The Age of Deference

The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy

by David Hackett Fischer
Harper & Row, 455 pp., $8.95

Ever since World War II, much of the intellectual energy of American historians has been preoccupied with those special distinctions, both major and marginal, that have marked off American society from every other society in the world. The necessary work of elaborating these newly perceived distinctions, and the complementary need to minimize old ones or to sweep them out of sight entirely, has led to various excesses. And this in turn has created an altogether new need—the need for an intermediary language, an idiom with which to mediate between our older and our newer perceptions.

For example, the work of Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, and others in the 1940s and ‘50s pretty well devastated the Parringtonian notion that our political parties could be distinguished from one another by their basic political or social philosophy, or that any of our parties has been characterized by “philosophy” at all. Well and good, but there certainly was something: The man who thought he could tell the difference between a Whig and a Democrat in the 1840s was not merely imagining it. Against the background of this dilemma, Marvin Meyers in 1957, with his concept of the “persuasion,” gave us the mediating term between systematically articulated principles and no principles whatever.

David Fischer has now done us a similar service in the face of a similar dilemma of historical explanation, this time pertaining to the organization of political society in the colonial and early national periods. For some years it has been apparent that few significant insights are any longer to be gained by picturing American colonial leadership as “aristocratic,” in any of the legal or sociological senses that make this a term of some precision when applied to the European society of the same period. On the other hand one surely goes too far, and precious distinctions are too crassly blurred, in assuming as one of our historians does that colonial society should be characterized as “middle-class democracy.” Notwithstanding virtual universal suffrage and ease of acquiring property, we know in our historian’s bones that this will not quite do. “Nowhere in eighteenth-century America,” as Bernard Bailyn rightly puts it, “was there ‘democracy’—middle-class or otherwise….” Not quite aristocracy, not quite democracy—but there was a mechanism which did govern social and political behavior, a measure whereby such behavior was in some rough way predictable. The mediating term for it, which David Fischer now uses with both precision and subtlety, is “deference.”

DEMOCRATIC development in America never included suffrage reform as a central issue, as would be the case in nineteenth-century England. Even before the Revolution the franchise was open to almost any adult white male who really wanted to exercise it. Nor was there, of course, anything like a hereditary titled aristocracy with feudal privileges. Even moneyed elites were far from stable; even in that day they were continually being refreshed—or diluted—by new money and parvenu recruits. And yet one will not understand the quality of social action in …

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