Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (4 page)

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

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
by uniting our affections,” government “
by restraining our vices.” Society “encourages intercourse,” government “creates distinctions.”
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.”
This was a conception of the national government that Jefferson and some other optimistic republicans never entirely abandoned.

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.
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.
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.

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.
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.

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.”

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.”

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.”
Philadelphia 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.”

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.”

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.

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.

BOOK: Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815
5.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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