairs—politically, socially, even religiously—could “all meet amicably, and converse sociably together.” There in the lodges, the Masons told themselves, “we discover no estrangement of behavior, nor alienation of affection.” Masonry had always sought unity and harmony in a society increasingly diverse and fragmented. It traditionally had prided itself on being, as one Mason put it, “the Center of Union and the means of conciliating friendship among men that might otherwise have remained at perpetual distance.”133
Earlier in the eighteenth century the organization had usually been confined to urban elites noted for their social status and gentility. But in the decades immediately preceding the Revolution Masonry began broadening its membership and reaching out to small village and country elites and ambitious urban artisans without abandoning its earlier concern with genteel refinement. The Revolution disrupted the organization but revitalized the movement. In the decades following the Revolution Masonry exploded in numbers, fed by hosts of new recruits from middling levels of the society. There were twenty-one lodges in Massachusetts by 1779; in the next twenty years fifty new ones were created, reaching out to embrace even small isolated communities on the frontiers of the state. Everywhere the same expansion took place. Masonry transformed the social landscape of the early Republic.
Masonry began emphasizing its role in spreading republican virtue and civilization. It was, declared some New York Masons in 1795, designed to wipe “away those narrow and contracted Prejudices which are born in Darkness, and fostered in the Lap of ignorance.”134 Freemasonry repudiated the monarchical hierarchy of family and favoritism and created a new republican order that rested on “real Worth and personal Merit” and “brotherly affection and sincerity.” At the same time, Masonry offered some measure of familiarity and personal relationships to a society that was experiencing greater mobility and increasing numbers of immigrants. It created an “artificial consanguinity,” declared DeWitt Clinton of New York in 1793, that operated “with as much force and effect, as the natural relationship of blood.”135
Despite its later reputation for exclusivity, Freemasonry became a way for American males of diverse origins and ranks to be brought together in republican fraternity, including, at least in Boston, free blacks.136 That strangers, removed from their families and neighbors, could come together in such brotherly love seemed a vindication of the enlightened hope that the force of love might indeed be made to flow outward from the self. A Mason found himself “belonging, not to one particular place only, but to places without number, and in almost every quarter of the globe; to whom, by a kind of universal language, he can make himself known—and from whom we can, if in distress, be sure to receive relief and protection.” This was the enlightened dream of people throughout the world being gently bound together through benevolence and fellow-feeling. And it seemed to many Americans that the nation now responsible for fulfilling that dream was the new United States.137