Essay on Equality

Equality

The republican revolution was the greatest utopian movement in Amer­ ican history . The revolutionaries aimed at nothing less than a reconsti­ tution of American society. They hoped to destroy the bonds holding together the older monarchical society-kinship, patriarchy, and pa­ tronage-and to put in their pIace new social bonds of love, respect, and consent. They sought to construct a society and governments based on virtue and disinterested public leadership and to set in motion a moral movement that would eventually be feIt around the globe. People “begin to know one another, and that knowledge begets a love for each other, and adesire to proeure happiness for themselves, and the great family of mankind. “I

But the ink on the Declaration of Independence was scarcely dry before many of the revolutionary leaders began expressing doubts about the possibility of realizing these high hopes. The American people seemed incapable of the degree of virtue needed for republicanism. Too many were unwiUing to respect the authority of their new elected leaders and were too deeply involved in trade and moneymaking to think be­ yond their narrow interests or their neighborhoods and to concern them­ selves with the welfare of their states or their country. In many of the greatly enlarged and annually elected state legislatures a new breed of popular leader was emerging who was far less educated, less liberal, and less cosmopolitan than the revolutionary gentry had expected. These new popular leaders were exploiting the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and equality to vault into political power and to promote the partial and local interests of their constituents at the expense of what the revolu­ tionary gentry saw as the public good. Growing opportunities for wealth tumed social mobility into a scramble. Everywhere there were laments that the “tender connection among men” that the Revolution was sup­ posed to foster was being “reduced to nothing” by “the infinite diver­ sities of family, tribe, and nation.”2 Expectations of raising one’s standard of living-if only to buy new consumer goods-seeped deeper and deeper into the society and had profound effects on the conscious­

 

 

‘JO ‘D E M O C R A C Y

“…. ur urdinary people. Iriltead of creating a new order of benevolence .ncl -elftellness, enJightcned republicanism was breeding social compet- ” Itlveness and individualiun: and there seemed no easy way of stopping :iJ ir. Since at the outRt mo.t revolutionary leaders had conceded primacy to society over government, to modern social virtue over classical pubJic virtue, they found it difficuh to resist people’s absorption in their pri­ vate lives and lnterests. The Revolution Was the source of its own contradiction•.

The federaJ Constitution of 1787 was in part a response to these popular lOCiaJ developments, an attempt to mitigate their effects by new ,) in.titutional arrangements. The Constitution, the new federal govern­ ment, and the development of independent judiciaries and judicial re­ view were certainly meant to ternper popular majoritarianism, but no constitution, no institutional arrangements, no judicial prohibitions could have restrained the popular social forces unleashed by the Revo­ lution. They swept over even the extended and elevated structure of the new federal government and transformed the society and culture in ways that no one in 1716 could have predicted. By the early nineteenth cen­ tury, America had already emerged as the most egalitarian, most ma­ terialistic, rnost individualistic-and most evangelical Christian-society in Western history. In many respects this new democratic society was the very opposite of the one the revolutionary leaders had envisaged.

Same now looked back nostalgically to the era of the Revolution when everything was “in the plain repubJican style.” “Those were the patriarchal times of our country, the days of innocent pleasure, which are never to return. ” Othen were more bitter, castigating the “democ­ racy! savage and wild. Thou who wouldst bring down the virtuous and wise to thy level of folly and guilt! Thou child of squinting envy and self-tormenting spleen! Thou penecutor of the great and good!” But most were bewildered by what had happened.3

All Americans believed in the Revolution and its goals. Conserva­ tives Jike James Kent had wanted as much as any radical “to dissolve the long intricate and oppressive chain of subordination” of the old monarchical society. Fisher Ames may have lost confidence in the peo_ pie, but he never lost confidence in the Revolution . He remained a good republican, despite the fact that the Revolution and republicanism were the sources of all he despised . Ames had never wanted, he said, “to strip the people of all power-for then slavery would ensue.” But how to prevent Americans from “sliding down into the mire of a democracy, which pollutes the morals of citizens before it swallows up their liber­

Equa/ity 231

ties”? Ames, like many American conservatives ever since, tried to draw a sharp distinction between a republic and a democracy-a republic differing “more widely from a democracy than a democracy from a despotism. ,’. But since democracy was an extension of republicanism, the distinction was difficult to rnaintain without repudiating the Revo­ lution itself.

Same conservatives in the 1790s and after evaded the problern by blaming the French Revolution for all that had gone wrong with Amer­ ica. It was not the American Revolution that had caused the popular disorder and degeneration of standards infecting America; it was the French one, The French Revolution had “done the cause of liberty an irreparable injury,” said the Federalists; it was “hostile to all govern­ ment, even ours, which is certainly the besr.” Better that the United Stares be “erased from existence than infected with French principles,” declared a rather hysterical ‘young Oliver Wokon, Jr. Yet by the early nineteenth century, that seerned to many to be precisely what had hap­ pened, French Jacobinical principles, spouted by “Voltaire, Priestley and Condorcet and that bloody banditti of atheists,” had poisoned the American mind and perverted the rational principles of the American Revolution. So convinced was John Quincy Adams on this point that in 1800 he translated and pubJished in Philadelphia an essay by the German scholar Friedrich von Gentz contrasting the American and French Revolutions-promoting the pamphlet on the grounds that it rescued the American Revolution “from the disgraceful imputation of having proceeded from the same principles as the French.’ ”

Thus was begun the myth that has continued into our own time­ the myth that the American Revolution was sober and conservative while the French Revolution was chaotic and radical. But only if we measure radicalism -by violence and bloodshed can the myth be sustained; by any other measure the American Revolution was radical-and most of the Federalists knew it. Federalists like Fisher Ames and George Cabot knew that the elfort in 1804 to separate the northeastem states from the Fran­ cophiles in the rest of the country was doomed, because, as Cabot put it, the source of the evils aftlicting America ultimately lay not in the southem states or in France but “in the politiml theories of Dur country tuUi in DUrstlves. “6

Weil before 1810 many of the founding fathers and others, including most of the older leaders of the Federalist party, were wringing their hands over what the Revolution had created and most American citizens were celebrating: American democracy. “The govemment adopted here

 

 

DEMOCRACY232 , is a DEMOCRACY,” declared the renegade Baptist Elias Smith in ISog.

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j “It is weil for us to understand this word, so much ridiculed by the j international enernies of our beloved country. The word DEMOCRACY i. ; formed of two Greek words


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