Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (3 page)

BOOK: Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815
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By the end of that second war against Britain in 1815, the central impulses of the Revolution had run their course. Americans believed that their Republic was at last secure and independent, free from hostile mercantile empires and the ravages of the European wars that had tormented them for over two decades. Democracy and equality were no longer problematic issues to be debated; they had become articles of faith to be ful-filled. Americans thought they had finally become a nation—the only one that was free and democratic in a world of monarchies. With nearly an entire continent at their disposal, they believed that they were at last ready to exploit the great possibilities that lay before them. At the same time, however, many of them had come to realize that their future as a united and freedom-loving people was being thwarted by the continuing presence of slavery in their midst. Their grand experiment in republicanism was not over after all and would have to be further tested.

1
Experiment in Republicanism

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.”
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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.”
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I
N 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.”
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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.”
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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.
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BOOK: Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815
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