Hellfire Politics

What kind of people are we anyway? Politicians are not the only ones asking this question. Historians are too. For the past several years historians have been vigorously debating the origins of early American culture. Monographs and articles have increased, and students are more and more bewildered. The stakes are high: nothing less, it seems, than the real nature of America. In his passionate, agitated book John Diggins, professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, makes a powerful contribution to this debate and describes very frankly just what kind of people we are. It is not a pretty picture.

Diggins’s book has all the usual scholarly paraphernalia: notes, appendices, and references to a number of historians. But his book is not another ordinary dreary monograph in a historical debate. It is really not a work of history at all, at least not in any conventional sense of the term. Beneath all of its scholarly apparatus, it is a very personal essay in cultural criticism, a veritable cri de coeur. Diggins is not simply quarreling with some fellow historians; he is quarreling with modernity itself, with all of its relativity, skepticism, and confusion. The book is Diggins’s desperate search for authority in a chaotic world.

On the surface the book seems to be a full-scale assault on what has been called “the republican synthesis,” especially as it has been formulated by the work of J. G. A. Pocock. Although many historians are cited and quoted by name in the main body of Diggins’s text, Pocock is not. Yet for Diggins Pocock is always the figure behind the republican curtain.

Pocock is the author of The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (1975), one of those blockbuster works of history that dominate a period of historical writing. Just as Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), with its argument that America from the beginning was preoccupied with Locke and with individual private rights, summed up historians’ thinking in the 1950s and 1960s, so has Pocock’s book tended to define the thinking of the past decade or so. Pocock in fact was determined to eliminate Locke as the patron saint of American culture and replace him with Machiavelli. The implications of this substitution are important: if Pocock is right, then maybe we Americans are not as inevitably individualistic and capitalistic as Hartz and others thought.

Pocock took the works of a number of historians, particularly those working in fifteenth-century Florence and eighteenth-century America, and put them together to form an Atlantic republican tradition. Pocock argued that what he likes to refer to as the “paradigm” of eighteenth-century Anglo-American thought had its origins in the Renaissance. Out of the writings of antiquity Machiavelli and others created a body of political thinking that has been variously called “civic humanism” or “classical republicanism.” This Renaissance body of thought revived the ancient belief that man was by nature a citizen who achieved his greatest moral fulfillment by participating…

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